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Sunrise – BFI London Film Festival Review

Sunrise – BFI London Film Festival Review

Relentless rain and a garishly illuminated urban wasteland greet Police Inspector Joshi (Adil Hussain) everywhere he goes. It’s an unsettling nightmare world that’s not even half as intimidating as the corrosive emptiness inside himself. Joshi, clinging onto the fringes of functional sanity, is only ever one mishap from a fatal plunge. In Partho Sen-Gupta’s narratively muddled and technically impressive child abuse thriller set in India, he’s about to go over the edge.

Joshi’s life is one of forgotten joy. Old pictures full of beaming smiles point to a quickly receding idyll. Where once he would come home to a happy wife and energetic young daughter, all he has left is a broken partner living in a fantasy world where their child never went missing. Joshi is barely better. He makes it into work but he’s not really there. He watches colleagues with passive detachment, only managing to summon up a reaction when children are in danger. The rest of his time is spent on the streets hunting for their missing daughter.

These lonely expeditions take him through rain sodden streets lit in electric blue and rusty orange from artificial lights shining off ever increasing puddles. He’s always out at night and he’s nearly always alone. No one else would be foolish enough to venture outside in weather that leaves clothing soaked through in minutes. Except one person is out, an elusive figure Joshi can never quite catch. Lumbering through winding alleyways, he gets no closer than his mystery man’s shadow.

It’s on one of these aborted missions that he stumbles across the Paradise club, a seedy nightspot facilitating child prostitution. The first trip ends in disorienting chaos, the second violence. But are they really different occasions or is the club in his mind? As Sunrise proceeds, Joshi’s mental state disintegrates further, blurring the line between grubby reality and his own fervent wishes.sunrise-still-01To complicate matters both narratively and for Joshi, Sen-Gupta starts to switch the focus to the girls of the Paradise club. One in particular, Komal (Gulnaaz Ansari), a teenager mixing childish innocence with stoic acceptance, comes to the fore. On stage, she draws all perverted eyes, back in the cramped apartment shared with the other forced sex workers, she takes on parental duties for a new arrival, disturbingly young even by these standards.

Dialogue is kept to the barest minimum; words only exchanged when there are no other options. And there really are few options. Joshi and Komal seem powerless to alter their respective fates, stuck on a road leading far away from happiness. In lieu of conversation, Sen-Gupta turns to his environment to tell the story. Sound echoes loudly; the steady drip of rainwater, running footsteps, the pop of pistols or knuckles crunching into bone. With the sun tucked away out of sight, cinematographer Jean-Marc Ferriere plays with the contrast between glowing street light and jagged shadows, throwing characters in and out of both.

It’s the powerfully evocative setting that helps to compensate for an increasingly jumbled narrative. Joshi’s shift into a confusing half-life looks the part, but it’s marked by lengthy spells of inaction and an overreliance on off-kilter lurches that start to feel telegraphed by the midpoint. There’s also an awkward incompleteness to the Joshi/Komal split leaving one story rushed and the other unfinished.

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The widespread abuse of children in India is a serious crisis Sen-Gupta highlights in closing text. Sunrise goes a way towards making it feel real, pulling up short before the message can be fully delivered. For all the weaknesses, it does succeed in leaving a troubling sense of unease. The title may be Sunrise, but dawn remains a long way off.