The writer follows Santosh Sivan as he films a riff on the Ramayana during a workshop at Adishakti in Puducherry

One Sunday last month, I sat behind a film crew at the sprawling Adishakti campus in Puducherry and watched an actor playing Hanuman search for Sita. This wasn’t the Hanuman from the comics or from television — there wasn’t a trace of the simian about him. He was in jeans and a leather jacket and a shirt with really long sleeves — the drooping fingers appeared to sprout from the cuffs. As women behind him went about hanging white dhotis to dry on a clothesline, he walked up to a long-haired man who was pretending to smoke an unlit cigarette. No luck. A little later, in a different location, he went up to four women seated around a primitive board game. This time, he had in his hand a missing-persons poster. The first woman shook her head, as did the second, the third. The fourth woman seemed to know something. She stood up and pointed somewhere, and then she turned and spit betel-leaf juice on an earthen pot behind her.

Santosh Sivan yelled cut. There were problems with the scene. The first woman shook her head too soon. The writer and assistant director, Sharanya Rajgopal, told her that she’d have to wait to see the poster first. The spitting was a problem too. Sivan wanted the juice to land on the pot with a certain force, making a certain kind of pattern. “It should not spray,” he told the actress. He pointed to a spot and said, “It should be concentrated here.” The betel-leaf mix in the actress’s mouth had gone dry. Rajgopal, who seemed to be everywhere, doing everything, ran in with red-coloured water. This time, the juice splashed all over the pot. Sivan replayed the shot on his RED Epic camera, in slow motion. “It’s like lava from a volcano,” he grimaced. “It goes on forever.”

This was the sixth day of a 10-day workshop at Adishakti. Veenapani Chawla, the founder of this “laboratory for theatre art research,” told me that they felt they had exhausted researching theatre, in terms of form and content, and wanted to start interacting with cinema, focussing on individual aspects like cinematography, scripting and makeup design. She approached Sivan for a cinematography workshop. He said, “Let’s make it a film workshop.” He created a script from one of their theatre pieces called The Tenth Head.

“The script was just a layout when we wrote it,” Rajgopal said, sitting cross-legged on a bench a little distance away from a group of people having lunch. “Developing it, improvising on it — it’s almost become a surreal painting. This is like a laboratory for us.” How does Ravana manage to balance his 10 heads? If the nine heads stood for the navarasas, where does the 10th fit in?

These questions are framed around the story of a crazy art-installation genius who’s exiled from the world and consumed by the idea of Ravana. He stumbles on an injured girl (named Sara) who’s crashed her motorbike, and he takes her to his house. “The film explores the loneliness of these two characters. For Sara, it’s something new to see a man so consumed by a woman like he is by her.” The film is titled I’m Not Sita.

This contemporary story is juxtaposed with a theatrical rendering of the Ravana-Sita arc, incorporating elements from Kathakali, Koodiyattam, and also graphics and animation. Sivan said that he wanted to depict Sita as nature. We were seated by the monitor as a shot was being set up, showing the actress playing Sita (and Sara) in a close-up, framed by the branches of a plant with white flowers. The only sounds around us came from the harsh drone of what appeared to be an untuned tanpura and the clang of steel utensils being washed in a kitchen behind us.

Sivan lit up an Esse Lights and sipped tea. He said his mantra was to make the film look interesting with limited resources. He told the participants in the workshop, “Let’s not make apologetic ‘small film’; let’s try to make it as if it has everything.”

Sharon Samuel, another assistant on the set, told me that nothing had been brought from Chennai. Everything — the costumes, the props — were created from scratch. As proof, he splayed out his hands, which were stained cobalt blue all the way to the elbow. “Rama will not be shown as a character,” he said. “We won’t see a person, just a pair of hands.” Samuel had spent the morning with a pair of white gloves, dyeing them blue. The almost artisanal nature of these efforts was being complemented (or perhaps inspired) by evening screenings of films on Caravaggio, Rembrandt and van Gogh. One evening, the filmmaker Lingusamy came and addressed the students. He also read out haiku that he’d written in Tamil. Sivan supplied a little poetry of his own. “When we shot ‘Chhaiya chhaiya’, we couldn’t take a break once we got onto the train. We’re trying for the same kind of momentum here. Making a film is like building sandcastles near waves. The closer you are to the waves, the more thrilling it is.”

Nimmy Raphel, who plays Sita/Sara, has been with Adishakti for 13 years. Speaking about life as a theatre artist, she said, “Even if you don’t have money, this place sustains you as an actor. You make enough to survive. Your food and shelter are taken care of. And that’s enough for me. What’s more important is how you are nurtured as an actor, how you are creatively challenged, how your thought process is developed, how you grow as a human being.” She knew the script of The Tenth Head, but she said I’m Not Sita is very different visually. “What we are shooting is not in the script. At least, I didn’t see it in the script, with all these amazing visuals. You don’t have to do much as an actor as he takes care of everything.” Her behind-the-scenes contribution to the production came in the form of her motorbike, which she calls Mrs. Kutty, after one of the characters in Nidravatwam, a play she wrote and directed. It was another riff on the Ramayana, and Mrs. Kutty was Kumbhakarna’s secretary, a housefly.

After lunch, while another shot was being set up, Sivan picked up his phone and showed me his ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) card. He seemed happy about it, as he should be, given that he’s the only “brown-skinned guy” in the society.

The great cinematographer Michael Chapman, whose credits include Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, proposed his name and then he had to fly to Los Angeles with a showreel and face an interview. After seeing the clips, many cinematographers there realised that they had watched his work. Sivan was inducted and can now vote in the Oscars. “The problem,” he said, “is that studios keep sending me DVDs. I’m afraid they’ll get lost and turn up online. They have special IDs on each DVD and they keep track of these things.” He doesn’t want the tag of pirate.

There were foreigners on the set. Some were residents of Puducherry, some tourists. When Sivan heard that they’d be visiting that afternoon, he worked them into a scene that was originally written for only two people. The film is in English, with bits of Tamil, Malayalam, and now, thanks to one of the visitors, Swedish. The polyglot is to show that Ravana is very cultured and that he speaks many languages.

Vinay Kumar, who plays Ravana (and the art-installation genius) and who has been with Adi Shakti for 22 years, was learning, syllable by syllable, how to say “It’s not a good day today” in Swedish. According to the revised script, these foreigners want to see his art installation, but he cannot invite them in because Sita is hidden there. Hence the line he was memorising. His guttural intonations bounced amusingly off the gentle, singsong inflections of his tutor.

The Swedish line was never used. Kumar said, in English, “I can’t show it to you. It is not a good day.” The visitors protested in a babel of languages, accented by the rustling of leaves, the cracking of twigs. Sivan said he wanted to shoot on the four-acre Adishakti campus because the film reflects the spirit of Adishakti. The dogs on the premises weren’t shooed away when they wandered in and out of frames. “They’re the rakshasas,” Sivan joked.

There are snakes too. The unit members kept talking about a king cobra that was found on one of the paths. Veenapani Chawla told me that her cook, from the Northeast, was sick of the hills and was only too happy to move down south. He said he wanted a different experience. He got one. One day, when he was talking to Chawla, she asked him not to move. There was a krait by his leg.

There was still some light, so the rest of the evening was spent shooting what Sivan called “stylised shots.” As they were shooting, they were also testing the new lenses that Canon gave the unit to “play around with before releasing to the public”. The slow-motion replays were spellbinding, and it was surreal to witness how an unremarkable action that played out in the panoramic world turned into poetry when cropped and contained within the monitor.

The scenes being shot were parts of an action sequence — Ravana leaping on Sita as she’s trying to escape from a mound of sand. Assistants kept coating Raphel’s long, thick hair with red sand, because Sivan wanted her to get up like a model in a shampoo commercial, tossing her head so that the sand sprayed out from the hair. He wasn’t happy with the quantity of sand, and then he wasn’t happy about the trajectory of the hair. After the fifth retake, someone standing next to me said, “It’s going to be hell washing all that muck from her hair.”

As Sivan and his crew admired the beauty of the slow-motion images, Raphel kept spitting out sand.