Wednesday 28 September 2022

On demand: "Village Rockstars"

It's a stilled prologue, and an extraordinary way to launch both a film and a career: a young girl at large in a wide-open Assamese field, queen of all she surveys, turning away from the camera - from us - and appearing to close her eyes so as to envision a future for herself.
Village Rockstars, the self-taught writer-director Rima Das's breakthrough feature, unfolds around a quiet backwater where the youngsters spend their days reading comics (the girls) or getting into scrapes (the boys) or picking betel nuts from the trees they loll around between (everyone). Our heroine Dhunu (Bhanita Das, the filmmaker's cousin, and one of a number of close associates called out to play here) has ambitions of forming a band, although - in a region-specific twist on those School of Rock narratives so beloved out West - she hasn't the money to afford actual instruments, nor really access to the kind of shops that sell them. Instead, the kids fashion their own replica guitars and drums out of cardboard, scrap metal and discarded polystyrene, so as to mime to popular hits; they're even playing at playing, caught rehearsing for the adult world. In an opening caption, Das asserts the film is "a tribute to the people and places I come from", and you can't help but sense she is that girl on the screen - somebody with a dream that begs to be realised - much as François Truffaut was once Antoine Doinel. The guitar, after all, swaps in easily for the camera, as a means of expressing yourself, a way of amplifying your voice, and carrying it from here to there. Art can take you places you otherwise couldn't imagine.

The real delight of Village Rockstars is that this story should be told so organically - there's really no other word for it. Guided by Das's patient, attentive direction, we collectively feel out this place, and the way these people spend their time: the first act has no more pressing narrative concern than watching the kids try to make off with a local bully's bike. Before we know it, we find ourselves up to our knees not just in story, but in an entire way of life. What's more, the film continues to proceed at the same, becalmed pace as this life, with none of the sudden lurches or accelerations you find elsewhere in world cinema, in the films of first-timers so desperate to make an impression they can't resist putting pedal to the metal at some point. (You hope against hope that Das avoids the clutches of the Sundance Lab, with its one-size-fits-all approach to storytelling.) One major boon: these are a great bunch of kids to tail around after. From the blithe way they shimmy up trees - with the ease you and I might demonstrate popping to the Co-Op on a good day - we observe they're entirely at one with the landscape they pass through; even when monsoon season rolls around, they adapt, picking up vast leaves to use as umbrellas, and staging a joshing, ad hoc march in a bid to ban the rain. When they finally avail themselves of that heartless bully's bike, they charge off into the long grass like actual kids, tumbling in one another's wake; they haven't had the vital energy trained or rehearsed out of them.

If their mischief translates easily, so too does their lowly status: we're left in no doubt by a poignant episode in a shop where a real, fully-stringed guitar hangs tantalisingly out of reach. (They can look, but not touch.) After their village is submerged, wiping out both agriculture and the bridge connecting these youngsters to an education, the vision of that prologue looks more than ever a pipe dream; it's hard enough keeping one's head above water round here. (Somewhere in the background, like a painful memory: the story of Dhunu's father, who drowned in an earlier flood.) Yet Das is never sentimental about her subjects, as someone who's lived out this way could never be. Her camera displays a warmth and fondness, even love, for those who pass before it, but it also knows deep down that this can be a hard, cold, wet life. As a party thrown to mark Dhunu's passage into womanhood, half the guests show up emptyhanded; "people are useless", shrugs one of her world-wearier contemporaries, reflecting on the state's failure to protect the village from flooding. Increasingly, the film comes to seem even more like non-fiction than fiction, a production that had to adapt to the seasons and elements, to the way the very landscape altered. Even the fake instruments get swept away, leaving behind people in a place getting by, making do. Das was surely tucking all of this away for future use - the shrugged-off tragedy, the hard-earned triumphs, banked in the memory like the coins Dhunu secretes in the joists of her home. As Village Rockstars draws toward a finale every bit as unforgettable as that prologue, it becomes clear: there are some visions you just can't let go of.

Village Rockstars is now streaming via All4.

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