When Aditya Vikram Sengupta's new film Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, premieres at the Venice film festival on September 7, it will be the fourth year in a row for an Indian movie in the official selection of the world's oldest film festival. Sengupta's homage to his home city follows Chaitanya Tamhane's The Disciple, which won the festival's Best Screenplay award last year.
The 78th Venice film festival will be held during September 1-11, 2021.
Indian cinema's streak of success in Venice goes back to the beginning of the new millennium when Mira Nair won the Golden Lion, the top prize in Venice, for Monsoon Wedding in 2001. The only previous Indian winner of the Golden Lion was Satyajit Ray for Aparajito in 1957. Monsoon Wedding was immediately followed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Nizhalkuthu in 2002, Goutam Ghose's Abar Aranye (2003) and Mani Rathnam's Yuva in 2004.
In the past decade alone, there have been as many as 10 Indian films in Venice official selection, including Anhe Ghore Da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse) by Gurvinder Singh in 2011, Tamhane's debut film Court (2014), and Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) by Shubhashish Bhutiani in the Biennale College Cinema section in 2016.
There have been a few Indian entries in the Venice sidebars too in the past decade. Sengupta himself participated in 2014 with his debut feature, Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labour of Love) in Venice Days parallel programme while Rahil Anil Bare's Tumbbad was included in Venice Critics Week in 2018. The much-acclaimed animated feature Bombay Rose by Gitanjali Rao opened Venice Critics Week in 2019.
The current run of official selection entries started in 2018 when Ivan Ayr's Soni, was screened in the Horizons section of the festival. Soni was followed by Malayalam director Sanal Sasidharan's Chola in 2019. Ayr returned to Venice last year with his sophomore feature Milestone in the Horizons section while Tamhane's The Disciple premiered in the competition section, ending a 19-year wait for an Indian film vying for the Golden Lion. Last year, New York-based Indian filmmaker Sushma Khadepaun's short film Anita shot in Gujarat was part of the Venice official selection.
"It is like homecoming," says Sengupta about returning to Venice with Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, seven years after screening his debut feature, Asha Jaoar Majhe, in the Venice Days parallel section. "Venice is the festival that discovered me and helped me discover myself. It is a festival that validated the kind of work that I wanted to do," he adds.
The same year - 2014 - Venice Days also had famous filmmakers like South Korean director Kim Ki-duk (One on One) and French director Laurent Cantet (Return to Ithaca). Kim Ki-duk won the Fedeora Best Film prize and Sengupta returned home with the Best Director of a Debut Film award.
Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, like Asha Jaoar Majhe, is about the human conditions in an urban space. "It is a story about moving on, about people who can't move on while fluctuating between the past and present. Every city has such people," says Sengupta, whose previous feature, Jonaki, about an 81-year-old woman's journey through memories, was part of the competition section at the Rotterdam festival three years ago.
Sengupta's new feature is also a work inspired by true events. "Everything you see in the film is about things I have experienced myself. Every single character I have seen, lived and interacted with. It is about human conditions I have grown up seeing," adds the Kolkata-based director. "There is a lot of talking, constant banter. All these things together weave the fabric of the film."
Sengupta considers the middle of a pandemic as an important time in the world to record the anxieties and contrasts in the co-existence of an archaic part of a city. The film centres on Ela, an employee at a Ponzi scheme, who is grieving the loss of her daughter while piecing her life together. Shot in early 2019 in Kolkata, the film was in post-production when the coronavirus pandemic hit the country. After a break, the film was completed this year in time for the festival circuit.
Turkish cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, known for his work with Palme d-Or-winning director Nuri Bilge Ceylan in Wintersleep, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Three Monkeys, is the director of photography for Once Upon a Time in Calcutta.
"I have always wanted to work with him. I was looking for the right project to collaborate with him (Tiryaki)," says Sengupta. "He loves the characters in the film. His Turkish team had a little bit of trouble adjusting to Kolkata because they were stepping out of Europe for the first time. It is like someone taking me and putting me in Alaska for 40 days. They were intimidated by the crowd, constant traffic and honking. But they adjusted to the city soon and after a week, we were all having fun together."
The music is by Dutch composer Minco Eggersman (Behind the Blood). "I always found this process of collaborating constantly with new professionals very enriching," says Sengupta, an alumnus of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. "I won't remember the moment I received an award. But I will always remember the 40 days working with people and the joy of creating something."
Sengupta, who won the Best Debut National Award for Asha Jaoar Majhe, will be looking for a repeat of his award-winning participation in Venice seven years ago. The Venice festival will continue as a physical edition this year after staging a similar format last year.
"It was quite a spiritual experience to screen my film at Venice last year," says Sushma Khadepaun, whose short film Anita was part of the official selection last year. "Watching the film in the theatre with some of my cast and crew members was a blessing - a little celebration of the hard work we had put in the film. But at the same time, of course, it was impossible to dismiss the fact that there was so much loss and suffering in the world due to the pandemic," adds Khadepaun.
"Venice supports bold art house cinema," says Sanal Sasidharan, whose 2019 film Chola was part of the Horizons section of the festival, the first Malayalam film to be selected to the festival after Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Nizhalkuthu in 2002. "It was a good audience. Some 850 people coming to watch your film is a huge experience. The Venice audience is proactive towards artistic films," adds Sasidharan, who won the Rotterdam festival's top prize for Sexy Durga in 2017.
India at Venice (2001-21)
Monsoon Wedding (2001)
Abar Aranye (2003)
Delhi-6, Dev.D, Gulaal, Aadmi ki Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniya (2009)
Anhe Ghore Da Daan, Sonchidi (both 2011)
Mukti Bhawan (2016)
The Disciple, Milestone, Anita (2020)
Once Upon a Time in Calcutta (2021)
India at Venice Sidebars
Asha Jaoar Majhe (2014)
Bombay Rose (2019)