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Film Reviews Review: Rima Das’s Village Rockstars brings down the house, and proves the 2019 Oscars are singing the wrong tune

Bhanita Das in Village Rockstars.

Courtesy of TIFF

Village Rockstars

Written and directed by: Rima Das

Starring: Bhanita Das

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Classification: N/A; 87 minutes

rating

In one of the most competitive years ever for the foreign-language Academy Award, there were bound to be disappointments when the 2019 nominees were finally unveiled. Where was South Korea’s masterful Burning? Or Turkey’s enchanting The Wild Pear Tree? Those were my burning questions last week – but that was before I sat down the other day to watch Village Rockstars. Suddenly, I was crushed all over again.

India’s official submission for best foreign-language film didn’t make the final Academy cut – maybe the double-dipping of Roma into both that category and the “real” best-picture slate is to blame? – but it deserves a spotlight all the same.

Technically Rima Das’s second feature – although its years-long shoot overlapped with her actual debut, 2016′s Man with BinocularsVillage Rockstars is the product of one artist’s singular vision, through and through. Das wrote, directed, produced, edited and shot the film, as well as handling art direction and costume design.

The filmmaker’s niece, Bhanita Das, stars as Dhunu, a bright preteen growing up in the northeast Indian village of Chhaygaon (Das’s own homeland) who dreams of owning a guitar and starting a rock band. It’s an impossible goal for someone as impoverished as Dhunu, not to mention the fact that she’s a girl growing up in a highly patriarchal culture. Yet Das carefully keeps Dhunu’s hopes alive, and resists overdramatizing her desires as if making a standard and pat coming-of-age narrative. Instead, life simply moves forward – up and down, over and over – for Dhunu and her village, just as it does in every other place in the world.

Shot as if a hybrid of documentary and fiction – with a thin, mostly improvised script that nicely aids this narrative fluidity – Village Rockstars is confident and sincere, its story unfolding at a languid but controlled pace. It’s a testament to Das’s commitment to authenticity that the film never dips into some faraway postcard travelogue territory – it is simply a portrait of one girl’s day-to-day life, and a convincing argument that anyone can dream big.

Village Rockstars opens Feb. 1 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto.

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