In an incandescent moment in Indian moviemaker Rima Das’ third feature Bulbul Can Sing, the titular character, an Assamese teenage girl, is guided onto the bough of a tree by her pimply budding poet of a boyfriend. In this moment, Bulbul breathes the excitement of being courted by someone who she thinks is free to express himself—the first boy to write her a love poem. His words are song to her ears.
Just as Bulbul grows to understand her individuality within society in the wake of the film’s tragic events, so did Das find her directorial voice by drawing from the struggles of her years as an outsider in Mumbai—the megametropolis and moviemaking hub where she’s made her name. Das hails from Chhaygaon, a northeastern Indian town that’s both the native village of Bulbul Can Sing’s protagonist and the setting of her 2017 film Village Rockstars, India’s entry for the 2019 Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film consideration. Though she and the locals had access to one television in the village, “The power always cut out,” she says. “It was always dark, so I mostly remember the oil lamps and the stars.” Her journey from Chhaygaon to Mumbai provided the spiritual balance she needed to be able to return to her roots in her work—to re-grasp the essence of an adolescence spent fishing and swimming, and ultimately, to see beyond its ordinariness.
At the same time, Das was being opened up to the realistic, naturalistic aesthetic of what she calls “world cinema”—arthouse indies and festival darlings. That’s when her shift in identity from actor to moviemaker commenced: Even as the Mumbai-based industry rejected her face as not “Indian” enough, her demeanor as not confident enough, and her facility with Hindi and English as too off-mark, she became mesmerized by such classics as Children of Heaven, Pather Panchali, Cinema Paradiso, and the films of Majid Majidi and Terrence Malick. She concluded that even without going the film school or assistant director route, she could make movies.
“It is only because I am in Mumbai that I am making movies,” Das says. “In Mumbai, I became very independent. I understood the complications of life.” As her worldview matured soon after she moved to the city, Das says that she began to see more value in the everyday symbols of the natural world she depicts in her films. “When I was a child, trees were just there… It was a very ordinary for me to see trees. In Mumbai, I could see my village with some perspective, and I found it much more beautiful and exciting.”
Das had to work through culture shock when immersed in the heady materialism and “fakeness” of Mumbai, she explains, in order to form the perspective from which her renewed appreciation of “home” could emerge. Gradually, a calm settled over her, amidst the garrulous double-talk of the metropolis. “I was living with nothing,” she muses, sans bitterness. “Nothing can also bring you happiness. In emptiness, there are things, too.” Among such “things” were the embers of Das’ inner storyteller; her films’ fixation on her return to innocence; her bravura choice to be a one-woman film crew (assisted only by her cousin, who did location sound for Bulbul Can Sing); her intuition for casting non-professional actors; and her patient guidance of her protagonists toward their respective lyrical destinations.
Das’ films have now toured several festivals. Her notoriety is new and organic, and her demeanor in Q&As thoroughly disarming, even hesitant and deflective. Surrounded suddenly by well-wishers not too different from the overzealous village elder characters of Bulbul Can Sing, she now hears warnings about the complacency that often comes with success. But she affirms with the tenderest confidence that she is beyond that danger: “Making Village Rockstars was a journey on which I felt the connection to my cast and crew more than just as a moviemaker—as one human being to other human beings,” she explains. “I’ve been in Bollywood, and I’ve seen how glamour and fame in Bollywood can destroy everything. It’s not that I don’t want fame, a comfortable life, or money. But to be connected is to know real happiness. In the village, I saw that people can be happy. Success can’t get to my head now.”
The rural-urban dichotomy is but one manifestation of Das’ gift for transcending time and place in order to tell stories that resonate with audiences on a global scale. “Movies are universal,” she says. “When I first started watching films at festivals, I realized that whether they’re from China, Russia, wherever, they are for the whole world. Language should not be a barrier. From the beginning, I never thought that making an Assamese film meant that my audience would be Assamese only. When I started making films, ‘Think local and act global’ was always in my mind.”
Das is a world moviemaker because she works through the noise she encounters—be it festival applause or the loud discriminations of hegemonic media industries—and then lends narrative and cinematic earthiness to her heroes and landscapes. Though some have described Bulbul Can Sing as a coming-of-age film, she says she is interested only in “mystery… I don’t like films where I understand everything. I enjoy people’s interpretations.” Would it offend her if people had the exact opposite perspective of her film than what she had intended? “Sometimes,” she admits. “But I’m learning more and more to detach myself from those things. Fortunately, for now, the reviews are good.” MM
Bulbul Can Sing screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, and is currently touring the international festival circuit. Village Rockstars was India’s official entry to the 91st Academy Awards. Featured image: Talk of the Town: Das’ Roots in the Indian Village of Chhaygoan have driven the growing global discussion of her unique work. Photograph by Ayush Das. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue.