Modern neo-noir from India seems to have been defined by the work of Anurag Kashyap, with his script for Satya (1998) seen as the beginning of “Mumbai noir” movement, which he furthered in his own dark forays into the world of crime as noir, in particular No Smoking and Ugly.1 A film he produced in 2013, Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout, would seem the clearest reference point for Partho Sen-Gupta’s Sunrise, a similarly nihilistic look at the obsession of the chase set against the backdrop of a torrential downpour. Where Kumar’s film borrowed from the Run Lola Run playbook, though, Sen-Gupta shirks all expectations of genre and influence after the first fifteen minutes; his sophomoric feature morphs into a unique and enigmatic look at grief, framed by a searing use of light and colour and anchored to an effective obfuscated narrative.
Joshi (Adil Hussain) is a policeman in a partially anonymous Indian city who is haunted by the disappearance of his young daughter.2 His mourning process sees him fall into a delusional spiral – seeing shadows on the walls, hearing voices, experiencing vividly realised fever dreams – spurred on by his wife’s (Tannishtha Chatterjee) inability to process their daughter’s kidnapping and the fact that he works in the social services division of the police force, where each night he and his colleagues hear from parents whose children have gone missing in the night or are called out to look at the body of another murdered child. This bleak cyclical psychosis isn’t just isolated to character, though, and herein Sunrise becomes something uniquely gripping, as Sen-Gupta plays with narrative logic and editing to make the audience experience a similar range of conflicting emotions; as Joshi once more chases shadows in the night, heading to a near-Lynchian stripclub called ‘Paradise’ wherein the camera suddenly takes on a point-of-view shot, the viewer becomes conditioned not to question narrative reality or delusion but rather embrace the blurring of lines, carried by Sen-Gupta’s deft handling of tone.
It’s a film of little dialogue, in fact it probably would have worked had it been entirely wordless, Sen-Gupta packing so much meaning into stray glances. He and cinematographer Jean-Marc Ferriere frame faces so as to draw you to characters’ eyes, for in those we see truth that contradicts what they say. Much of the plot is told in a narrative shorthand, which could come off as rushed yet plays into the fever dream nature of the film. The heavily stylised lighting in night scenes sees searing colour consume Joshi’s worldview; it’s not pulpy though, perhaps akin in part to some scenes in last year’s neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice. Whilst colour is starkly defined, the usage of rain acts to mirror the blurring of narrative reality in a visual sense; as if Joshi’s story plays out beneath the light on his dashboard, he’s trapped in a repetitious cycle of flashing lights and frosted glass.
The film doesn’t only have child abduction at its center, it also deals with relationships with children more broadly, signaled wonderfully in an early scene, where Joshi is awoken from a nightmare about his daughter to find the young boy who serves tea to the policemen staring him down, underlining both a class division and a sense of servitude for children in Indian culture more broadly. Sen-Gupta and co-writer Yogesh Vinayak Joshi also showcase this wider scope through a subplot revolving around domestic violence, and the parallel narrative to Joshi’s, which follows a group of abducted girls forced into prostitution. That other narrative strand, led by impressive performances from young actors Gulnaaz Ansari and Esha Amlani, is shot with a stark realism, and as their storyline moves closer to that of Joshi it becomes readily apparent that his delusions of heroism and redemption bar him from creating actual change, as perfectly illustrated in a late scene where Joshi is unable to see anything but a wider conspiracy involving his daughter’s abduction in a clear case of manslaughter.
The scenes in ‘Paradise’ and the gutting and visceral climax are the film’s highlights and, in spite of the final titlecard informing us of the number of abductions of children across India, help craft a nihilistic tale of personal despair rather than a moralistic call-to-arms. By creating a remove from structural and genre conventions, Sen-Gupta makes Sunrise a disarming, confronting and unique journey to the heart of loss and self-punishment.
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