There are many remarkable things in Aditya Vikram Sengupta's Once Upon A Time in Calcutta, which begins with the death of the protagonist's four year old daughter. One of them is how, instead of crushing her, the event sets the middle-aged and independent minded Ela (Sreelekha Mitra, in one of those roles that makes you wonder which came first: the character, or the actor?) on the path of liberation. With the only reason to be with her husband gone, she wants to start afresh. The first step in that direction is moving out and finding a place for herself. She is denied a home loan because of a lack of security (both her and her husband's income are off the books). Her own job is not nearly enough and her step-brother (Bratya Basu, both paranoid and haunted) refuses to sell off the property from which she could get the money. Ela's woes are deeply financial—and it won't be inaccurate to say, the central crisis of the film.
In another film, this would have been a personal journey narrative, disconnected from the larger forces at play. Sengupta's film locates her in a specific time and place, connected to the events and spaces that have shaped Kolkata in the past few years. The Saradha chit fund scam, the multiple flyover collapses. The property in question is Sarkarina, an old theatre house in North Calcutta, where it's shot on location. Ela, we learn, was born from a wedlock between the owner of the theatre and its star cabaret dancer. The film's fiction is fused into the many realities of the city.
The film has rightly been described as a chronicling of a post-communist era city. This is a new Kolkata—one that our cinema has failed to reflect…The title makes sense for multiple reasons, and one of them is the refusal to let go of the past. There's no escaping Tagore, for instance.
Sengupta has said of his film, that premiered at the Orizzonti competition at the Venice international film festival, as having sparked off from an image: a dinosaur sculpture that has been a city landmark, which was taken off in 2017 because it came in the way of a flyover construction. He finds more such aspects of the city and looks for an interconnectedness—a tapestry of loose, abstract ideas and flawed, human characters. Like the giant lizard at Science City, that didn't survive for more than two decades, the old city gives way to the new, shedding its skin like its only natural. Old structures, however rotten, persist; the new ones fall apart—despite desperate attempts at beautification by the state government.
The film has rightly been described as a chronicling of a post-communist era city. This is a new Kolkata—one that our cinema has failed to reflect. Once Upon A Time in Calcutta tries to articulate the complicated feelings for this new city of blue and white. The title makes sense for multiple reasons, and one of them is the refusal to let go of the past. There's no escaping Tagore, for instance. Sengupta's film touches a satirical note when, instead of the tiring use of Rabindrasangeet, as in film after Bengali film, it incorporates into the soundtrack a remix of "Aloker Ei Jhorna Dharay" playing in the streets.
Once Upon a Time in Calcutta is both Sengupta's most ambitious and conventional film. It shows the director in a somewhat new light. The romance between Ela and her ex-lover who comes back in her life has a simplicity. Sometimes it's surprisingly droll. When they bump into each other in a shopping mall, they are both on escalators—she is going up, he is going down. Partly out of reflex, and partly unable to contain his excitement, he begins to climb up the descending stairs.
Where Asha Jawar Majhe was wordless and Jonaki had a deliberate artifice, here Sengupta also has a better go at handling actors the way we are used to seeing in narrative cinema. And he seems to posses a natural talent for it, imbuing even the smallest characters with something unique to hold our attention. For the first couple of minutes, I was fooled by how he makes Anirban Chakraborty—an actor whose most recognisable physical feature is that he is bald—almost unrecognisable with a simple trick: by giving him a wig. It puts him in character (the shady, lecherous owner of the group of companies behind the scam, who has his eyes on Ela and gives her a proposal), while Sengupta also has fun with it. Later in the film, when the character is advised to go into hiding, the first thing he does is take off the wig, which is its own kind of visual pleasure.
This is a film rich in images, shots and visual ideas. Cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, who brings his experience of working with Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan in films such as Once Upon A time in Anatolia, looks at Kolkata with new eyes. With smooth, gliding camera movements, he gives the familiar a hypnotic quality (although I wish the scenes of protests were a little less aestheticised). The stunning final shot is where Sengupta and Tiryaki bring it all together. It uses the unique stage design of the Sarkarina, the only "revolving arena theatre" in Asia, where a circular platform goes up and down when pulled by a lever–a relic from the last glory days of the city's commercial theatre scene and a space for showmanship. It's one of those great final flourishes, and it feels a bit like magic.