Santoshi sounded equally exasperated by the way current filmmakers depict violence in their films. “Besides the action sequences being mindless in their treatment, it’s the way the heroes seem to enjoy and relish the idea of killing that bothers me. Violence cannot ever be glorified in any capacity.” In Santoshi’s debut film Ghayal (1990), the protagonist Ajay (Sunny Deol) is driven towards violent retribution only after being stomped over by a system that has no empathy for a common man. A few years later, Santoshi made Ghatak (1996), which had a similar theme. “When my characters resorted to violence, there was always a strong justification for it. It came from a place of anger. They were never smiling while they killed the bad guys,” he said.
The moral centre visible in many of Santoshi’s films may have its foundation in the director’s early days in the film industry. Santoshi had begun his career assisting filmmaker Govind Nihlani on films like Aakrosh (1980), Ardh Satya (1983) and Party (1984). Talking about his days of struggle in the late Eighties, Santoshi credited Nihlani for providing him a safety net while he pitched his concepts, hoping for a break. “I would tell him to always keep a place open for me if things don’t work out and he would sweetly oblige. Whatever I know of film-making and it’s discipline, it’s because of Govind Ji,” he said.
Many of Santoshi’s films show an interest in socio-political themes. Lajja (2001) is a tapestry of four stories, albeit a bit heavy-handed, that underlines the oppression faced by women in a seemingly modern society. One of the stories features Janki (Madhuri Dixit), a spunky theatre performer, who decides to question the moral choices of Lord Ram while enacting Ramayana on stage. The audience erupts into fury, now baying for Janki’s blood, and the narrative concludes with Janki being sent to a mental hospital because she’s considered mentally ill. It feels almost unthinkable to present a story like that today. (Santoshi said he’d faced resistance at the time of film’s release as well, with his effigy being burnt by many people, but the Central Board of Film Certification had not posed any obstacles.)