“Bollywood and the police are so entwined”: Sandhya Suri on her tense policing thriller Santosh

A widow takes on her late husband’s job as a cop in Santosh, which was inspired by a horrific real-life crime story. We joined director Sandhya Suri after its Cannes premiere.

Santosh (2024)

A knotty, energetic and brutal police procedural, Santosh is British-Indian director Sandhya Suri’s first fiction feature and her most ambitious film to date. Filmed in rural northern India over 44 days, it follows the story of the eponymous widow (played by Shahana Goswami) who, in Indian law, is allowed to take her late husband’s job as a police constable after he is killed in a riot.

Shown the ropes by tough, experienced Inspector Sharma (Sunita Rajwar), Santosh investigates the case of a murder of a low-caste teenage girl found dumped down a well in a rural village and discovers that class, gender and corruption all play a part in what passes for justice on her patch.

Backed by the BFI Filmmaking Fund, Santosh uses a cop thriller framework to delve into some of the biggest societal problems in modern India. Suri, who made documentaries I for India (2005) and Around India with a Movie Camera (2018), was mentored at the Sundance Labs initiative in 2016 by Robert Redford. Suri says: “He was so fantastic, because he doesn’t say a huge amount. He’d watch me with the actors. He’d [only] say one or two things, but they were so precise and correct.”

On a bright, sun-baked roof terrace during Cannes Film Festival, where Santosh premiered in the Un Certain Regard section, Suri explains the origins of the story, how India’s unique sound challenges play a part in filming, and Bollywood’s relationship with policing.

Sandhya Suri

Is it true that the genesis of Santosh came from your own experiences in India in 2012?

Sandhya Suri: It was before that. I was working in NGOs and researching the subject of violence against women, trying to make a documentary about it and not finding a way in. Then I saw a photo around that case in Delhi [the Nirbhaya case, in which 23-year-old Jyoti Singh was raped and murdered by six men on a bus in Munirka, south Delhi] of protesters, female protesters and a police officer.

There was a very big, angry group of women outraged by what had happened. It was such a violent crime. Then there was a line of women police officers, because in India only women police officers deal with females. One of them had a visor on, and behind the grill she had a very enigmatic expression. It was almost half a smile. I was thinking, “Wow, look at her. Look at them. Look at what they’re protesting. Now look at her, what her uniform represents.” What’s that like to sit in that position? What’s she thinking about this? How does she position herself? How does she see herself? What’s it like for her inside of uniform and out of uniform to be a woman in India?

What was the biggest challenge about the shoot?

It was very hot, so I think it was hard for a lot of people, especially my poor DP [Lennert Hillege]. I’m hot, but he’s hot and he’s not Indian and he’s got to carry the camera.

Locations got flooded. It rained at times it shouldn’t have rained. The fun thing in India is sound. You have sound security who try to keep people quiet, but you can’t actually stop anything in India. Nothing really stops. We came to do the very intense sequence in the film. We turned up on location at night for this very deep and dark throbbing sort of atmosphere.

There was a banging religious festival going on, with some music blaring out the speakers. But there’s always a religious festival everywhere, especially when you’re out in villages. The sound guy, a boom op who’s very experienced in India, Shashi, he knew you can’t tell anyone to shut down a religious festival. That does nothing in India. Doesn’t matter who you are, even if you’re Shah Rukh Khan. All you can do is ask, “Could you turn the speakers this way? Could we negotiate on some decibels?” Sometimes I had to beg the priest or whoever to please keep a bit quieter.

Previously you’ve said, “There’s sometimes a glorification of violence in Bollywood police films with police officers often taking the law in their own hands for the greater good.” Was Santosh an attempt to kind of get away from that kind of portrayal?

It was about stepping sideways. There is violence in the film, but I’m hoping that people have a human understanding of everyone involved and their motivations. It’s also why certain sequences are longer than you might think, because I wanted things to be paced in a way, [to allow for a sense of the] casual nature of the violence.

It was important to me not to make a drama out of these things that do happen. Bollywood and the police are so entwined; the idea of this dark theatre of policing as acting. That’s all in the film, and Sharma talks about it. Everything’s a theatre. Us and our violence, us and our posturing, them and how they’re pleading with us, and who’s telling the truth or not.

This is why I put Bollywood music in there – because cops are also very drawn to Bollywood. They’re drawn to Bollywood cops. The amount of conversations I had about, “Which hero do you like? And will it be a film about this type of hero, that type of hero?”

Santosh is quite innocent at the start. By the end, she’s hardened and morally ambiguous and chewing over what she’s done. Did you see anything like that or meet people like that in India?

Corruption exists in India very strongly, and everybody has an interaction with it. Everybody has their own limits. At the beginning, Santosh is innocent, but the first thing we learn about her is something that her mother-in-law says: she’s always out spending her husband’s money, roaming around here and there. It’s an interesting thing to put in about a character, because was she like that or is it just a mother-in-law being nasty? Who is this person? 

Then her husband dies and this world becomes enormous. Possibilities start to come her way, and she has to figure out what she does with them.

Santosh (2024)Taha Ahmad

The relationship between Santosh and Sharma plays a large part in Santosh’s empowerment. How important was it to get that female solidarity dynamic right?

It was really important. We did chemistry tests to see how that would work out between them. I had to find a Sharma with her right level of authority, but also very human. At one stage I was going to cast a non-actor for Santosh because I thought it’d be interesting to see the power play between a non-actor and an experienced older actor, but then it was too complicated. Luckily I found Shahana and she nailed it.

The position of women in India’s society and in the workforce, the caste system and police corruption are all woven through the film. Do you think any of those issues is a bigger problem than the other or do you see them as being interdependent?

It’s just about intolerance, generally. All of those things do exist. What I like about how the film’s turned out is that it’s a tapestry of all these things, which is society. Things aren’t being pointed at. It’s more like a mirror. This was what hangs in the air. What happens if you’re in that all the time? How does she imbibe that?

Everybody in India understands all these things. By keeping things more balanced, more the same weight, the audience can become a bit more implicated in where they sit in relation to each of those things.

Do you see yourself as a campaigning filmmaker?

Even making docs, everybody thinks that docs are all about message. I would never make a doc for a message. For me, I can’t. I teach. I lecture, in order to make a living, in order to make films. I do not make films to teach.

Santosh, backed by the BFI Filmmaking Fund with National Lottery money, played in Un Certain Regard at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.