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Vikram Dasgupta crafts a story that has a universal appeal

Vikram Dasgupta found his voice as a filmmaker in Toronto. “I didn’t think anyone here would get the jokes, but they did,” he says.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

When Vikram Dasgupta was studying fine arts in Calcutta in the late 1990s, he was involved in a less-than-high-speed chase when he left a bag of essential class notes in a taxi.

He hired another taxi to give chase – on a day the city was in the throes of a political strike. After escaping from an irate mob of demonstrators, trying to cajole a succession of cabbies unwilling to start their meters, he finally found a taxi-wallah willing to take his fare for two reasons: the man wanted to defend the honour of his trade – and he mistakenly thought that Mr. Dasgupta has left a bag full of cash in the cab (he thought "notes" meant currency) and there would be a substantial reward in the end.

His short film of this incident screens on Saturday as part of the ReelWorld Film Festival. "I told this story in India whenever there was a strike, and it would always make people laugh," he says.

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After moving to Toronto in 2001 to study filmmaking at Sheridan College, he found himself telling the same story to his classmate Jefferey Maher. To his surprise, it got another laugh.

"I didn't think anyone here would get the jokes, but they did." Eventually, Mr. Dasgupta found himself telling the same story to Judy Gladstone, an executive director at Bravo!, who commissioned him to make a short film to be shot in Little India. Instead, Mr. Dasgupta blew his budget by flying his cast and crew to Calcutta.

"I cannot fake the impulse of a nation," he said. "It's like restaurants here that claim to make Indian food but make you eat rich spices and fire-breathing stuff instead."

However, the details that he used in his pitch – the beautiful sounds of the city, the hustle-and-bustle of life – were a nightmare to film. On top of that, almost everyone fell sick. Mr. Maher, the cinematographer and Sunnie D'Souza, the lead actor, came down with diarrhea. Meanwhile, Mr. Dasgupta cracked a vocal cord and was spitting up blood every time he yelled a cue for the extras.

"Jefferey thought he was going to die, he was telling me he has a 14-year-old son. People thought I had tuberculosis," Mr. Dasgupta said. "All of us grown men, 30- to 50-year-olds, we were in tears every day. We thought we wouldn't make it."

After screenings at film festivals across the world, Mr. Dasgupta is excited that Calcutta Taxi will have its premiere on a Toronto screen this weekend. In a way, it was coming here that allowed him to make the film.

For much of his early life, Mr. Dasgupta felt like an outsider. While his New Delhi classmates were preparing to take on the world as doctors, lawyers or industrialists, he wasn't academically inclined and instead dreamed of becoming a filmmaker.

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Mr. Dasgupta comes by his talent for spinning a yarn honestly. Growing up in New Delhi, Vikram Dasgupta was enthralled by his grandmother's recollection of her trip to Niagara Falls.

"She talked about the car stopping, and opening the door, and hearing this roar of thunder, like a monster," says Mr. Dasgupta, 36. When he visited Niagara Falls himself, after his move to Toronto, "they didn't live up to the hype. My grandmother had created such an amazing picture of grand scale in a child's mind that the real deal just didn't compare. She could make a simple task of buying milk sound like an amazing adventure."

Sitting on a couch in his downtown home office, he elaborates animatedly, his rings-laden hands punctuating long, descriptive passages. He also belongs to a long tradition of Bengali auteurs. An original black-and-white photo signed by the late Prabuddha Dasgupta, a celebrated fashion and fine-arts photographer in India and a family friend, stands next to his couch.

But it's Renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray's work that inspired Mr. Dasgupta as a child.He remembers catching Mr. Ray's films on Sunday afternoons, when the Indian public service broadcaster Doordarshan would air regional Indian cinema.

"It was nothing like Bollywood," he said. "I still vividly remember this one scene from a Tamil film I watched when I was 7 or 8. This kid has travelled for miles in the desert to collect water. But his container had a hole in it. When he realizes it and sees the trail of water he has left behind, he digs into the sand. That frantic nature of losing something, literally just slipping through your fingers, that scene still moves me. I somehow wanted to be a part of that storytelling process."

His move to Toronto forced Mr. Dasgupta, like the characters in his film, to come to terms with himself.

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"It made me look at myself in a different light," he says. "It made me look at all the things I wasn't really aware about in Indian cinema. When I saw how accepting Toronto was of my heritage, it made me dig deeper to find out who I was. I figured out what I needed to be a filmmaker. Like Calcutta Taxi did, but without the bleeding throat."

Calcutta Taxi screens as part of ReelWorld Film Festival's Free Family screening, Saturday, 1 p.m. at Canada Square.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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