Village Rockstars, made on a shoestring budget, did the unthinkable by becoming India’s official entry for the Oscars.
There is a beautiful scene in Village Rockstars where the protagonist Dhunu and her friends get inspiration to form a band after watching a live show in their village. They don’t have the money to buy musical instruments so they make a guitar out of thermocol (polystyrene). This symbolizes not just the spirit of the film, but also the filmmaker. When Rima Das started shooting for Village Rockstars five years back at a little known village called Dahatiya Kalaigaon in Chhaigaon, little did anybody know that this movie made on a shoestring budget with amateur actors would represent India at the 91st Academy Awards.
The Game Changer
Village Rockstars became known to cinephiles after it made splashes at the festival circuit. It was showcased in the Official Selection category in the top-drawer festivals like Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery Section), San Sebastian International Film Festival (New Directors Section). When the film won the Swarnakamal award for the ‘Best Feature Film’ at the 65th National Film Awards, it gave the film prominence at the national level. Significantly, it became the second Assamese film to win the Swarnakamal after Jahnu Barua’s classic Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai.
From the time Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad Agarwala made the first Assamese film Joymati in 1935, Assamese cinema has come a long way. Over the years, many memorable films have been churned out from the State. There have been filmmakers like Bhabendranath Saikia and Jahnu Barua whose films have attained a timeless status. However, while many Assamese films won National Awards, recognition on a pan-India level was elusive. Then, in the last decade, the condition of Assamese films spiralled downwards. Not enough films with good content were being made which made cinegoers reluctant to buy tickets. In this scenario, the success of Village Rockstars is a godsend for the industry.
Speaking about how the success of Village Rockstars will affect Assamese cinema in the long run, noted filmmaker and film critic Utpal Borpujari said, ‘The fact that Village Rockstars has received such a fantastic response at the theatres is a very positive trend. After bagging the National Award for Best Film and being the official selection from India to the Oscars, it has grabbed attention at both national and international level. Now people will also be interested to know about the film industry in Assam after watching Village Rockstars which is an advantage for us. So, filmmakers need to make good use of this opportunity by making good original cinema. Also, rather than aping Bollywood, it will hold us in good stead, if we tell stories rooted in Assam.’ Borpujari’s film Ishu won the Rajatkamal for being the best film in Assamese language at the National Awards this year.
Young filmmaker Himjyoti Talukdar whose debut movie Calendar received accolades and box office success earlier this year is also hopeful about Assamese cinema in a post Village Rockstars scenario. ‘The fact that people are not just going to watch this movie in the theatres but are actually enjoying it is a testimony to the fact that they are acquiring a taste for different cinema. Village Rockstars is not your typical commercial cinema. The treatment is very abstract, very world cinema like. So, the fact that even masses have liked it augurs very well for us.’
Talukdar, who is next making a movie on the famous novel Moromor Deuta penned by the legend, Dr Bhabendranath Saikia also shared that because filmmakers in Assam don’t have much funds to make their films, the subjects that were focussed on in Village Rockstars are more suitable. ‘Most filmmakers in Assam suffer from severe fund crunch. It is not possible for them to make a lavishly mounted film properly without money. So, films like Village Rockstars are more suitable for them.’
Local cinegoers from Assam are also extremely hopeful about the revival of Assamese cinema. Film enthusiast Tridip Chandra Goswami, who also runs a Facebook page on Assamese cinema called ‘The Jollywood Café’ says, ‘Many people used to say that Assamese cinema only shows villages, which becomes monotonous after a time. However, Village Rockstars has done the same and it is the treatment which did the trick. Raw and uninhibited performances from the cast brought a different appeal to the film. This film proves that good content along with fine performances, proper treatment and technical finesse will always be accepted by the audience. I am sure that Assamese cinema will revive its lost glory and the trend will continue with Jahnu Barua’s next movie Bhoga Khidikee.’
The Road to Oscars
The fight to win the coveted Black Lady won’t be easy for Rima Das who is struggling to collect funds to keep her Oscar dream afloat. While, she has received an amount of INR 1 crore from the Assam Government for running the promotional campaign for her film, she would need almost INR 3 crores more for the purpose. Also, the fact that Village Rockstars will compete against some very good films this year like Mexican entry Roma, Norwegian film What Will People Say which stars none other than Assamese actor Adil Hussain, and Algerian romantic drama Until the End of Time won’t make things easy.
However, whether Village Rockstars realizes its dream of bringing home the Oscars or not, it has certainly inspired Assamese filmmakers to dream again. And when people are passionate about their dreams, magic inevitably happens.
This article was first published in Eclectic Northeast Magazine, (November Issue, 2018)