Santosh Review: Shahana Goswami Delivers A Performance Of Astounding Emotional Depth

Santosh Review: The film premiered at the 77th Cannes Film Festival in Un Certain Regard

Santosh Review: Shahana Goswami Delivers A Performance Of Astounding Emotional Depth

A still from Santosh.

The cop drama receives a pronounced makeover in Santosh, British-Indian director Sandhya Suri's first fiction feature, a Hindi-language film featuring Shahana Goswami and Sunita Rajwar in roles that neither has played before.

The film forays into the rural boondocks of North India and examines religious prejudice, caste discrimination, abuse of power, custodial torture and gender dynamics in a police station and in the communities that it serves.

Suri's percipient script puts two policewomen - one a hardened pro who has seen it all, the other a rookie struggling with half-truths and undisguised lies - at the centre of a tale that delves into a broken system that is manipulated at will by those that wield power, be it social, political or administrative. It is they who determined the substance and course of justice and the police force plays along.

A recently widowed woman, Santosh Saini (Shahana Goswami), is inducted into the force on compassionate grounds. Before she can find her feet in the job, the constable finds herself in the middle of a sensitive crime investigation.

A Dalit girl has been raped and murdered in a village. The probe is led by a tough female inspector, Geeta Sharma (Sunita Rajwar) - she is addressed as 'Sharmaji' - who is not averse to getting her hands dirty in the cesspool that surrounds her.

Santosh is set in a state called Chirag Pradesh. The towns in which the story plays out - Nehrat, Mapur, Madrabad, Ghazaliabad, Machogarh - bear fictitious names. Besides the fact that these places have parallels in the real world, everything in Santosh is rooted in reality.

It is a police procedural that isn't limited by genre conventions. In fact, it is defined by its steadfast abjuration of the norms of the form. Santosh is a slow-burning and trenchant commentary on the ills of a society where biases of many kinds run rampant often with horrific consequences. But life goes on.

Santosh follows both the personal and the collective with equal rigour, revealing the fault lines that the new policewoman must understand and deal with as her superior, a woman who has years of experience under her belt, not only does a bit of hand-holding but also goes out of her way to make the newbie's work easier.

The bonding that develops between the two women in a male-dominated force also brings out the marked divergence in the approaches of the two cops. Santosh is an outsider. She is barely accepted by the men in the police station. But she soldiers on. In contrast, Sharma is the boss. The unflappable lady calls the shots. She seems keen to mould Santosh in her own image.

Besides the grief of losing her policeman-husband in the line of duty, Santosh has to reckon with the apathy and cynicism of the men, in uniform and otherwise, she works with. She learns the ropes pretty quickly but cannot shrug off the sense of guilt and frustration that comes with the territory.

An illiterate Dalit man approaches the cops to complain that his only daughter is missing. He is all but shooed away. Santosh steps in and offers to help the hapless father. But how far can she go in the face of her male colleagues' all-round and ingrained reluctance to serve the dispossessed?

Earlier, a girl arrives at the police station to lodge a complaint about a perfidious boyfriend. The girl's father, who has the means that missing Dalit girl's father does not, bribes one of the cops to be allowed to mete out instant punishment to the 'erring' boy. Santosh can only watch.

Amid the injustices that the men under her perpetrate with impunity, Sharma comes across as a woman who espouses the right principals. However, as the case proceeds and Santosh descends deeper and deeper into moral grey areas, she begins to figure out that nobody in the police force, not even her apparently benign mentor, is free of stains.

Caste oppression and misogyny are hidden in plain sight in Santosh. The film also underscores the casual manner in which religious fissures are normalised in a divided society. "It happens," an unperturbed Sharma says to Santosh when the investigation takes an avoidable turn.

Defending an indefensible act, Sharma reminds Santosh that this country has two types of "untouchables" - those that you do not touch and those that you cannot touch. The battle between the two is not only unequal but unending.

A repeatedly defiled well in a Dalit village is the site of continuing upper caste tyranny. A mutilated corpse is found in it. A decomposed cat and a dead canine are thrown into it. The community that uses the well is angry but powerless. They know they will have to live with being at the receiving end because the impervious upper caste men of the village can get away with murder.

Santosh has no background score. Two songs that play on the audio system of the Inspector Sharma's official vehicle are meant to break the solemnity of two policewomen's work. In the silences, the ambient sounds, especially the thwack of an off-camera police baton landing an accused's back, become all the more chilling.

Shahana Goswami delivers a performance of astounding emotional depth. She brings out the inner turmoil of the titular character, an ingenue who must find her way around in a world in the grip of corruption and exploitation, with restraint. The means she employs are measured and meaningful.

Sunita Rajwar, a victim of typecasting in Hindi films and web shows as a loud-mouthed termagant, digs are teeth into a meaty and layered role that allows her to leave much unsaid. She comes up with an act that enhances the sharpness of the inquisition that the film conducts into the pulls and pressures of policing a diverse and divided country.


Shahana Goswami, Shashi Beniwal, Sunita Rajwar, Sanjay Bishnoi and Kushal Dubey


Sandhya Suri