Director Partho Sen-Gupta whose film Sunrise opened to great reviews at Film Festivals talks about his film, working with Bijon Das Gupta, studying at Paris film institute, being tongue-tied at Berlin after his first film’s screening and crowd funding for this film.


How did films happen to you? What were you doing before you started your journey in films?

I am of East Bengali origin but was born and brought up in Central Mumbai. I was a 17-year-old student in college when I started working in films as an apprentice with Art Director Bijon Das Gupta. It was supposed to be a summer job but I was sucked into the magical world of films and dropped out my from boring studies.

I went to become assistant art director and worked on mainstream films like SagarMr India, etc. I also worked on many ad films with Kailash Sundrenath of FAR productions.

Did the experience working as an Assistant Art director under Bijon Das Gupta help you later when you decided to direct? What were your learnings from various directors you worked with?

I learnt all about cinema on the job with Bijonda and then famous directors of 80s and 90s like Bapu, Ramesh Sippy and Shekhar Kapur. During that period I also met young graduates from FTII who were working as assistants. And they introduced me to a different kind of cinema. I started watching films at the USIS, the House of Soviet Culture, the Alliance Francaise 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. It was great for someone like me who came from a conservative Indian middle class background and was introduced to people who had open-minded thinking.

Later when I launched on my own, as an Art director I moved towards ‘offbeat’ filmmakers and did films like Sudhir Mishra’s Main Zinda Hoon and Aditya Bhattacharya’s ground breaking Raakh. They were making the kind of films I liked.

When did you decide to go to Paris to study? How did your experience learning and working there change your outlook towards filmmaking?

I did not decide to study in Paris. I could not afford it; I didn’t even have a passport. My father who was the only working person in our family passed away after a heart attack and as the eldest child I was bundled with the responsibility to look after my family.

I was working as an Art Director in the early 90s and by chance I met Achille Forler, the then Cinema Attaché at the French Embassy in Delhi at the Broadcast India Cinema Trade Fair in Mumbai. I was learning French then at the Alliance Française, as I was working a lot with French film crews shooting in India. Forler asked me to apply for a scholarship to the FEMIS, the French film school in Paris. And then in 1993 I got a full scholarship for four years to study film direction.

My student years in Paris were like a dream sequence from a movie for a poor Indian chap from Shivaji Park, Mumbai. I saw films from the world over at the Cinémathèque de Paris; I saw classical art and modern art collections in greatest museums like the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou. I read books with ideas that challenged my preconceived thoughts. I travelled to places and above all I learnt one very important principle that has guided me through my life, it is to look, listen and reflect before opening my mouth.

The FEMIS film school was a great experience because it is a school that does not have full time teachers. It is workshop based and the important industry technicians participate as instructors. I studied all aspects of film-making in the first year and then in the last three years I focused on film direction studies.

Great directors from the French film industry trained me and that helped me look at cinema in a completely different way. I think that helped me shape a unique voice for my own style of cinema. After graduation in 1997, I decided to stay on in Paris; I lived and worked there for over 15 years.


Still from the film ‘Sunrise’

You have been to Berlin and Cannes for your work before Sunrise happened… What was your experience at both the festivals like?

My first feature film Hava Aney Dey had its world premiere in Berlin in 2004 and I was invited to Cannes 2004 with other first time directors as part of a ‘Promising new directors’ in Cine foundation section. The world premiere screening of the film in Berlin had a crowd of 600 spectators.

I was dumbstruck and found it hard at first to answer questions during the Q&A. But I had no training as to what to do during a festival; these were the days before social media. It was very difficult to communicate to people without a Press agent, and we did not have the funds to get one. I think I missed the opportunity completely and was ignored at that time by the Indian press and industry. There was no value added to films that went to international festivals. No one really cared. Today it is a completely different story. Films that go to the big festivals are treated with a lot of awe and praise.

What are your strengths as a director?

My training as an Art Director has given me very strong base in the technical aspects of filmmaking. In pre-digital age when we shot films on 35mm or 16mm, we did not have a monitor to check what we were shooting. We had to rely on our judgement, on calculations and imagination. Despite having a monitor today, I can imagine how the scene or shot will look; I can sketch it out on paper. It makes it easy for me to explain a scene to the Cinematography team or to the other creative partners like the art department or the costume department.

My four years in a film school also gave me a very strong analytical power of understanding the motivating factors for a certain action or emotion in the story. Actors and the technical crew have a lot of questions and the director must be able to give them a well-defined answer or they start losing interest in the work. I also have a very strong historical knowledge of different ideological patterns in the way films are made all over the world.

Where do you draw your creative influences?

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. I feel attracted to the cinematic poetry of Eisenstein, Ghatak, Bergman, Lynch and specially from contemporary filmmakers like 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.

How did you find funding for Sunrise?

I wrote the first draft of Sunrise in 2008 and it was selected at the Asian Film Market (AFM) 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 21000 USD (with 140 funders) for development funds on the crowd-funding platform I was able to shoot a teaser trailer and promote the film with the help of these funds. The project was then selected at the 2011 Locarno film festival’s Open doors co-production market where I met producer Marc Irmer of Dolce Vita films, Paris.

We started working together and with the help of my FEMIS film school colleagues we managed to put together a great crew of French technicians for the post-production. Marc raised 35% of the budget. I also applied to the NFDC for coproduction 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 Haquevia the Sunrise Facebook page.

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. DoP Jean Marc Ferriere flew to Mumbai to prepare the film with a RED epic camera with Camera Operator G. Monic Kumar who had also worked on my first film. Delhi based actor Adil Hussain moved to Mumbai two weeks before the start of shooting and we rehearsed together with Tannishtha Chatterjee and the other actors.


Still from the film ‘Sunrise’

What is Sunrise about?

Sunrise is a very simple story about a father who is looking for his missing daughter. The film does not have a linear timeline and the narration hurdles from what is ‘real’ to scenes that are dreams or fantasies of the protagonist Joshi.

The basic theme that I have tried to explore in this film is the desire for justice or vengeance that is inherent in every human being. Joshi, the father to whom a terrible injustice has been done in the real space and the apathy that denies him his due, starts to deviate emotionally towards an imaginary space where he can get the justice he so wants. There, he becomes the ‘hero’ that he would so like to be, defeat the villains and save his daughter. There, in that fantastic mental space, he can get due justice. What he sees and does may not be real but it is how he would have liked it to be. I think that the human mind in pain is capable of perceiving ‘what it would like to see’ and the gap between ‘the reality’ and ‘the fantasy’ is so slender that crossing over back and forth is extremely ambiguous.

I did not want to tell the story of a father looking for his missing son or daughter in the linear narrative of ‘the good versus the evil’ but more about how the human mind tries to come to terms with its injustices and tragedies. And that more often in real life we continue to live with our pain.

How was it working with Adil Hussain? What do you like about him as an actor?

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 but he is denied that position because he does not come from North India and is not a native Hindi speaker. But a lot of actors train under him when they want to do a complicated role. He was also a teacher at the National School of Drama, his alumnus.

I think his greatest strength is that he has a great power of understanding abstract thought, he can grasp ideas that may seem very far flung to most actors. He is a maverick and is not afraid to jump into an idea however crazy it may sound on the onset.

During the pre-production of Sunrise, Adil listened a lot to what I had to say, absorbed it and then later he performed in the shoes of the character in front of the camera. During the shooting we spoke very little. Adil and I were two parts of the protagonist Joshi and all we exchanged were whispers about the boundaries of the story and the frame. I think in the long run Adil will be remembered for his performances.

Future plans

Sunrise opened at the Busan International film festival in October 2014 and we got some great reviews from the Hollywood Reporter and Variety. But when it played at the Mumbai Film Festival just after that, the Indian Press completely ignored us.

I think it’s the treatment that I have used in the film that is very different from the linear narratives that one is used to in Indian films. Nevertheless it has created a lot of interest and some western producers are enquiring about my new projects.

A Los Angeles based talent agency also contacted me and we are in negotiations at the moment. I have a lot of stories to tell but they have to fit into the financial realities of the international independent film industry. I am working on a few projects at the moment but I like my stories to grow with time. I have a lot of patience, so let us see which one is going to work out first.

– By Priyanka Jain