Santosh: Why Sandhya Suri needed fiction to reveal truth about police brutality in India

British-Indian documentarian turned feature filmmaker tells The National why fiction became a necessary tool to explore issue of systemic violence against women

Santosh was inspired by actual criminal cases in India. Photo: Haut et Court
Powered by automated translation

After receiving strong critical reviews, Sandhya Suri’s Santosh has emerged as one of the potential hidden gems of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Screening in the Un Certain Regard strand of the storied French Riviera event, the international co-production is an engrossing crime drama starring Shahana Goswami and Sunita Rajwar in the leading roles.

The story zooms in on the titular 28-year-old woman (Goswami), who inherits her husband’s job as a police constable in the rural badlands of Northern India after he is suddenly killed during a riot. When a low-caste girl is murdered, Santosh is pulled into the investigation by charismatic feminist inspector Sharma (Rajwar).

After the film's Cannes world premiere on 20 May, Suri shared with The National her insight into the making of her impressive first fiction feature and the timely social issues it tackles.

When asked how she embarked on the project, the British-Indian director and documentarian explained: “I was in India working with some NGOs and I was trying to find some dealing with violence against women, because it’s such an important subject in India and something I’ve seen affecting so many aspects of my life there.

“I was trying to find a documentary way to delve into it, but it was too ‘frontal,’ too horrible for me to just go and film with my camera.

“I thought I need to get ‘inside’ this violence. I was very frustrated with my documentary attempts, and then we had this horrible gang rape case in a Delhi bus in 2012. A photograph came out which depicted women protesting and police officers standing in front of them.

“One of the police officers’ ladies had such an outstanding facial expression, it was so enigmatic. I didn’t know what she was thinking. She was standing opposite these women, and by looking at her I wondered: Who is she? How does she feel wearing this uniform while witnessing the anger of these women?”

The photograph persuaded Suri to reflect further on female police officers’ inner feelings, torn as they often are between the power they are granted and the fears that remain when they are not wearing their uniforms. Then she realised that fiction was the right field of research to explore their daily struggles.

Suri praises the work of her casting director Mukesh Chhabra. “We chose Goswami as our lead on the last day of auditions,” the director reveals. “She was a bit older than I had anticipated, but when she came in the room, I saw Santosh right away.”

In her director’s statement, Suri describes making her first fiction feature film in India as “a baptism of fire”.

She added: “It was a big project for a first feature. If I had made a debut about two young adults in the north of England, it’d have been much more manageable. Instead, we’ve got over 70 speaking parts [to cast], many sets, many crowded scenes … And, I speak fluent Hindi but it’s not as good as English, so directing in that language has also been a challenge.”

The script, developed through the Sundance Institute, gradually turned in an ambitious co-production effort involving British, German, French and Indian partners. Nonetheless, Suri’s previous experience on large documentary co-productions made the task easier.

“I feel very comfortable in that European co-production space,” she underscores. “My co-producers know each other and they’re part of a creative alliance. It’s reassuring for a director to enter into something where there are very good working relationships. So you don’t get lost in the politics or in between different interests.”

Switching from non-fiction to fiction, Suri found working with actors to be “remarkably nice and easy.”

She explains: “It was important, since it’s a film about the police, that they had to spend time with officers. They couldn’t do their work basing it only on what they had seen in old films, so that was a vital part of the process. We had time to go through the script, discuss our scenes in the evenings after spending the day with the officers, and try to find a ‘glue’ between reality and fiction.”

It’s reassuring for a director to enter into something where there are very good working relationships
Sandhya Suri

On the absence of score, she says: “From the start, I knew there’d be no score, and only a couple of [intradiegetic] tracks … That was an important choice for me, and it’s been quite hard to stand by that across screenings, because everybody wants music!”

During the post-production, she sat down with her Italian-French-Spanish editor Maxime Pozzi-Garcia. Despite the significant language barrier, he managed to overcome it, accomplishing his task brilliantly.

“With the cinematography, everything had to quite be organic,” she sums up. “I’m not used to working in fiction and if I make documentaries I shoot them myself. But the images are already ‘written’ in the script, so our work was learning to ‘spatialise’ things. We worked on a scene-by-scene basis, mixing hand-held and more static shots.”

Updated: May 23, 2024, 9:16 AM