Santosh Sivan (Indian Cinematographer)

Visual wizardry

Santosh Sivan, acclaimed cinematographer and director, pans his camera onto a mythical folklore rooted in Kerala with his new film Ananthabhadram. Rajeev Nair writes

Mention Santosh Sivan, and the name brings a burst of colours into your mind. Blue, yellow, red, orange, green — the man works magic with hues through his camera.
Having worked with some of India’s highly acclaimed cinematographers and won a clutch of laurels, he also takes a break from the routine by directing his kind of films — mostly niche productions that are self-financed.
Sivan recently worked on the Aishwarya Rai-starrer Mistress of Spices after wrapping up Navarasa, film on the third gender that he directed.
He once again donned his director’s cap and panned his camera on the rustic roots of Kerala with a folkloric Ananthabhadram.
Excerpts from an interview:

After such realistic pictures as The Terrorist and Navarasa, why a fantasy? What drew you into the story?
I liked the story, an award-winning one by Sunil Parameshwaran. It had the possibility of being made into a film out of a tale that one’s grandmother used to tell. It was full of mystic and adventure and I liked the idea of it being real. Further, to recreate the mood, we have treated the film as a folklore rooted in Kerala – even in terms of its visuals and music – but set in today. And like all grandma’s tales, there is a beautiful love story and the eventual triumph of the good over bad.

You did Ananthabhadram after wrapping up the Mistress of Spices. How different was the experience? What did you learn from your international outing that put you in a better stead to do your first Malayalam film?
Sticking to our own roots is what makes us special to other cultures, more so when we have reached into our rich culture and draw on from visual arts and literature. In foreign productions, there is tremendous respect for labour and people’s time and not just for the stars. When I did Ananthabhadram, we had made sure we would have eight-hour shifts and there would be proper rest for everyone in the unit. It was all so well pre-planned that we knew the last shot of the film will be on the 44th day evening, and we religiously followed it. It surprised every one.

You have picturised a song entirely on Ravi Varma paintings? What was the challenge in doing so? And why choose on Ravi Varma paintings?
That is just recreating a flavour of Raja Ravi Varma. It is difficult to do his entire works in a romantic song since he is known for his paintings of gods and goddesses. The song simply tries to pay tribute to the influences his paintings had on my visual language.

Navarasa has been greatly appreciated though some critics say it has a documentary feel. Was it deliberate? What prompted you to pick on the tale of eunuchs?
I love the idea of making films that reflect our times. They need not have commercial potential but could be for a niche audience and made on low budgets. I seldom approach professional financing and often put in my own resources. And while making these films, I often find myself embarking on a unique journey.

As a filmmaker, what lures you into a story? Do you regard its cinematography possibilities — are they that grab you into making a film?
I like the idea of making a film that I can connect to; often it must have some personal identification. Since I have been dealing with the visual language, it is only natural that I try to tell a story visual, which is the way I am and, I guess, will be.

What next?
I am directing a film, not yet titled, in Munnar, Kerala. Shooting starts on Jan. 2, 2006. It is an English film with and English cast and is produced by Echolake Productions, Los Angeles. I liked the idea of an English film set in Kerala in the 1940s. It is partly a fascination of mine to show to the world where the Malayalis come from. Sometimes I really feel happy when people say with awe: “Oh, you are from Kerala…?” I have also directed all the films for Kerala Tourism’s ‘God’s Own Country’ campaign.

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