Director with a Focus
The award-winning cinematographer's metamorphosis into a
By M G Radhakrishnan
Scruffy, his hair and beard askance and his trademark T-shirt well-worn, Santosh Sivan couldn't be more different from the films he makes. Or shoots. These are stunning, lyrical and almost picture perfect. In short, beautiful. Anyone who has seen Maniratnam's films -- from Roja to Dil Se -- would second that. Or even Kalpana Lajmi's richly textured Darmiyaan. There is something about Santosh Sivan.
No wonder directors want him behind their cameras, whether it is the established Maniratnam or debutant Karan Johar who got him to shoot the theme song of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in Scotland.
No wonder Terrorist, the film Sivan directed -- the 33-year-old cinematographer is now donning the director's cap too -- is headed for Robert Redford's prestigious Sundance Film Festival next month. That is after he walked away with the Golden Pyramid and a bagful of awards at the 23rd Cairo Film Festival last week: best film, best director, best actress (Ayesha Dharkar). And more: the jury chaired by American actor John Malkovich selected Terrorist for the International Jury Panel Prize for Artistic Creativity.
But it's not just the pretty pictures and what director Shyam Benegal describes as Sivan's "wonderful visual sense" which enable this young cineaste to consistently get awards. Halo, his first directorial venture, won him the national award in 1996 and Terrorist got him national awards for editing and the best Tamil film last year. As cinematographer he has notched up four national awards -- Perunthachan, Kaala Pani, Iruvar and Mohiniyattam.
The "something" about Sivan is his passion for films -- and an interminable curiosity. Take the curiosity first. This thinking man's cameraman is a contrarian. Most people were struck dumb after a suicide bomber blew up Rajiv Gandhi -- and herself -- at Sriperumbudur that fateful May night in 1991. Natural. So was Sivan. But the night after, he sat on the terrace of his house situated on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram and wondered about Dhanu, the suicide bomber. What gave her the nerve to do it? What went on in her mind as she was doing it? Would anything have kept her from going through with it to the end? Did she hesitate, even for a moment?
These questions continued to nag him all these years. Terrorist is his answer to some of them. "The film is not about Rajiv's assassination. It is an attempt to explore the mind of a suicide bomber," says Sivan, adding, "I deliberately kept out everything else, including the politics of terrorism." Art bifurcates from life in this film: the Dhanu-like figure so ably played by Dharkar is pregnant when she is sent on a suicide bombing mission. And herein lies the Sivanian twist to the tale: the impending destruction of life is used as a parallel to the life growing within her womb. Obviously, the transition from cameraman to director has been smooth: "Sivan has the ability to narrate a story and Terrorist is an elegantly told story," says Benegal, adding, "He handles his actors rather well."
Now for the passion. Making movies is like breathing for him. Camera and lenses were for this director what toys are for most children. "I am fortunate to have been born my father's son," he says, referring to the elder Sivan, a still photographer who went on to become a reputed director and cinematographer of Malayalam films. The proud father recalls how he used to hide his cameras from "little Santosh" who loved tampering with them. "Often, I would discover the damage he had done only after the rolls were exposed," he chuckles.
The exposure was not lost on Sivan. By the time he was in college, he was accompanying his father on his shoots and even made "my own Super 8 film then". The young commerce graduate stunned the panel of interviewers -- Hrishikesh Mukherjee was one of them -- at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune when he waxed eloquent on the merits of a Mitchell vis-a-vis an Arriflex. The cinematography course he was admitted to helped further hone his skills as a cameraman. Rakh, the first film he independently shot -- it was produced by his brother Sangeet and directed by Aditya Bhattacharya -- won him critical acclaim.
That passion has only grown. Says Maniratnam : "In an industry notorious for killing one's enthusiasm, it is surprising how it grows day by day in Santosh," he says. "He has been much more than a cameraman to me, he is an excellent team man."
Sivan believes he can make actors out of anyone. Most of the actors in Terrorist, apart from Dharkar, are students of Chennai's Loyola College -- they even provided the technical input. The child artistes he introduced in Halo have gone on to become stars. And in his third and latest film, Malli, he has made two young girls, one partially deaf, turn in remarkable performances. His casting eye has even turned to directors: Sivan persuaded director Raj Kumar Santoshi to act in Barsaat.
Sivan flits easily between the worlds of art and commercial cinema, the reason he seems to be the favourite camera eye for directors."I love the artistic challenges of an art film and the extravaganza of a commercial film," he says. "Basically that is me, a bit of Zen and a bit of sin." Director Priyadarshan says it is Sivan's ability to grasp the director's idea of a frame and give it a new dimension that makes him stand out as a cinematographer. And when the cinematographer turns director, the result is doubly effective.
Modesty, however, is not one of Sivan's many virtues. "I am in a situation where superstars are willing to make any adjustments to be able to work with me," he says as a measure of his own standing. Ashoka, his fourth directorial venture which he will be shooting next year, is in Hindi with Shah Rukh Khan in the lead. As with Dhanu, Sivan has been haunted by some aspects about the Mauryan emperor. How, for instance, the man changed. A compelling question. Not bad, that combination of Zen and sin.
© Living Media India Ltd