Every now and then, Dhunu scuttles across the flushed green rice fields of her village to her favourite haunt—a gigantic tree—and swiftly climbs its branches to find a spot near the top. Then she lies on a branch, staring at the clouds rolling across the sky. Her friends, all boys from the village, perch on other branches and, interspersed by short recesses of silence, the children break into happy chittering. At these moments, Dhunu, a girl from the village, and her friends who are boys, are just children, unencumbered by the conditioning that dictates things girls can't do and boys can.
In Village Rockstars, Rima Das takes her viewer to a place untouched by social media debates around representation and real-time television squabbles. She then illustrates how empowering a girl takes just a little empathy.
At the centre of Das's film is Dhunu, a pre-pubescent girl who lives in a village in Assam, and her mother, a widow who works in the rice fields. Dhunu wants to start a band and own a real guitar—she and her friends have made makeshift musical instruments from cardboard and discarded utility goods, and pretend to play them as a band, head-banging like rockstars.
Dhunu's father was swept away in the floods that ravage Assam every year. Dhunu and her mother's lives are far from easy. One powerful segment in the film simply has the camera trailing Dhunu's mother, who had just shopped for odds and ends from the nearest haat—a market that serves a cluster of villages—and is making her way back home.
She has barely made it out of the market when rains start lashing the village. The woman makes it past a stream, then hurries across the precarious village road snaking across rice fields. She tumbles and falls, the contents of her bag spilling on to the muddy village road. Dhunu's mother gets back on her feet quickly, gathers everything that fell off her bag and is back on the way home, unfazed. When she falters, Dhunu's mother's face betrays no emotion of heightened shock or pain. It's as if she has lived through these inconveniences so many times that they have become a way of life. Dhunu's mother's trek back home from the market is an analogy for the woman's life itself, where every time life serves a blow, she picks herself up with resilience. Dhunu recounts the circumstances of her father's death to her friend in one sentence and the sheer lack of melodrama in the sequence is a comment on the quiet fortitude of the film's protagonists.
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Her mother's quiet acceptance of life actually becomes a source of empowerment to Dhunu. When women from the neighbourhood complain that Dhunu spends way too much time with the boys, climbing trees, her mother is momentarily shaken, but doesn't impose sanctions on her daughter's life to please anyone. In fact, she takes quiet pride in the fact that her daughter often does the work boys in other homes do.
When Dhunu starts menstruating, her coming of age is celebrated with a function at home, like in Assam's villages. She dolls up, wearing flowers in her hair and kohl in her eyes, and the boys who are her friends are mildly taken aback by her new avatar. She spends her days in an isolated room, but her mother quietly visits her room often, stroking the girl's head gently as she sleeps. And when her period is over, Dhunu is back with her friends, wearing a worn-out frock, scampering across fields and jamming with the boys.
The heavy-duty sound effects and melodramatic moments of epiphany typical of popular Indian cinema don't make their way into Das's film to underscore the powerful act of rebellion that Dhunu and her mother have waged against patriarchy. Village Rockstars is non-fussy and tells viewers that an act of empowerment is as simple and non-dramatic as treating a girl as a human being, one with dreams and her own ideas of happiness. As Dhunu's mother goes on with her life, making little fuss about her daughter's puberty or her habits, the film also shows that acceptance comes naturally to people. It's taking naysayers seriously that thwarts it.
The film is also a gentle nudge to women, urging them to help and nurture other women, in the face of adversities. Despite being a free spirit, Dhunu is initially scared of swimming. But Dhunu's mother won't have her child afraid of the waters for long. So as Dhunu dithers and delays, her mother jumps into a lake, holding Dhunu by her hand, muttering words of encouragement. Till one day, they are both splashing around in the water, jubilant and absolutely happy.
Assam's floods form a compelling backdrop for Dhunu and her mother's story to unfold against. In fact, as it wolfs down land, homes and lives, it becomes a magnificent metaphor for the relationship between patriarchy and women in the country. Like the floods that overwhelm Dhunu's village, patriarchy is relentless, wiping away selfhood and leaving too much wreckage in its wake.
Das, however, does not leave her audience with a feeling of doom. As the waters drown her familiar landscape and almost threaten to take away her favourite tree, Dhunu will not be restricted to her home. She pushes a small boat out into the water, slicing through the expanse of depressing grey, unhindered by either its vastness or the destruction that has been wreaked. She takes a friend along and the two laugh and splash through the water, defying the dull stillness engulfing their surroundings. The floods, Village Rockstars shows, has nothing on Dhunu. Here's hoping women can feel the same way about patriarchy.