Regional cinema: Unesco glory for Dostojee, North American awards for Once Upon a Time in Calcutta

Jeete khub-i bhalo laagchhe, eta amar bachchader jonno Eid er gift (We are overjoyed with the win; this win is Eid’s gift for the child protagonists of my film)… now we are looking for theatrical distribution partners in India,” says Prasun Chatterjee, whose debut feature Dostojee (Two Friends), set in an early-’90s remote, resplendent rural Bengal along the border, is a tender tale of childhood innocence, a friendship unmarred by the pulls of religious antagonism. It won the prestigious CIFEJ Prize, recognised and accredited by UNESCO, and picked up the Best Director award in the International Competition section of the 2022 SIFFCY (Smile International Film Festival for Children and Youth).

The CIFEJ Prize, first created in 1981, is given to the director of the best film participating in competition at international children’s film festivals. SIFFCY is one such festival. With this year’s award, Dostojee becomes the fifth Indian film to have received this award in the last two decades. The others include Jayaraj Rajasekharan Nair’s Malayalam film Ottaal (The Trap, 2015) in 2016, Nila Madhab Panda’s Hindi film I Am Kalam (2011) in 2012, Avinash Arun’s Marathi film Killa (2014) in 2014, Vinod Ganatra’s Gujarati film Harun-Arun (2009) in 2010.

The film, which premiered at BFI London last year, has picked up an award at the Jaffna International Cinema Festival, and its young protagonist Arif Sheikh, who essays the role of Safikul, won the Best Young Actor award at Greece’s Olympia International Film Festival for Children and Young People. Chatterjee’s film is a doffing of the hat to Iranian cinema, as we see a world unfold through the eyes of children, who are non-actors. They are locals of the border village where the film is set. No precocious little know-it-alls, no wieldy dialogues, but an innocence that was, perhaps, last seen in Bengali cinema in the films of Satyajit Ray.

Dostojee (Two Friends) is directed by Prasun Chatterjee.

If Dostojee presents a slice of life set in Bengal’s rural past — while its undertone of political resonances makes it a relevant watch in the present — then Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s breathing organism of a film Once Upon a Time in Calcutta (OUATIC), which premiered at the Orizzonti section of Venice International Film Festival last year, tells a story of urban Bengal, where the old and the new jostle for space, of a city in transition as its inhabitants either clutch onto their past or cross the line to an unknown future. Neither — past nor future; the modern city nor its inhabitants — presents a rosy picture.

OUATIC has won the Grand Jury Award for Best Feature Film at the just-concluded Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA). It has also won the Circle Award at Filmfest DC, at the Washington, DC International Film Festival, where it was the only Indian film in competition. Previously, it had won the NETPAC Special Mention at the El Gouna Film Festival.

The Circle Award jury felt that with his film, “Aditya gave the film world an artful masterpiece that offers diverse, yet intimate, portraits of the rich, poor and disreputable residents of Calcutta, with the city itself playing a role that is both silent and robust. Through superb cinematography (by Turkish cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki; Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, 2011) and lighting, the viewers get a vivid sense of the oppressiveness of life for the city’s underclass, as well as issues that are specific and universal.”

Speaking about his first win at IFFLA, where his earlier films (Asha Jaoar Majhe and Jonaki) were official selections, Sengupta says, “This means a lot to me and my entire team. It reassures our faith in what we believe in, what we create, and, most importantly, how we create.” “I haven’t been able to travel to any of the North American festivals yet. But hopefully, with our next film, that will definitely happen,” he adds.

Indian regional cinema has been bullish in recent times, and Bengali cinema may not match up to the Malayalam, Tamil, Marathi, or Kannada output, in terms of quality, but, slow and steady, from the fringes, it is reclaiming its lost space and legacy, so what the recognition comes from baire (the world) before it does at ghare (home), Ray, too, began his journey like that.

once upon a time in calcutta stills Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Once Upon a Time in Calcutta premiered at the Orizzonti section of Venice International Film Festival last year.

Both Dostojee and OUATIC, which will hopefully release theatrically this year, however, weren’t part of the just-concluded, state-backed Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF). Though neither filmmaker submitted his film to KIFF, which was postponed from January owing to the pandemic. Chatterjee seeking a physical premiere took Dostojee to the International Film Festival of Kerala and International Film Festival of Thrissur, while OUATIC was sent to MAMI Mumbai Film Festival after not hearing from KIFF. “We wanted to submit to KIFF’s international section and had reached out to figure if we were eligible. They said they’ll let us know. After that, there was no communication. We followed up but didn’t hear back. It was strange because KIFF had, in the past, invited our last two films (Asha Jaoar Majhe and Jonaki) on their own. We wanted to have the film’s Indian premiere in Kolkata, and so the entire team was super sad about not being able to show a film about Kolkata at KIFF,” says Priyankar Patra, post-producer of OUATIC.

There can be many conjectures. Maybe, the programmers thought it was not the right kind of film to represent the city at the festival or maybe because the female lead Sreelekha Mitra has been a vocal critic of the Bengali mainstream film industry and its “celebration of mediocrity”, which has kept many projects from dropping in her kitty. “I can’t thank Aditya enough for giving me the opportunity of being Ela. It is the role of a lifetime… our film Once Upon a Time…wasn’t given any place at KIFF, while it should have been the opening film at KIFF. It’s a loss for cine lovers,” says Mitra.

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