The future of film, for sure
Why is Rima Das's Village Rockstars the most unusual foreign language entry to the Oscars, perhaps by any country, ever?
What's a film? Can tell you this: What you've been watching in theatres over the past few years, is not. It's digital — both, for how it's captured, and projected on screen. And yet the most popular image to represent movies is a long film reel, with square sprockets on either ends, that nobody uses anymore. What does digital do that films cannot? Raw stock cost is as good as zero. Anyone can hold a camera, and so technically, everyone can be a filmmaker. Does that change the language of films as well? Totally.
The first big movement around digital filmmaking, Dogme 95, took place in the mid-'90s, pioneered by its finest exponent, Danish master Lars von Trier, aiming to rid cinema of every sort of superficiality, right down to removing the background score (only natural sound), let alone opening/closing credits. The idea was to capture the world in its raw, original form. Because? You could.
Is the genre an easy one to embrace? Not instantly. Given that our eyes (or brains) have become so used to furiously paced, slickly crafted, flickering images, it takes you a few minutes to settle into a dead-beat, sleepy rhythm, as is the case with Rima Das's Village Rockstars, set in a flood-prone, harshly remote village in Assam — gently chronicling vignettes from the lives of a few children (two of them being raised by a single mom), as they go about their days, at their own sweet pace. Like life itself.
Even the credit supers, announcing the title, to give you a sense that this is a movie after all, is probably out of MS Word. Camera work is rudimentarily basic. As is the production design, or the characters' costumes. Dialogues are mutedly conversational. And, frankly, there is no proper drama here. Looking at children play-acting as a pop/rock band, holding fake guitars made from thermocol, you might assume that this is probably a picture about aspiring musicians in a rural hamlet. But it's not.
Even the supposedly big moments, plot-wise, are underplayed to near imperfection. All of which gradually sucks you into a world so separate from your own, that it reminds us, all over again, how movies are the safest, quickest ways to travel, without ever moving a limb — the totally untouched visuals seem so seeped in its place, and milieu.
Satyajit Ray's stunningly life-like directorial debut, Pather Panchali (1955), inspired by Italian neo-realism — chiefly Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), which Ray happened to watch while he was travelling in London — had a similar effect on distantly urban Indians, let alone the West.
Also, it proved how a movie can be so much more an empathy-inducing device than it gets credit for. Das similarly puts forth a lived-in experience that allows one to look deeply/closely at characters that you may otherwise look through. It's a simple, humanistic piece — a genre that Iranians have mastered over the past few decades to epochal effect for world cinema. In particular, since Majid Majidi's Oscar-nominated Children Of Heaven (1998) that lost out to the Italian Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997) at the Academy Awards. Both films beautifully combined art (self-expression) with entertainment (popular tropes).
Village Rockstars, in that sense, is more art, than entertainment. In its wisdom, the jury put together by the Film Federation of India, a producers' guild entrusted with the job each year, has chosen it as India's official entry to the 2019 Oscars. Having premiered at the Toronto film festival, Village Rockstars also won the Best Indian Film at the National Awards. Is it the year's best Indian film? How does one ever decide that?
It was merely a particular jury's favourite. That's the case with any award, anyway. The group picking up for Foreign Film Oscars' entry could do well with watching previous winners in the category, as the ones competing on any given year, to arrive at a suitable choice. Also, the Oscars are so much about lobbying. The kind of funds required to see Village Rockstars through (and by that I mean merely having the massive jury in LA see it in the first place) would be obviously several times the budget of this zero-budget film. Some have argued, therefore, that it doesn't stand a chance. Well, frankly, neither did the others before it. Why not take a chance, anyway?
The real story though is Das, the director. She learnt digital filmmaking, on her own, from a YouTube tutorial. She bought herself a Canon 5D camera. She used a basic Zoom H4n recorder. And then, she cast, shot, edited, directed, produced Village Rockstars, along with handling costumes, and production design — all by herself. That film is now on its way to the US to represent a country with multiple film industries, that makes the most movies — small, fat, big, mainstream, off-stream, regional, global, independent, studio-led — in the world! Thought that'd be the future of cinema. Well, it's here.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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