‘You cannot fake Calcutta, it is the belly of the beast and you can’t recreate that.’
A film from India with no songs, no simplistic plot, no demonization, no three hour running time, but one that subtly and overtly includes politics, religion, caste, poverty, and multiple stories. Vikram Dasgupta’s Calcutta Taxi is classic Hindi cinema, not Bollywood.
On first viewing this short film seemed confusing. Compelling, but confusing. What kind of a film is it? Who is the protagonist? How is it structured? Slowly it revealed itself, patterns and meanings emerging.
On second viewing, these questions are resolved. The piece has a clear shape, and we’ve learned to ask better questions.
As outsiders, watching the film captures our experience of spending time in India. The first time, nothing makes sense. Instinct tells you there’s a pattern to the traffic, it’s just invisible to foreign eyes. Of course there’s meaning, everything has meaning, but it takes repeated visits, a library of books, another library of films, and countless conversations with locals to feel that the everyday stuff makes sense.
That’s what this film is about, the everyday stuff.
It might be a film about the day of a strike, or about being a Canadian art student in Calcutta. It might be a film about being a taxi driver, about arranged marriages, about misunderstandings. It could be a film that rests on the kind of significant moments that change everything. But it isn’t. And it is.
It’s a film that tries to take a four-dimensional snapshot of life in an Indian city. How to do that? Take a moment: experience it without context, without foreknowledge. Then follow some of the threads that lead to and from the moment. Go back in time to find out who that art student is, how he engages with fellow students and make friends. Watch him in class and see his conscientious note-taking. Watch him squirm as his friend, impatient with rote learning, disrupts the class. See how this Canadian inhabits the city and arrives at that one moment.
What about the taxi driver? Not that taxi driver, the other taxi driver. Who’s he? He’s Hindu. He likes to sleep. He likes to lecture his assistant on the value of honesty and doing good for its own sake. He lives here; he drinks tea there.
And the other taxi driver? He’s Muslim. He’s shy. And quiet. Why did he drive off unexpectedly. What’s the story that binds him to this moment?
And what happens after that moment? What’s the next part of the story?
You could call it an anti-climax. If you were expecting a different kind of film, the Bollywood kind, it is an anti-climax. But this kind of snapshot doesn’t have a climax; nothing here is momentous, it’s all routine for this particular city. There are no important landmarks or important people, just a dive into the reality of some of the small lives happening there.
It’s a snapshot, a postcard, created with love by someone who understands Calcutta from the inside but also sees it from the outside. And from someone who understands storytelling, someone who found that ‘my grandmother […] was the best storyteller; she could make the most mundane story of going to get the milk sound like an adventure.’