I call Santosh Sivan for an interview; he obliges quickly. "I'm travelling, so you may not hear me properly," he cautions. Slowly, he asks why Baradwaj Rangan had given only 2.5 stars to Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (CVV), the Mani Ratnam film that released last week. I don't know how to react. "I quite liked the film, but you must have a chat with him soon," I say. I can hear him laugh.
Rumpled hair, a curious mind and a creative drive – that's Santosh Sivan for you. He comes across as a passionate, yet grounded, technician and speaks with the excitement of a child. I see him more like an artist.
CCV was his sixth film with Mani Ratnam. "Every time has been a different experience so far. From Thalapathi, Roja, to Iruvar, Dil Se… and Raavan," he says. Santosh recalls how their collaboration started in 1990. "Mani approached me after seeing Raakh (1989). He wanted to show the Superstar in a never-seen-before way. It was a fresh team with Rajinikanth and Mammootty on board. We had so much fun on set. Thalapathi was the first time I shot seven songs – something I hadn't done before."
Santosh has high praise for the ace filmmaker. "He hasn't changed much. What surprises me is that he still treats every film as though its his first. We completed CCV in 60 days only because of his energy. Moreover, when you understand what the director has in mind and interpret it in your own way, the process becomes easier. That comes over a period of time. The mutual understanding works as a synergy that makes the journey of filmmaking enjoyable," he says.
According to him, every script demands a different feel. "Through several rounds of discussions with the director and writer, a cinematographer decides the style of shots and colour tones, which elevate the visual appeal of a film. It is not about making someone or something look good but giving the film a suitable tone and maintaining it till the end."
Having started his career as a cinematographer with Nidhiyunde Katha, Santosh has had his fair share of direction, production and acting too. He made films including Halo, Asoka, Tahaan, Urumi and Ceylon aka Inam, besides The Terrorist in 1998 – which won praise from celebrated American actor John Malkovich for being shot in actual locations despite the heavy rains "It was a challenging film," says Santosh.
Working with different directors brings out different aspects of his creativity, he says. Actors, too, make a difference. "CCV had a beautiful star cast. Every actor was a delight to work with."
He describes the cinema of the '90s as "vibrant and alternative". "Besides Mani Ratnam, there are few filmmakers who traverse the less-trodden path. Unlike other filmmakers, Mani doesn't believe in shooting songs in foreign locales. He goes by the script and what it needs," he says.
The award-winning cameraman says creative satisfaction is extremely important. In that sense, he considers his work in Iruvar as the most fulfilling. "Even today, people talk about the top-angle shot of Prakash Raj and Tabu lying on the ground next to each other, which was shot organically after a couple of takes. The narrative and the treatment demanded a whole new approach. As a cinematographer, I had to aesthetically compose a frame, because Iruvar was largely about people," he says.
He says Inam was also close to his heart. "The landscape itself became a character in the film. It was shot on a Red Epic digital camera."
Santosh grew up observing and appreciating culture, which he believes is his strength. "Raja Ravi Varma is my biggest inspiration. You'll find the basic essence of the art my mother taught me as a child, which I still follow as a thumb rule in cinematography."
Which film does he consider his best? "It's yet to come. But I've reduced my commitments for outsiders and prefer to make films that I believe in with all my heart. Occasionally, I do big-banner films like an Anjaan or a Spyder as it gives me the money to travel and direct small-budget films."
Santosh says he insists on taking a break between films. "That's when I travel. It isn't about tourism, rather documenting people, places, understanding situations and internalising them. In doing so, you discover yourself. Often, such poignant journeys create a meaningful story," he signs off.
Santosh's next project is a Malayalam film featuring Manju Warrier and Kalidas Jayaram in pivotal roles.