Santosh Sivan is a famous cinematographer, filmmaker and producer. In this interview with Vishal Menon, he talks about his process of directing, different creative expressions of cinematography and direction, and how important it is to keep reinventing yourself.
Edited excerpts below:
As a director, this is a huge gap in your career. The last film you made was supposed to release, or it got a one-day release back in 2014. Now, in 2022, we are seeing the next film Jack N’ Jill, is there any major reason for this gap?
I work in all kinds of languages. I normally do English films also and other languages. I revisit Malayalam films every five years. So, it takes and comes back to that. In Malayalam, I have been making fantasy kinds of stories like the grandmother’s story in Anandabhadram and Urumi is also a period film where you have an opportunity to create your own world and not just be realistic. After that, I have also been offered a lot of period movies to create a big canvas and all that which I thought I will take a break from.
You’re one of our biggest cinematographers, you have a lot of creative expressions and achieve exactly what you set out to make. But then when it comes to direction, what is the kind of creative satisfaction you get? Is it in some way more valuable than shooting a film?
I think directing is total satisfaction. It is about what you’re thinking. It is also about managing people, you must manage actors and producers who can be very difficult and are answerable to the financiers. At the same time, you try to exercise the freedom to execute what you had in mind. Most of the time, it might not happen like that, but then we must do compromises, but it is a much more satisfying experience to direct.
As a cinematographer, it is a very Zen quality to it. You go, you look at your lighting, you don’t have to interact with people, instead you interact with nature. You make sure that what you do is interesting and elevates the film. Then you come back in the evening and you can just recollect all your shots. There is no preparation as such about handling people and answerability and all that stuff. So, it’s a more Zen kind of a job as far as I can say.
I like the joy of both. Both give a different feeling. I also do DOP for my own films because I feel that I have to give that little extra bit to give it a little more scale, style and aesthetics without having an interaction with another person.
You’ve been shooting for 30 years, have you ever felt at any moment, the photographic equivalent of a writer’s block? As in, you’re not able to see something new when you’re looking through the viewfinder, have you experienced something like a creative block?
Not really, but you do struggle because, for example, when someone like Mani Ratnam says that we must do Thalapathi (1991) in a very different way, then say we must do Roja in a very different way, not like Thalapathi (1991). Then Iruvar (1997) then Dil Se (1998), He’ll say it should not be like any of the other films. So, this will keep happening. I have done maybe six films with Mani Ratnam, but all the six films are very different, completely different.
So, that is okay but if you look at it very closely, you’ll find that your signature is there somewhere. The style can be different. But then for that, it takes an effort and more than the effort, every creative person should do something extra. That extra thing that you need is motivation. Along with studying the art and expressing your sensibilities, I think it is very important to keep that motivating factor very high.
You also do all kinds of movies, you’ve never stuck to just one kind. You would’ve done the biggest movie of your life and the next movie would be a 15 lakh film, which probably was the costume rate of the previous film. Can you tell me about that?
I know somewhere, I like that. Because, sometimes I shoot a film like Barroz: Guardian of D’Gama’s Treasure in which we need lots of lights, so you have hundreds of lights and the next film I might do with two candle lights. So, it also makes you interesting to be in that group and not repeat what you did for this, you must re-create yourself.
You are a cinematographer who’s worked for three decades. Compared to the other technical forms of cinema, the learning just never stops in this. You would’ve reinvented yourself at least a dozen times in this, and now you’re making a 3D movie, which is another reinvention.
Even after making so many movies, you’re learning, it’s like an entirely new course, an entire MBBS that you’re studying. Can you ever feel like you have figured it out?
You have to be always updated with these things because what we studied in film institute, technology-wise, is very limited. Photochemistry art is not happening, but all those things help your sensibilities and your understanding of how colour functions. So, there’s a lot of that which remains. Technology is bound to change because now when I’m doing a 3D film, unlike other films where you used maybe two lights, here I must put eight lights to create a big depth.
It is a challenge and it is very interesting when it unfolds on the screen. Every shot you take is like a new beginning for you and that is what keeps it going. So you never stop learning. I’ve done a 3D course abroad and things like that. So, I think “wanting to learn” will never stop, once you’re totally into this kind of a thing, you love learning more and more information.
This is like the fourth or fifth thing that you’re reinventing yourself with, especially in terms of the big films. So, what is next? Is there anything left for you to explore?
No, no, I really wanted to do a very interesting period film. I actually wanted to do Kunjali Marakkar with Mammootty but they had done it. So there was no scope for two. It’s a very expensive thing, but I would like to do a film of that scale. Not with that subject again but some other subject, which is interesting, and which also talks about the hero, because I think it is with that kind of film, it has a breather or freedom to go pan India.
I really like doing films which could be pan India even if it’s Malayalam. So, I feel that you need that kind of a backing of a good producer and that kind of publicity to get it there. But at the same time, when you’re being Pan India, you still want to retain your sensibilities and have something very unique in terms of showcasing our culture and similar things.