The anguish and guilt of a policeman whose young daughter has gone missing are powerfully conveyed in “Sunrise,” the first dramatic feature by Indian helmer Partho Sen-Gupta since the well-received “Let the Wind Blow” (2004). A gripping psychological drama set in the seediest quarters of Mumbai, the pic cleverly weaves fantasy and reality so that neither can be taken at face value. The result is an intense, very well-performed tale that will doubtless spark debate in India, where, according to the most recent government figures, a staggering 53% of children are reported to have experienced sexual abuse. Following its world premiere in Busan, “Sunrise” ought to notch significant festival mileage and is well worth the attention of specialty broadcasters. Local release details are pending.
With all but its first and final scenes taking place during frequently torrential rainfall, “Sunrise” opens with a virtually dialogue-free 10-minute sequence establishing the fractured existence of Lakshman Joshi (Adil Hussain, “Life of Pi”), a 50-ish inspector in the social-services division of the Mumbai police force. Following brief flashbacks of Joshi doting on his daughter, Aruna (Komal Gupta), and present-time footage of mundane activity at his workplace, the film cuts jaggedly to him frantically searching the streets for Aruna and chasing a shadowy figure through a dingy alley. The pursuit leads to Paradise, a bar frequented by drooling men hurling money at underage dancing girls.
The immediate sense that Paradise might be a dream or figment of Joshi’s imagination is given weight by similarly unsettling sequences at his apartment, where his wife, Leela (Tannishtha Chatterjee, “Brick Lane”), reads children’s books as if Aruna were by her side and abruptly curtails a tender lovemaking session by announcing she’s about to give birth. While it seems likely Leela is real, there’s a distinct possibility that at least some parts of Joshi’s domestic life are imaginary.
The disquieting ambience around Joshi is rounded out by Babu (Chinmay Kambli), a distressed 16-year-old boy who hangs around the police station and is regarded as not much more than a nuisance by Joshi’s colleague, Sub-Inspector Patil (Hridaynath Jadhav). It’s not until deep into the proceedings that Babu’s role comes into sharp and powerful focus.
These intriguing and deliberately elusive elements of Joshi’s ongoing trauma are cleverly woven into a gripping police procedural by Sen-Gupta and co-scripter Yogesh Vinayak Joshi. The case in question centers on Naina (Esha Amlani), a preteen kidnapped by an unnamed procuress of grandmotherly age (Ashalata Wabgaonkar) and held in an apartment with many other young girls. Befriended by teenager Komal (Gulnaaz Ansari), Naina gradually comes to understand that her fellow unfortunates are being supplied as dancers and prostitutes to the very lowest and often violent scum of society.
While Joshi investigates Naina’s disappearance and comes achingly close to finding her, it emerges that the kidnapped girls are those he has seen in his visions of Paradise. Far from confusing the issue, this additional layer propels the narrative toward a suspenseful search-and-rescue finale and enriches the psychological profile of a protagonist suffering almost unimaginable mental torment.
Hussain is outstanding as the incorruptible lawman and loving family man crippled by grief and guilt, while Chatterjee brings touching nuance to a potentially cliched role as the mother unable to accept her child is missing. Elsewhere, there are strong contributions from Jadhav as Joshi’s no-nonsense sidekick, and from veteran Wabgaonkar as the loathsome madam. The young female thesps are uniformly impressive under Sen-Gupta’s careful and sensitive direction.
The ocher-hued street scenes, cold fluorescent interiors and primary color-saturated environs of Paradise are expertly created by d.p. Jean-Marc Ferriere. The other standout of this well-crafted production is a complex soundscape that says as much about what’s going on inside Joshi’s mind as anything that’s spoken; the sparingly applied score by Eryck Abecassis also plays an important role in establishing and maintaining an air of unease. All other technical work in on the money.