Friday, June 21, 2024

“SANTOSH”

THE STORY – A government scheme sees newly widowed Santosh inherit her husband’s job as a police constable in the rural badlands of Northern India. When a low-caste girl is found raped and murdered, she is pulled into the investigation under the wing of charismatic feminist inspector Sharma.

THE CASTShahanna Goswam, Sunita Rajwar, Shashi Beniwal & Sanjay Bishnoi

THE TEAMSandhya Suri (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes


“Santosh,” the narrative feature debut of British-Indian writer-director Sandhya Suri, is a gripping police procedural that plays like a classic 1970s conspiracy thriller – the air thick with institutional corruption and fatalism. Fresh from its premiere in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, the film is certain to receive further festival play and will hopefully get the theatrical release it deserves in due course.

Set in the present day of rural northern India, the film centers on Santosh Saini (Shahana Goswami), a grieving young woman who becomes a police officer by way of “compassionate appointment,” a real-life government program that allows widows to inherit their husband’s jobs. Dismissed by her male colleagues, Santosh becomes increasingly obsessed with solving the disappearance of Devika, a 15-year-old girl from the Dalit caste, a population considered lower class.

However, when Devika’s body is found at the bottom of a well (where it has poisoned the local water supply), rising public anger forces the police to take action, and Santosh is assigned to work with Inspector Geeta Sharma (Sunita Rajwar), an experienced older female police detective with a fierce reputation. As the two women chase leads and uncover clues, the corruption surrounding the police and powerful local figures becomes increasingly apparent.

Suri’s compellingly paced script is extremely powerful, gradually revealing the unfathomable depths of sexism, corruption, institutional caste prejudice, and casual police brutality that surround Santosh. At first, the camera lingers on Santosh’s silent reactions as she simmers with anger at every turn (the police dismissing Devika’s father’s case out of hand when he first makes his report, mortuary assistants refusing to touch the dead girl’s body, etc.); however, the true horror of the film lies in the way that Santosh herself is inexorably drawn into the same sickeningly violent behavior.

The direction is impressive throughout. Suri’s background in documentary filmmaking serves her well, as she creates a strong sense of place and atmosphere. In addition, the film is alive to the pleasures of the police procedural genre, with Suri orchestrating several enjoyable sequences in that regard, not least when Santosh tracks down the key suspect in the murder: the boy that Devika was texting just before she disappeared.

Suri also gives the film an appealing feminist angle. It’s a joy to watch Santosh quietly excel at her job, something that’s unrecognized by her male superiors but earns her the respect of Sharma, who gives her a single line of praise: “You did really well.” Thereafter, their complex relationship shifts and becomes the film’s most fascinating element, as we’re never quite sure whether Sharma might be harboring an ulterior motive, either setting her up to take the fall for failure or something else entirely.

The performances are terrific across the board. Shahana Goswami is utterly compelling as Santosh and Suri’s cameras stick close to her side throughout, forcing us to pay close attention to her every flicker of facial expression. Sunita Rajwar is equally good, layering her character with inscrutable ambiguity, which sets up an intriguing extra layer of tension as their relationship develops.

“Santosh” features elements resembling noir that are enhanced by Lennert Hillege’s shadowy cinematography and an excellent score by Luisa Gerstein, which ratchets up the tension to a considerable degree. The film also has a nice line in noir-ish dialogue that dovetails the police thriller elements with reflections on real-life problems in contemporary India. A key speech in that regard comes from Sharma, who pointedly tells Santosh: “There are two types of untouchables in this country: Those who no one wants to touch, and those who can’t be touched.”

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Anchored by a terrific central performance, this is a thoroughly gripping police procedural thriller that packs a powerful punch, telling a compelling story of institutional corruption and the abuse of power alongside potent commentary on contemporary Indian society.

THE BAD - If there's a problem, it's only that the script hints at the circumstances of Santosh's husband's death in a way that seems like it will have an important pay-off later on, something that seems like a missed opportunity for further emotional depth. But that's a small complaint that doesn't diminish the film's overall impact.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Anchored by a terrific central performance, this is a thoroughly gripping police procedural thriller that packs a powerful punch, telling a compelling story of institutional corruption and the abuse of power alongside potent commentary on contemporary Indian society.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>If there's a problem, it's only that the script hints at the circumstances of Santosh's husband's death in a way that seems like it will have an important pay-off later on, something that seems like a missed opportunity for further emotional depth. But that's a small complaint that doesn't diminish the film's overall impact.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"SANTOSH"