Cannes Film Festival 2024: Indian stories depicted with sensitivity deserve all the phoren taaliyan ’n’ visibility

Should we celebrate? Should we not? These questions inevitably come up each time Indian art and artists gain attention or win awards in White-dominated countries. As the unexpected burst of Indian talents at the Cannes Film Festival 2024 became a talking point this week, I was reminded once again of how our fellow Indians tend to swing between extremes in reaction to recognition from the West.

At one end of that seesaw is an effusive ‘Oh my god! She/he/they/I have arrived now that the mighty West has noticed them/me.’ At the other end is a shrug and ‘Yeah, whatever. What’s the big deal?’

Extreme 1 is a cringe-worthy measure of the colonial hangover that still afflicts many of us. Extreme 2 is illogical and impractical.

For many complex – and, yes, troubling – political and economic reasons, Europe and North America house today’s entertainment superpowers. Some of the world’s most high-profile and moneyed platforms for cinema are based on those continents. The spotlight on such platforms translates into curiosity and business deals.

It should be, and is, possible to graciously accept genuine love and respect from the West – and the consequent financial benefits – without being servile in our responses, without forgetting the condemnable colonial histories and present-day realities that have contributed to those countries’ clout, without tailoring our cinema to pander to the Western gaze, and, as critics and viewers, without being oblivious to the truth that some creators and performers do (or are compelled to do) precisely that to solicit funds from Western agencies, or win easy appeal among cinephiles in those parts of the globe.

These matters were particularly on my mind as I watched the Hindi film Santosh that premiered in Cannes’ ‘Un Certain Regard’ section. Santosh is set in north India, and stars an entirely Indian cast, led by an actor much acclaimed in India, Shahana Goswami. It’s a British-German-French production, and its writer-director Sandhya Suri is Britain-born of Indian descent.This can be a tricky combination since Indian-origin artists and other public figures based in Western countries have often been guilty of a version of the Western gaze on India. Yet, what struck me most about Santosh is how deeply rooted it feels, and how completely lacking in condescension despite its focus on a roiling mix of casteism, Islamophobia and gender prejudice in India.Goswami is brilliant as the titular lead who is recruited as a police constable on compassionate grounds when her husband, a policeman, is killed in the line of duty. As a woman, Santosh continuously faces the hard knocks of patriarchy. Other aspects of her identity give her privilege, though. She is Hindu and not dalit. Her gender, caste and religious affiliation all play a part in her conduct when she investigates the rape and murder of an impoverished dalit girl in a state rife with Hindu-Muslim tensions.

Much like Suri, Santosh is an outsider looking in on a terrible reality that’s not hers, and yet to which she bears a profound connection due to her background as an Indian and a woman. For Santosh, the challenge is to hold on to her innate empathy, instead of cashing in on her privilege in a bid to fit into the prevailing power structure. The latter route is tempting. But Suri, at least, doesn’t succumb to it in this narrative. (Whether Santosh does likewise cannot be revealed without giving away spoilers.)

So, to address the questions in the opening paragraph through the medium of this film: yes, of course, we in India should be pleased about Cannes’ nod to Santosh. When stories of India are chronicled with sensitivity and integrity, and via deserving Indian artistes, then every iota of visibility they – the stories and the artistes – get is reason to celebrate, certainly so when that visibility comes at one of the most prominent film festivals on the planet.


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