Far from being a new director or a new film, Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s third feature Once Upon a Time in Calcutta speaks to a director fully versed in the grammar of the cinematic and language of storytelling. Sengupta’s prior works, unseen by this writer, appear to speak to a director acutely aware of the distancing effects implicit to the work of capital across the face of newly developing land- and city-scapes, of which the film at hand appears to be little different in its focus or interest. Similarly, Calcutta takes the perspective of Ela (Sreelekha Mitra), a disaffected and bereaved wife and mother, as she pursues independence, only to indiscriminately encounter the obstacles of endemic corruption, interpersonal misogyny, and possibly fated consequence to immoral action. Yet, to present the movie as such would not be the whole, as the film is as much the ownership of a cast of characters for whom the city of Calcutta exists as their own, including the gig-economic Raja (Shayak Ro) and Pinky (Rikita Nandini Shimu), through which a morass of precarious and multi-level market scheming labor interrupt sincere attempts at love and connection.
Located in a setting in which disbelieved “old ways” of marketized astrology and fated symbology lack purchase against a new way of usurious and normalized economic speculativism that hollows relations, Calcutta tracks an ever-increasing sense of emptiness at the heart of development that selectively applies to certain classes and echelons of society. Commensurately, the film applies distinctive visual languages to certain settings and characters, such as those deserving of derision: for example, take Pradipto (Anirban Chakrabarti), an MLM schemer, whom Ela futilely utilizes to achieve her dreams of independence; or else those imbued with distinct levels of attentiveness and awareness, namely Pinky, Raja, and Shishar (Satrajit Sarkar), for whom the reality of their situation and presence within society’s economic reality is all too real. Calcutta, in this way, is a film all about failed escape, and as such, it’s appropriate that figures such as Gökhan Tiryaki, the cinematographer for Nuri Bilge Ceylan, were involved. The results, while perhaps inspired by the character of such Turkish cinema, suggest a film that pays a greater attentiveness to conditions “on the ground
” in Calcutta as it lives and breathes, or maybe even gasps for breath. While by no means a masterpiece or rewriting of all that has come before, Once Upon a Time in Calcutta exhibits the dramatic potential of a director who refuses to ignore what is oft left forgotten in what is considered “the stages of development.”
Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2022: Dispatch 4.