Santosh Sivan’s Before the Rains has earned international acclaim. Harshikaa Udasi catches up with the ace cinematographer

Santosh Sivan is shooting in the hills of Malshej Ghat in Mumbai with the crew of Ravana. It’s raining, and shooting in the hills is tricky, thanks to low clouds, bad lighting and the works. But Sivan is enjoying every moment of it. “Mani (Ratnam) doesn’t restrict himself to the comfort of a studio. He loves to explore the outdoors,” says Sivan, laughing. Even if that translates into a headache for the ace camera-wielder, he enthusiastically says, “That’s the challenging and exciting part.”

The award-winning cinematographer and filmmaker’s spirit is gravity resistant and quite infectious. While he is shooting for the bilingual big-budget multi-star cast Mani Ratnam film Ravana, his own modestly-budgeted Merchant Ivory movie Before The Rains has made a quiet entry into Indian theatres, almost one-and-a-half years after its international release. The movie, starring English actor Linus Roache, Rahul Bose and Nandita Das, is set in the South India of the 1930s and tells the tale of three people entwined by emotion, destiny and cultural bonding.

Problems faced

Before The Rains has earned acclaim at international film festivals such as Toronto International Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Pusan Film Festival and Dubai Film Festival. At the WorldFest-Houston International Film Fest for independent filmmaking, it has won three awards — for best picture, best cinematography and best music. Ironically, Sivan faced a lot of problems releasing it in his home country. “The threat of pirated DVDs was the highest. Merchant Ivory was sure if we released it in Asia, piracy would kill the film. So we went in for an international release first. Also since it is an English language film with a bit of Tamil, not many theatres were keen to have it and I was aware of this,” says Sivan candidly. And when the film was finally released this August, there was enough swine flu panic to keep people away from the theatres. “I think a few serious blokes went wearing masks to watch it,” chuckles the man.

Ask him how he can laugh through this and pat comes the reply. “At least I know I can make a film that doesn’t have pop ingredients (read song-and-dance routines) and have people like James Ivory and Deepak Chopra support me. Even when I did The Terrorist, John Malkovich came out in full support,” he says, adding, “I think my films are universal and have the potential to go out there in the world. They get fantastic visibility in a different way. Ideally I’d like to see my films as part of the world’s best cinema collection. For example, Tahaan has been bought by NHK (Japan’s public broadcasting organisation).”

Staggered release

In India, the producers have opted for limited prints and a staggered release across the country and even through each city. “I think there is a platform for niche films; the multiplexes are doing a good job,” he replies to a question on whether accessibility to serious cinema is a cause for concern to filmmakers like him. “We couldn’t push Before… in a large way because there was no simultaneous nationwide release and the budgets were not extravagant. We have gone with a maximum of seven prints in every city.”

End of the year, Sivan is getting started on a new film about Sri Lankan refugees. “My script is almost done and I will be casting new faces in it,” he informs. But now he can’t wait for the end of the month when he will be in home state for the release of Before The Rains after which he takes of to North America with his film Tahaan which has been getting him global fame.

“Most films are designed for audiences — Gujarati, Punjabi, Tamil, etc. I am not saying it is right or wrong. Even I have made Asoka which had big stars and songs, but it still didn’t go down the regular path by showing a winner or loser in the end. I make films that I feel need to be made,” he says, demystifying the Sivan film culture.