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CANNES 2024 Un Certain Regard

Review: Santosh

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- CANNES 2024: A new police recruit assumes the post of her deceased husband in Indian filmmaker Sandhya Suri’s impressive crime-drama

Review: Santosh
Shahana Goswami (centre) in Santosh

Sandhya Suri’s Santosh [+see also:
interview: Sandhya Suri
film profile
]
presents an inexperienced and guileless lead character learning that the world is far dirtier than she thought – a plot trajectory we’ve seen countless times and should ourselves be too worldly for; conversely, being set in the unique and topical context of North India makes it feel newly urgent. Suri’s work as a director and especially a screenwriter is so smooth and deft that it reminds us of the medium’s special facility to show the gradual unveiling of corruption, recalling pessimistic 1970s work like Serpico and Chinatown. The fiction debut from the British-Indian filmmaker, following several successful docs, has premiered to acclaim this week in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.

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Made with primarily British financing, it’s a timely piece of alternative Indian cinema that would especially appeal to the large diasporic population, being specifically designed to counter fantastical, chest-beating Bollywood slants on law enforcement. Further international audiences will appreciate its relevance to current-affairs coverage of the far-right BJP’s ascent, growing anti-Muslim discrimination, and the historic caste system’s resonance with modern identity politics.

Santosh (Shahana Goswami) is a fresh-faced and idealistic new police recruit in the time-honoured fashion, except for the key detail that she’s assumed the post due to her being the widow of a recently deceased officer. The first major challenge of her tenure is a compromised investigation on the rape and murder of a low-caste girl named Devika; in response to a local media outcry on the police’s blasé and disinclined response, charismatic investigator Sharma (Sunita Rajwar) is drafted in to efficiently conclude the case, and Santosh initially finds her an inspiring mentor and point of feminist solidarity in this corrupt, patriarchal world.

The Muslim identity of the prime suspect, Saleem (Arbaz Khan), creates an association with the circumstances of her husband’s death, where he was struck by a brick trying to subdue a riot in a majority village of the persecuted faith. Yet as each stage of the investigation progresses, resulting in the eventual arrest of Saleem, any justice or courtesy towards Devika’s Dalit caste is deferred. It appears a hair-splitting difference, but the manner in which the case is constantly waylaid, and police misconduct and complicity come to light, means that Santosh can’t be classified as a traditional “police procedural”, a genre that typically shows an under-duress system that works effectively: it is a crime-drama, where moral culpability tarnishes everyone proximate to the case.

Enhanced by Goswami’s firm, steadfast body language, in contrast with the creeping lines of worry across her brow and cheeks, Santosh’s character as written purposefully doesn’t provide much insight into her motivation, beyond the particulars of her entry into the force and the various stark challenges to her moral boundaries. Yet this is far from a limitation and appropriately makes her an audience surrogate figure, as our own certainty that “we’ve seen it all” ourselves crumbles: the post-independence social contract in India is shown to be under grave threat, and we can’t take it for granted where it might function more successfully, anywhere else in the world.

Santosh is a co-production by the UK, France, Germany and India, staged by Good Chaos, Haut et Court and Razor Films. Its international sales are courtesy of mk2 films.

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