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Once Upon a Time in Calcutta Review: Indian Filmmakers’ Venice Outing Wonders of Midway

One Upon a Time in Calcutta

Director: Aditya Vikram Sengupta

Cast: Sreelekha Mitra, Satrajit Sarkar, Shayak Roy, Arindam Ghosh, Bratya Basu, Anirban Chakraborty

After Once Upon a Time in Mumbai and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we now have Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, helmed by Aditya Vikram Sengupta as his third feature. His first, Labor of Love, Without Dialogues, premiered at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, even winning the Fedora Award for Best Debut Work. His second, Jonaki (coincidentally his wife’s name is also that), played in Rotterdam, his latest outing once again at the Venice Lido as part of the Orizonti competition.

Sengupta, who is also the author, tries to present a city after the rise of 32 years of communist rule in West Bengal (whose capital is Calcutta, now renamed Kolkata). The piece is nostalgic in both its tone and expressions, and the richness of colors gives the city an almost ethereal glow. Although not surprisingly, for the photography has been done by Gokhan Tiryaki, who has worked with the famous Turkish author, Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, for example. The images are fascinating and certainly bring back memories of the city I grew up in, and whose downfall I witnessed with great sadness.

Interestingly, Sengupta’s outing also begins on a sad note, with middle-aged Ila (Sreelekha Mitra) and her husband, Shishir (Satrajit Sarkar) performing the last rites of their very young daughter. Death feels like the end of her relationship with him, and she encounters one obstacle after another in an attempt to find her feet. His attempts to secure a bank loan to buy a flat fail, and his half-brother, Bubu (Bratya Basu), who hates him, refuses to sell his defunct theater (which has set up a revolving stage). Glorious days with movies come), a part possibly going to him, he is in a dilemma. But the chance to meet her ex-boyfriend, Bhaskar (Arindam Ghosh) at a shopping mall turns out to be a game changer for her. And she also hopes that Raja (Shayak Roy), who works for Boobu, will convince her to get rid of the theatre.

Once Upon a Time in Calcutta has a compelling plot, but strays from it with a lot of issues. A chit-fund scam, flyover collapse, corruption, jumbled love and what-not-the-story shakes the pace. And the unimaginative editing robs it of a certain crispness characteristic that could have been achieved otherwise. It is also very long. Halfway through, we lose sight of the basic premise, and Sengupta’s effort is admirable, even ambitious, but somewhere he lets the reins slip.

(Gautam Bhaskaran is a film critic and writer)

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