Cinematographer-director Santosh Sivan is a household name in India. And now international recognition has come knocking at his door. Sivan is the only cinematographer in the Asia-Pacific region to be accorded membership to the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) — a body of internationally acclaimed cinematographers, where membership is by invitation alone.
Even as praise and felicitations began pouring in from all quarters, including those from directors like Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha, Aziz Mirza, A R Murugadoss and Mani Ratnam, we too rushed to meet up with Sivan and congratulate him. “I was invited by Michael Chapman, Martin Scorsese’s cinematographer, to join the hallowed club. But only his word was not enough. Two other members needed to validate his recommendation, which again needed to be approved by another set of people until it met the approval of the whole bunch,” says Sivan, recalling how it all happened. He journeyed to North Carolina, US, to meet the ASC members, where his victorious passage into the club was marked by a speech. Adds Sivan on a laugh: “The honour was theirs they claimed.”
Over the years, it has been a wondrous journey for the ace cinematographer. Sivan says, “Studying in FTII, Pune, was good but it felt like second-hand learning. The real education happened when I was travelling, interacting with people, acquainting myself with different mindsets and it is through this prism of experience that I approached cinematography.” Grandma’s bedtime stories revolving around history and mythology also gave him much food for thought — subjects which he later explored in his movies like Asoka, Navarasa and Urumi to name a few.
Santosh Sivan is a household name in India. And now international recognition has come knocking at his door.
The film that proved his mastery over the visual language was The Terrorist with the central role played beautifully by Ayesha Dharker — which has become a textbook of sorts for visual communication students, with scenes from the movie being used by Chapman to explain the tenets of cinematography during workshops. According to film critic Roger Ebert, it was a film ‘scripted by the camera’. Says Sivan: “One day I got a call from Samuel Lee Jackson who was interested to cast the heroine of The Terrorist, Ayesha, in a Hollywood film.”
With the fantasy-adventure film Urumi being released in Tamil recently, one wonders whether directing is taking precedence over cinematography.” Not really,” claims Sivan, continuing, “Cinematography is more zen-like; it allows me to plan and visualise my shots without disturbances of any kind, whereas as a director one gets involved in all the aspects of filmmaking, leaving one however on a high at the end of it all.”
Speaking of directing, the films Sivan makes represent an interesting dichotomy — from serious subjects to over-the-top fantasy. Before one can slot him, he says, “I like to make children’s movies too as they trigger memories of my school and classmates.” And then he recommends that we see Malli made on the same subject. He loves to make documentaries too, the revenue from which he ploughs back into making more movies.
Having rarely skipped from Mani Ratnam’s orbit, Sivan is now handling cinematography for Thupakki directed by Murugadoss. His future project also involves a movie titled Ceylon.
What he likes about his field of work is that no one day is the same. Sometimes, he could be on a ship or at other times, he could be hobnobbing with farmers in Kuttanad in Kerala who practise backwater farming. “Cinematography is like a visa to everywhere”, he concludes and we nod in wholehearted agreement.Santosh Sivan is a household name in India. And now international recognition has come knocking at his door.