An Interview with Partho Sen-Gupta


  • October 30, 2014


An Interview with Partho Sen-Gupta

Partho Sen-Gupta was born in Mumbai, India. He started his career as an apprentice in the art department in the studios of Bollywood at the age of 17. His new feature film Sunrise (Arunoday), an Indo-French coproduction with Adil Hussain and Tannishtha Chatterjee, is showing at DIFF 2014, and was selected at the 19th Busan International film festival in the New Currents Competition section.


Sunrise_DirectorHeadshotPartho Sen-Gupta

Sunrise, shot almost entirely at night, with its expressionistic lighting and minimal dialogue, may well be the first real Indian film noir. Did you set out to make a film noir?

Indeed. I wrote and conceived Sunrise as a film noir. Everything in the film from the lighting, the sets, costumes and the make-up were part of the script. DoP Jean-Marc Ferrière and me worked for months before the shooting on the visual treatment that I wanted. We had taken a common decision to work with mainly small colour corrected neon lamps for the key light and domestic tube-lights and incandescent lamps for the fill and background. As I wanted to play with shadows and dark backlit protagonists, we did not use the traditional 3 point or 4 point lighting patterns. Thus we had a lot of problems convincing the Indian gaffer and the lighting department who felt that my DoP did not know how to light up a scene. We also had to work very hard to convince the art department or the costume department to abandon their hyperrealism. At times I had to ‘force’ decisions. We had a very unhappy crew at the end of the shooting but they were pleasantly surprised when they saw the film at the Mumbai Film Festival. I think they understood what I was trying to achieve. I didn’t think about it, but possibly Sunrise is the first real Indian film noir, or rather neo-noir, film.

The scenes of Inspector Joshi chasing a shadowy figure through rain-soaked Mumbai streets is reminiscent of the Donald Sutherland character in Nic Roeg’s celebrated occult thriller, Don’t Look Now, chasing a raincoat-clad figure through misty Venice alleys. Have you seen the film and is there a connection?

I have thousands of hours of filmic images inhabiting my head, maybe it was Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’ or maybe it was Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’ or perhaps Reed’s ‘The Third Man’. Jarmusch said, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.” Joshi chasing the shadow was an idea born from trying to designate a face for the evil villain who steals and abuses the children. I felt that giving it a face would essentialise the representation of the villain. The shadow in Sunrise is like the Jungian ‘archetypical motif’ that represents one’s dark side, those aspects of oneself that exist, but which one does not acknowledge or with which one does not identify. Thus Joshi chases the dark side of our society, then fights and kills it to be able to free his daughter Aruna and the other girls from the darkness. I believe that these are traditional themes that are exploited by artists in different ways.


Essentially, Sunrise is about the appalling situation of missing children in India. But your film approaches this subject in an unexpected and elliptical way – by weaving it into a deeply disturbing psychological thriller. Why and how did you decide to take this approach?

Around a hundred thousand children disappear every year in India according to official Home Ministry figures. I am a father and it has been a while that I have been trying to find a way to tell the story about missing children.

But by the time I could get the film funded some Indian directors had made films on this subject. They are all linear narratives that placed the spectators in a peripheral voyeuristic position, with graphic manifestations of the abuse and violence. It was clear to me that I did not want to make an exploitative film about child abuse with the rape of a child as the key scene of the film.

My film is about mental anguish and the suffering it causes parents and children. I wanted to disturb the voyeuristic comfort of my spectators and experience the pain of the protagonist. The film is like a trip inside the haunted mind of the father who meanders from dream, nightmare and reality looking for justice inside an apathetic system. I wanted to treat my aggrieved protagonists with the care and respect they deserve.


Adil Hussain, who plays Inspector Joshi, single-handedly carries the film and was an inspired casting choice. How did you decide to cast him and what was your working relationship like? I met a lot of actors but when I met Adil I felt a kind of magical sensation a director feels when the mental incarnation of the protagonist that one had lived with for such a long time suddenly takes a palpable human form. We did work a lot on the look and feel of the character during the weeks of rehearsals before the shooting. I added the glasses that gave him vulnerability under that hard crusty Mumbai policeman. I think that Adil is one of India’s greatest actors. He listened a lot to what I had to say, digested it and performed in front of the camera. During the shooting we spoke very little. Adil and me were two parts of Joshi and all we exchanged were whispers about the boundaries of the story and the frame.


Who are your cinematic inspirations?

I have many inspirations but they have changed over time. Once upon a time I was inspired by Realism but now I am attracted to Formalism in cinema. I think that the 80s realism of Scorsese and De Palma which inspired me and continues to inspire many non-mainstream Indian filmmakers is getting a little staid. The hyperrealism of blood and smashed bone in slow motion is a little passé. I feel attracted to the cinematic poetry of Eisenstein, Ghatak, Bergman, Lynch and specially Gaspar Noé and Winding Refn. I feel attracted to minimalism and allegory. Sunrise was an experiment towards that idea. I think that I’ll be working in that direction in the future.


You worked in the mainstream Bollywood industry for many years but your film is as far from Bollywood as can be imagined. What did you learn from your experiences in Mumbai and how has it helped you as an independent filmmaker, if at all?

I was born and brought up in Mumbai and I started working in cinema in the mid 80s in the mainstream Hindi film industry, (the portmanteau Bollywood wasn’t used then). I was a 17-year-old student in college when I started working in films as an apprentice with Art Director Bijon Dasgupta. It was supposed to be a summer job but I was sucked into the magical world of films and dropped out of my boring studies for a Commerce degree. I went on to become assistant art director and worked on films like Sagar, Mr India and other mainstream films. But during that period I met young graduates from the FTII who were working as assistants. And they introduced me to a different cinema and books about cinema. I started watching films from beyond at the House of Soviet Culture, the Alliance Francaise, the USIS and on hazy VHS cassettes. My connection with the mainstream cinema did not last for very long. Bijon moved me towards the sets of advertising films and offbeat films. Soon as an Art director I moved towards ‘offbeat’ filmmakers like Sudhir Mishra’s Mein Zinda Hoon or Aditya Bhattacharya’s ground breaking ‘Raakh. They were trying to make the kind of films I liked. And then in 1993 I got a scholarship for four years to study film direction at the FEMIS, the French film school in Paris.


You also worked on Alain Courneau’s Nocturne Indien. How was that experience and did some of that carry over into your own film?

Yes, I was a young art director who had just started to work independently in Mumbai. I met Alain Corneau who was looking for an Art Director for Nocturne Indien. He did not want a French Art director or production designer but a local one. He met a lot of the confirmed art directors of that time but chose to work with me because I made sketches of the sets when he asked me to read the script. He said that they matched how he had ‘seen’ them in his head. Working on that film was a great learning curve for me as a twenty-three year old with no formal education. There is one thing I learnt from the great French technicians like DoP Yves Angelo, Sound Recordist Pierre Gamet and Director Corneau… to look, listen, learn and analyse – that for me is the work of an artist. If I look carefully I am sure that there is some Nocturne Indien in Sunrise.

What are your thoughts on the rise of the new Indian independent cinema?

Films outside the mainstream circuit have always been made in regional languages. Indeed, there is a rise in the number of films made and they are attempting new styles of narration and trying to find an identity as a form of cinema.

It also comes at a fortuitous time when the western world cinema market has been saturated by twenty years of Sino-Korean art-house cinema. There is a desire among festival programmers (in collusion with the market) to look at Indian cinema with a view to opening the world market for a new source. So it is not to say that the last generation of Indian art-house filmmakers made bad films and today’s generation are geniuses but that the market was not interested in our stories before. As filmmakers, we should be careful not to let script consultants and labs rewrite our local and native voices. We must not let them adulterate our stories in search of ‘universality’ and saleability for we run the risk that it will no longer be independent but only a low budget underpaid cinema for their aging audiences in search of an ethnic soirée.

How can Indian indie cinema move forward and survive?

I hope that this wave will survive. It could give birth to another wave in the future but I think it is doomed to perish as we are still asking the same questions that filmmakers like Saeed Mirza and Kumar Shahani asked two decades ago… Where do we screen the films that we make? How can they find screen space?  Unfortunately alternative spaces like the online distribution, which has saved independent cinema in the west, cannot exist in India due to the slow speeds and exorbitant prices. The Internet penetration rate in India is one of the lowest in the world and only accounts for 8.4% of the population.

I think it is possible now to raise funds for the production of independent films in India. There are lots of young producers who have jumped into the circus. They are paying their way into the market. But finding distribution is still an enormous battle.

Nationally it is catastrophic, releasing independent films theatrically is 90% of the times paid by the producer. The distributor takes whatever they can collect and films are often thrown out of the cinemas very quickly. Producers don’t even make back the P & A investment that they have spent. Satellite TV sales are the only fall-back one has.

Even films that have made it to official selections in Cannes cannot find distribution in India or worldwide. Films that were picked by international sales agents of repute cannot find release and have been ‘reacquired’ by the Indian producers in the hope of finding a market themselves.

Internationally, I think that the space is too small and the attitudes of the Western sales agents and the markets towards our films tend to be very conservative and essentialist. With cinemagoers in Europe shrinking to the +50-year-old age bracket there is no room for new narratives. On the other hand, unfortunately, I think that there will be a lot more “feel good” “engineered” films from India in the international market.

No cinema can survive if it does not have a paying audience that believes in it and is willing to support it.

Reviews from the world premiere at the 19th Busan Int. Film Festival 2014 

“Sen-Gupta masterfully exploits sight and sound in a mature exploration of escalating mental anguish”

Elizabeth Kerr, Hollywood Reporter more

“…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.”

Richard Kuipers, Variety more

“Indian cinema provides another jolt of electricity to the thriller genre with Sunrise, a tight, punchy neo-noir about child trafficking in Mumbai.”

Pierce Conran, TwitchFilm more

Check out the entire DIFF 2014 programme at http://diff.co.in/filmsa-z/, and register now to immerse yourself in the magic of cinema in the shadow of the majestic Dhauladhars http://diff.co.in/registration/