Review Bengali

Once Upon A Time In Calcutta review: A tale that transforms the mundane into the magical

Release Date: 07 Sep 2021

Cinestaan Rating

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Roushni Sarkar

Directed by Aditya Vikram Sengupta, the film is deeply layered yet does not feel heavy when one views it.

Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Once Upon A Time In Calcutta transforms a mundane portrait of Kolkata into a magical one. The city, often described by critics as dying, begins to breathe out all its stories of defeat and loss. Sengupta builds up a contrast with his seamless storytelling, which depicts the city as striving for advancement as the people in it are driven into a web of disillusionment.

The film begins with the visual of a funeral pyre. Grief-stricken at losing their daughter, Ela (Sreelekha Mitra) and Shishir (Satrajit Sarkar) return home. While Shishir goes back to his beloved pet, an Alsatian dog, and makes some porridge, Ela shuts herself up and drowns her sorrow in a peg of alcohol. Thus, within a few minutes, the director establishes the couple’s discordant equation. The film is replete with such poignant moments.

However, Ela is not one to wallow in sorrow. Host of an astrology show on television, she wants to leave her husband’s house and move on to a brighter future. When she fails to gather sufficient documents for a home loan, she tries to get her share from her inheritance — an old movie theatre that had seen glorious days once and is now guarded by her stepbrother Bubu (Bratya Basu). The brooding loner clings to the space, which doesn’t function any more, like a ghost, refusing to sell the bearer of the city’s glamorous history.

Ela continues on her path towards a brighter future in a city where chit-fund scammers prey on easy targets to make a quick buck for petty pleasures while opportunists in the garb of sobriety resort to harmless lies for a few unalloyed moments of romance.

Besides them, every frame of the film and each object placed within those frames speaks for the city. The dialogues are so refreshing and familiar yet so rare to find in contemporary Bengali films. The way Sengupta has blended the historical legacy of cabaret, decaying theatres and the unapologetic exploitation of Rabindranath Tagore and his creations with the construction of freeways that become obstacles for old city structures is penetrating.

The film is political and also philosophical and deals with the conflict between progression and stagnation. Yet, with so many elements and layers injected into the narrative, it does not feel heavy even for a moment.

The performances by Sreelekha Mitra, Arindam Ghosh, who plays her fling Bhaskar-da, and Shayak Roy, who has essayed the character of Raja, a naïve young individual chasing money, are so effortless that it is difficult to dissect the process through which they have breathed life into their characters. Even Anirban Chakrabarti as Pradipto, the owner of a chit-fund company, and Satrajit Sarkar as Shishir are a treat for the viewer.

Gokhan Tiryaki’s cinematography makes the familiar look exotic. Every frame from the film is a known space for a viewer who has lived in Kolkata, yet it feels so surreal that you can't take your eyes off.

Not only has Sengupta masterfully connected the threads of the narratives of each character with an unexpected end in his flawless screenplay, but he has also edited the film at a synchronized pace which allows the viewer to go through a range of emotions of shock, sorrow, joy and emptiness.

Minco Eggersman’s background score is only felt in the profound moments, which cannot be expressed through mere spoken words.

The film, which has already earned critical acclaim worldwide, is a breath of fresh air in contemporary Bengali cinema. The originality of the story and the team effort behind making this human saga of a metropolis with a population of 15 million within a runtime of two hours make this film a must-watch.

Once Upon A Time In Calcutta is being screened at the 20th Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.


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