He's constantly pushing boundaries, to trap a rare moment of time on celluloid and a slice of Nature in all its glory. On cinematographer Santosh Sivan's romance with the lens
It wouldn't be too inaccurate to call him a connoisseur of natural light. The consummate artist that he is, he loves to get his hands dirty on location with the colours that daub his canvas, be it the earthy slush of Kerala in the monsoon (for “Raavan” and “Before the Rains”) or the snowfall of Kashmir (“Roja” and “Tahaan”).
Very few technicians slum it out like Santosh Sivan in the most impossible of situations in the pursuit of beauty. He's constantly pushing boundaries, to trap a rare moment of time on celluloid and steal a slice of Nature in all its glory, reluctant to pollute it with industrial light unless completely necessary.
If the stories you've heard about the cinematographer sound insane, they are probably true. He likes to shoot as much as possible during the fleeting moments of the magic hour — the brief spell during sunset. “Transition times are the best times to shoot… whether it's from day to night or changing of seasons,” Sivan opens up during a long chat in between his editing sessions of “Urumi”, nearing completion now at Sreekar Prasad's editing suite in Virugambakkam.
“I make sure that I treat land as a character in all films I direct. When I was shooting for ‘Tahaan', the winter hadn't started but I thought it was an interesting time to shoot because you can look through the trees and see the hills or a mosque behind them. When a landscape is sad, you can see deeper. So I had to shoot all the browns before the snow started falling. And because of that, I had to work very fast.”
“Nothing can match up to natural light. We can only try to imitate it,” he says. “If you want to do cinematography, you would have shown signs of it early on. Much before you actually took up a camera. You would have a certain love for Nature… you would like visuals, colours, painting and sketching. My grandmother used to do sketches. She used to show me paintings and tell me the stories behind them.”
“I went to a Jesuit school where the outlook towards good and evil is black and white and when I went to my grandmother's home in Haripad, I got exposed to all the colours and the culture of stories with Kathakali and Theiyyam. I think the contrast helped to shape me.”
The art of light
From a young age, he used to observe light. “In Kerala, we have houses where we try to shut out light. So then, light finds a way to come in like shafts. When I went to London, I found that there was no sunlight entering homes. Only soft light because of the glass windows. As you travel to different places, you observe and understand how light falls on architecture and landscape.”
Therefore, travel and experience gives you a first-hand education about photography more than any theory, he believes. “You learn filmmaking 24 hours of your life. Even when you are asleep and dreaming, you are learning filmmaking.”
Call him old-school but Santosh Sivan learnt framing the hard way, thanks to his grandmother — by sketching. “When you sketch someone, you see them in detail. Taking a picture with a camera is very simple but when you sketch, you study them a little more carefully and absorb details.” Observation leads to curiosity, another important quality for a filmmaker.
Just looking at the remnants of the impact Vasco da Gama left on India from Kerala to Goa, Sivan decided to find out more. Was da Gama a discoverer? Or just an invader? This led to his latest film ‘Urumi' simultaneously being readied up for release in Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi (a standard three-hour theatrical version) and also a 90-minute English version for the international market.
“You can make a successful film but if it has nothing to do with you, and you've just borrowed it from somewhere, even if 250 people say it's fantastic, you can't stand in front of the mirror, smile and feel good. When I start work, I dedicate the film to someone I like and make it personal so that I am motivated and the passion does not dry up. Also, when you take influences from your own culture, people from outside tend to look at it differently,” he explains how his films have managed to transcend cultural boundaries and have become a permanent fixture at some of the best film festivals around the world, thanks also to his international co-producers and collaborators.
“I'm fascinated by simple things. There must be something about the project that should drive you. I should feel that if I don't do it now, I will die. Which is why I don't work all the time. I go home and play with my kid.”
How does he mediate budget and vision? “I don't think you need big budgets. You can work your way around it. Look at Werner Herzog. When you keep budgets low, you will have something new, something more exciting and less formulaic. Sometimes, it's interesting to do a smaller film. It's more personal,” says Sivan.