Receiving its world premiere in BIFF’s New Currents competition, Partho Sen-Gupta’s Sunrise tells the story of a police inspector whose daughter was kidnapped years ago when she was only six.

The Marathi-language film blurs the boundaries between reality and dreams, as the police inspector believes he has found her working in a nightclub. Adil Hussain (Life Of Pi) plays the distraught father, while Tannishtha Chatterjee (Brick Lane) plays his wife.

Set up as an official India-France co-production, the film was produced by India’s Independent Movies and National Film Development Corp (NFDC) with France’s Dolce Vita Films. Co-producers include India’s Infinitum Productions and Aryasaa Cine Productions and France’s Good Lap Productions.

The crew includes French DoP Jean-Marc Ferriere, composer Eryck Abecassis and editor Annick Raoul, who all worked with Sen-Gupta on his award-winning debut film Let The Wind Blow, which premiered at Berlin in 2004.

Where did you get the idea for the story?

Once in Mumbai, I saw a group of people outside a police station silently protesting. There were men and woman of all ages and all classes of Indian society. Their faces were drawn and they sat or stood holding large pictures of smiling children. The names, ages and the date their children had disappeared were also displayed. Some had disappeared on their way back from school, some while they were playing in gardens and parks or while out with their parents. Only recently the Indian Home Ministry declared that over 100,000 children had been reported missing in 2013-14.

I really decided to make this film when my daughter was born. When I looked into her tiny innocent face, I could not even imagine the trauma she would go through and what her mother and me would have to suffer. Parents whose children are lost are condemned to suffer for the rest of their lives, constantly living in the vain hope that they might find them one day. My film is not a realistic film but a psychological journey into the mind of the desperate father.

What was the film’s development journey? And which labs and co-production markets did you take the project to?

I wrote the first draft of Sunrise in 2008 and it was selected for the Asian Project Market in Busan. We were meant to start shooting early 2009 but the then producers backed out. After trying to get other producers involved in vain, I raised $21,000 (with 140 funders) for development funds on the crowd-funding platform I was able to shoot a teaser trailer with the help of these funds.

The project was then selected for the 2011 Locarno film festival’s Open Doors co-production market where I met Marc Irmer of Dolce Vita Films, Paris. I also met other producers from the Netherlands and from Germany but it didn’t work out with them.

Did you have Tannishtha Chatterjee and Adil Hussain in mind when you were writing the film?

I always had Tannishtha in mind for the role of Leela, the wife and mother. We had worked together on my first film too. Despite the role not being lengthy, she is important to the narration. She plays the mother traumatised by the disappearance of Aruna and is in a very advanced state of depression. But casting Joshi was difficult. I met with a lot of actors in the 40-something age group. They were all busy working on TV serials and did not have time or want to do an art-house film. Tannishtha suggested Adil to me; they were both National School of Drama alumni.

At that time he was working mainly on stage and had done very few films. He liked my script and I was very impressed by him. So I cast him back in 2008 but as the film funding fell through, we could not work together. We stayed in touch and then he did Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi. Then getting dates became difficult. But he was very cooperative and gave us all the dates we needed, keeping his agent away.

How did you find the experience of setting the film up as an Indo-French co-production?

Sunrise was produced under the Indo-French co-production treaty and despite the complicated paperwork we managed to get the officials of the two countries to recognise the film.

I have a close connection with France as I studied and graduated from the FEMIS film school in 1997. I have lived between Paris and Mumbai ever since. Marc Irmer and I started working together and with the help of my FEMIS film school colleagues (who were now all very experienced and confirmed film technicians) we managed to put together a great crew for the post-production. Marc raised 35% of the budget.

I also applied to the National Film Development Corporation for co-production funds in 2012 and we were granted 50% of the budget. I also brought in two other minority co-producers, Shrihari Sathe, of Infinitum productions, who I met on the film industry social media platform, and Saaz Haque via the Sunrise Facebook page. I gap-financed the balance through my Indian production company Independent movies with by business partner and producer Rakesh Mehra.

After months of delays in signing the contracts between the five co-producers, we started shooting Sunrise in June 2013 right at the start of the monsoon in Mumbai.

Why didn’t it work out with the German and Dutch co-producers?

I did have Bero Beyer of Augustus Films attached to my project but he was busy completing two of his bigger productions and he also was taking a consultant’s role at the Dutch film fund that would have caused a conflict of interest. The German producer just could not raise the funds.

I think the problem was that the film budget was too small to get into a ‘normal’ European co-production deal. Most of the fund managers felt that this kind of a film should be produced with the Fonds Sud grants.

Would you say it’s getting easier for India’s independent filmmakers to raise finance and find distribution?

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. 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 distributer takes whatever they can collect and films are often thrown out of the cinemas very quickly. There is a movement by a union of producers who want to impose a minimum stay in a cinema before distributers pull the film out but it’s still being discussed. Producers don’t even make back the p&a investment that they have spent. Satellite TV sales are the only fallback one has.

The NFDC remains the only space where funding for some kind of experimentation can take place. But it has a very fragile existence, as they are dependent on political will and the vision of the party in power.   

Internationally, I think that the space is too small and the desires of the Western sales agents and the markets tend to be very conservative and essentialist with our films. With cinemagoers in Europe shrinking to the 50+ years age bracket there is little space for new narratives. But I think that there will be a lot more of “engineered films” from India in the international market. Script consultants and labs will help fashion and mold the specificities of the Indian narrative into a more acceptable, marketable and apolitical one: as one sales agent called it – ‘conventional art-house cinema’. 

What are you working on next?

I am working on a feature project titled Offspring. The film takes place in two countries, India and France. It’s an ideal co-production film as there are main protagonists from both countries and major shooting in both countries. It’s a film about gender and power. Marc Irmer and I want to continue our association and perhaps we’ll be here with it at the next Asian Project Market.

I am also working on a neo-noir genre film that is an adaption of a novel but it is early days.