Director: Rima Das
Cast: Bhanita Das, Basanti Das, Kulada Bhattacharya
There’s a word in Japanese — mingei — describing an art movement, especially in pottery, that began in the 1920s. Roughly translated it means “hand-crafted art of ordinary people”, of finding beauty in everyday, utilitarian objects created by nameless, unknown craftsmen.
Master potters strive for years to produce a humble piece of pottery — often a teacup — which resembles the cup made by a common potter. And once realised, the greatest potters leave these pots unsigned.
The technique, the art is supreme, and functionally is out of the ordinary. But there’s warmth in its ubiquitousness, and in its simple aesthetics lies the philosophy of surrendering to the material, of allowing the piece, the teacup to rise on the potter’s wheel as it wants to. Its beauty lies in the fact that it looks and feels like it was “born, not made”.
To me a mingei pot is a piece of evidence of the moment when an artiste became one with his/her own creation, and hit nirvana.
In cinema it’s very tough to achieve this — to keep the ego away and let the story, the characters breathe in the space they are in, and then play out.
Not just in India, but anywhere in the world it’s rare to find films that are pure, honest, organic. Where the art, the skill is so stellar, so calmly confident that it doesn’t show at all. Where the story, the characters, dialogue feel like they belong to the people and the space they are in.
Rima Das’ Village Rockstars, which she has not just written, directed and produced, but also shot and edited, is one such rare piece of cinema. It feels like it was “born, not made”.
The movie, which Das declares at the onset is a “tribute to the place, the people, where I come from”, tells the story of Dhunu (Bhanita Das), her brother and mother (Basanti Das) and those around them in their village in Assam which sits warily by a river that feeds them but also rises, ever so often, to claim its price.
Dhunu, along with her brother and his friends, goes to school, and together they return joking, chatting, teasing, before heading to their homes to wash utensils, harvest betel nut, take the goat to graze, try to catch fish for dinner, work in the paddy fields.
This cycle of school and work is seamlessly, unending in their world where there’s no trace of the state or of its promises of electricity, roads, schools, employment. It’s the villagers’ relationship with their surroundings, the great elements which contributes to and controls their lives.
There’s a fight with the show-off who rides a bicycle to school, and some small delights, like when a rag-tag band comes to their village to perform.
Dhunu, who hangs around only with the boys, now dreams of owning a guitar and, along with her, they all start dreaming of being members of a band.
Stunned by what they imagine could be the unthinkable price of a guitar, 500, they made-do with a thermocol guitar, and a keyboard and drums carved out of some wood, bamboo and patched together with tape.
While working, or after finishing their tasks, Dhunu and her friends play. Then they climb trees and then just lie there. They play in the water for a bit and then just lie there, half-immersed, floating, eyes closed or gently squinting at the sky.
These moments of calm stillness puts them back in sync with the world around, with the cosmic rotation of day and night.
We watch people, animals, the river, the sun, and in between snatches of conversations, none of them long, none of them complete, Das begins to weave in the story of a mother and her daughter.
Dhunu’s widowed mother is constantly working — cooking, collecting stuff, mending this, selling that, spinning yarn. Yet, poverty is evident in the small clump of rice, with a bit of salt, that Dhunu and her brother gulp down hungrily every day, sometimes enquiring whether there’s some curry.
Village women scold Dhunu for playing with boys, for climbing trees. But her mother stands by her, and explains to Dhunu why she lets her do everything, why she wants her to learn swimming. And when Dhunu says she wants a guitar, her mother doesn’t think for long before saying, “We’ll sell Munu and buy it”.
Just like the strong bond between the mother and her daughter, there’s a bond between Dhunu and her goat Munu.
There’s a ritual to celebrate and mark puberty, and then the floods come. A family and their belongings are saved. Two plastic chairs, two goats, one trunk, some utensils leave their crumbling home in a boat, to settle elsewhere by the river.
Village Rockstars is a film born of the slow devastation of floods, and the sudden attack by a rascal fox. Repeatedly there are ruptures, and repeatedly people reconcile and try to move on.
Every time Dhunu crosses the embankment she says the same thing — that her father would have been alive if the embankment had been built when the river flooded their village last time. She’s heard, but there’s no conversation.
There’s tragedy and mourning, but also stoic responses. There’s sympathy, but there’s never enough time to dwell on them for too long.
The film’s title, Village Rockstars, alludes to more than just the desire of six kids who want to form a band. It’s a salute to the spirit of the people of this land.
Have you ever sat on the bank of a river and just watched the rhythmic movement of the river and the movement of people in and around it? Unlike the sea, which keep rushing to you, the river just flows, doing its own thing.
Rima Das is the gentlest of directors, and the pace and rhythm of Village Rockstars is the rhythm of life in a place where you see twilight arriving from a distance and it takes its time to get to where you are.
Like the quietude of the village life, the film has a meditative pace which acknowledges people’s constant fight with nature, and the fact that their lives depend on it.
Watching Village Rockstars is like spending a day, from dusk to dawn, by a river that takes its own time to tells its story and that of the people around it.
It doesn’t seem like someone wrote, directed and acted in it. Village Rockstars is a piece of art that feels like it was “born, not made”.
In one particular scene, Dhunu’s mother sits extracting and killing lice from her hair. My head itched for a long while after that scene, and still does when I think of it.
I’ll be surprised, and disappointed, if Village Rockstars doesn’t make it to the short list of Oscars. Do not miss it.