Did you know that around 34,000 taxis are on Kolkata streets on any given day? Toronto-based Vikram Dasgupta explores this world in his award-winning short film Calcutta Taxi. Shoma A. Chatterji offers a glimpse into this interesting point-of-view story
A day without the ubiquitous yellow taxi? Kolkatans panic when a bandh -or an enforced 'holiday', happens, courtesy some political party. What happens to these taxis and taxi drivers on such a day ? Vikram Dasgupta, once a Kolkatan who now lives and works out of Toronto, has focused on it in Calcutta Taxi, an ironical but amusing film based on his personal experience on a day like this.
"Sometime in the late 1990s, when I was studying fine arts in Kolkata, I saw myself involved in a less-than-high-speed chase when I left a bag of very important class notes in a taxi. I hired another taxi to give chase. But the city on that day was in the throes of a political strike. I somehow managed to escape from an irate mob of demonstrators, tried to cajole one cabby after another but they were unwilling to start their meters."
"Finally, I found a cabbie who was willing to take me on for two reasons - one, he wishes to defend the honour of his trade and two, he thought I had left behind a bag full of cash - thinking my use of the word 'notes' meant money and this would bring him a handsome reward," recalls Dasgupta. That triggered the idea for the film.
Dasgupta moved to Toronto in 2001. His class-fellow, Jeffery Maher, found it as funny, entertaining and interesting as Dasgupta did in retrospect. "I didn't think anyone here would get the joke, but they did."
Dasgupta who has been working on television for more than ten years now, told his story to every willing ear he could find and got a good response. "This told me that here was a story waiting to be made with an unusual take that could go down well with the global audience," he adds.
One day, he found himself telling the same story to Judy Gladstone, an executive director at Bravo! She commissioned him to make a short film to be shot in 'Little India' of the city. But Dasgupta was serious now. He blew his budget by flying his cast and crew to Kolkata to shoot a fictionalised account of his experience adding some more to this source idea.
The film is set against the labyrinthine streets of a city going through one of those days with demonstration by a political party. As it unfolds, the story talks about three lives that come together by coincidence and affect each other, each one having lost and found some things in this chance encounter.
It is split into three parts. The first deals with the cabbie who drove away with Dasgupta's bag. The second is about the cabbie who was willing to be hired and chased the first cabbie and got his bag back. The third involves the cabbie who stole his bag.
The film was shot last year. "I had decided that we would shoot on real locations and refused to bend down to the union's pressure to shoot the entire film inside a studio," Dasgupta recalls.
But the weather was unkind to the crew and "My DOP Jeff Mahar, the one I had first narrated the story to, fell so sick that he thought he was going to die. But he also said that we had not travelled half way across the world to shoot inside a studio. And we did it!"
Dasgupta is happy because Calcutta Taxi is doing the rounds of film festivals across the world and drawing packed houses everywhere. It won the Audience Choice Award at the Florence River to River festival, Italy. This means that the film gets automatic entry into Rome's Regional Tuscan Mediateca. It was screened at the 6th Gulf Film Festival in April in Dubai and has been to Rhode Island Film Festival, while the first screening at Austin was sold out. The greatest joy comes from the fact that it was chosen the Best Drama 2013 at the Apsen Shortfest.
Calcutta Taxi has been produced by Aeschylus Poulos. The acting cast is comprises Anand Rajaram, Vipin Sharma, Sunnie D´Souza and Geeta Bisht.
"We have done the best we could and we have tried to tell the story with the honesty we set out with more than a year back," Dasgupta says, adding, " I have heard somewhere that telling any story is no less than a painting or a design. It is the coming in of various elements to make something unique."