Sandhya Suri’s “Santosh” opens with a death. The titular character (Shahana Goswami) finds herself thrown into unexpected waters with her husband’s passing. Her in-laws wash their hands of her despite her parents’ insistence. They brand her a witch for tearing their son away from them and remind her parents of the ignorable dowry, which they assert as freeing them of any relationship with Santosh.

When Santosh realizes she doesn’t have much to lean back on, she takes up her husband’s position of a constable upon being offered. Slowly, the film turns into a full-fledged police procedural, as Santosh gets caught up in a case where a Dalit girl is discovered raped and murdered. As the film astutely points out, even the road to getting an FIR lodged isn’t easy, smooth access for a section of people historically denied resources and space of articulation.

Set in ‘Chirag Pradesh’ in north India, Santosh is a direct, unflinching incursion into the dangerous crosshairs of patriarchy and casteism. They are so overt and ingrained in the air that the characters, representing the worst, normalized behavioral codes, breathe, questioning it seems almost futile. When Santosh lashes out at the Dalit villagers for being uncooperative in filing an official complaint for the constant trouble posed by the upper castes, they hit back at her, reminding her that police officers themselves are wary of touching their water.

Sandhya Suri’s searing film essentially tracks the protagonist’s coming into full, uncomfortable consciousness of the varied implications, often troubling, that the job brings and exposes her to. We witness the world cracking open to her in all its heartbreaking, enraging, and hopeless reach. In many ways, it becomes a personal chronicle of disillusionment as well as a pitiless macro indictment. The intimate and the larger forces are established in a contiguous flow in Santosh, each chafing at the other.

Suri, who has also written the screenplay, presents within the two-hour film miniature portraits of the many fault lines that run through Indian society. These fissures are practically inseparable from coloring regular interactions and exchanges. Nothing is exempt from the brutal, cruel inequity of a society that has neatly cleaved into divisive, hateful pockets of oppression, the circumstantial relativity and degree of whose violence is only a mask for its absolute, overarching spread. Importantly, she depicts the rot as systemic, structural, and generational. Breaking the wheel seems impossible, so the people negotiate with it and make compromises to suit a certain, well-intentioned agenda that comes with its own costs of betraying an entire community. Of what use is then justice?

Can we even pretend to hold any faith in its possibility? What is the scope of justice when the machinery meant to be dispensing it is entrenched in a gloatingly discriminatory attitude? The film prods these questions in several scenes. Misogyny is plunged deep into the prattle and frivolities of male cops. The police vehicle is one of the many spaces in the film that underlines the daily battle wherein women endure the onslaught of their peers that is frequently derogatory, insensitive, and downright condemnable. All that Santosh and her female superior, Inspector Sharma (a steely Sunita Rajwar), can do is stay disengaged from the conversation.

Santosh is a decisively grim film that holds no comforting illusions or pads up its rough edges. What is the measure of guilt we can afford to carry on our consciousness? As Santosh grows in confidence, she also becomes unsure of how much she can bear the metaphorical weight of her uniform, especially in the light of her darkening awareness of the moral minefield that the role pushes her into. Would she even want to operate in such a zone of responsibility that can bend and manipulate narratives and buckle under brazenly rigged structures of power?

Ultimately, what agency can she demand when she already has to abide by historically skewed, segregating rules of society? Santosh is persistently reminded there’s only so much she can dare to do. The rest will continue to be stage-managed by those higher on the rung. Inspector Sharma asserts matter-of-factly that there are and will be people they cannot touch, existing outside the auspices of justice and legality.

Santosh (2024) ‘Cannes’ Movie Review
A still from Santosh (2024)

Suri brilliantly establishes the brash arrogance in men that comes with wielding unchecked power and a scot-free security in egregious, immediately questionable actions. The audacity they display is staggering; Suri incisively weaves it into the commonplace. Early in the film, a male boss promises Santosh a better flat. However, quickly, he slips in a caveat by way of a seemingly harmless suggestion. As the better, cooler-equipped flat would be closer to the boss’ place, perhaps Santosh could drop in by and help out his wife with housework before heading to work, he adds. In Shahana Goswami’s subtle-register performance, the gratitude shades to a startlement.

Particularly, the film’s investigation into power and privilege is tinged with a necessary, sharp gendering. A police officer rails at the suspect, demanding why he didn’t just rape the girl but also killed her. Disquiet is expertly handled by Suri, inducing it both suggestively and viscerally. Police brutality nastily hovers. There’s a long, unforgiving scene of a suspect being assaulted in a custodial investigation. The scene serves as a litmus test and a turning point in Santosh’s emotional journey vis a vis what she can accept, internalize, and practice.

Santosh is a powerful, much-needed intersectional inquiry into the state of minorities, gendered entitlement, and caste-engineered clear divides in India. There’s lofty ambition packed into this film, which admirably addresses its loaded nuances with due patience and rigor. What especially elevates the film is the quiet tenacity of Shahana Goswami’s performance. As the protagonist, Goswami compellingly charts a rich trajectory from being an observer on the sidelines to tentatively stepping inside the circle of fire.

Goswami laces the character with a lot of reserve and cautiousness. Santosh doesn’t open up and share her grief about her husband’s passing. It’s a role that demands her to be constantly witnessing, absorbing, and learning the ropes while being gradually and unnervingly struck by the routine horrors she will have to overlook and possibly perpetrate. Shahana Goswami and Sunita Rajwar make for a riveting duo, the latter’s character a faint mirror into the former’s probable future if Santosh were to adopt the canny and smarts required to maneuver through spaces deep-sunk in patriarchal, casteist entitlement.

“Santosh” builds up to a chilling climactic confrontation between two iterations of guilt and culpability. Did you do it? Questions raised in this grim, probing film poke at the chasms that rupture, firmly indicating a dire need to reach out to the other, isolated end. This is a compelling and haunting film.

Santosh premiered in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival 2024.

Santosh (2024) Movie Link: IMDb, MUBI

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