Reel Life: Letter from home

Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s ‘Once Upon A Time In Calcutta’, that premieres at the Venice Film Festival, is a compelling snapshot of a city with an abiding past, a chaotic present and tenuous future

Reel Life: Letter from home

Namrata Joshi

Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Once Upon A Time In Calcutta is a splendorous snapshot of a grand city in decline. Yet it also emphasizes the sense of perpetuity that drives and propels contemporary Kolkata—politically, economically, and intellectually; architecturally, artistically, and culturally.

The portrait of a city that is crumbling but being built anew on a precarious foundation. The city with an abiding past, a chaotic present and a tenuous future.

A similar synchronicity of disintegration and endurance underlines the individuals and their relationships. Like a couple finding the marriage at crossroads despite a shared loss and grief. They may live under the same roof but find themselves torn apart by the walls into their own separate cubby-holes. Passing of the keys is the only communication left between them, even as they struggle hard, and in desperate, dangerous ways, to move on and start afresh.

As Sengupta himself puts it, it is as much about exploring the physical aspect of the city—the spaces, monuments, architecture— as it is about the people and their mindsets. The fabric of the place is knit with the humans that live in it.

Reel Life: Letter from home

The story of marital rot is linked through a series of other interconnected characters to the tales of economic, moral, and spiritual degeneration. Daily wagers robbed of their money and dreams by chit fund scams with innocent collection agents unwittingly co-opted in this chain of exploitation, even as they are themselves taken advantage of.

TV channels peddling faith, setting destiny right with the aid of mere gemstones. Corrupt, rapacious builders trying to turn beautiful remnants of the city’s past glory into monstrous malls. And an eccentric misfit holding on to the legacy of a forgotten culture—a theatre— even as he breaches the trust of those who have been eternally loyal to him.

As in his debut film Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labour of Love) and the second feature Jonaki, Sengupta continues dive deep into the city he was born and grew up in. A space that makes him feel free in expressing himself, the way he wants to. A comfort zone that could also exasperate him. It’s this ambiguity and the mix of feelings that get evoked on screen as well.

According to Sengupta, just like Kolkata, every city and person in the world, is in a constant state of flux—some parts are dying, others held on to; some of it is about not being able to move on, just as it is also about letting go; it’s as much about the old city centres as the expansion into new towns.

Most of the incidents on screen are derived from real events and are set in spaces which Sengupta has been to and experienced first-hand. The theatre, for instance, is a place he had been to for years. Owned by Amar Ghosh, who is reimagined on screen as Bubu (played brilliantly by actor, director, playwright and TMC politician Bratya Basu), it fell on bad days with the coming in of cinema and was later used for cabaret performances. Similarly, the chit fund scam harks back to the Ponzi scheme of the Saradha Group that was exposed in 2013.

After a silent Labour of Love and Jonaki that spoke very little, Once Upon A Time In Calcutta is Sengupta’s most wordy film. Yet it also stands out for his characteristic visual flair, the way he plays with the sights and sounds of Kolkata in a hyper real manner— the flyovers and dinosaur statues, mosquito infestation and the fog that is sprayed to drive them away.

The dinosaur statue outside the Science Centre was, in fact, the image that led to the inception of the film and gave it a larger thematic framework—how something relevant can become irrelevant in time. Bubu is a human manifestation of that. As Sengupta puts it, he is an “extinct character”. “He can’t survive in the current eco-system. He has to go.”

Reel Life: Letter from home

What’s distinct is the way the filmmaker plays with the spatial element, especially how stairs and elevators and a moveable stage in a decrepit theatre—with people going up and down—have their own metaphoric resonance. As does the telling persistence of some banal objects, like a conked-out refrigerator.

All of it is topped by using Rabindranath Tagore’s verses, both in the original and the remixed versions. Sengupta feels that Tagore and Satyajit Ray are the most “used, overused and abused” and the city is overburdened with this appropriation. Just as it would be, perhaps, with the obsession with statues and flyovers.

A lot of the film’s strength derives from Jonaki Bhattacharya’s production design as it does from the cinematography. Interestingly, for a city-specific film that it is, Once Upon A Time In Kolkata has been shot by a Turkish DoP (director of photography), Gokhan Tiryaki, known to have wielded the camera for the iconic filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Someone who specialises in shooting character-driven cinema, Sengupta admires Tiryaki for understanding the soul of the film, often adding with his vision and perception as an outsider to Sengupta’s own imagination and evocation of his hometown.

He calls him a “director’s DoP” with whom the shoot became a completely collaborative process. There were days when they took an entire day to shoot one scene and others when 8-10 were shot in a single day. Some scenes went through 40-50 retakes. Whatever feels improvised or impromptu was actually meticulously workshopped, detailed and performed.

But the aspect of filmmaking that Sengupta enjoys the most is editing. “It’s a place where you rediscover the film, can go on and on working on it,” he says. Once Upon A Time In Calcutta had a particularly “broad fabric”. The first cut turned out to be 3 hour 10 minutes long, the final one is 131 minutes.

Like his debut, Labour of Love, Once Upon A Time In Calcutta—Sengupta’s third directorial venture—also opens at the Venice Film Festival. It premieres on September 7 and competes in the Orizzonti segment.

“It’s a festival that discovered me, validated my work and expression,” says Sengupta. It marked his first trip out of the country as well. This year, however, he may not be able to travel due to the Covid-19 protocols. However, to find a place under the Venice sun, with another film about his own hometown, still feels like homecoming to him, a gratifying one at that

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Published: 05 Sep 2021, 10:30 AM