TIFF 2018: Rima Das on Bulbul Can Sing, and India’s Oscar pick Village Rockstars

For those who have watched Rima Das’ Village Rockstars (India’s entry to the Oscars this year), her new film, Bulbul Can Sing that premiered at TIFF 2018, will seem like both a departure from and a sequential successor to Dhunu's story

Bedatri D Choudhury September 23, 2018 13:57:10 IST
TIFF 2018: Rima Das on Bulbul Can Sing, and India’s Oscar pick Village Rockstars

For those who have watched Rima Das’ Village Rockstars (India’s entry to the Oscars this year), her new film, Bulbul Can Sing that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, will seem like both a departure from Dhunu’s story and a sequential successor to the heartwarming tale of Dhunu and her brilliance that transcends all the hardships her life had to offer.

Bulbul Can Sing, also set in rural Assam, shifts its gaze to teenager Bulbul and her friends, Sumit and Bonny. They prance around paddy fields, climb trees and glow from the joy of being in love for the first time. Das plays with this idyllic setup and complicates the storyline with elements that are natural accompaniments to any realistic story about teenagers; through the film, she speaks about sexuality, societal moral policing and the many ways in which young people and their ambitions are inhibited and repressed by the social codes adults build around them.

Within a narrative of bullying and unfair societal pressures, Das still manages to cull out a story that ends on hope and beauty, a beauty so ephemeral that it makes Bulbul forget all her sorrows, and sing out loud in praise of her very loving friends.

Firstpost caught up with Rima Das shortly before her film’s world premiere in the Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF 2018 Rima Das on Bulbul Can Sing and Indias Oscar pick Village Rockstars

Filmmaker Rima Das

How difficult is for a woman to be making a film in India in an industry that is not Bollywood?

I try and not think about what is difficult and what is not. I wanted to make a movie so I made it out of the place I am most familiar with, which is Assam. I believed that I knew my people so I could tell stories about them. Maybe because I never went to a film school, I was not aware of the risks and the difficulties that could have emerged out of making films. My expectations, too, were much lower. I just bought my own camera and started making films without putting much thought into it. Of course, getting money for films like this is difficult but making them is not difficult. When you don’t have big stars or a lot of money, you are answerable to less people and are in control of the situation. I find this space very liberating.

How was it working with such young actors both in Bulbul Can Sing and Village Rockstars?

I love working with kids and young people. They are extremely transparent and honest, the best part about them is that they surrender completely. As a director, it is very important for me to know that my actors trust me completely. I am pretty much a one woman crew in the production phase, with my cousin assisting me, so it really helps when I have actors who are easy to work with.

Village Rockstars is a much happier film which the audiences have loved. Bulbul Can Sing is slightly darker. Was that a conscious decision?

The protagonist, Dhunu was younger than Bulbul. You know life is simpler, lighter, and happier when you are that age. I do see Bulbul Can Sing as the second part of a trilogy, I am working on the third film. However, I wouldn’t say Bulbul is the grown up version of Dhunu. It’s a different story; Bulbul and her friends are older, the societal demands from them are more and their so called “transgressions” are scrutinised more strictly. Even life gets more complicated with age which makes it a slightly darker and sadder film. However, I don’t see Bulbul Can Sing as a particularly sad film either: the characters are positive, full of life and it is the society that makes it difficult for them to live independently. It wasn’t easy for me to change the track of storytelling because people have loved Village Rockstars and I could’ve continued to make different versions of that film, but where is the challenge in that?

What is the most important theme of the film, according to you?

It’s the friendship; not just the friendship between Bulbul, Sumit and Bonny but also the very special emotional bond between Bulbul and Bonny’s mother. It is a very tender relationship. For me, obviously the idea of family is important but I have always loved to explore strong relationships that lie beyond the family and the unconditional love that naturally comes with it. For me the love that comes from people who are not related, love that is not a result of a familial duty, is very interesting and I try to depict that through Bulbul and her friends. All characters are grey for me. So when Bulbul feels isolated within her own family, I had to, without being judgemental, create another source of emotional support and love to compensate for it—a source that is not an obvious choice. I just wanted to say that there will always be people who will care for you, you just have to seek them out and Bulbul does that.

TIFF 2018 Rima Das on Bulbul Can Sing and Indias Oscar pick Village Rockstars

Stills from Bulbul Can Sing. Images courtesy TIFF

TIFF 2018 Rima Das on Bulbul Can Sing and Indias Oscar pick Village Rockstars

You also subtly touch on how homosexuality, or even the idea of a young boy not doing “masculine things” is misunderstood, looked down upon and often becomes an object of intense bullying…

In India, we don’t quite have the Western binaries of “gay” and “straight”. We have all seen effeminate boys around us and they’ve been treated terribly (often unknowingly) by the adults around, who in turn end up teaching these things to the children. They’ll call these boys “ladies” just because they don’t fit into their ideas of how a man should walk or talk. When you’re a teenager, you’re really grappling with your sexuality; you don’t know gender theories, especially in smaller Indian towns, you don’t have that social vocabulary to ask yourself if you’re gay. It’s very complex and I don’t know all the answers but I just wanted to portray what I see around myself and wanted to give out the message that it’s alright to be confused and unsure. The subtlety was important to me, the emotions were important to me more than the politics of it.

Would you like to speak about the strong statement against the culture of moral policing in small towns?

Well my story is set in a small town but moral policing happens in every big city too. The characters are teenagers in high school, it is natural that they will want to explore their sexual desires, date people, and want to make out. That is what puberty does to you. It is very disturbing when something as natural as this is scrutinised, scandalised and made into gossip. However, I am not a doctor who can cure the society of its ills, people have to take responsibility of what they propagate. So, without placing all the blame on one section of the society, without judging, I wanted to just put this culture out there, for everyone to realise how they end up contributing to it in their own ways.

Is there a reason your films have not yet been set in big cities?

I don’t have an aversion to setting stories in big cities, but these particular stories demanded a rural, small town setting. I think I needed the innocence out of my characters that big cities often rob from childhoods. I did not want that big city, street-smart savviness in these characters. These teenagers would be absolutely different people if they lived in big metropolitan cities. When I was shooting Village Rockstars, I saw the teenagers in the village we were shooting in, and was very inspired to make a film on their lives. Cities around the world are more or less the same, it is the villages where specific, special things happen. There is an undisturbed beauty and charm that my scripts so far have demanded, and I have found that in villages.

Music plays an important part in both your films. Dhunu wants to be a musician, Bulbul’s father wants her to be a singer…

I love music so I like to use as much music as possible, in my films. It’s a reflection of who I am. In the northeast part of India, where I come from, music is a very important aspect of our daily lives so I can’t really have a genuine depiction of my people if I don’t use music. It is something that comes very naturally to my scripts. I love folk music and Assam has a history of such beautiful songwriting and performing that it is sad that very few filmmakers have really used it to its potential. I wanted to change that and make people aware of our beautiful songs.

What is your next film going to be on?

We are working on three projects right now, and I am not sure which one will be completed first. I would love to make films in other languages too. The third film of the trilogy may not be the one I make next. All I can say is, it will have a female protagonist who is much older than Dhunu and Bulbul, it’ll be a character living through the emotional uncertainties and fragilities of her post-divorce life.

What are your plans for Village Rockstar’s release in India?

It will be released on 28 September in Assam and a few other metropolitan cities in India. I hope people give this film the same love it has received in festivals, because for a small film like ours, it is what we really thrive on. With a very small marketing budget, it gets hard to compete with big banner films but we are counting on word of mouth publicity.

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