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One Upon A Time in Calcutta

Director: Aditya Vikram Sengupta

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

After Once Upon A Time in Mumbai and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, we now have Once Upon A Time in Calcutta, helmed as his third feature by Aditya Vikram Sengupta. His first, Labour of Love, sans dialogues premiered at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, even clinching the Fedora Award for the Best Debut work. His second, Jonaki (incidentally his wife’s name is that as well), played at Rotterdam, his latest outing is once again at the Venice Lido as part of Orizzonti Competition.

Sengupta, who is also the writer, tries to present a city after it’s emergence post the 32-year Communist rule in West Bengal (whose capital is Calcutta, now renamed Kolkata). The piece is nostalgic both in its tone and tenor, and the richness of the colours gives an almost ethereal glow to the city. Not surprisingly though, for the photography is by Gokhan Tiryaki, who has worked with the celebrated Turkish auteur, Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, for instance. The images are fascinating and certainly brought back memories of the city where I grew up, and whose decline I watched with a lot of sadness.

Interestingly, Sengupta’s outing also begins on a sorrowful note with middle-aged Ela (Sreelekha Mitra) and her husband, Sishir (Satrajit Sarkar), cremating their very young daughter. The death feels like the end of her relationship with him, and she faces one obstacle after another trying to find her feet. Her efforts to secure a bank loan to buy a flat comes to nought, and with her step-brother, Bubu (Bratya Basu), who just hates her, refusing to sell his defunct theatre (which had seen glorious days with a revolving stage till movies came on), with a share possibly going to her, she is in a dilemma. But a chance meeting with her former lover, Bhaskar (Arindam Ghosh), in a shopping mall looks like a game changer for her. And she even hopes that Raja (Shayak Roy), who works for Bubu, would convince him to get rid of the theatre.

Once Upon A Time in Calcutta has a compelling plotline, but wanders away from it by taking on too many issues. A chit-fund scam, flyover collapses, corruption, jilted love and what not crowd the narrative making the pacing jerky. And unimaginative editing robs the feature of a certain crispness which could have been otherwise achieved. It also is far too long. Half way through, we lose sight of the core premise, and Sengupta’s effort is laudable, even ambitious, but somewhere he lets the reins slip.

(Gautaman Bhaskaran is movie critic and author)

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