‘Once Upon a Time in Calcutta’: A Melancholy Tribute to a Disappearing City

Once Upon a Time in Calcutta Movie Review - 2022 Aditya Vikram Sengupta Film

Two major festival films from India in the past two years have focused on the ways in which a family dynamic, traditionally centered on a common cultural history, comes to fracture in the face of modern technology. Ajitpal Singh’s Fire in the Mountains considers the ways that WiFi, tourism and urban infrastructure have slowly crept into the rural mountain villages of Himachal Pradesh and burdened those who make their livelihoods on that land. Similarly, Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Once Upon a Time in Calcutta speaks to West Bengal’s eroding cultural and artistic history in the face of modernization, due to greed and a capitalist attitude of advancement at all costs.

Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, titled rather ironically because it focuses on a present that is actively erasing its past, follows a woman named Ela (Sreelekha Mitra) who wants to live an independent life away from her husband. She can’t put the house up for sale and get a new loan because of bank stipulations, so she tries to convince her half-brother, Bubu (Bratya Basu), to sell his residence; an old theater where their mother used to perform in cabaret shows. Bubu is enamored by the theater, a relic of Kolkata’s rich artistic history (the city was renamed Kolkata in 2001 to diverge from its anglicized name of Calcutta). People laugh at Bubu, but he’s a true romantic — perhaps a little foolishly so. In the 1999 film Bye By Africa,  Mahamat-Saleh Haroun pays tribute to such a theater with a panning shot of chairs, dusty and broken, piled atop each other. The director’s friend asks, “Do you believe cinema can exist here?” Haround responds, “Yes, that is why I make film.”

Sengupta films Once Upon a Time in Calcutta’s theater in shadows. The chairs are dusted and worn, but they’re in tact — a sign of hope. Sengupta films them in the dark, with small rays of light shining through the three doorways that connect to the center stage. The camera considers this empty vessel of ghosts being scavenged. Long shots show Ela and various scheming businessmen running around looking for Bubu, like hyenas trying to find a carcass. That is what the old Kolkata is in Sengupta’s film — a pile of bones being picked on by scavengers for the last scraps of meat. 

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Once Upon a Time in Calcutta Movie Review - 2022 Aditya Vikram Sengupta Film

There is an eerie quietness to Sengupta’s direction that matches the mise-en-scène for Asha Jaoar Majhe, his 2014 feature debut in which labor and alienation of modernization is also a theme, displayed through the microcosm of a moment in time when a husband and wife are able to leave their jobs to be with each other. The quietness is also more deliberate in Asha Jaoar Majhe, capitalizing on the essence of an innocent, wordless and knowing love. In Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, the quietness comes from haunted spaces. A demolition site is filmed like silent performance art — lights glowing in the background, the silhouette of Kolkata’s famous T-Rex statue being toppled down for a new overpass. Construction workers move like dancers while pulling ropes and acting out their rituals. 

As Ela, Mitra captures the essence of a woman suppressing her own morals. In conversation, the character never quite looks directly at the men she speaks to (they’re all crooks after all). She can’t look her half-brother in the face; she can’t look at her husband who she no longer wants anything to do with. In the modern world, Ela tries to escape the traditional enclosures of the family home to be an independent woman. Everywhere, however, she realizes that there are snakes in the grass. In the modern world, people can’t just be left by themselves. Alone, you are prey.

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Once Upon a Time in Calcutta Movie Review - 2022 Aditya Vikram Sengupta Film

Astrologists and mystics use the computer to predict their clients’ futures. Multi-level marketing schemes come to prey on the lower/middle class neighborhoods as a get-rich-quick scheme but traps them into situations where they are constantly under debt. An apartment gets reclaimed by the bank because it was constructed with black money. The overpass starts to show cracks, a potential hazard for those travelling underneath it because of shoddy infrastructure. Yet the theater remains standing in Once Upon a Time in Calcutta. Yes, it’s empty. Yes, history is buried inside of it, caked in dust. But the theater has not crumbled. 

Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.