Interview Assam

Creating stories gives me more satisfaction: Rima Das on the magic of making movies

The National award-winning filmmaker speaks about learning on the job, the joy of learning from her audience, and why her acting dream may remain a dream.

Shriram Iyengar

It is easy to forget that Rima Das never went to film school. The director of two National award-winning films, Rima Das began her filmmaking journey as a novice and learned on the job.

In 2018, Das directed Village Rockstars, the story of a girl in an Assam village discovering the joys of the world through her innocent eyes. The film brought Das to the attention of cine lovers across the world and she has not looked back.

Just before heading to the Berlin International Film Festival 2020, where she is a jury member, the director spoke to in an exclusive interview.

Interestingly, Das had first arrived in Mumbai to be an actress. She even played the female lead in her own first film, Man With The Binoculars (2016). But with her filmmaking career taking off, she seems to have put the acting dreams to rest.

"Honestly speaking, as a filmmaker, you keep thinking of stories. As an actor, I will have to give more time to myself. But as a filmmaker, your world is very different," she said, adding, "but acting is my first love."

With her films now becoming part of school syllabus in Assam and arriving on Netflix, Das's popularity has grown manifold. The director insists it has only helped her to learn more from others.

"When Bulbul Can Sing (2019) was released in Assam and other parts of India, people, young kids in school and college, were writing to me. I am learning from them. Their viewpoint is very interesting," she said.

Rima Das is now set to begin work on her next project, with Tillotama Shome, in March. Till then, the director hopes to take a break from the hullabaloo around her and enjoy watching films. Excerpts from the interview:

It must be fascinating returning to Berlinale as a jury member after having competed there with Village Rockstars (2018).

Yes, it is a fantastic experience. I would like to thank this digital revolution which has changed quite a few things. It is because of this that filmmakers like us are able to make films.

Berlin for me is exciting. Two years ago, that word itself was mesmerizing for me. Even last year, we had the European premiere [of Bulbul Can Sing] there. I was so nervous. It was my first time going to Berlin and talking to audiences after the screening; also at the award functions, sitting with famous filmmakers. So, suddenly, when they call me up to be part of the jury, I feel that it is not so much responsibility as it is love and respect. I feel that what I am doing, and what my fellow filmmakers from India are doing, is already changing the perspective. We are coming up with new stories.

The rise of OTT has been part of your win. Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing (2019) have both been picked up by Netflix. What do you make of this change?

Earlier we struggled for an audience. The OTT platforms are opening this opportunity for many people to watch these films.

You have often said that you learnt about cinema by watching films. Quite like that, a whole new generation of independent filmmakers might learn by watching your films on OTT platforms, I suppose.

Yes, I can see a new generation being inspired. I don't know much about other filmmakers, but people keep writing to me. Through mail, social media and other platforms. Mostly young people. Earlier OTT platforms would take up major 'Bollywood' [mainstream Hindi cinema] films. Now they are understanding that we should not take the audience for granted. They are looking for content-driven films now. It is not only Indian films. Audiences watch films from other countries, world cinema, and they are looking for new content now.

Even the studios are aware that audiences are looking for new content. This has given us confidence. Earlier, independent films would be put in the box of art movies, [that] they don't have an audience. But now that is breaking.

Now, there is an audience in place. You simply need the right content to find them.

Yes. For me, when I made Village Rockstars, particularly with Village Rockstars, because with Bulbul Can Sing I was aware of things, but Rockstars did not have a background score, proper eye lens, and also had a non-linear narrative. I only thought international audiences would accept the film. It was amazing that not only did critics and festival audiences love it, but also general audiences. It surprised me. I was also not aware.

Our audience, I don't want to say they are ready now, but earlier they did not have access, and now they have.

When Bulbul... was released in Assam and other parts of India, people, young kids in school and college, were writing to me. I am learning from them. Their viewpoints are very interesting. They are watching the movie from so many different points of view. In that way, I am learning from the audience.

What has this recognition changed for you as a filmmaker and as a person?

Changed? Not much. I am still nervous to start my new film. Change is like I was experimenting with something. I was not aware of how it may work. But now that I see it working, it gives me the confidence to break rules.

Not coming from a film school, I don't know so many things. When I was working on the cinematography of Village Rockstars and Bulbul..., I did not have technical knowledge. Somehow, you have a fear of right or wrong sometimes. That fear is gone now. I simply believe that cinema is an art form, and how you can use it to communicate with audiences. I want to tell my stories, that is more important.

As a filmmaker also, I am evolving. The craft and artistry is evolving. But when people love your work and support you, from within it gives you peace that helps you do more.

You talked about not knowing the rules of filmmaking, but wasn't that what made Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing what they are?

I think so, yeah. I was mostly going with the flow of my characters, the mood of the scene. Somehow it was coming through. I sometimes feel like there is a gift inside me. I am blessed. It also surprises me sometimes. When I saw Village Rockstars for the first time, in Toronto, I felt, 'Oh, I am the one that made this film?'

If you really get involved with your characters and the story, the magic starts to happen. If you have watched Bulbul Can Sing, some of my favourite scenes are not designed.

In the last scene of the film, with the rainbow, it just happened. I had only planned that they will go to a riverbank. But I just saw a rainbow, and it was very windy. The weather was changing, and I was shooting and writing dialogues at the same time. At the time, it was the magic that inspired me.

You cannot plan a rainbow. It was not VFX. Even I was not aware. Now, I stay in Mumbai and you hardly see a rainbow [here]. That day a rainbow was waiting for me. It was the colour of the sky, and a connection with the universe, I suppose. It just happened. You need to observe things very carefully. You have to separate yourself. My real struggle is finding the right end to finish the film on a high. That was my challenge. I did not want a conventional ending.

A similar thing happened with Village Rockstars. I just took the mother and daughter to the river. Out of nowhere, the kids jumped into the river. That made me create the whole thing. I was like 'Oh, this is the point. This is where I can end the film!'

You have to have a real connection with nature and your story.

Would a conventional training or understanding of filmmaking have changed or affected this?

Yes, I think so. Then I would have thought about something... fear. Since I was not aware, I had the solitude and the liberty to do whatever I thought of. I was not following any rules. Although, before I started, I watched a lot of films by masters and contemporaries alike. When you are there making your own film, you forget, somehow, everything.

If I came from a film school, maybe I would have been more careful and more aware. When I discuss with my friends, who are from film school, they often say, 'You shot this scene like this. I would not have thought of it that way.' Knowingly or unknowingly, I did things the way I felt [they should be].

You recently shot for a short film for a BRICS anthology with Jia Zhangke, among others. How did that come about?

It was, you can say, my first paid job. You feel good that now people are approaching you. Time was a limitation, and also it was challenging. I had done my first film with a small crew. With Village Rockstars and Bulbul... I did not have a crew. Somehow, I had the fear of working with a crew. Afterwards, I shot these two films with a small camera setup. This short film, we shot with Alexa, lots of lights and a proper crew. When I got the project, I was a little apprehensive. But it was good, now I am confident of handling myself with a crew.

When you started making your first film, you wanted to be an actress. Do you still nurture that dream?

I don't know. Honestly, if you consider me a filmmaker, you keep thinking of stories. As an actor, I will have to give more time to myself. You dedicate more time to yourself. But as a filmmaker, your world is very different. But let's see. Acting is my first love. In the near future, I would love to act, but that is just 10 or 15%. Creating something gives me more satisfaction now.

Yes, but directors like Tigmanshu Dhulia, Anurag Kashyap, even Martin Scorsese have turned to acting. So it is a possibility. Maybe in your own films?

True, it is possible. You see, I have lived in Mumbai for a decade now. Coming from Assam, not knowing the language, I kind of had a phobia. Sometimes, in your subconscious mind, it remains. I have to break that. If I get time for myself and probably work with a like-minded filmmaker, then maybe yes. But I cannot go and just act like that. That phobia is still there. I need some time to break that. 

I suffered internally because it was such a different world in which I ended up. 

We talked about audience perceptions changing, but there is still a demarcation of industries. A certain film will be tagged 'art' film or a certain actor will be tagged so. There is also the perception that an actor in Hindi cinema should look a certain way, act a certain way. Do you see that changing?

I see that changing, but I cannot say it is changing a lot. Some people will not allow to break this divide. It is an industry, and is a commercial prospect. They will not allow it to easily break. Till the time we don't have a studio backup.

Independent films suffer from low marketing and promotion. An SRK [Shah Rukh Khan] or Akshay Kumar film already have a huge following. These [indie] films will not reach huge audiences. But they can reach a certain audience. That can only be done through visibility.

Some producers take that responsibility. Otherwise, we have to restrict ourselves to these OTT platforms, or somehow find a way to release our films.

The past few years have seen a fascinating blend of stories and narrative styles coming from directors in the Northeast. The region has its own flavour, a treasure of stories. Is that one of your sources for new ideas?

Yes, because it is relatively unexplored. We have so much variety in terms of culture, languages, beautiful tribes. So we have a lot of stories. Now, Nagaland has its own film festival. Even Shillong [in Meghalaya], Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur had film festivals. In Assam too, after Village Rockstars, after years people came and we did well in cinema halls!

Also, if you look at the Northeast, we are not investing more in cinema. It is low-budget films. But I can see a drive to tell stories. Lots of filmmakers from Assam want to tell stories. It is beautiful.

Is there a reason why there is a lack of drive to invest money?

We have very few theatres and very few screenings take place. Only Guwahati and three or four other cities have theatres. We don't have multiplexes.

Still, there is one film, Ratnakar, a commercial film which did Rs8 crore at the box office. There is also a bit of complicated politics. It has slowed down over the years, but there is a lot happening.

The region is also very large. There are some practical issues as well. But people are supportive. We are culturally inclined and love to talk about films and literature. In the last two or three years, there are some huge changes happening. People love to talk about it. That's interesting.

We certainly hope for more of that. Thank you for speaking with us.

Thank you!

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