“It’s X meets Y!” doesn’t usually make for much more than an elevator pitch, but when the films in question are known more for their moody atmosphere and audacious use of sound, then perhaps it’s something worth considering. Then again, I’m the one making the comparison, so I might be biased, but it’s not one I make lightly. Partho Sen-Gupta’s Sunrise really is a technical marvel, one that paints images that are simultaneously surreal and picturesque, while capturing the debaucherous heart of Mumbai’s back alleys in the most operatic manner. It’s also a man-on-a-mission story that doesn’t glorify its protagonist as the sort of action hero he sees himself as, even though he’s every bit as heroic a character as Indian cinema deserves.
Officer Lakshman Joshi is the typical strong & silent type, a good cop in a city filled with lethargy and corruption amongst the police force, and he’s as damaged as they come. The city’s kidnapping ring, where young girls are sold into underground nightclub entertainment (or worse) is the same one that claimed his daughter Aruna on her way home from school, leaving him and his wife Leela in an extended period of mourning with no closure. Leela and Joshi occupy the same heteronormative space as we’ve seen countless times before, only they’re pushed to their gendered extremes. Their respective roles as mother and father as dictated by Indian society, as well as their failure to protect their child, restrict their identity to their parenthood, and they end up caught in haunting cycles of repetition because of it. Leela lives out specific days over and over again – the day she went into labour, her daughter’s academic success, the last morning she left for school – and Joshi lives out similar cycles as well, chasing anonymous shadows through slums and back alleys. While his wife can’t come to terms with the fact that their daughter is gone, Joshi is driven by his unwillingness to accept that there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s unclear whether or not Aruna is even alive anymore, or how long it’s been since she was taken (Weeks? Months? Years?), but for Joshi and his wife, it could’ve been as recently as that very morning, and since then, the sun hasn’t risen for them.
Joshi only works nights, and the film relies on the same eerie halogens he does to see. The streets are illuminated from overhead, casting a shadow on the eyes of each character, hiding their intentions until they’re indoors, where they come across even murkier. Night after night, the shadowy figure Joshi chases leads him to a dimly lit nightclub called Paradise, where young girls dance on a stage surrounded by leering men who throw money at them. Every time he walks through the doors, he’s greeted as if it’s his first night there, and the patrons all sit at the exact same tables. When he isn’t being led through the maze of his own failures, he drives around the tunnels and bridges as if he’s amidst a covert search, with the city’s non-stop rain coming down so hard it becomes a deafening white noise. It’s a cycle he can’t break until he finds his daughter.
Mumbai is a city defined by its sound, the crowded, urban hustle & bustle, and every detail of that sound is turned into something lurking just out of view. Everything is heightened in Joshi’s world, which gives way to the need for a secondary narrative. The girls on the Paradise stage are all forced to live together, cooped up in a tiny apartment under the delusion of material comfort. The oldest, Komal (who takes center stage at the club), is placed in charge of Naina, the new girl introduced into the racket. The two stories cross early on, as the girls are forced to hide in the ceiling when Joshi and the other officers come searching the apartment in an official capacity. For the first time, we step outside Joshi’s point of view, wherein he views himself as a gun-toting hero trying to get his daughter back, and we get to see him the way the girls see him through the ceiling tiles from above – as a small man who can’t do anything about the situation in front of him. In fact, the kidnappers themselves are ordinary, non-threatening citizens (a large, middle aged woman who can barely move, and old man who won’t stop coughing) as opposed to the mythical demons Joshi sees them as. He sees his failure to protect his daughter as so colossal that he can’t help but see everyone and everything through the lens of myth and mystery.
The shadows he chases begin to become literal, as he grows suspicious of even the slightest movement. After being so blinded by his mission to find Aruna that he fails to protect a young boy from his abusive father, he finds clarity for the first time in the form of a physical clue leading him back to Paradise. For once, it isn’t instinct or some supernatural force taking him back to the club, but in his mind this one piece of physical evidence is enough to go on a violent rampage against the men present, the men he perceives as sick, depraved monsters responsible for his own loss. He leads the girls out through a hole in the stage wall, a small tunnel that feels like a cavern leading straight to Hell, entering a part of the city that he hasn’t seen before, empty, lifeless, and lacking any visible source of light. It’s here that he finally catches the shadowy figure that’s been leading him on his hunt – an encounter that we ourselves only see as a shadow. It’s everything Joshi has been waiting for. His redemption. His big final action sequence.
Perhaps this really is an anonymous kidnapper, representing the face of Mumbai’s criminality. Or perhaps the shadow is simply Joshi himself. His failures, his inability to protect the people he loves, and by proxy, the failure of Mumbai’s entire police force to protect the city’s young girls from sex slavery over the years. Joshi fancies himself a hero when he’s a broken man, but the film isn’t a condemnation of his vigilantism either. After all, he’s the only one willing to look in to the missing girls in the first place, going around all the red tape and doing what others won’t. Perhaps the film isn’t trying to say that action heroes can only exist in a bright and perfect cinematic world. Perhaps it’s a call to arms, assuring a broken city that even its most broken people can stand up for what’s right, and be the cinematic action heroes they worship. Their villains don’t have to be real people, they can be our own regrets and failures, both personally and systemically, but we can still fight them if we try.
While Joshi’s attempts at regaining his lost sense of control and finding his daughter leave people dead and bloodied, he’s the only one who does a damn thing about finding all the other daughters snatched from their homes. It’s not an ideal real world situation, but it is the alternative to collective responsibility. It’s the dark mirror to an ideal society that finally stands up and says enough is enough, because it follows one man standing up after he’s been pushed past his limit. (Perhaps Mumbai found its Batman?)
Eventually, the shadowy figure takes the form of Joshi’s daughter. Once he’s able to come to terms with his failure, and atone for it by saving a dozen or so other girls, he’s able to finally move on. He walks back through the mouth of Hell leading up to Paradise, and to the real world, even though nothing else about the city has changed. It’s a small step, but a step nonetheless, and the film ends with a bright, idealized scene of Joshi and his family playing on the beach, the sun shining brightly above them, accompanied by an unsettling, rumbling score. It’s the only thing that seems off about this final dream or flashback, and if we want the picture to be perfect, we have to turn down the volume…. We have to actually do something about it.