‘I am past the age when one wants to move continents for a career’: Santosh Sivan, recipient of this year’s Pierre Angénieux Tribute at Cannes Film Festival

His connection to India and Indian cinema trumps any desire to shift base to Hollywood, says the cinematographer-filmmaker

May 03, 2024 02:42 pm | Updated May 04, 2024 12:01 am IST

Santosh Sivan is the first Indian to be honoured with the Cannes tribute.

Santosh Sivan is the first Indian to be honoured with the Cannes tribute. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Santosh Sivan is first a forager, of stories and sensations, spanning different places and times. Everything he has made thus far, he asserts, is drawn from what he encountered and experienced as a child. The changing colours of the monsoon sky of Thiruvananthapuram, his native town, are pressed into his memory. He recalls the shafts of light that seeped into the attic and the central courtyard of his ancestral home, bringing into ghostly life the portrait of a grandfather. One is reminded of the ribbons of sunlight leaking into Thilakan’s carpentry workshop in Perumthachan (1990), like rainwater through a thatched roof. 

At 60, Sivan is a masterful raconteur, his stories chiselled and refined through years of reflection and narration. He has meticulously catalogued his art — every image and film now pinned to a memory. He traces the roots of Asoka (2001), an epic period drama starring Shah Rukh Khan, back to a post-lunch class in school when his teacher narrated the story of the Kalinga emperor to keep the class from sliding into a siesta. “We were disappointed at Asoka’s decision to abstain from war,” he recalls. “But the teacher said: ‘One day, you would stop throwing stones at the stray dogs on the way home, and then you would understand why he did what he did.’ I just couldn’t forget what he said.” 

A still from ‘Asoka’.

A still from ‘Asoka’.

This year at the 77th Cannes Film Festival, the cinematographer-filmmaker will be conferred with the Pierre Angénieux Tribute, awarded annually to honour an exceptional cinematographer. For Sivan, the winner of five national awards for best cinematography, and numerous national and international recognitions for the films he directed, the Cannes tribute comes as a crowning glory. “It is only conferred on decorated individuals. You feel special,” he says. He is particularly thrilled as the award includes an Angénieux zoom lens engraved with his name. Sivan will also deliver a masterclass for Cannes delegates on May 23 as part of the honour.  

A Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduate, and son of a renowned photographer and film producer, Sivan burst onto the Indian cinema scene in 1992 with Roja, directed by Mani Ratnam. Their renowned collaboration began a year before, in Thalapathy (1991), after the filmmaker watched his work in Raakh (1988), Aditya Bhattacharya’s gangster film starring a yet-to-be-discovered Aamir Khan. The three films bear uniquely different visual styles. 

“His win feels like a personal triumph,” says Siva Ananth, the executive producer of Ratnam’s Madras Talkies. Ananth first worked with Santosh in Dil Se.. (1998) where he was an assistant director, followed by Raavan (2010), and most recently in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018), which he also co-wrote. “The strength of Santosh’s image is strongly married to the strength of the actor in the frame,” he notes. “Even in the jazziest and most colourful sets, where he has to direct a large crew of lighting technicians and grips, he never misses that key moment in the scene and the magic in the performance.” He cites the intercuts of the song ‘Narumugaye’ from Iruvar (1997), where Sivan’s camera vividly captures the romance that flashes in the actors’ eyes. 

If he closely followed the characters in Iruvar, a drama about friendship and politics, it was all about movement and frenzy in Dil Se.. (1998), a love story that trespasses into forbidden territories. Ananth recalls how seamlessly and easily Sivan executed the filming of the sensational Chaiyya Chaiyya sequence. 

These films, both big-budget mainstream projects, fetched Sivan his third and fourth national awards for cinematography. “Everyone thinks that commercial cinema is all about glamour, where there is no scope for adventure. But I think it’s in commercial films that you should showcase your talent,” he says. “It’s possible to look at the commercial format differently. Do not take anything for granted.”

Mohanlal and Santosh Sivan on the location of ‘Olavum Theeravum’, a remake of the 1970 film of the same name.

Mohanlal and Santosh Sivan on the location of ‘Olavum Theeravum’, a remake of the 1970 film of the same name. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

What do awards mean at this stage of his career? His answer is rather straightforward: “Power and immediate attention. When you are at workshops, students will want to listen to you”. The sweetest was the first one — the national award in 1990 for Perumthachan, he recounts. “During that time, I was doing only action films. My mother asked me, slightly concerned, why I was not getting an award, and suddenly I wanted one. After the first couple of awards, it didn’t mean much.”

Three decades later, Sivan remains in the top tier of his field. His involvement in a project often receives the same media attention as a superstar’s. Alongside expensive studio-backed films, he pursues his passion projects — he’s just returned from Kashmir where he is directing a feature film on the 16th-century poet Habba Khatoon. His last directorial in Malayalam, Jack N Jill (2022), turned out to be a misfire, but he has moved on. “Filmmaking is like being in a boxing ring. You must get hit once or twice,” he reflects. “The project didn’t begin well. The script wasn’t right there. It was mired in production issues…”

Sivan’s early experiences in documentaries gave him a strong foundation in observing and documenting people, their work, the land, and its nature, observes cinematographer-filmmaker Rajiv Menon, his close friend and colleague. “This also meant he shot in natural light in different geographies in India. When he transitioned to feature films, his cinematic canvas expanded. He worked fast and adapted to working with a wide range of directors.” Menon holds Sivan’s work as a director in The Terrorist (1998) in high regard. “It had a unique visual language — minimal yet gut wrenching.” 

The Terrorist, the small-budget Tamil-language film that Sivan wrote, directed and shot, led to his induction into the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) in 2012, making him the society’s first member from the Asia-Pacific region. The film, described by Roger Ebert as “visually breathtaking”, impressed renowned cinematographer Michael Chapman so much that he included it in his student workshops and recommended Sivan’s name to the ASC.  

“I always wanted that honorific,” says Sivan, who regards the ASC recognition as a validation of the authenticity he has been practising in his work. “They invited me because my work is so unlike theirs. Indian visual art, like its music, is ornamental and colourful. I try to keep it that way, finding inspiration from my surroundings. It’s important to stay authentic”. 

He mentions Harippad, his grandmother’s native village where he discovered a love for mythology and Ravi Varma paintings. Incidentally, he played the legendary artist in his only outing as an actor, Makaramanju (2011), directed by Lenin Rajendran. He also travels extensively. “Every lesson you gain from your travels is uniquely yours. You can’t learn everything in classrooms.” 

Indeed, the natural world is a prominent element of Sivan’s storytelling. “He shares an intimate connection with nature,” says Ajayan Chalissery, the art director of the recent blockbuster Manjummel Boys, who was an assistant to the late Sunil Babu in Sivan’s Anandabhadram (2005) and Before The Rains (2007). “Sometimes, on the set, he would ask the team to prepare for mist or rain when the sky is clear and sunny. To our surprise, shortly afterwards, the area would be covered in mist or it would start pouring!” 

It must be this connection that keeps Sivan tethered to Indian cinema. “An ASC recognition naturally prompts cinematographers to shift base to Hollywood. I feel I am past the age when one wants to move continents for a career,” he says. “My home and people are more important to me.” He is, admittedly, a man of nostalgia. “Aren’t most filmmakers and artists so? We like to think and remember.”

Does he feel worried that technology is taking over the field of visual art, I ask. It is not the tool but the practice that makes good art, he replies. “Everybody is making images nowadays. If in the analogue times, children liked to sketch, now they prefer to take pictures on the phone. But most people who take photos don’t develop it, in the same way as most people who read and write only use language for passing information, not writing poems.”

The interviewer is a film critic and independent researcher.

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