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Thursday, October 14, 2021

Facetime: Aditya Vikram Sengupta Talks Venice Horizons Selection ‘Once Upon a Time in Calcutta’

Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s debut feature, “Labour of Love,” bowed at Venice Days in 2014 where it won the Fedeora Award for best director of a debut film, en route to winning several international awards and at home in India. He’s back on the Lido with “Once Upon a Time in Calcutta,” his third feature, which screens in the Horizons strand.

“Labour of Love,” a lyrical look at a relationship, was set in Sengupta’s native city, Kolkata, the Eastern Indian metropolis formerly known as Calcutta, which is crumbling on the one hand and rapidly modernizing on the other. Both the city and memories feature prominently in India-Norway-France collaboration “Once Upon a Time in Calcutta,” where three lives collide against contrasting backdrops of simultaneous urban decay and growth. The film is shot by Gökhan Tiryaki, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s regular DP.

Sengupta’s next film, “Birthmark,” about two women who become part of a catastrophic plan hatched by a patriarchal family, is at the Venice gap financing market looking for U.S. and U.K. partners.

What was the genesis of “Once Upon a Time in Calcutta”?

There is a Science Park in Calcutta called Science City and right next to that used to be this 23-foot dinosaur statue. And then the biggest flyover [highway overpass] in the city started being built, it was a huge project. The flyover slowly started approaching the dinosaur. And there came a point when both of them were together, and it was almost like the starting point of a race. I clicked a picture of that, and that image just meant a lot more to me as I kept looking at it. It talks about what becomes irrelevant, it talks about progress, it talks about what cannot survive anymore. And this not just exists in physical forms in any city or in the world, because, there’s always the old things are broken down, new things come — but this also exists in humans, and in mindsets.

You said, “used to be.” What happened to the dinosaur?

They broke it down. There were lots of other iconic statues that have been broken down. And that’s the way it is. Calcutta is obsessed with statues and they keep putting up statues everywhere. And they are obsessed and overburdened with [Oscar-winning filmmaker] Satyajit Ray and [Nobel-winning writer and poet] Rabindranath Tagore. As if, for the next 300 years, we don’t need to do anything, write any poetry or sing any song, we can make do with what they have.

Your storytelling is very international. How did that evolve?

Since childhood, I had never seen myself or imagined myself as a local citizen, ever. And I never understood why there are borders. And why countries are there? I should be able to go anywhere I want, why do I need a passport and things like that. I’ve always seen myself as someone who belongs to this world. And if I have to look up to someone, I’ll look up to the best one in the world. Which is why I got into the habit of writing to people also, since I got my hands on email. So I would write to Warner Bros., Universal Pictures, everyone. And every month I would keep writing. And later, a lot of people did start responding. And that’s how Gökhan [Tiryaki] responded.

Does being back in Venice feel like a homecoming for you?

Absolutely. And Venice is a festival that, in a way, discovered me, and in a deeper way, made me discover myself and validated my work and spoke about my work. The people and the programmers in Venice have been really supportive and kind. So it’s definitely extremely emotional and special to be back in Venice with this film. It’s a complex film, it’s not a simple film for the West to just easily understand. It’s very layered, it’s very nuanced. It’s soaked in Indian, and especially Calcutta idiosyncrasies. And trust Venice is to understand all of it and program it.

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