Aditya Vikram Sengupta burst onto the scene in 2014 with Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labour of Love), a wordless film about the daily rhythms of a young, married middle-class couple in a crumbling Kolkata who don't get to meet, save for a brief time of the day, due to different work shifts. His next film, Jonaki, from 2018, is harder to describe. But let's say it resembles dreams and it was based on his grandmother's memories. Sengupta's new film, Once Upon A Time In Calcutta, has a synopsis in its press release that runs longer than this paragraph: "After the loss of her daughter, Ela not only loses her identity as a mother, but also the only reason to be with her husband…" it goes, touching on things like a Ponzi scheme, a property dispute, and an ex-lover. But more than anything, it's about Kolkata, or Calcutta, as the title suggests.
The big news is that Sengupta's film is in competition at the Orizzonti section of the 78th Venice International Film Festival, a major category from one of the "Big 3" in the festival world (the other two being Cannes and Berlin). It's a rare, occasional event in Indian cinema, but even more so for Bengali films, examples of which in the last two decades have been few and far between — Q's Gandu (2011) and Garbage (2018) played at the Panorama section of Berlin, and the late Buddhadeb Dasgupta won the Silver Lion at Venice for Uttara (2000).
Ahead of his film's premiere on September 7, Sengupta spoke over the phone about Once Upon A Time In Calcutta, working with Gökhan Tiryaki, the cinematographer of the celebrated Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and his mixed feelings about Kolkata.
The Science City dinosaur has been one of the landmarks of the city since 1994. Then suddenly it had to be removed after a fire accident in 2017. You've spoken of it in reference to Once Upon A Time In Calcutta. Was that image the starting point of the film?
Yeah, when you are taking that flyover from Tyangra (a neighborhood in Kolkata), there's a point from where you see the dinosaur. I had clicked a picture and it looked like the starting point of a race or something. But the image was actually very deep. It was more philosophical than I thought because initially I just took that picture without thinking. But then it makes you think about relevance, irrelevance, and how something becomes prehistoric and needs to be taken off. The germ of the film started from there. It went through multiple drafts.
Dinosaur also means archaic. Did you see in it a metaphor for the city?
A part of the city, of course. But another part is absolutely not archaic and really, really hungry. A lot of people want to hold on to this archaicness, whether it's physical or in the mind — people who are not okay with change. And there are people who constantly want to change and people who are shuffling between the two: it's a mixture of everything.
What are your personal feelings for the city? Love, hate, nostalgia?
See, it's like any other relationship with a person, like your parents. It's always a wide range of emotions. You can't be with parents, but at the same time they give you a sense of comfort. But beyond a point it's impossible to stay in your own house. Isn't it? You will get irritated etc. It works exactly the same way with cities, where you find comfort in, say, there is a shondhe (evening puja) happening in someone's house, and you like the sound of it because you have grown up with it. But you're extremely irritated with the psyche of the people staying in that house. So it's like a mixture of a lot of things. It's very complex, and it's a very layered fabric. The film is entirely about my relationship with the city and how I have absorbed things around me.
How would you say is it different from Asha Jaoar Majhe and Jonaki?
Asha Jaoar Majhe was more about the memories of my childhood, my times at home. It was more metaphysical in that sense. This is more worldly, human, physical, more tangible and tactile, with real things happening. It's more contemporary as well.
Jonaki was deeply personal and it was very, for the lack of a better word, self-indulgent, like how any art form is. This isn't that. This is a film for everyone, and by everyone I mean everyone.
You mean this is your most accessible film.
It's completely accessible. Anyone and everyone will understand this film and will find themselves in it because it has characters who are like them. It's also like reading a novel in a strange way. There are a lot of dialogues. It's layered with a lot of history, pain, but there is the indomitable spirit to find a secure corner. It's like how Calcutta is.
So this is a lot more conventional, narrative-based film than your other two films.
Completely. Conventional three-act structure.
The title calls to mind many other similarly titled films. But more than any other film Ceylan's Once Upon A Time In Anatolia — for obvious reasons, because you got his cinematographer, Gökhan Tiryaki, to shoot the film. How was the experience?
It was extremely good. We translated the script into Turkish and sent it to him. After that, we gave him a narration at the DI club in Kolkata while having beer. They were a really solid team.
Why did you want him? What did he bring to the film?
So initially Fred Kelemen, who has shot films for Bela Tarr, like The Turin Horse, was supposed to do it. The next person I got in touch with… I got in touch with them a long time ago, you know. And these were through cold emails and stuff. They were not even through people.
This is something I've been doing since childhood. I have been just randomly connecting with people. I have written to Warner Bros, whatever email addresses I have got. I once wrote to Jackie Shroff and he called back the next day and said, 'This is Jackie' and I didn't know what to say. But I have a habit of doing this.
Anyway, next, I was supposed to shoot with this DOP, Benoît Delhomme. He is French and he has shot films like The Theory of Everything and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. And then I was also exploring a couple of Indian DOPs and those didn't work out either. Gokhan was a friend of mine — again, through a random connection which I only made. And then I told him and he said, 'Okay' and he came and we shot. He brings in a lot in terms of perfection of the craft. He is a director's DOP.
I didn't think of anyone else apart from Sreelekha (Mitra) for this role, because this role is Sreelekha. If you watch the film you will know. When I met her I told her, 'Listen, who else but you. I am not going to audition anyone else.
You've made interesting casting choices in the past. Asha Jaoar Majhe had Ritwick Chakraborty and Basabdatta Chatterjee, who is a TV actress. You cast yesteryear Bengali actress Lolita Chatterjee, and Jim Sarbh, in Jonaki. In Once Upon A Time In Calcutta, you have Sreelekha Mitra and Bratya Basu, two actors firmly rooted in the Bengali film industry. Why did you think of them?
I didn't think of anyone else apart from Sreelekha for this role, because this role is Sreelekha. If you watch the film you will know. When I met her I told her, 'Listen, who else but you. I am not going to audition anyone else. I am going to just work with you for 6-7 months till you become that character. If it doesn't work out after that that's different'. But she's absolutely brilliant and so is every other actor in the film. They have been commented on by programmers who have seen it and the few people in America who we shared the film with. They have said, 'We have never seen performances like this. It doesn't seem like they are acting.'
Film festivals are very important for a filmmaker like you. You have old ties with Venice — like Chaitanya Tamhane, whose Court won Orizzonti. Is there a way you have to orient yourself to crack it? Is there a certain kind of cinema language that they have a preference for?
Every festival has a different kind of tonality. If a film gets selected at Venice or Locarno, they don't necessarily get selected in Cannes, and vice versa. These things are not in our control. What is in our control is to love and dedicatedly do something. The rest will just fall in place. We need to orient ourselves with whatever comes our way.
How do you plan to release the film in India? OTT?
OTT of course, but we really want a good theatrical release.