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National Award-winning filmmakers Sarmistha Maity and Rajdeep Paul talk about their debut feature ‘Kalkokkho’

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The Bengali film, which premiered at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival 2021, is an existential horror inspired from the pandemic

The Bengali film, which premiered at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival 2021, is an existential horror inspired from the pandemic

In the beginning of 2020, Bengali filmmakers Rajdeep Paul and Sarmistha Maity were planning to start their debut feature — a social realism film that wanted to explore the underbelly of Calcutta (the makers, deliberately or otherwise, do not say Kolkata). It was supposed to be set in the streets of the city. Then, COVID-19 shut India and their film down.

Rajdeep and Sarmistha, both alumni of Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, are not first-timers to films. They have, in fact, won a National Award for their short, At the Cross Roads : Nondon Bagchi Life and Living. But directing a feature length film was special to them. 

“When COVID struck, we could not go out. We waited week after week. But we didn’t know when it would end,” says Rajdeep, “We were uncertain if we could make films at all or could at least step out of our houses. Even the stories we thought of weren’t good enough.”

The duo was stranded, creatively and literally. Then, Rajdeep chanced upon a news story about a woman in Kolkata. “Her relatives were taken away for quarantine and she couldn’t even contact them. And there were a lot of people like her,” he says. 

The next morning, he had this germ of an idea: ‘What if a person, in this state of anxiety, kidnaps a doctor?’

This grew into Kalkokkho, a complex sci-fi, existential horror story in the backdrop of a pandemic. The makers say the film was their reflection of what unfolded in front of them.

“During the pandemic, we were simultaneously experiencing a weird state of anxiety and boredom,” says Rajdeep, “What seemed surreal suddenly became our reality. We could see humans showing extreme apathy as well as extreme empathy. We were asked to go out just for the essentials. So, we asked ourselves ‘What is essential in life? Is it just buying groceries?’ My father passed away during the pandemic. And, he was going through depression because of the lockdown. We wanted to explore these things in our film.”

In July 2020, when they pitched it to Aurora Film Corporation, which has produced films of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, they immediately greenlit it.

They, however, had just entered the hurdle race. There was a feature film to be made with just six actors, a 30-member crew, a minimal budget.

“Finding a house for the film was a struggle especially with the travel restrictions. Casting a child and a senior citizen was also a big challenge,” says Sarmistha. “We really wanted Ahana Karmakar to play the young girl because we had worked with her in our short film. But she initially refused because she was scared to step out during the first wave. Convincing her was a big task. That took almost a month.”

“We went on floors in December 2020 after a two-month workshop. We shot for 14 days inside a house, with a 30-member crew in almost quarantine-like situation. Even after returning home from the shoot, we would isolate ourselves so that we don’t spread it to our families,” she adds.

The film, finally, was completed in April 2021.

Kalkokkho is finally in theatres. But, as is the case with most independent films in India, exhibiting it has not been easy. “It is a struggle to get your film out to the public,” the makers lament. 

But recognition has not eluded them. The film premiered at the 2021 edition of the prestigious Busan Film Festival in the New Currents(Main Competition) section. It won the Golden Sparrow Best Screenplay Award in the Diorama International Film Festival 2021. Girish Kasaravalli, who was among the jury, wrote a letter of appreciation to them after watching the film. This year, the film was screened at several international festivals including the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, Dhaka International Film Festival, Kolkata International Film Festival among others.

The makers especially recall the Chennai International Film Festival, which was held this January, with fondness. 

“We got a Sunday 10:15am show,” says Sarmistha, “We just thought only we would be watching the film along with maybe a couple of the organisers. But we got a full house! They were so engrossed in the film that when someone’s phone started ringing in the middle of the show, the rest of the audience glared at the person.”

More than the awards, Rajdeep and Sarmistha find the acceptance and acknowledgement from the audience gratifying.

‘Kalkokkho’ will be screened on September 22 at the International Film Festival of Thrissur. It will also be a part of the competition section of the Orenberg International Film Festival 2022 (East & West; Classics & Avante garde), Russia, from October 14 to 19. The directors are pushing for an OTT release as well.



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