The heartfelt and politically stirring ‘Calcutta Taxi’ was written, directed and produced by Indian born Canadian filmmaker Vikram Dasgupta. The Short Film is set in the grimy backdrop of the city of Calcutta undergoing a political crisis, unravelling the story of three lives that affect each other. Each one having lost and found things in a chance encounter of life. This moving and thought-provoking short film has to-date won 8 awards, including ‘Best Drama’ from the prestigious Aspen Short Film Festival. The film premiered last August at the Rhode Island international Film Festival where it won the ‘Directorial Discovery Award’. It was also a part of the International Competition line-up at the prestigious Clermont Ferrand Film Festival, France also known as the Mecca of short film festivals. (WOW!)
Vikram talks to us about filming this award winning film, the challenges he faced and more!
Hi Vikram, Thank you for taking the time to talk with us here at Just Celebrity. Please can you start by telling us a bit about your film, Calcutta Taxi’?
It’s an absolute pleasure to talk to you!
Calcutta Taxi in essence is a ‘Lost and Found’ tale where each character looses a part of themselves and in return finds something they didn’t know they were looking for – be it there backpack, there beliefs or there acceptance of who they are.
You are the writer, director and producer behind the film, can you tell us what inspired you to write this story?
Calcutta Taxi is one part autobiographical and two-part fictional. It’s inspired by true events. I was an Art College student in Calcutta studying Fine Arts and lost my backpack on a day of a political protest. I had no idea how politically charged Calcutta was. The incidents that followed that day form the first part of the film. For years I would tell the events to my friends but never really thought of writing it as a story. My friend Elena Lombardi (Toronto) heard it and really encouraged me to write it down. The second and the third part of the film is fictional and revolves around the taxi driver that stole my backpack and the one that helped me get it back.
Calcutta Taxi is one part autobiographical and two-part fictional.
Why did you choose to set the film in Calcutta?
It was not even a choice; one can’t fake Calcutta. It is an allegory of constant change that is forever reinventing and redefining itself at every turn. It is the ‘belly of the beast’ so to speak. The incident dragged me through hell and back when it happened in 1997. The filming process dragged us all through hell and back ten times over! I think the insanity that we went through during the filming bleeds into the film making it a little bit more genuine.
Did you anticipate the success ‘Calcutta Taxi’ has received?
I don’t think any of us were anticipating success or failure. We were thinking more about survival and managing to tell the best story we could with the meager resources we had. Almost all of our Canadian crew fell sick at one time or the other during our shoot in Calcutta. Some of us were hospitalized after filming. We managed to come back with our film ‘in-the-can’ (or hard drives in this case) and that was ‘success’ enough for us. The fact that it is being seen around the world and being appreciated is very humbling and motivating for us to make the next one better.
The filming process dragged us all through hell and back ten times over!
Did you experience any challenges when filming?
Going to a college as a student in Calcutta versus shooting an independent film there, is the same difference as a first date and a marriage. The city sounds that I would wake up to in the morning and thought were so romantic, were the same ‘noises’ that drove the sound guys off the wall. But the real challenges that we faced were more cultural and social for our Canadian crew. For example my cinematographer Jeff Maher who had never been to that part of the world, was at times awe struck and at other times in tears. Seeing the social and economic contrasts all in one frame was just too much for him to process initially. Others had trouble with ‘personal space’. One thing that we all learned maybe the hard way, is that one cannot resist the energy and the spirit of the great city. You just have to accept it, give in to it and let it flow through you and have faith that if you trust it enough – it will give you something in return that’s organic, real and hopefully, some of it will reflect onto the screen through your lens.
Do you have any funny stories to share?
Tragedy can sometimes be comedy when looking back. We finished our second day of shooting and rare as it may be for a short film, we had a good day. We shot the riot scenes to the best we could and felt fairly okay about ourselves. I think the last I saw Jeff was on set laughing with the crew and eating Paneer Pakoras (fried cottage cheese in chick pea batter). We had a 5am call time the next day so we all went to bed early. At about 2am I got a phone call from Jeff and I could barely hear his voice but it sounded like he mumbled something about ‘dying’. I rushed over to the house and see this tall thin Irishman covered in 3 blankets, his body violently shaking with his legs sticking out from the bottom of the bed (Indian beds were always too short for Jeff). I asked the caretaker what was happening and he said something out Diarrhea. As I went close to Jeff, he opened his eyes and grabbed my hand with a death grip and whispered in an angry shaking voice “I HAVE A 16 YEAR OLD SON IN TORONTO!” I tried my best to not smile as I promised him that I would take care of his son if anything happened to him…that he had Diarrhea and would be fine in 24 hours. We did cancel the shoot next day but the day after that – Jeff showed on set with two big bottles of electrolyte. We didn’t have to try too hard to keep him away from ‘set food’ after that.
One thing that we all learned maybe the hard way, is that one cannot resist the energy and the spirit of the great city.
‘Calcutta Taxi’ has won 8 impressive awards to date, which award for you has been the biggest achievement?
We’ve been very lucky to have our little film screened at some major festivals around the world and gain the kind of acceptance that it has amongst audiences worldwide. I do believe the real ‘achievements’ has been seeing our film through differing perspectives. They showed us things that we hadn’t seen earlier, and has taught us more about ourselves. The most inspiring screening however, was not at a festival per se, but rather a middle school gymnasium. Every year during Aspen Shortfest, the filmmakers are given the option to also screen their film to a regional school. Its purpose – to promote art and culture and do a Q&A session with the students. It’s one thing to have a room full of 6 graders sit quietly and watch a foreign language film with subtitles. It’s an entirely different thing to actually have them willfully ask intelligent questions. They understood converging plot lines and asked about foreign concepts like arranged marriages. Their reactions and understanding of our culturally diverse story was in fact one of the highlights of the festival journey for us so far.
What do you like most about writing, directing and producing films?
I like the story telling part of it the most. Producing is something that I do because I’ve had to do it in certain cases. With Calcutta Taxi, we had a really good producer Aeschylus Poulos in Canada that helped take away a lot of our headaches. It was so good to have someone with his experience to guide us through the entire process bringing his expertise to the table.
We’ve been very lucky to have our little film screened at some major festivals around the world.
What inspired you to get involved in writing, directing and producing films?
My biggest inspiration has always been my grandmother. To me, she was the greatest storyteller there could be. She could make something as mundane as a morning walk to get milk for the family, sound like an adventure of a lifetime. I think somewhere in those early years, I decided to do what she did and ‘tell stories’ for a living. Since filmmaking is the medium of the century, what better way than to realize one’s dreams through it?
What’s your favourite inspirational line?
They are like movies, too many of them. I don’t know which one to pick.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to get into film-making?
The only way to be a filmmaker is to make a film. The only way to get better at it is to make another one.
What are your plans for the future?
‘MAD VOLUMES YO!’ (Just had to say it because I’m a HUGE fan of the show ‘BREAKING BAD’)
What I mean is ‘to be able to do more of what we love to do’.
Having said that, I do believe in quality over quantity so finding the right balance I suppose is the ‘plan for the future’…Makes sense?
My biggest inspiration has always been my grandmother.
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