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Santosh

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Santosh
Photograph: Cannes Film Festival
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

An Indian police constable navigates murder and corruption in a gripping and powerfully feminist procedural

From Serpico to LA Confidential to Training Day, stories of straight-arrow cops navigating corruption on the force are a Hollywood staple. Will that cheeky free donut lead the principled officer spiralling into a life of backhanders and dodgy deals, or can they hold onto their morals and bring the big apples on the force to book? Ultimately, the good guy wins out – and it is invariably a guy.

Sandhya Suri’s terrific slowburn drama is the non-Hollywoodised version of that story, depicting life as a woman in India’s rural police as a far murkier and less predictable affair. The British-Indian director diagnoses a problem far too deep-seated for one well-meaning, inexperienced young constable to solve, leading you into a maze of compromised ethics, police brutality, caste violence and misogyny, and refusing to point to the exit.

That constable is Santosh, an emotionally bruised young woman played with tentative gumption by Shahana Goswami. When her husband of two years is killed policing a riot, she takes up the option of a so-called ‘compassionate appointment’, a real scheme in India that enables women to take up their deceased husband’s old jobs. 

Suri’s sharp-edged screenplay doesn’t find much admirable in Santosh’s new police colleagues, a lazy, bribable bunch of layabouts. One bullying female officer takes particular delight in humiliating trysting couples, enforcing a strict moral code noticeably absent back at the station. The cops laugh over a meme comparing China and India’s police in unflattering terms: the Chinese are basically RoboCops; India’s are of the Keystone variety.

This slowburn feminist drama is the non-Hollywoodised ‘Training Day’

The death of a young Dalit girl – a so-called ‘untouchable’ raped, murdered and dumped in a local well – brings all of these negative stereotypes into painful focus, and gives the film its plot driver. As the newbie at the station, Santosh is charged with transporting the girl’s body to the morgue – no one else wants to sully themselves with a member of a lower caste – and she’s quickly sent on the trail of the victim’s ex-boyfriend in Mumbai, teaming up with an intimidating but jaded older female officer called Sunita (Sunita Rajwar).

Santosh is soon experiencing – and participating in – those same, age-old policing methods, and the excellent Goswami brings both naivety and steeliness to the character’s inner torment about it, communicating dawning sorrow through wide eyes.

Suri’s eye-catching 2018 short The Field explored village life in India through a more honeyed lens, but there’s nothing wistful or romantic in this hard-hitting story of disillusionment and compromise – Santosh positions its protagonist as a fundamentally decent woman in an impossible situation, rather than a crusading cop on mission. If ‘Training Day with more grey areas’ sounds dull, it’s anything but.

Santosh premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Sandhya Suri
  • Screenwriter:Sandhya Suri
  • Cast:
    • Shahana Goswami
    • Sunita Rajwar
    • Sanjay Bishnoi
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