Village Rockstars Review: India’s Entry to the Oscars is a Winning Ode to Childhood Dreams

Pop Culture

Village Rockstars Review: India’s Entry to the Oscars is a Winning Ode to Childhood Dreams

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Midway through Rima Das’s moving Village Rockstars – India’s official entry to the 91st Academy Awards – 10-year-old Dhunu (Bhanita Das) visits her widowed mother (Basanti Das) on the field one blistering afternoon. She goofs around for a while until her frail young mother decides to give her a lesson in swimming. Dhunu flails around hesitantly in the pond as her mother stands in front of her and holds her hand. A few seconds later, a smile flashes on Dhunu’s face as she confidently floats.

Proud of her new-found dexterity, Dhunu prods her mother about why her father couldn’t swim. “He never stopped being afraid. That’s why he drowned in the flood,” she replies. This tender moment is a metaphor, a small example of the indomitable strength of poverty-stricken women and their inherent survival instinct. For Dhunu’s mother, who learnt how to swim on her own, swimming is more than just a skill – it’s an ability to survive in a world that is waiting for them to drown.

Scenes such as these crowd Village Rockstars – written, directed, shot, produced, and edited by Rima Das (also credited for the production design), a self-taught filmmaker who’s made the National Award-winning Assamese film on a shoestring budget and with a digital camera. Set in the remote village of Chhayagaon in Assam (where Das grew up), Village Rockstars follows a tomboyish Dhunu, who dreams of owning a guitar and forming a music band with her elder brother and her friends. Although Das intends the film to be a tribute to her village, her sensitivity and warmth guarantees that Village Rockstars also captures the innocence of childhood and highlights the doting bond between mothers and daughters.

Village Rockstars’ biggest strength lies in how deftly it handles its women and female autonomy. The women are both its caregivers and breadwinners.

The film opens with Dhunu attending a neighbourhood boy band performance by her friends. The makeshift concert involves fake guitars and drums made out of styrofoam and a singer who lip-syncs the songs. Yet, despite the saddening circumstances, the boys have the time of their lives on the stage, jumping around with boundless energy. Dhunu watches, mesmerised, nodding her head to the beats of the song. It’s when the dream of owning a real guitar germinates in her mind, even as she goes home and skillfully makes a (killer) styrofoam one. Through the wide-eyed naivete of Dhunu, Das underlines that period in everyone’s childhood when our dreams remained unaffected by the burden of practicality.

Through the wide-eyed naivete of Dhunu, Das underlines that period in everyone’s childhood when our dreams remained unaffected by the burden of practicality.

Image credit: Rima Das

Dhunu’s also at an age where she hasn’t been forced into submitting her dreams and hobbies at the altar of poverty and defined gender roles yet. Das evokes her listless, carefree life – we see Dhanu hanging out with a gang of boys, speaking their language (where she admonishes a guy who slaps her), and spending the better part of her days climbing trees, cycling, napping in the fields, splashing in mudwater. Even when the village nearly gets submerged after heavy rains, Dhunu takes up the relief efforts – she rows boats, salvages crops, and rescues goats with her friends, much to the chagrin of the village women, who repeatedly try to school her to be more “ladylike”. But Dhunu remains unperturbed, going straight back to climbing trees even after her puberty ceremony.

Village Rockstars’ biggest strength lies in how deftly it handles its women and female autonomy. The women are both its caregivers and breadwinners (there is hardly an adult man in the film), the reality of countless villages across the country. While Dhunu instantly takes to books, earns extra money by harvesting betel nuts, and helps her mother at home, her brother stops going to school after the principal reprimands him for failing for the third time.

Das deftly charts out the mother-daughter relationship with the kind of realism that we rarely witness in mainstream cinema. Like the rest of the village, Dhunu’s mother repeatedly suggests that she hang out with girls her age. But she never stops her daughter from doing what she wants. The mother sides with a teary Dhunu after the village elders threaten to punish her for climbing trees with boys.

In fact, Dhunu’s mother is angered by such moral policing. In another scene, right after hitting Dhunu for venturing out on a boat during the floods, her mother lovingly bathes her and then caresses her face while she’s fast asleep. Das lets us feel her realising that Dhunu can fulfill her desires only during her childhood for it won’t be too long before poverty and circumstances force her to grow up. It’s why she doesn’t object to Dhunu wanting to buy a guitar, even as everyone around her keeps reminding her how expensive it is. And sticks to her promise of making her daughter’s dream come true. At its core then, it’s the heartfelt story of a mother quietly trying to keep the child in her daughter alive.

Much of the charm of Village Rockstars is that it’s near impossible to tell whether it’s a film or a documentary. Das films Dhunu’s life as if it’s reality unfolding right before our eyes. After all, a mother doesn’t always need a big screen to smile widely as she watches her daughter confidently swim against the waves of life.

Comments