Independent filmmakers are Village Rockstars in India

Independent filmmakers in India were either dreaming or planning to buy their first electric guitar like ‘Dhunu’ from Rima Das’s Village Rockstars until the #Oscar2019 news hit their social media walls. However, by now; anyone who wants to buy an electric guitar will be an independent filmmaker in India!

The nomination of Village Rockstars as India’s official entry to the 91st Academy Awards in the category of Best Foreign Language Films stirred up the otherwise muddy waters of Indian independent cinema. Hopeful film enthusiasts around the country are sharing the news and congratulating the Assamese filmmaker for her guts and valour – they are calling her the one-woman army. Good wishes are directed towards the Film Federation of India (FFI) for opting Village Rockstars over others (the list shared below). It is discussed whether this is the best decision taken by the jury in a long time and whether Indian cinema will finally get a respectable representation in the Oscars. That’s it, here we come to the end of all that you have been reading over the last couple of days and maybe will continue doing so. However, a string of other factors upset me to an extent that I resolved to pen down my observations on this recent enlargement of the so-called perspective of Indian cinema.

Is it ‘Independent Cinema’ or ‘Impoverished Cinema’?

Rima Das in a couple of interviews said how she has shot the film for four years. She spoke about how she is not from a film school background. She also mentioned the craft of cinema is complex and although she reiterated about the importance of emotion over technique. I assume she will also talk about the importance of a crew and a team and how her film could have been way better had it been a more collaborative project. She was definitely challenged by funds and even after getting a ticket to the academy she has to ask for funds for promotion.

I find a peculiar similarity between Independent filmmakers and the Athletes who win medals and become a story on the social media for a day or maximum for a week. Don’t you see a fashion in the much expressive and motivated long posts on Facebook and hashtags on Twitter celebrating an impoverished sportsperson making the country proud! The athlete who runs with the national flag on his or her shoulders after that coveted victory was running forever asking for your attention. And filmmakers like Rima Das were pleading for aid for years.

Neither Indian government nor the so-called established film fraternity cared a fig when Rima was approaching Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Fund to help her film get a market screening in Cannes in 2017. Grabbing eyeballs and then rolling it in the right direction, Rima found her space. There were four odd years of shoot and two years of travelling to various doors knocking for help. The results are encouraging but misleading at the same time.

When you talk about indie cinema in India, the first and foremost perception is that it will be low-budget and will look impoverished. I have no clue why this perception fascinates the readers and how they exclaim with joy saying, “See, she made a film alone with peanuts!” Realism doesn’t mean poor techniques. Why is it conceived that independent cinema will look pathetic and express the hardships of the maker more than the characters in the film?

One-woman army!

Variety asked Rima whether it was a choice of the lack of funds that forces her to take multiple responsibilities. She said, “Both!” She says that initially it was the budget but gradually she didn’t want to risk the integrity and quality of the film. Keeping everything under her control she had more freedom on the project. Quoting her, “Doing things single-handedly, I stayed stubborn about what I wanted. It helped me immensely.”

This is one of the most popularly used emotional quotients by the newly formed Rima Das followers. Comparing her with the likes of Ray and his journey with Pather Panchali or encapsulating the hardships under the veil of women empowerment – the posts on social media can really sweep you off your feet. However, I would casually probe the writers and even Rima about her thoughts on her next films. Will, she still write, direct, set art, operate camera and edit all by her? Or will she now depend on a team? She will opt for the later, I guess!

It’s great and very encouraging for all of us to see this lady taking it upon her shoulders and doing it all alone but it’s entirely not by choice. It’s the lack of opportunity, lack of trust, lack of backing good art and lack of vision from the film curators of the country. Consequently, the message that comes across is dicey and insincere. No, you cannot make a habit of making an exceptional film without a team. It’s by accident or by virtue of circumstances that third-world country filmmakers have to resolve to (ref. Jafar Panahi made ‘This is not a Film’ alone while he was in house arrest). Now, these are instances and not examples to follow; is what I wanted to highlight.

Filmmaking is a collaborative art form; where ideas are exchanged not to lose freedom but to increase the dynamics of the story. The filmmaker doesn’t lose his or her narrative rather a good team enhances the outlook.

With all the accolades going her way from my end as well and with no hard feelings for her, I would like to point out the cheap selling quotient used by the same pool of Indian film buffs/journalists/hyper-motivated bloggers and obviously the wicked-smiling think tank.

The selection committee perhaps shared a gag over a cold coffee discussing how the chanting from the willing-to-be-rock-stars-filmmakers will now celebrate in their own social media villages! Yes, you guys nailed it; it was a masterstroke!

Academy hates Indian films!

Whether it’s the judging pattern of the Academy Awards (since 1947, 56 European productions won the Best Foreign Film) or the misrepresentation of the Indian films over the years, the run for Indian cinema in the Best Foreign Film category has been mostly depressing. Not that I have any personal anguish for that; however, the ground reality is seldom discussed. It’s been 90 years and India has won just five Oscars as of now (read some more on it)!

The Best Foreign Film 2017 went to Iran’s Asghar Farhadi for his film The Salesman. Village Rockstars will be competing in that category. In 2013, Ritesh Batra’s film, The Lunchbox was acclaimed in a number of prestigious film festivals, including the Cannes but India chose The Good Road, a Gujarati film that year. It was followed by Liar’s Dice in 2014, Court in 2015, Interrogation in 2016 and Newton in 2017. It’s not that the jury is not experimenting with the content but the concern is whether they have the right acumen to gauge the standard of films and its technical finesse that will at least make India’s entry considerable, watchable? I really have strong doubts!

All the films mentioned above including Rima’s film this year are great examples of Indian cinema; no doubt! However, whether this entire publicity of ‘finally-a-good-decision-by-the-jury’ works or not is still very much obscure!

I completely understand the idea behind sending a film that narrates a story from India’s hapless villages and tries to evoke empathy. What else do we sell to the Americans anyway?

I am glad, Padmavat was not selected – is somewhat a reaction the India jury expects from us; the village rockstars, sorry, the independent filmmakers of India!


Bulbul can sing like Village Rockstars – Passion vs. Logic!

Rima’s third film Bulbul Can Sing was recently selected for the Toronto International Film Festival and like Village Rockstars she handled quite a few departments alone. Having watched VR in Cannes this year and speaking to her about her next venture, it takes a moment to capture her enthusiasm and strength. She strives to tell a story set in rural Assam that speaks about hope despite numerous challenges! She definitely found a language of her own and that justifies all the accolades coming her way. Congratulations!

She has inspired a whole bunch of dreamers willing to tell their stories. However, I still find her story uprooting the working principles of filmmaking aspirants in India; especially the independent filmmakers. The reason is very simple.

The commercial aspects of conceptualising a film, making it, seeing it till the end and then distributing it to the target audience are not only a time-consuming process but also involves subsidies. Her case can be treated as an exception but not as a standard; however, the motivation of the financiers and the young film rock stars can easily sway the other way!

There is a definite need for passion. To make a film you need honesty and courage. However, you also need money and thus Rima projected her film Village Rockstars at USD 100,000 when she took it to the Cannes Market in 2017. She described her expenses in travelling and surviving as an individual over this long period.

We see things objectively and that too for a very brief period. Maybe the passion doesn’t fizz out soon and the logic behind making a film reigns supreme. After all, the road ahead is still quite bumpy and empowering would be more significant than empathising…

My parents used to give examples of some bright students making it to the best colleges while their parents belonged to the struggling section of the society. Then talent shows happened in India where we witnessed how the contestants and their families fought all the odds to make it to the stage. The journey of all these young aspiring souls; I celebrated as much as I could and then when cinema happened to me, I realised it has nothing to do with the flair or the finesse, it was about the sellable compassion that makes you weak before judging it on its merits!

All applaud for Rima’s daunting journey and wishing her luck for the ride ahead, I would like to end this on a note where Indian films are not considered as fragile, feeble, impoverished and lacking technical grace. We should arrive there to tell our stories and with complete command! The Academy is definitely not the yardstick, but shouldn’t we shape one for us that’s devoid of the double-standards?

Village Rockstars releases on September 28. Please catch it in theatres; that’s the least you can do to support Independent Indian Cinema. Let’s discuss this with friends and film enthusiasts around you. Simply by sharing this article and asking for their views…


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