Reviews Short Documentary

Santra: A Tale of India (2021) – 2 stars

Director: Maxim Zhuiykov

Running time: 10mins

Santra: A Tale of India is a film that insists it is a ‘documentary’. It does not deliver on this front in any exhaustive sense of the word. It is debatable whether it delivers much of a tale either.

What filmmaker Maxim Zhuiykov does deliver is a sumptuous moving collage. Pieced together from fragments of footage Zhuiykov shot on a trip to India, the film gives us fleeting glimpses of stunning imagery from across the endlessly diverse landscapes of the massive country.

The shots are well-framed, with depth and complexity – and often have multiple things to cast your eyes upon, when you are given the time to wander about the screen. When the opportunity to dwell arises, there are some extraordinary contrasts to see in single shots. For instance; a middle-aged man poses for the camera, unaware a chipmunk is climbing the other side of the tree he sits under; or in another scene, boats drift in from the Ganges, while people wash their shirts on its banks.  

There is sometimes this kind of marvellous contrast between two or more shots, too. We move from bustling city streets to remote Himalayan roadsides in a blink; we dwell on a group of women sweeping a dusty country road, before leaping aboard a bus creaking and groaning its way down a ragged mountain road. This particular leap is legitimately terrifying – and leaves you clutching at air, reflexively flailing to tighten a seatbelt that isn’t there. If only the rest of the film were so imbued with contrasting energies, from sanguine to frenetic in a single breath.

As it is, the larger portion of the footage is, dare I say, rather pedestrian. For every moment of ineffable beauty – a swarm of dragonflies buzzing around a girl gazing across the horizon, for example – there are several more which take the path most travelled by countless travel films before it. There are the apparently obligatory shots of cows lounging about on city streets; of static young men staring blankly at the camera while standing by a glowing road at night; and of Holi – the colour festival, which apparently no white tourist’s adventures through India can ever do without.

I should stress, I do not resent people of any ethnicity traveling somewhere new to engage with a different way of life. But what I do find irksome in this case, is when those experiences are regurgitated to us as some kind of profound epiphany – while offering us nothing in the way of insight or originality.

The film’s format is a silent scrapbook. While all these vibrant images dance across the screen, there is nothing in the way of an explanation as to what we are seeing. Left to our own devices, what can we take away from this ‘documentary,’ then? That India is big? That it has a huge diversity of landscapes, peoples and cultures? That there are monkeys, cows, stray dogs, chipmunks and an array of other semi-wild creatures cohabiting its towns and cities? It’s significantly less information you would get from a trip to India’s Wikipedia – while its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it delivery is arguably less accessible.

Meanwhile, the one source we could get genuine insight from – the people who regularly sit before Zhuiykov’s pricey recording equipment – is afforded no chance to tell anything much of a story. Their testimony is conspicuous in its absence, and leaves you wondering if it might have been inconvenient to allow people who might have something negative to say about their lived experience to appear alongside all this aesthetic beauty. But in a documentary, that convenience shouldn’t come into play. This should be warts and all – if it is to be a story about any country.

For all that the director trumpets his “love and gratitude to those I met travelling through this beautiful country” at the end of the film, then, there is really nothing of or from them here. Just silent, staring, nothingness. And surely, if you were to really tell the story of India, it would start with their interpretation of their home.  

Santra is many things. A show-reel for a photographer making their case to be taken on by National Geographic. A mild-mannered postcard to the folks at home showing the wonders of a dream vacation. A pleasantly arranged, uncontroversial advert for the national tourist board. But a functioning documentary, it is not.

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