Cannes Xpress 2024: There is a certain hopefulness in Santosh, says Shahana

Cannes Xpress 2024: There is a certain hopefulness in Santosh, says Shahana

Actors Shahana Goswami and Sunita Rajwar speak about the themes, and philosophies behind their film, Santosh, which competes in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes Film Festival 2024

A spirit of quiet subversion runs through Sandhya Suri’s debut feature film Santosh, which competes in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes Film Festival 2024. The UK-Germany-France co-production is about the newly widowed Santosh (Shahana Goswami), who is offered her deceased husband’s job in the police under the dependent quota scheme. As she goes about investigating the rape and murder of a minor girl from an oppressed caste, her own journey into understanding the world around her and her own self begins. Mentoring her all the way is the hardened Inspector Sharma (Sunita Rajwar).

Santosh is an unobtrusive but unflattering and unflinching gaze at patriarchy and the divisions of caste, class, and religion that run deep in society—the casual sexism, normalization of male entitlement, everyday harassment, and humiliation of the marginalized. The slice of life portrayal brings alive the brutal boondocks of North India and the cop universe therein. A world in which even the women cops find themselves going on a power trip, forgetting protocol, trespassing the boundaries, and heaping injustices on an innocent in trying to get justice for another.

A dialogue in the film sums up the shameful reality most succinctly: “There are two types of untouchables—those we don’t want to touch (those from the oppressed caste) and those that we can’t touch (the powerful and the privileged).” The day after the film’s premiere in Cannes, CE caught up with actors Shahana Goswami and Sunita Rajwar for a conversation on a wind-swept terrace at Palais des Festivals.

While Shahana is no stranger to the world of independent and arthouse cinema, for Sunita, best recognized for the web series Panchayat and the award-winning role of Bittu ki mummy is Gullak, Santosh is a deal breaker, a much-needed move away from the trap of comic roles. In what feels like a jugalbandi (duet), both are in perfect sync with each other in the film.

Q

How did the film come to you?

A

Sunita: I got a call from casting director Mukesh Chhabra. I was given the script that made me very excited. I went to the audition in which Sandhya was also present. The next day there was an audition with Shahana. I was shocked at how quickly it happened.

Q

What was it about the role that reached out to you?

A

Shahana: It is a good script. Rarely do we come across films that are good in their entirety. The film is the character and everything else is a part of that. When, despite a title character, all the human beings and spaces you see in the film become the character, that’s when you know that it’s a well-told story.

I liked the subtlety and silence. I enjoy playing characters that say less but you experience a lot by watching them rather than being told things about them.

Sunita: I found my character fascinating. It is intense, full of layers and I had never been offered such a good role before. I clicked with Shahana immediately. It was a blessing for me. Everybody always gives me comedies. They don’t even trust me with a main mother’s role. There is no way I could have said no to this role.

Q

The film touches upon several issues but does so quietly. How much of that quietude was expected to reflect in your performances?

A

Shahana: That’s Sandhya. Her focus was on being as minimal as possible.

Sunita: At times I’d sigh subconsciously, and she’d tell me not to do it. For ten days, we were all together researching the characters. We got to know what she truly wanted from us.

Shahana: There was a lot of discussion around the intention behind the character. She wanted everything to be very light-handed. I also love that. The milieu, the way it was set up, we were working with other actors who were first-timers. You are playing against a lot of real people. It reflects on you, to keep your tone and mannerisms grounded.

Q

Does working for a foreign set-up differ from an Indian one?

A

Shahana: I have always wondered at this question because each filmmaker works differently. Filmmaking is a tough process. You can try and control a set and how it will function to a certain extent. But you are battling many factors that are not in your control. Someone falling sick, or a last-minute technical issue. There are so many things that go wrong despite all that you must maintain the authenticity of the scene. You need a good team that is there for the larger vision. We had a fantastic team, including both of ourselves, that worked so hard to go against any obstacles.

Sunita: Every department was excellent—art, costume, and makeup. That I have hardly seen.

Shahana: The level of collaboration on everyone’s part was commendable.

Q

Was there any aspect of the characters you play that you identified with? Is there a Santosh/Sharma in you?

A

Shahana: Of course. I don’t know how to play a character outside of myself. I play every role through myself.

Sunita: The frame is always us. You fill different colours. We all have Sharma inside us. We all have frustrations. We all are ambitious and jealous, and we all have our own way of finding a goal.

Shahana: Only the expression is different.

Sunita: We all want to be good human beings. We all want to be loved so at times we pretend. We all have those grey shades in us. The intensity and reasons might be different, but we all have every shade of emotions.

Shahana: There is a certain hopefulness in Santosh, and I have that. I am very optimistic about life. I have a deep-rooted belief in the betterment of humans.

Sunita: Santosh is decisive whereas Sharma is stuck where she is. Maybe she was like Santosh when she was young.

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