Directed by: Aditya Vikram Sengupta
Written by: Aditya Vikram Sengupta
Cast: Sreelekha Mitra, Bratya Basu, Satrajit Sarkar, Arindam Ghosh, Anirban Chakrabarti, Shayak Roy
Cinematography: Gökhan Tiryaki
Edited by: Aditya Vikram Sengupta
Aditya Vikram Sengupta is one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Indian cinema. His debut film Asha Jaoar Majhe was an exquisitely visualised, melancholic meditation on the bond between a husband and wife. The film, which had no dialogue, won the National Award for best debut film and premiered at Venice Days, a sidebar to the Venice International Film Festival. His second film Jonaki premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. With his third film, Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, Aditya is back in Venice. It is the only Indian film playing at the festival this year.
The title suggests a fairy tale. It also recalls other similarly titled films such as Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Ceylan's cinematographer, Gökhan Tiryaki has also shot this film, which was inspired by true events. The lives and incidents that Aditya depicts are desperately sad but what makes Once Upon a Time in Calcutta memorable are the hints of magic he sprinkles here. The city is crumbling – literally. And yet, these men and women find flashes of joy, compassion and something like redemption. Aditya, who has written the film, even bungs in comedy. At one point, two bald men chat in serious tones about onion juice regenerating hair growth. And mosquitoes add a bit of fun.
Like his first film, this one too is propelled by a strong female character. Ela is a wife, mother and working woman. But her marriage is in shambles – her husband Shishir and she have retreated into the polite postures of roommates who share a space but not a life. Her four-year-old daughter has succumbed to her illness and Ela is hoping to start anew. Ela's mother was a cabaret dancer. She was in a relationship with the owner of a theatre, which is now dilapidated and almost completely abandoned – these scenes were shot on location at the old Sarkarina Theatre in North Calcutta. The property is controlled by her reclusive stepbrother who refuses to move out or sell the site to developers. Meanwhile Ela struggles with grief, alcohol, the many men in her life, a financial crisis and her desire to find a sliver of happiness.
Ela is played by Bengali actor Sreelekha Mitra who is absolutely brilliant. Like Swastika Mukherjee in Paatal Lok or Shefali Shah in Dil Dhadakne Do, Sreelekha suggests the allure and ache of a woman who has endured. Ela might drown her sorrows in Old Monk rum but she isn't one for self-pity. She soldiers on with what she has, including her fading beauty. We see Ela wearing face masks. Even when her life is in shambles, her nails are manicured. But this doesn't come off as vain. It feels more like self-preservation. Like the city she lives in, Ela is both scavenger and survivor.
Sreelekha plays Ela without a trace of vanity. Her circumstances might be pathetic but she certainly isn't. Instead, Aditya and Gokhan imbue her life with poetry. There is a desolate scene in which Ela decides to do what she must to get the life that she wants. She dresses up and steps out for a rendezvous with her shady boss who has been insistently flirting with her. She looks glorious in red. A little before that, we see Ela tenderly handling a red costume that her mother wore, suggesting that both women were forced to make compromises. As Ela steps out, a man with a mosquito fog machine sprays the narrow lane. The scene echoes visuals from Bollywood fantasies in which glamour is made mysterious by mist. This is the saddest version of that.
In another scene, another female character is lying down with her hair spilling over the side of the bed. Smoke is perfuming her hair, which echoes Chandramukhi in a similar pose in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas. Except here the smoke is from a mosquito coil placed on the floor. Like a miniature painter, Aditya crams each frame with details. A herd of cows walks in front of a newly built high-rise building underlining the schizophrenia of Calcutta as a city – one that is simultaneously rural and urban, old and new, decaying and renewing. Which is perhaps why the name in the film's title is Calcutta and not Kolkata. An oversized dinosaur statue plays a key role as do busts of Rabindranath Tagore. The Nobel Laureate's shadow hangs over the story – pay keen attention to the soundtrack, which includes a remix of a Tagore song, alluding to how, like the city, even its most iconic inhabitant has been given a makeover suited to this post-communist era time.
Aditya is a master of mood and visuals. Once Upon a Time in Calcutta has a lovely, lyrical quality to it. And the casting – Bratya Basu, Satrajit Sarkar, Arindam Ghosh, Anirban Chakrabarti and debutant Shayak Roy – is bang on.
This is a film bookended by death but what stayed with me was Ela's determination to live. The glorious last shot suggests that even in a fairy tale as heartbreaking as this, perhaps there is a happily ever after.