Indian filmmaker returns to Venice Film Festival with a powerful look at the realities of modern Calcutta

Indian filmmaker Aditya Vikram Sengupta was back in Venice for the lagoon city’s 78th annual film festival with his third feature Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, which was screened in the “Orizzoni” (Horizons) competition section. His first directorial venture was the Bengali film Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labour of Love) which premiered at the 11th Venice Days at the main festival in September 2014.

New Europe spoke to Sengupta about his film and characters fighting for regular life in a city, Calcutta, that is constantly changing The story revolves around a character, Ela, who after experiencing the loss of her daughter, loses both her identity as a mother as well as the only reason to be with her husband. When she is refused a loan by the bank, her boss, the owner of a massive Ponzi scheme, makes her an offer she struggles to accept. Ela reconnects with her stepbrother to reclaim her half of an old family theater, but he refuses, blaming Ela for his own dark fate. In between all this, Ela’s childhood sweetheart resurfaces and provides her with the warmth and hope for a new beginning. Just as Ela starts living the life she had dreamed of for herself, she realizes that she isn’t the only scavenger in a city that is brimming with hunger and despair.

New Europe (NE): How did you get the idea for this film and what was the genesis of the story? 

Aditya Vikram Sengupta (AVS): The construction of the longest flyover in Calcutta had started… the scale was something that we had never seen before. One day I saw that the half-built flyover had reached the size of an iconic dinosaur statue in Calcutta, right outside a science park. That image was very significant for me. It was like a prehistoric thing. The dinosaur statue, which can no longer belong to anything, and then the flyover was there. I’m sure one day the flyover will become something that doesn’t belong. It’s about how things become insignificant and redundant. You break it down and then the next thing comes along. The whole idea was very moving for me. That image was more philosophical.

NE: How did you direct the actors? What type of directorial style do you have?  

AVS: The casting process took about two years.  We looked at various theatre groups across West Bengal and created a pool of actors. The majority of the actors are theater actors and we did extensive workshops with them, often also asking them for notes about their character. Sreelekha Mitra, who plays Ela, was the first to be cast. A lot of what you see of the character is actually her. They’ve had similar struggles, so I allowed her to channel that. Doing extensive workshops on pre-production didn’t mean that we didn’t improvize on set. We improvised a lot on set and I gave them the freedom to explore as long as they stayed true to the character they’re portraying. The film is about the people in the city. So it had to be a collaborative effort. 

NE: Can you talk to me about the nostalgia element in the film? 

AVS: The story is inspired by true events – people and images of the city. The Once Upon in the story comments on how everything we live in, at present, will also soon be a part of history. It will all be a distant memory and then slowly pre-historic. So I looked at the city and the people in the film through that lens. 

NE: How would you define the challenges that the characters in the film are having to going through? 

AVS: The film is about people wanting to leave the nostalgic past behind to transition to a more modern part of the city. So everyone’s challenge in the film is different, based on their social class. However, it’s also a generational challenge – leaving the glorious years of the previous generations behind to adapt to a more globalized present. It also captures a time when the city was transitioning politically, after 34 years of Communist rule, so the hunger for people to grow into something almost larger than life was there. That’s an important part of the film. 

NE: You were in competition at Venice Orizzonti, what do you think an Indian movie needs in order to compete at the international level? 

AVS: There’s no fixed ingredient, really. Indian filmmakers need to give a film time to develop and evolve into the final product. A lot of people often rush to finish a film, for a variety of reasons. And sometimes because of that, you miss out on the finer details that truly make your film more approachable and relatable on an international level.

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