Rima Das: Fairy Queen

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As her film heads to the Oscars, the Assamese director Rima Das shares the thrill with Divya Unny

JUST OVER A year ago, Rima Das was the new woman in the world of Indian independent cinema. She was one of only a handful of women filmmakers from northeast India, and the only one to have made a film without an actual film crew. Her second feature film Village Rockstars was shot, directed, edited, written and produced by Das herself, and went on to become one of the most popular films in the festival circuit in 2017. It travelled to over 70 festivals, picked up countless awards, was lauded for exploring gender against a rural backdrop, won the National Award for best feature film and is now representing India at the Oscars next year.

In all probability, Village Rockstars is the only film of its kind to have undergone such an empowering journey in such a short span. It began as an experiment in rural Assam, and is now a beacon of hope and a textbook example for anyone who dreamed of being a filmmaker but cut their dreams short for lack of money or courage. A year since her journey began, Das is swamped with requests to share her story. ‘How did you do it?’ they ask her.

We meet at the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI) where her third feature film Bulbul Can Sing, a story of three teenagers in an Assamese village coming to terms with their sexual identities, is being screened. She shares the stage with acclaimed women directors like Anjali Menon, Kiran Rao, Tanuja Chandra and Geetu Mohandas as part of the Oxfam platform at the festival that promotes films highlighting gender equality. In the midst of a hectic day, she sits down with me for a cup of coffee, still trying to process it all.

“I feel like it’s all part of a fairy tale,” says Das, “I never asked for any of this. Not the awards, not the appreciation. In fact, I didn’t even think people would actually walk into a movie hall and watch my film. I made Village Rockstars just for myself and a handful of others who were happy to support me during the film. But now I get emails from young filmmakers where they tell me, ‘Because of you, I have revived my dream of making movies.’ It’s surreal.”

For those who talk about and still believe in cinema that’s independent of corporate agendas or box-office goals, Das’ work and life are exemplary. Her films do not follow the standard graph of a story, the drama within, climatic points and then a happy or sad ending. Her films capture real life as it goes, and weaves a story within. They are wonderfully colourful and cinematic—portraying seasons, the harvest, even natural calamities through a fictional tale that forms the core of the film. Like Village Rockstars, which is set in Chhaygaon Assam and is about a little girl who dreams of owning a guitar and uses a plastic version of it to play her songs with her buddies. The plot doesn’t drive home any drama, but empathises with the small unfulfilled dreams of any young rural boy or girl from India. You see them walking the fields, battling floods, climbing trees, staring at sunsets, as life happens around them. Das’ almost-documentary like style of storytelling makes you pull the plug on a fast-paced existence and transports you into a space where time has just stood still. “I shot it from 2013 to 2017, through the growing years of the kids who are not actors, but children who live in Chhaygaon itself. It’s almost like waking up at the break of dawn every day, mounting the camera, and letting life happen. During the floods, we’d get on top of trees, strap the camera onto a branch and record. Everything was being shot in natural light and at one point I did not even have a sound recorder to capture the dialogues. I was simultaneously writing it and there were times when I felt absolutely helpless because things would go out of hand. Even so, with the help of my cousin who assisted me and the kids who were always up for a challenge, we’d shoot. We took it one day at a time. All I had to do was surrender to the space, and we had a film!” she says.

I shot village Rockstars from 2013 to 2017, through the growing years of the kids who are not actors

Veterans of cinema may call this old- school, traditional and the most organic form of filmmaking, where fiction truly embraces real life. There are no timelines here, only moving images captured on film for posterity. It’s a bold approach in this day and age of digital filmmaking where everyone’s making a film to meet a deadline rather than to actually make a point. But for Das, this approach came out of her sheer need to return to the basics of both cinema and life. Das, who was a struggling actor in Mumbai about 10 years ago, had at one point lost her identity in the rut of ambition and competition. “Ever since I was a kid I was very interested in the performing arts. I’d sing and dance and act the minute I got a chance. My move to Mumbai was also very much to pursue that dream. But when I came here, I realised my Hindi was weak and many other limitations. I was always top of my drama class in school and college, but here reality hit me and I was depressed for months. I couldn’t connect with this big world of Bollywood and didn’t see myself fitting in. Simultaneously, I was introduced to world cinema like Satyajit Ray’s work and Iranian films, and I realised that I could make films that are part of my ethos,” she says.

Das would very often rush back to the life she lived as a kid, to regain some sense of sanity during those days. It’s when she started to realise what she was missing back in Mumbai. “When I started shooting my first feature Man with the Binoculars, I stayed back in my village for four-five months and I really got a chance to return to my roots,” she says. “I saw people are poor, they had no electricity, they were dealing with nature’s fury every year. But they would still keep living, harvesting, doing what they needed to. I saw people surviving, under the most dire circumstances. That really inspired me. In Mumbai, as an actor, I kind of lost touch with my soul. I wanted to find it back. I started hanging with the kids in my village. I started doing all kinds of things I used to do in my childhood. I went back to my life as a kid. And then I understood that all I needed to do was make a film, a story, because everything else was right in front of me.”

With one 5D camera, no focus puller (a role some would argue is crucial on a film set), a bunch of pre-teens, and a shoe-string budget, Das shot Village Rockstars for 150 days over a span of four years. “My actors, were non-actors. So I’d judge them by sound. How they delivered their lines. Mostly I used to hear them—that helped me a lot. If it’s not natural, then I knew something is wrong,” she says. Challenges were aplenty, but her vision was intact. Through her story she even addressed the taboo around menstruation in rural India, a social problem that she has rebelled against ever since she was a child. “The idea wasn’t to make a film for women or anything like that. But growing up in an environment which I did, there were enough restrictions and superstitions. So when the girl in my film goes swimming or climbs a tree even during her period, it’s my little way of telling the world that it’s okay. It’s normal,” she adds.

In her own way, she cracked a code that many artists who have a vision but no platform have been trying to for years: “Do it yourself, don’t wait for anyone. There’s no other way,” she says. What began as one woman’s journey has ended up breaking new ground in the world of independent cinema from India. Today, Das is heading panel discussions, sharing ideas and encouraging future filmmakers to make their dreams happen. She’s become the face of Indian independent cinema among edgy filmmakers and those who are experimenting with films. Thanks to this, the luxury of time that she had with Village Rockstars, she didn’t have with Bulbul Can Sing. “I had to finish Bulbul… in no time. In fact, when I sent it to Toronto, I was not even expecting to get selected. But it did. It gives me hope—to do more. And yet not get lost in the commercialisaton of it. Today I have producers who want to work with me, but I don’t want to lose my freedom. The only reason my films are what they are is because I did it my way. I will never give that up,” says the filmmaker.

INTERESTINGLY, THIS YEAR right after Bulbul Learns to Sing premiered at Toronto, the festival announced that 35 per cent of its films would be by female directors. “I am making movies because I love cinema. Finally, filmmaking is an art. It is a very individual journey. I think it’s a very good time for cinema in India and for women to voice themselves. What’s important is that we should put forth our voice in a unique and brave way. If we are creating that comfortable environment for women to work, things will be a lot better,” Das says.

Her challenges haven’t ended, though. Das takes Village Rockstars to Los Angeles this November to campaign for the Oscars. Her film competes with 86 other foreign films in the same category and she has been gathering funds for it. “I made my film in almost no budget and today the Assam government donated Rs 1 crore for our campaign. A few others have made independent donations too,” she says. “As I said earlier, it still seems surreal to me. I am happier celebrating that. I am taking those blessings and going forward. We will do as much we can, and not think much about it. I don’t know if my film will make it to the final round at the Oscars, but that was never the dream, was it? My dream has come true. Everything else is an icing on the cake.”