When as a young film buff I watched ‘Roja’, ‘Bombay’, ‘Iruvar’ and ‘Dil Se’, it was like a deluge of never before seen images.
The eye behind the camera was Santosh Sivan’s, the maverick cinematographer- writer-director who has singlehandedly offered a signature visual aesthetic in Indian cinema.
The 2014 London Indian Film Festival gave a nod to the ace cameraman as he settled for a masterclass at BFI 11 July. A graduate of the renowned Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Santosh began in the Tamil film industry before making it big in Bollywood and going onto great stings in the UK and Hollywood.
Five-time winner of the National Award for Cinematography (‘Mohiniattam’, ‘Perumthachan’, ‘Kala Pani’, ‘Iruvar’ and ‘Dil Se’), the first Asian to be offered membership of the American Society of Cinematographers, recently awarded the Padmashri by the Indian government, Santosh Sivan wears his laurels lightly.
Prolific Sivan’s international chapter includes directing the award-winning ‘Terrorist’ (1998 presented by John Malkovich) filming Gurinder Chaddha’s ‘Bride and Prejudice’ ( 2004), Paul Mayeda Berges’ ‘Mistress of Spices’ (2005) and ‘Before the Rains’ ( 2007).
These days he is settled in India, raising a seven-year-old son and planning his next Bollywood film.
I caught up with the maestro at the British Film Institute to find out more of his extraordinary journey.
Sangeeta Datta: What started your visual education?
Santosh Sivan: My grandmother used to teach music and painting in the royal family of Travancore. She would bring copies of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings and in the evening tell the stories with songs. Ravi Varma’s paintings were about mythological stories. She would also tell stories about good and evil, and ghosts. And with the narratives of light and darkness my awareness grew, I noticed the full moon filtering through leaves, the sun disappearing behind clouds, the lights off moment when the sun sank behind the hills. My visual learning had begun.
SD: Did you plan to be a cinematographer?
SS: Most of the time we live others dreams, become a doctor or a lawyer. But we need to live our own dreams, do what we are passionate about. I want to enjoy my work, be happy creatively. My uncle who was a farmer once told me, “In school you are taught two plus two makes four. That is not true in life. With these handful of seeds I will grow a field of crops…” If I had not become a cinematographer I would have probably been a farmer to remain close to nature and the seasons.
SD: Were you encouraged to be creative in school?
SS (laughs): In school we had a history teacher who wanted to be a Shakespearean actor. After lunch and sports he would take the history class and teach us about King Ashoka. We were bored with a king who gave up his arms and battle and would fall asleep. He told me, “Sivan, one day when you will stop throwing stones at a dog you will remember Ashoka.” These are things that stay with me and later I wanted to put these real life experiences into films. That is how I made Ashoka who battled in the heat and sun, who loved in the monsoon, who gave up battle as the night descended. I brought in the seasons as the man evolved in his life.
SD: What brought about your interest in children’s films?
SS: I like working with children as subjects. I made a film about a boy going in search of his donkey, ‘Tahaan’, in Kashmir. The boy is unwittingly made to carry a grenade, so it was about the situation in Kashmir. My film ‘Ceylon’ has a special child with Down’s Syndrome, as the protagonist, who is interested in nature, in wild life as there is violence erupting all around. Luckily in my profession I get paid well to do my job. Then with the money I make films about issues which are close to my heart. Even ‘Terrorist’ was not about celebrating violence. There was a lot of rain and greenery around amidst which there was violence.
SD: Which has been your most memorable collaboration?
SS: With Mani Ratnam I learnt a lot. With him you travel so much for locations, it is like a Discovery Channel film. Visual language makes you travel and travel makes experience first-hand. Mani Ratnam will tell you this is what I want, he doesn’t want to know the details. For ‘Chaiya Chaiya’ – we spent weeks looking at locations near Pathankot, railway stations then it didn’t work. We went to Ooty and we were on a train shooting the song. We couldn’t stop till the train reached so we kept on filming.
I also learnt a lot from M.F. Husain when I filmed ‘Meenakshi’, he didn’t know anything about camera but had such an extraordinary visual sense of form, colour and movement.
I am generally interested in working with others as everyone has a fresh approach, everyone has a different perspective.
My father taught me photography, he was my mentor, I travelled a lot with him and when I saw the roads in the forests I asked who made them. He said they were made by the British. That was about clash of people and the forest, clash of cultures. I wanted to work on that idea and made ‘Before the Rain’.
After FTII I went up to the Himalayas, then I made a film in Arunachal Pradesh for tribals who had never seen a film before. It was about a girl who could not go to school. I like the documentary genre, it is story-telling, it is about the past, about change, like the Serpent Temple in the forest. I have seen destruction of a forest, even the tourism films I make for Kerala, we can see change in the environment, in the flora and fauna. Now I want to grow a forest for my son.
SD: What are your visual inspirations?
SS: So many really. But an early and lasting impression was Vittorio de Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’. Then Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and Subrata Mitra’s exquisite black and white camera work. I have learnt a lot from them. I first saw these films at film school.
SD: What do you feel about the transition from film to digital?
SS: We work in an industry of rapid technological change. Someone has said that at a given moment the best camera is the one in your hand. The image -capturing device may keep changing but images are always original. We have to keep searching, I go for long walks before daybreak for that magic moment when the sun rises, images shape in black and white, then a trickle of colour, then an abundance of colour. We need to take the first step, then the universe takes over. Once I was in the forest and we spotted pug marks. My tribal friend said he could climb a tree but I couldn’t. He said if the tiger comes you look him in the eye and it will be alright. Most of the time in life, you face the tiger, and things fall in place.
Watch the trailer of Santosh Sivan’s seminal 1998 drama ‘The Terrorist’. The film was shot in 15 days in natural light and was backed by Hollywood star John Malkovich.