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Indian film on caste politics huge draw at 77th Cannes

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Cannes: A feature film shot in the Indian hinterlands has drawn a huge audience at the 77th Cannes Film Festival with its scorching depiction of inequalities fuelled by caste and gender politics.

‘Santosh’, British-Indian director Sandhya Suri’s debut feature film, is about the rape and murder of a minor Dalit girl in a village in North India seen through the eyes of a rookie policewoman.

Part of the Cannes festival’s Un Certain Regard section for fresh voices and trends in the world of cinema, the Hindi language film is one of the several films from India in the official selection of the influential event this year.

An India-United Kingdom-France-Germany co-production, ‘Santosh’ had its world premiere in Cannes on Monday. Shot in Lucknow last year, the film had undergone development at the Sundance festival’s screenwriters and directors laboratory in the United States.

Delhi-born Suri had won the Best Short Film Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018 for ‘The Fields’, also shot in India.

“I was looking at a subject that focused on violence against women for my first feature film,” says the London-based Suri about the point of departure of the film. Suri then came across a picture of a policewoman fighting back protesters after the gang rape and murder of Nirbhaya in Delhi in 2012 that sparked outrage across the country and led to stringent laws against crimes against women.

“This policewoman had an enigmatic expression on her face. The image sparked the film,” says Suri, who wanted to tell the story from inside the police system.

Shahana Goswami, who acted in ‘A Suitable Boy’ television series directed by Mira Nair and films such as ‘Zwigato’ by Nandita Das and ‘Made in Bangladesh’ by Rubaiyat Hossain, plays the title role of the policewoman in ‘Santosh’.

Set in a fictional Chirag Pradesh in Northern India, the film tells the story of Santosh Saini, who joins the state police after her husband, a constable, is killed during riots. Santosh is soon pulled into a rape and murder investigation after the body of a minor Dalit girl is discovered in a village well.

“We had four months of profound production in India last year. We came back to London from the shooting at the start of November 2023,” says Suri. “The film was shot in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. We found places that have not been locations for films before.”

Suri, who began her film career as a documentary director, cast several non-actors in the film. “It took ten years to get here,” says the director about a decade-long production for her debut feature project that is one of the several Indian films in official selection at the Cannes festival this year.

“I spent a lot of time in India, even during my childhood. There is an extra rigour you have as a person not living in India about what I am saying and how I am saying,” explains Suri about the making of the film.

The Cannes Film Festival runs up to May 25.

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