The earliest image in Once Upon a Time in Calcutta is of fire. Out of the ashes emerge, appropriately enough, an elegy about one of India’s most storied cities.

In Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s third feature after Asha Jaoar Majhe and Jonaki, Kolkata is both a graveyard of desires and the birthplace of new and sometimes unmanageable desires. The Bengali-language film follows Ela, a small-time actor, and the people in her lives. The cast includes Sreelekha Mitra, Bratya Basu, Satrajit Sarkar, Arindam Ghosh, Reetika Nondine Shimu, Anirban Chakrabarti and Shayak Roy.

After the death of her only daughter, Ela resolves to leave her husband Shishir and move out of their residence in an old building in South Kolkata. Ela’s journey is guided by the reappearance of an old flame and a tempting offer from the head of a building project in a satellite city on the outskirts of the megapolis.

The movie also explores Ela’s relationship with her mother, a famed cabaret dancer, and her step-brother Bubu, who owns a theatre for stage productions in the heart of the city and is refusing to sell it to a real estate developer.

Among the themes is the tension between the comfort of habit and the seductions of untested experiences, the rising influence of speculative capital and questionable get-rich-quick schemes, and the transactional nature of modern relationships. Stasis and rupture co-exists in the city of Sengupta’s imagination.

Rabindranath Tagore is a talismanic presence in a movie filled with restless souls and the ghosts of an oppressive past. “All papers are fake these days,” a character observes – a truth that Ela is eventually forced to embrace.

Once Upon a Time in Calcutta has been selected for the competitive Orizzonti section at the Venice International Film Festival. Sengupta is no stranger to Venice: his debut feature Labour of Love won the Feodora Award at the festival’s Venice Days event in 2014. The 37-year-old director’s second feature Jonaki was premiered at International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2018.

The new movie has been shot by Turkish cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, whose collaborations with renowned director Nuri Bilge Ceylan include Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Like in Sengupta’s previous features, Once Upon a Time in Calcutta contains striking tableaux, mood lighting and expressionist locations imbued with meaning and stories of their own. Tiryaki’s gliding camera movements and overall deliberate shooting style showcase a city simultaneously declining and transforming.

In an interview, Sengupta walked us through his poignant and haunting tribute to the city with which he says he has a “complex love-hate relationship”.

The city in your film appears to be growing outwards but hollowing out too.
The core of the city isn’t made of physical spaces but of people. That’s what I wanted to explore – the city and its various layers though the people. This is something I have been feeling for the past few years – the core of the city is kind of emptying out slowly. A lot of it has to do with globalisation and a booming information technology industry. There doesn’t appear to be a sense of great discovery, and getting to know people nowadays requires great emotional investment.

For me, the film was about getting into the minds of the people. They inhabit worlds of their own with their own baggage and aspirations.

Once Upon a Time in Calcutta (2021). Courtesy For Films/Catherine Dussart Productions/Duofilm AS/Wishberry Films.

‘Once Upon a Time in Calcutta’ was previously titled ‘Memories and My Mother’, right?
Yes, that was previously the working title. The story and script were in a more magic realist space and had to do more with the fact that all the characters were motherless, and their mothers appeared to them as spirit. It started evolving and became more realistic. Of course, the city changed too, as did I.

An earlier title was Aquarium, about looking at these different kinds of fish but from the outside. I liked the title a lot, but no one else did.

How has your relationship with the city of your birth changed, specially since you divide your time between Kolkata and Mumbai?
I lived full-time in Bombay between 2008 and 2011 and then again for a few years. I continue to work out of Bombay, it’s like my workshop. I feel most at home in Bombay, the people are warm and there is a sense camaraderie but the space gets to me.

I moved back to Calcutta because I get more space to work here. I have my music and painting studio here. There are many things to crib about, such as the attitudes of people, the slowness of getting things done, the fact of being stuck in certain ideas. But there are also certain strange comforts – the familiarity of the afternoons the evenings, the sounds of bells, the smells of bedsheets that have come out of old wooden cupboards. It’s a complex love-hate relationship.

Once Upon a Time in Calcutta (2021). Courtesy For Films/Catherine Dussart Productions/Duofilm AS/Wishberry Films.

Tell us about the faces and places in your film.
Everything you see in the film is based on real people or experiences. For instance, the dinosaur that is demolished to make way for a flyover in the film – there was one such dinosaur that was built whe made in 1995 when the Science City [tourist attraction] came up. A flyover was built here later. When the half-made flyover approaching from one end and reached the dinosaur, it looked like the starting point of a race. I had clicked a photo at the time. It had a deeper meaning for me, and in fact, is the starting point for this film. Characters like the dinosaur cannot exit in this new eco-system.

I always like looking for real locations and existing places. Then I get together with Jonaki Bhattacharya [production and costume designer] and get the right colours and textures. There is no pre-decided colour palette. This is a contemporary film about the beauty as well as vast and stark differences in all these places – the clashing colours and un-coordination, in a sense.

Bubu’s theatre is the Sarkarina theatre in Hatibagan, which was started by Amar Ghosh. When the theatre started declining, cabaret was introduced here. it’s where people like Miss Shefali performed. She appeared in a few Satyajit Ray films, including Pratidwandi and Seemabaddha. Ela is supposed to be her daughter in my film.

Once Upon a Time in Calcutta (2021).

Why did you pick Gokhan Tiryaki as the cinematographer?
I have always wanted to work with him. His films with Nuri Bilge Ceylan are very character-driven, and I am a very visual person. The film is a mixture of both. I thought it would be interesting for him to have his mind on the film. Besides, I love collaborating with and working with people.

We shot the film between January and March in 2019. I like to work with a light crew, I like it to be peaceful and meditative.

When we would go the sets, Gokhan and I would first sit around and talk about the scenes. We would get the actors on the sets and then make them do their scenes over and over again. We would just watch them, and not film them. Gokhan would move round them like a planet to get the right point of view. Once we fixed the angle, we would only then take the shot.

Why made you cast film and television Sreelekha Mitra in the lead role?
The casting process went on for two years. But when writing Ela’s character, Sreelekha was the only one who I felt could play this role. Her own life and struggles have been similar to Ela’s.

When we were shooting the film, she was trying to move to a new apartment at the end of the city. She has always felt that the Bengali film industry never gave her the love and respect she deserved. She has an interesting physicality, and brings greyness to the way she behaves with the other characters.

Aditya Vikram Sengupta. Photo by Trilokjit.

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In Bengali film ‘Jonaki’, a dream world merges with the waking state