‘Santosh’ Review: Shahana Goswami Commands the Screen in Story About Indian Policing

Who wields power in society? What will they do when they have it? Will they wield it justly or, as frequently happens, use it to create more cycles of violence? In Sandhya Suri’s searing yet subtle debut “Santosh,” these urgent questions float around everything as it takes a look at policing and injustice in modern India. Placing us in the shoes of the titular Santosh, a Hindu widow played with quiet intensity by Shahana Goswami, we follow her as she becomes part of the Indian police. This was her late husband’s job which she has now inherited. She needed something as her ability to survive in a harsh world is put at risk by an uncaring bureaucracy. Though she is able to find some stability in her own life thanks to the job, chaos and cruelty emerge.

The film is both cleareyed and straightforward about this, never once shying away from the darker truths that Santosh discovers the more she becomes immersed in a grim investigation. The dramatic developments are all grounded in a haunting realism and the gripping performance of Goswami. In her every reaction to this profession of policing, we see an entire world of pain, fear and alarm that quickly becomes swallowed up by the system. The question is then whether Santosh will be able to find truth in a world of lies and a way out unscathed.

Premiering at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, “Santosh” plays out almost as a subversion of the standard police procedural and the way cinema has often portrayed these types of stories. Don’t go looking for heroes to rally around here as everyone is either compromised at best or corrupt at worst. This is first felt when a young girl of “lower caste” is reported by her family to have disappeared. Not only do Santosh’s colleagues not care, they don’t even pretend to when these concerns are brought to them. When her body is discovered, the police will come under scrutiny for what they didn’t do and the further harm they put the girl’s family through. Enter Geeta Sharma (Sunita Rajwar), a hard-nosed investigator who will take Santosh under her wing and begin digging into the case. But that doesn’t mean they’re looking for truth.

As the investigation unravels, the classic interview scenes and pounding of the pavement are complicated by the sense that this is not actually about solving the crime as much as it is about making everything go quiet. If there is someone who society has already marked as disposable, it’d probably be best for everyone that they go down for it. The film never hides this, as it isn’t built on a twist in any conventional sense. Instead, it’s about showing how frighteningly easy it is for brutality and torture to become “justifiable” means to bring the case to a close.

Not justice, but closure. Those two ideas are not synonymous in this world. Not only that, but one obscures the other. The dialogue in the film may be rather on the nose, but when you have no qualms about what you’re doing, why would you mince words? Accountability, along with justice, is so far out of mind that any thought of fixing this system from within feels utterly laughable. In the film’s most harrowing scene, an extended and unflinching depiction of torture that still knows when to exercise restraint, it’s clear there is no reforming such a force.

This is all felt in Santosh’s expressive eyes as she surveys everything before her and, in one particularly disturbing moment, seems like she too may go over the edge into embracing cruelty. Even more disquieting is that it seems like there may be part of her that likes the power it gives. Goswami is great in these moments, speaking volumes even with just a simple smile in silence.

This is a tricky, thorny part to play in a film that is equally so, but she hits every note with ease. The film never puts her on a pedestal and Goswami expertly captures all the shades of her complicated, troubled character. She is dealing with loss, yes, but the way her lack of control over her own life becomes the foundation for potentially harming others is disturbing in what it reveals about the potential that lurks in all of us.

Of course, this is the point. The film, shooting almost everything from Santosh’s perspective, doesn’t attempt to provide neat and tidy answers. It’s incredibly effective and culminates in one of the best closing shots of any film to show at this year’s festival. Without ever once overplaying its hand, it ensures the smallest act of resistance and compassion hits like a train.

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