'Village Rockstars' review: India's official entry to the Oscars is an ode to courage

Yes, there is a steady layer of pain and deprivation in this child's journey, but we are not allowed to trespass and rightfully so.
'Village Rockstars' review: India's official entry to the Oscars is an ode to courage
'Village Rockstars' review: India's official entry to the Oscars is an ode to courage

When the women in the village scold Dhunu and threaten her with punishment for hanging out with boys, it angers her mother. She questions why no one is bothered that she does both a man’s and woman’s work in her household. She says this three times—‘I do everything.’ There is a pain in her voice, an uncharacteristic helplessness. And there is no one to answer; or rather there is no answer.

Rima Das’ Village Rockstars (Assamese) is filled with many such poignant moments of silence—at times peaceful, at times deafening—where the message waits for you to find it, rather than handing itself to you. If you don’t like reading between the lines, then this film might not be for you. If you don’t want a film to pause for a few seconds and breathe in the surroundings, then this immersive experience is really not for you.

Village Rockstars is an intimate portrayal of a child’s journey, albeit short, in the interior parts of Assam. Dhunu (Bhanita Das) and her wayward eyes are filled with dreams. She lives with her brother and her widowed mother who strives hard to make ends meet. She and a group of kids form a rock band where they pretend to play on thermocol instruments, but soon they get bored of pretending. Dhunu wants a real guitar and whether she gets one or not forms the rest of the story.

Rima Das takes a simple template of a child and a dream and weaves a story that is both personal and universal at the same time. She knows that her audiences might be removed from the subject she is dealing with. Even so, she makes sure she isn’t selling human struggle as entertainment.

We are never asked to cry at their struggles, in fact, we don’t often see them struggling. Instead, we see the joy with which the children play in the muddy water. We see friendship when the kids try to punish the boy who slaps Dhunu. We see hope in Dhunu’s eyes when she starts saving money to buy a guitar. We see love when she finally decides to give the money to her mother. We see pride when her mother gently reprimands her not to worke for money. We see abundance and light in the paddy fields.

Yes, there is a steady layer of pain and deprivation under all this, but we are not allowed to trespass and rightfully so. It isn’t ours to see.In air-conditioned theatres, and with popcorn buckets in our hands, it is impossible to not be patronising no matter how hard we may try not to be.

We can see Rima’s respect and understanding of the characters through the way she uses her camera. Even though it works as an omnipresent bystander, there is warmth in its angles and frames. An intruder for sure, but one who is only eavesdropping to make sure everything is fine. Notice the way Dhunu is captured in those idle moments—on the boat, in the paddy fields; she is our heroine and she shines translucently throughout. Rima takes things further by implementing cuts and edits that are far too swift and abrupt even. A scene of conflict/sadness is almost always followed by a humorous moment. Maybe this is her way of discouraging the audiences from feeling pity towards her characters. If anything this film doesn’t want or need, it is our pity.

The sound design of the film is filled with rural nuances—birds chirping, lice being smashed between fingernails, air running through leaves, water reacting to oars disturbing its flow. Other than that the film is virtually music-less. Maybe this is why when Dhunu finally strums the guitar, our sound-deprived ears eat it up as if it’s the sweetest sound ever to exist. In a defining moment, Dhunu asks her mother to buy her a guitar, a cheap one, her mother says that they have to sell their pet goat to be able to afford it. Dhunu swiftly refuses, as she loves her pet. To gain something, you have to lose something is what that scene and the ending, for that matter, tells you, but not in so many words.

Similarly crafted is the way Dhunu tries to change her behaviour after being scolded. The physical distance she tries to maintain from the boys, which soon disappears as the child in her swiftly takes over the artificial maturity she is being forced to cultivate. Life lessons in the film don't come at you the way they normally do. Knowing when not to underline an already powerful image is a skill onto itself and Rima definitely has it. For that matter, look at the way two widows stand far away from the ceremony when Dhunu gets her first period. It isn’t a statement against culture, just an observation that is powerful enough as it is.

Village Rockstars isn't about poverty. It's about courage and hope despite that, despite everything. Courage seems to be Basanti’s only weapon against the world that wants to see her lose. Courage is the only thing that kept her from drowning years ago. Courage is what keeps her company now, while she lives a lonely life. As such, courage is the most important thing she can give to her daughter and courage is what Rima Das decides to bestow upon her audiences as well. After all, dreams and the strength to achieve them is all there is.

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