A still from the film ‘Invisible Demons.’
A brace of Indian films — Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Once Upon a Time in Calcutta and Rahul Jain’s documentary Invisible Demons — have brought the Indian megacities of Kolkata and Delhi ‘alive’ at the ongoing 5th El Gouna Film Festival.
The two entries have emerged from extremely personal experiential spaces. They communicate their ideas in unique ways. Yet, they convey realities that encompass all the people who live within the metropolitan boundaries of the two cities.
While Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, Sengupta’s third film, is in El Gouna’s feature narrative Competition, Jain’s 70-minute documentary is vying for the festival’s inaugural El Gouna Green Star Award for films that addresses environmental concerns.
Sengupta, a former music channel creative director working out of Mumbai, burst on the scene in 2014 with the delectable Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labour of Love), a dialogue-less film about a young Kolkata couple in a time of an economic downturn working hours that prevent them from ever meeting each other in the course of a day. It made the Venice Days cut and went on to win India’s National Award for the Best Debut Film.
Sengupta has since cemented his reputation as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary India cinema. His second film, Jonaki (2018), an Indo-French co-production, was a visually stunning cinematic experiment that probed the memories of his grandmother as she lay in a coma. Like Asha Jaoar Majhe, Jonaki drove home an aspect of Calcutta and its past.
The plot-driven Once Upon a Time in Calcutta is Sengupta’s most accessible film. The St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta and National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad alumnus says: “It is about the city, all right, but I wanted to explore Kolkata through the people, which is why I had to get into characterization and dialogue.”
“Kolkata is what I know best,” says Sengupta, “but it is not necessarily something I would like to work on forever. The city is most definitely my most comfortable zone — the texts, the subtexts, the layers of the place come naturally to me.”
He adds: “I’ve after all been absorbing this city for so many years. I feel that same for Mumbai, a city whose pulse and rhythms I can feel. But Kolkata is home, the places, the people, the smells, everything is me, everything is in me.”
The characters in Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, says Sengupta, are from the same external world but they have very different internal worlds within them. “I wanted to explore the city through the inner worlds of these people instead of getting into the lanes, the architecture, the physicalities of it…” he says.
The central characters in Once Upon a Time in Calcutta are a one-time actress struggling to move on with life after the death of a young daughter and her half-brother, owner of a moribund theatre and a man trapped in a time-warp. Both represent the city.
Invisible Demons delves into the choke-hold that air and water pollution has on the Indian capital city of Delhi. It is a hard-hitting, immersive cinematic essay that examines the severely negative impact of rapid, indiscriminate urban expansion on vulnerable segments of the population.
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year before making it way to this Red Sea resort town in Egypt.
“It is high time that films about the realities of climate change are given a platform,” says Jain, who grew up in Delhi and acquired an MA degree in Aesthetics and Politics from the California Institute of the Arts.
In Cannes, too, Invisible Demons was in a selection of films about climate change. Jain, however, does not see himself as an environmental filmmaker. “I do not like being labelled,” he says.
“I see myself as a young filmmaker who is reacting to the world around me.”
Although set in Delhi, where Jain grew up, and piecing together stories of a few ordinary inhabitants of a sprawling city of 30 million people, Invisible Demons articulates alarming universal truths about what the world is coming to.
The film germinated many years ago. On his way to school as a six-year-old boy, the future filmmaker would pass the river Yamuna. “Is this a nadi (river) or a nullah, I would ask,” he recalls. Pollution in Delhi, he says, isn’t just a winter phenomenon. “In the heat wave, too, my brain shuts down,” he says.
“After Machines (Jain’s Sundance award-winning documentary), I seemed to have run out of inspiration. I felt worthless. I wondered if anything I was going to make would be of any use at all. I took a break and went to Bhutan. And when I returned to Delhi, I collapsed, strangled by the pollution,” the filmmaker recalls. That triggered Invisible Demons.
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