Sandhya Suri on ‘Santosh’: ’The film doesn’t point and shout very much’

Sandhya Suri’s ‘Santosh’, which premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, is about a newly widowed woman who is offered her late husband’s police constable job

Pahull Bains
First Published26 May 2024
A still from 'Santosh'
A still from ’Santosh’

Crime procedurals in India tend to follow a formula: there’s always one brilliant and upstanding cop fighting the good fight within a corrupt and unjust system - either by taking the moral high road or through extra-judicial vigilantism. Sandhya Suri’s debut narrative feature, Santosh, which premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, takes neither of those paths.

Instead, the British-Indian filmmaker is telling a story far murkier and more ambiguous. The film follows Santosh Saini, a newly widowed woman who is offered her late husband’s police constable position “on compassionate grounds,” as part of a government scheme. Suri was drawn to telling the story of a female cop after she saw a photograph taken during nationwide protests in 2012 following the Nirbhaya case. The photo captured a group of female protesters faced by a line of female police officers. 

Also read: News and other battles: Vinay Shukla on ‘While We Watched’

“There was one policewoman who had such an interesting expression on her face,” said Suri in an interview at Cannes. “I was hooked. I was like oh my god, look at these women for whom it's not even safe to walk the streets, and their sense of powerlessness, but look at her power. She's them but she’s also not them.”

Unpacking that curious mix of power and powerlessness that exists for a woman with any kind of status or privilege in India became the entry point to the script, which Suri first workshopped during a Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2016. Key to building a realistic story about modern day India was bringing in layers of casteism, misogyny and religious intolerance, all of which help establish the sociopolitical context of the fictional North Indian state of Chirag Pradesh where the film is set. 

Soon after Santosh joins the police force, she’s witness to a spectrum of toxic bigotry within the institution (serving as a microcosm of the prejudice embedded deep within Indian society writ large). When a young Dalit girl named Devika goes missing the police don’t take it seriously, and when she winds up dead a few days later, they come under intense public pressure to hold someone accountable. A no-nonsense female inspector named Greta Sharma is assigned to lead the investigation, and she soon takes Santosh under her wing. Suspicion falls quickly on Saleem, a local boy who was friends with Devika. A pall of Islamophobia hangs over the film’s milieu, manifesting in ways both subtle and overt. 

“These themes are very old and very tired and they're also very urgent and they're also very pressing,” said Suri. “That's the thing. This film could have been made 10 years ago, at the beginning of the [development] process. For me it was about listening to the little conversations [around me]—a lot of those things that are in the script have been said.”

Rather than presenting Santosh as the scrupulous cop who stands firm against discrimination or manipulation, we see that she’s no hero; she’s got prejudices of her own. How could she not? It’s impossible not to breathe in what’s all around you. “What does that absorption feel like, how does that play out?” wondered Suri. So the film explores Santosh’s own complicity in the system, and the sly ways in which she quickly learns to play the game.

Shahana Goswami does excellent work here as Santosh. A lot of the film rides on her ability to convey the cop’s internal struggle to find her footing—to balance the glow of her newfound status while striving to maintain some integrity, to fulfill her duties as law enforcement without alienating her peers or superiors. She conveys it all through her tightly coiled body language, and subtle shifts in her eyes that turn from eager to watchful to stricken as the film progresses. 

“With Santosh, I knew it would never be about a good cop in a bad system,” says Suri.

“That's too boring for me, I don't want to tell that story. I've seen it many times… Actually what I love about women in general is that they're always manoeuvring, especially in India. They're in the difficult position of always playing chess, always trying to move somewhere, no matter how difficult things look.”

That constant dance also informs the inscrutability with which the character of Inspector Sharma was written (and played brilliantly by Sunita Rajwar). She’s brusque and to the point, but there’s something maternal and endearing about her. As a high-ranking woman in the service, she quickly becomes an aspirational figure to Santosh. But as the film hurtles towards its tragic resolution, Santosh realizes there’s a lot more to Sharma than meets the eye. She too, is engaged in the dance of trying to hold on to power when the very fact of her womanhood negates it, and she’s been doing it a lot longer than Santosh, with consequences that seem to have shaped her irrevocably. When you live in a country that respects a police uniform but not the woman wearing it, it’s easier to change yourself than a collective mindset. 

“I knew I didn't want the don, the matriarch,” says Suri of casting Rajwar as the enigmatic Sharma. “We have that person a lot in Indian cinema—the stereotypical hardened, toughened-up person. I was looking for the layers, I was looking for the humanity, for the vulnerability. And Sunita had all that. But she also had to be scary!”

As the narrative unfolds, the film lays bare the insidious ways in which bigotry and intolerance have crept into our society, how they’ve become normalized and accepted. We see how much one’s caste and religion determines the kind of life they're allowed to live, and whether they’re entitled to any justice and dignity. “The film doesn't point and it doesn't shout very much. It's more mirror-like,” says Suri. But as Santosh finds, sometimes the reflection becomes too painful to look at. 

Also read: The radical honesty of 'Sister Midnight'

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