Village Rockstars movie review: India's entry to Oscars is aesthetically brilliant but doesn't strum the heartstrings
Last week, Rima Das' coming-of-age Assamese film Village Rockstars was selected as India's official entry to the Best Foreign Film category of the 91st Academy Awards. After over a year of globetrotting at various international film festivals and winning multiple National Awards, Village Rockstars will finally hit the screens this Friday on 28 September.
Set in the Chaygaon village in Assam, the story revolves around Dhunu, a 10-year-old girl, who aspires to have a guitar, and a band, of her own. As a senior village dweller suggests, she carves out a cardboard guitar and hangs out with a group of boys, hoping that the law of attraction comes into play. She also works towards it practically by collecting pennies, that she earns by climbing trees and fetching fruits and beetle leaves for the village folk, in a bamboo post. Her fate, however, does not let her dream any further.
Soon, she loses her beloved goat, Munnu, also a potential barter for a real guitar. To make matters worse, floods obliterate the paddy fields that her mother, a single parent, had cultivated tirelessly. And if that was not enough, she hits puberty which snowballs into the compulsory induction into womanhood that entails feeding the entire village among various other local rituals and customs. These events take place only after she drops the idea of purchasing a guitar, by forfeiting all her 'wealth' to her mother. This is perhaps nature getting back to her for giving up on her dreams.
The relationship of humans and nature comes out more organically in the pristine lands of Assam. Lush green marshlands and eloquent distributaries act as the perfect setting to a story that draws the battle lines between nature and nurture. Rima cranks the camera herself and translates her love for her homeland on to the screen. Some of the frames are so poetic that it feels like Rima is a sorcerer who can crystallise every stunning visual that takes birth in her head. It is now impossible to erase the shot of three boys, and one girl, staring the skies while surrendering their bodies to the lofty branches of a gigantic tree, custom-made to provide cozy comforts to the young lot. At no point during several of these shots, we see the sky through Dhanu's eyes. The romance is never given screen time because girls like her often barred from touching, let alone conquering, the skies.
Equally unforgettable is the sound design, or in this case location audiography, by Mallika Das. She captures the ambient sounds of every burble, every ripple and every pitter-patter, without intruding into the space of the source. She lets the rivers be and just points her keen ear towards the natural proceedings. The absence of background score makes the ambient sounds stand out even more. The shoestring budget has been used optimally to embellish the film with superlative visual and auditory aesthetics.
While Rima gets the technical aspects right, there seems to be a compromise at the storytelling level. One feels moved more by the natural characters — trees, rivers and fields — than the flesh and blood ones. Bhanita Das, who is now synonymous with Dhunu, brings unadulterated innocence in abundance. Her presence is all the more engaging in scenes where she takes charge, as compared to where she has been subjected to the proceedings. It may be an intentional move to relegate her to the sidelines in scenes where she is on the receiving end, prompting one to instantly miss seeing the liberated girl go about strumming her cardboard guitar.
But her journey is not as fulfilling as that of her passive mother, played by Basanti Das. The loss of her husband to floods makes her more resolute but at the same time, she often finds herself falling prey to regressive norms. We see her gleefully participating in the torturous menstruation rituals of her daughter, and at the same time, we hear her complain about village women who scolded Dhunu for climbing trees 'like a boy'. She subconsciously drifts towards the same constraints that made her life difficult. In moments of weakness (or strength), she channels anger towards a society that punished her even after she played by their rules. The smiling face in her last close-up shot is a lasting image that speaks volumes of her atoning her sins by making her daughter live life on her own terms. Minutes after patting her back for doing a good job of being a 'woman', she smiles at the sight of watching Dhunu play with boys in the river.
The film should have just ended there. But it drags on for a few more minutes, robbing the film of its inherent innocence. Rima is tempted to make life come full circle. In the process, she compromises on not only the film's messaging but also logic. The final moments may be symbolic but they are inconsistent with how Rima approaches the rest of the film. She attempts to make one character live her journey through the other, leading her technically brilliant film to end up in a confused state.
All images from YouTube.
Updated Date: Sep 26, 2018 11:58 AM