It’s been quite a year for musical dramas, with “A Star Is Born” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” currently making noise at the box office, thanks to their melodramatic storylines and catchy soundtracks. You’d therefore be forgiven for expecting more of the same from a film with the name “Village Rockstars.” But this Oscar submission from India is a much more muted affair. Far from the dazzling lights of the concert stage, director Rima Das crafts a simple story of a young girl with a dream.
That young girl is 10-year-old Dhunu (played by Bhanita Das), who lives in a rural village in Assam, India with her mother (Basanti Das) and older brother. As subsistence farmers, her family makes a living off the land, growing crops like betel nuts. One day, while selling those nuts, Dhunu comes across a band performing with a guitar. Instantly falling in love with the instrument, she vows to own one herself and form her own band with her predominantly male friends. Her society scorns her tomboyish ways, however, and her family’s low financial status proves to be a challenge. But Dhunu hopes to manifest her dream through sheer force of will, even if the odds are stacked heavily against her.
In the Hollywood version of “Village Rockstars,” you could easily imagine a Cinderella story where Dhunu gets a chance opportunity which leads her on the road to fame and fortune. But Das eschews the fantasy for social realism, employing a documentary-like approach that favors ethnographic observation over plot-driven storytelling. Indeed, most of the scenes involve either the innocent frolicking of its child ensemble or wide shots of the land around them.
Admittedly, these images are wonderfully shot and Das’ warm direction conveys a palpable affection for these people. But the thin plot keeps the audience at a distance. The protagonist’s central ambition is hardly explored, as very few scenes involve any actual music. Furthermore, the feminist aspects of the narrative feel run-of-the-mill, especially in comparison to similarly themed films like “Wadjda.” And neither Bhanita Das nor Basanti Das are strong enough actors to adequately convey the emotions of either of their characters’ inner and external conflicts relating to going against the grain.
Eventually, “Village Rockstars” does find its storytelling mojo through some interesting plot developments surrounding Dhunu’s womanhood and India’s notorious monsoon season. But it’s not enough to make up for the ponderous route taken to get there. Like the daydreaming Dhunu herself, I simply wanted more.