360° Me: Rima Das

A woman with some hair blown over her face.

From Assam to the Academy Awards, the self-taught, much-acclaimed film-maker and member gives Soho House a peek into the bigger picture of her journey

As told to Praachi Raniwala    Above image: Rima Das (Ayush Das)     Thursday 27 August 2020    Long read

‘Lingering shots of flowing rivers, lush green fields, sunshine glazing through the skies, village homes and the people who live in the scenic countryside of Assam – I try to recreate life on screen as I see and imagine. 

‘The people there are easy-going, and have this rustic sense of humour, zest for life and freedom that draws me instantly to them. They have a simple life, simple desires. There’s a sense of community – caring and sharing. After living for many years in Mumbai, I realised what I was missing when I went back home to Assam. 

‘As a little girl, I would stroll through the village on my way back from school, playing in the rivers, climbing trees, plucking fruits from bushes, and return home with my dress soiled and buttons broken. The fear of the scolding at home didn’t stop the curiosity of that innocent mind.

‘Growing up in Chaygaon in the north-east Indian state of Assam, I always thought films were to be watched, not made. Becoming a film-maker was never remotely on my radar. But I dreamed of being an actor. I come from an academically oriented family and had almost become a professor, but I chose to pursue acting. 

‘My dream took me to Mumbai where things were more challenging than I imagined. A tough life was waiting for me. I developed fear and self-doubt, which destroyed my confidence. 
Two children playing blow up guitars in a field.
Village Rockstars (2017)
‘Around the same time, I got acquainted with world cinema. I could relate to the storytelling and was fascinated by the power of the visuals. I was amazed at how without the frills and extravagance we associate with films, it could still touch people. I have always liked to observe people and the life around me. I felt like I had so many stories to tell.

‘The initial idea was to act and direct simultaneously, which I did for my first feature film Man With The Binoculars: Antardrishti. But the outcome suffered as a result – it was apparent that film-making, not acting, gave my life meaning and purpose, so I chose to focus on that alone.

‘In 2011, I came across the Canon 5D Mark II DSLR. It was small, but in it I could see a world of possibilities and so I bought it. I made my first short film, Pratha. The film got selected for a few film festivals, and that gave me confidence.

‘While shooting my first feature film in my village, I saw this group of children who were playing fake musical instruments with so much enthusiasm. Despite having nothing, they were celebrating life. Living in the village, I also rediscovered my lost bond with nature. 

‘That episode changed my perspective towards life. It was a time of introspection and self-realisation. I learned to find joy in small things, unlearned things I held so dearly.
A girl wearing a wide brimmed straw hat with the sun on her face.
‘I wanted to feel that story, breathe it and live it. I spent time with the children, villagers, nature, hearing the sounds, looking at the sky. Mostly, I was shooting in real conditions in real time with real people.

‘Being self-taught, I was still unaware of many technical aspects of film-making. I never thought I could make a film all by myself. But I needed the liberty of time and space to translate my creative vision. So I donned the various hats of director, writer, producer, art director, cinematographer and editor for this project. It was just about the pure pursuit of my dream and my love for cinema.

‘Despite the challenges, the drive to tell this story motivated us to push the envelope. Seeing the belief the children had in me, I was inspired to go on for three and a half years. I had the constant support of my cousin, Mallika, who assisted me in all the aspects of film-making. I found the process to be deeply meditative. I was discovering parts of myself I never knew existed. I was reconnecting to my roots. 

‘I’d say it was with Village Rockstars that my journey really started, even though I already had a feature to my credit by then. The camera became my unwavering companion. It was only because I took a monetary risk to buy the camera that I had the courage to make Village Rockstars, and thereafter Bulbul Can Sing autonomously. 

‘Village Rockstars had a dream run, premiering at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival and winning three awards each at the Mumbai International Film Festival and National Film Awards. It was also chosen as India’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards. Bulbul Can Sing premiered at Toronto International Film Festival as well and made it into the Generation category at the Berlin International Film Festival. I was invited to return as a jury member the following year. 
Three children playing with each other.

Bulbul Can Sing (2018)

Two girls and a boy laughing while walking through muddy water.
‘The awards and accolades will always be special to me. But I am very happy that the films managed to break stereotypes and find a place in the hearts of audiences both at home and globally. It feels great to know that my journey brought a change in mindsets – young creatives realised that you could make movies even with limited resources. It’s not just my success story, but that of many other dreamers like me.

‘I did not think this would happen so early in my career. The thing is, you are often told that your dreams are too big. Growing up, you are exposed to this idea that girls are expected to be a certain way. Doubt and fear kill more talent than we’ll ever know.

‘Over the years, there have been times when I have been unable to express myself adequately. Cinema gave me a canvas where I can go back in time and rectify the past, interpret the present and imagine the future. It gives me the freedom to create my own world. Which is why, through my films, I like to delve into the psychological conflicts of the human mind that manifest both internally and externally. It’s always an exploratory journey I take with my characters. 

‘I like to go with the flow, and the story is meant to evolve continuously, not unlike life. Yes, I do go into a scene with some degree of planning and expectations, but I always seek that magic. I have experienced that when I follow my intuition, the universe intervenes to create something beautiful. 

‘The world often imposes rules on us about how things are to be done. We fear of the consequences when we face challenges. But everyone has their own journey, a different story to tell. It’s only when you overcome your fears and realise your true potential that you can break free. And when you are free, magic happens.’
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