Cannes 2024 Review: SANTOSH, Damning Portrait of Indian Police Brutality

Shahana Goswami and Sunita Rajwar star in Sandhya Suri's Hindi-language, British-Indian film about female cops.

Contributing Writer; New Jersey, USA (@fuzzyyarns)
Cannes 2024 Review: SANTOSH, Damning Portrait of Indian Police Brutality
The largest election in history is underway in India at this moment, with nearly a billion people eligible to vote. It is humanity’s biggest-ever electoral exercise of its kind. And yet India remains an imperfect democracy.
Nowhere is that exemplified better than in the staggering failure of its law enforcement and criminal justice system. From British-Indian filmmaker Sandhya Suri comes an indictment and an exposé, via her engrossing police procedural Santosh.
Santosh centers on the titular heroine, junior Constable Santosh Saini (Shahana Goswami), a young woman essentially forced to conscript herself into the police force after the death of her husband. A bizarre law allows widows of law enforcement officials dead in the line of duty to succeed them in the role, in order to retain the living quarters and income they would otherwise lose. Santosh, a shielded middle-class homemaker, is suddenly thrust into an often brutal and upsetting profession, opening her eyes to the moral rot contaminating the entire institution of policing.
A 15-year-old girl, Devika, goes missing and her father is unable to get the local police to take him seriously. He’s from what is considered the “lower caste” Dalit community, rendering his concerns of no interest to them. When Devika’s raped and molested corpse, with cigarette burn marks, is found dumped in a sewer-like well, the police are forced into action, but only because the locals protest and there is heat from the media. 
The existing police inspector is ‘transferred’ (code for disciplined and reassigned due to his inaction), and a new female inspector Sharma (Sunita Rajwar) is installed in his place. The audience at this point might think they are in for a Zodiac or even True Detective-like labyrinthine thriller.
Instead, what follows is the sloppiest, most half-assed police investigation you can imagine with terrible evidence gathering, zero corroboration and no method to the madness. And that it is part of Suri’s point.
The breathtaking incompetence of the police force, at least in his semi-rural town in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Santosh is based, is on full display. The laziness itself would be plenty malicious as it would considerably defer and deny justice, but leavened with institutional corruption and a disregard for legality, it is actively harmful.
Concepts like due process, protection against search without warrant or undue detainment, right to counsel, and even a ban on cruel and unusual punishment seem so quaint in the crucible of small-town India. What might elicit outrage from a Western perch, is business as usual in many places in the world.
Santosh and Sharma’s sloppy investigation leads them to a young Muslim boy, Salim, as the possible culprit. Sharma detains him without a warrant or lawyer in sight and proceeds to violently torture him in brutal and sadistic fashion to get him to confess. Santosh, initially our doe-eyed surrogate into the law-enforcement milieu, joins in on the torture, whipping the boy with a belt until he passes out. The moral ambivalence, spreading like a cancer throughout the police force, eventually gets Santosh in its grips too.
Suri chooses an interesting vantage point to explore the ills in Indian society that she wants to address. There is, of course, the routine violence against women and the casual sexism and misogyny that Santosh experiences on a day-to-day basis, even after donning a police uniform. The chosen culprit is Muslim, an easy scapegoat in a progressively hostile India.
Then there is the tacitly state-endorsed system of caste apartheid, where certain castes are deemed less deserving of human dignity. India is racially homogenous; everyone has more or less the same genes and skin color. The caste system is an entirely invented system of discrimination in lieu of any racial differences. Economic differences compound this discrimination.
There is also the subject of basic inadequacy of the law enforcement function as it exists. Suri pointedly includes an amusing scene where Santosh watches a video comparing the Chinese police and Indian police. In comparison, the Indian police officers are physically unfit, ill-equipped, and entirely untrained and unprepared. Suri’s portrayal also sharply contrasts with the jingoistic portrayal in Bollywood star-driven blockbusters where police officers are portrayed as handsome, buff, bronzed superheroes, morally faultless, supremely capable, and beacons of justice, a preposterous fantasy divorced from reality.
Suri’s casting of two women as her leads is also pertinent, as she does not excuse her own gender in the role it can play in sustaining institutional orthodoxies. Rajwar, in a terrific portrayal of the older hard-boiled police inspector, superbly conveys the corruption of authority, the petty allure of having power over others, and the ends-justify-means approach to policing. Goswami in an enormously textured performance, somehow manages to hold on to our respect and sympathy even as she sinks deeper into the swamp.
Santosh is unquestionably a didactic film, meant to purposefully explore subjects that the filmmaker cares about. But it is rendered enormously engrossing through the very successful immersion in the specific setting where the film takes place. The realism is consistently involving and bracing, making full use of Suri’s documentary background, and maintains interest by observing faces and sights that we don’t often see on-screen. The local dialect adds color and the sound design accurately recreates the bustle and din of the over-populated cities.
Santosh could be tighter if all of the set-ups about how Santosh became a cop were excised. ‘Widows inheriting a police job’ is an interesting factoid but doesn’t really bear upon the point Suri is making through the overall narrative. Even so, this Santosh a refreshing antidote to the crass and vulgar Bollywood police offerings and will meaningfully engage and educate both Indian and Western audiences.
Santosh premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.
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CannesCannes 2024Sandhya SuriSantoshShahana GoswamiSunita Rajwar

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