Rima Das: The One-Woman Army Behind India's Entry To The Oscars, Village Rockstars

Charting a journey from rural Assam to international film festivals to India's entry to the Oscars, it's been a magical last 12 months for Rima Das.

Rima Das responds with a soft ‘thank you’, when congratulated over Village Rockstars being selected as India’s official entry to the 2019 Oscars. On a list that is mainly dominated by Hindi films in past, with the odd Marathi, Malayalam, Bengali or Tamil film, Village Rockstars broke through not just as the first Assamese film, but also as the first film from North-East India to represent the country. You’d expect her to sound like she’s on cloud nine, and maybe she is. But outwardly Rima Das sounds absolutely zen.

However, this wasn’t the case when she got the news nearly 48 hours before this telephonic conversation, she declares. “I was home, which is a good thing because I was able to shout, scream. Something you can’t do if you’re somewhere remote or even if you’re in Mumbai. I began shouting and all my family members joined in”, Das says in a calm voice. She had an inkling it might happen, but found out only after it was reported by the media

Das’s underdog story is the kind that deserves a statue of her own, with both arms raised like Rocky Balboa. Writing, producing, shooting, directing and editing a film about a few local Assamese kids obsessed with music, has set her on a journey across countless film festivals. After four National Awards and being selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars, Das’s film is about to get a theatrical release this Friday.

Here are excerpts from the conversation:

How did you get into filmmaking – was there a definite moment or was it a gradual process?
It all began with me moving to Mumbai, to become an actor. From where I come (Assam) we look at Mumbai as this magical place, and I never imagined that I would be in the business of filmmaking.

I think it was in 2005, when I seriously began looking for acting parts. During that period between 2005-2007, I got exposed to world cinema. Some were suggested by friends, I began buying DVDs, and then Internet made things a lot easier. I attended the Mumbai Film Festival, IFFI in Goa, and that’s how my taste in cinema developed. And then I figured, even I had stories to tell. So I started with short films, and then later on I bought my own camera and that’s how the journey began.

Is there one particular film you remember, which made you go – ‘I want/need to do this!’?
I think that would be Pather Panchali and a few films by Majid Majidi like Children of Heaven… they kind of taught me that you could make films about simple things and they could still have depth. You watch them and you realise that you don’t necessarily need big budgets to tell touching stories. The simplicity and authenticity touched me, and motivated me.

Both these films are famous for their children protagonists. Which also seems to be the case with Village Rockstars.
Actually right from my first film, Pratha (2009), I’ve always dealt with children protagonists. Someone asked me in an interview about the popular notion that children and animals are very difficult to work with – but I, on the other hand, find it really comfortable to work with kids. Every day is a different experience with them. They don’t ask questions, they completely surrender to your vision. They have this faith and belief in you, which is hard to find in most of your adult actors.

How does zero-budget filmmaking work? How do you manage the day-to-day shooting expenses…
I live with my mother, she cooks food and I have all the facilities that I need. I have my own camera, a Canon 5D and I have my cousin sister, Mallika, who would help out with the logistical issues on set. Shooting over a period of four years, it didn’t cost much. The film began costing me money once it moved into post-production. I got a grant from Hong Kong, that allowed me to colour-grade my film in Bangkok. The sound for the film, is something I had to spend on out of my own pocket. To tell you honestly, I don’t know the exact amount of money I’ve spent while making this. Whatever I would earn over a few months, I would pour into the film.

You didn’t crowdsource?
No… no. I wasn’t confident that I’ll end up making a good movie. And then taking people’s money to make something that they don’t like, it makes me awkward actually. That’s why I didn’t do that. I was helped by family, relatives and I was also making corporate videos. The idea of crowdsourcing crossed my mind many times, but apart from the fact that I didn’t have the confidence, you have to understand how occupied I used to be during shooting. I didn’t have a team, and to start a crowdsourcing campaign and continuously follow-up with it, that’s more work. I didn’t have the stamina or the patience.

On a normal day of shooting, how many people would be there on set?
There were no people. It was just my cousin sister, Mallika, and sometimes the kids on set would help out.

Someone for sound…? Someone to keep track of the shots?
I did all of that. And it kind of worked in our favour, because it was just me, Mallika and the kids. So we would shoot in a very leisurely manner. When the sky brightened up we would do our outdoor scenes. There wasn’t like fixed timings for a shoot, which would end in 8-10 hours. There was no compulsion to shoot every day.

It’s hard enough being a filmmaker in a regional language – how much more hard is it for a budding storyteller from the North-East?
It’s kind of the same actually. Because if you look at filmmakers in cities like Mumbai, you need permission to shoot on roads or in public places. In North-East, you don’t have that problem. Plus you always find the man-power to help out, whether it is local villagers, or friends or relatives. I’ve shot short films and music videos in Mumbai and comparatively, I prefer shooting in Assam. It’s so much easier.

I was reading about the Mizo film industry, where there isn’t a single theatre screen. Is there a similar distribution problem in Assam?
Yeah, that’s obviously one of the problems. But the film (Village Rockstars) has a good buzz around it, and I’m optimistic about how many shows we’ll be getting during the opening weekend. Invariably, there is a big Hindi film release every other week, because of which the regional films suffer. I think there are about 80 screens in Assam, most of them are single screens. And because of the limited number of screens, most of the times we don’t get good slots. But now people are fighting for it, they’re campaigning, approaching the government. We’re hopeful, but it goes without saying, that releasing a film in this part of the world is a difficult feat.

Village Rockstars hits the screens on Sept 28. What is the scene like at the distribution system for a film?
PVR had approached me long back actually, long before the Oscar announcement or the National Awards. They approached me right after last year’s MAMI (Mumbai International Film Festival). It took me some time to process all of it and there were also things that I needed to experience for myself. Like interacting with distributors and discussing with them about which theatres (they had in mind) and what kind of shows they were looking at.

So what are the kind of shows you’re looking at on this Friday?
PVR started with VKAAO (an app that allows users to organise a common screening in a city, so as to ensure more than minimum occupancy for a screening). With the Oscar announcement, they should hopefully add a few more screenings, and also expand to a few more cities.

I got news from Latur, that they’d booked an entire screening and it was nearly full. I also got a message from Gujarat recently, so if people in one area demand the screening of the film then it will take place in most corners of India, where PVRs exist. In Assam, Kamakhya Films are the ones releasing it. We’re looking at 31 screenings to start with (out of 80) and they might increase it to 40-50 depending on the occupancy and interest during the first weekend. I’ll come to know the exact numbers tomorrow (Wednesday, before the release)

Any particular director, whose filmography you like to follow?
Difficult to say. I love the lighting in Wong Kar-Wai’s films, I like Terrence Mallick. His visuals speak for themselves. I, too, am a visual person. So if there’s something I can tell you by a visual alone, then words become unnecessary.

What did you watch growing up?
*thinks for a while* Mughal-E-Azam, Pakeezah… maybe. I remember watching (Mira Nair’s) Kamasutra in a theatre in Guwahati. Like we all watched it, and then we came out of the theatre staring at our shoes. We didn’t want to look here or there… out of embarrassment, we were so young that we didn’t know how to react to the film. I think I was around 17-18.

Is there one film from the Northeast, that you wish more people in India and the world knew about?
There’s a filmmaker called Padum Barua, and he has this movie called Gonga Silonir Pakhi (1976). It’s a beautiful movie, which is available on YouTube. Padum Barua made just one film and it was an absolute stunner! Apart from that there’s Jahnu Barua’s Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai (The Catastrophe, 1987), who I think is a very intelligent man. He has this very thought-provoking style. And there’s this other name that I’m forgetting, but I will let you know as soon as I remember…


At the time of publishing, Rima Das didn’t get back to us with the last name. Here’s hoping she can remember it for the many more awards-acceptance speeches and interviews, she might have to take part in for her future films. She might or might not make it to 2019 Oscars, but that doesn’t take away from Das’ incredible journey. This Friday, while you go out and support the big guns – Yash Raj, Vishal Bhardwaj and Mani Ratnam, don’t forget about the ‘tiny film with a big heart’ – at a theatre near you.