Santosh Sivan says it is the overwhelming desire to explore new territory that inspires his filmmaking and cinematography.

Santosh Sivan has the ability to paint pictures with his words. His recollections of various events from his life are all coloured with references to where they took place and what kind of light illuminated the surroundings. These anecdotes usually end with a line on what he learnt from the experience, slowly forming a larger mosaic of skills. He offers a little insight into the world through his eyes when he recalls tales from his childhood, describing his school in Thiruvananthapuram as “black and white” and his time in Haripad as an “explosion of colour” when referring to local festivities and Kathakali performances. One gets the impression he thinks in light and shadows.

Between cinematography, direction, writing, photography and the many other artistic pursuits he has, finding the essence of the man is a tall order. But without a doubt it is the way he perceives the world, as a tapestry of ever changing colours and opportunities; that stands out as a defining characteristic.

“When you are called a cinematographer, you are automatically identified as the mysterious figure behind the camera and nobody has any real idea about what you do,” he says. Santosh is of the opinion that visual language is something everyone learns even before they can read or write, but that ability to perceive is not enough. “It takes time to really appreciate what you see. The human being is the only animal with over 13 years as a pre-pubescent, that is the time we are given to explore, travel and discover,” he says.

And travel he did. With his father, young Santosh went to Wayanad, and found himself cursing the roads there, which the locals claimed were built by foreigners. This sparked his interest in cultural clashes, a phenomenon he explored much later in his 2007 film, Before The Rains. A trip to Arunachal Pradesh on a teaching gig inspired Story of Tiblu, while a dreary history lesson from his school days would one day translate to the big screen as Asoka, despite Santosh’s entire class getting bored with the king’s story when he stopped fighting wars.

His passion for all things visual, whether behind the camera or as the megaphone wielding director, has not diminished in the slightest over the years.

In fact his journey of imagery has taken him all the way back to its very roots, as his latest passion is recreating cave paintings. “On a visit to Olympia I was fascinated by the fantastic statues created all those years ago and started doing research on history, eventually leading to the question of why were early paintings painted in caves? Apparently early artists used the darkness as sensory depravation, a path to another world within the mind. This just goes to show that despite all the advances we have made, the way the creative mind works has not changed. The wiring is still the same,” he says.

This overwhelming passion to experience new things is what drives him onward. His first love is making movies and capturing extraordinary frames on film, and there are many genres he enjoys dabbling in.

Santosh says he is often asked to comment on ‘new generation’ Malayalam cinema, a task he finds difficult because he considers it a broad category, and as a natural change in filmmaking.

“We always have periods of transition, there was a time when all our movies were romantic, then they were all family dramas and there was even a time when we were known for making only raunchy movies! This is what the audiences want now, and change is always a good thing. But it is surprising that movies still manage to be entertaining, because now news channels are the best form of entertainment, and they keep updating so fast no one knows what will happen next!” he says lightly as he signs off.

Lost in Ceylon

Santosh is now working on a project titled Ceylon (Inam in Tamil), which is eagerly awaited following the release of a teaser poster. “It’s a very exciting project, and though the tone seems serious, it is infused with dark humour. The film examines the lives of orphans in an orphanage run by a woman who has lost her children in war torn Sri Lanka, making them a family of individuals with no families” he says.

Those memorable frames

Santosh goes on to talk about the hardships and rewards of his line of work. “Making a film, though easier nowadays than in the past, is still a demanding task. When audiences appreciate the snows of Kashmir in Roja and the fury of flowing rivers and waterfalls in Raavan, they do not realise the effort it takes to brave those conditions and take those shots. This is why each movie should be a dedication to something, something that gives you the strength to face anything that comes your way and see it through. But that does not mean it is not worth it, as there is great fun to be had. For example, I consider ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ to be a celebration of a first train ride, and shooting sequences like that is amazing fun,” he says.