Santosh Sivan’s calendar doesn’t have dates. Or months. Or years. It has movies. During our 45-minute conversation, there is no mention of a date. The past is simply, “during Asoka”, the recent past being “when shooting for Thuppakki” and the future is an empty plaque (“haven’t finalized the name yet.”) with a “scenic village backdrop and new faces.”
[quote align=’left’] “I have told Mani Ratnam, I want to make a film of him making a film! I will do that soon.”[/quote]So it isn’t surprising when he says, “listen, I’ve been living in Chennai since Thalapathi.” You almost expect it. And you don’t blink an eye when he talks about Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, his grandmother’s “ghost stories” and Kerala’s tharavads – all in the same breath. Santosh Sivan has a different sense of time altogether. Briefly coming to the present to acknowledge his Padmashri, he flits seamlessly between periods; like a master story-teller, with little snatches of this and that. So, when he starts speaking, you have to listen. Listen hard.
“Motivation is a difficult word,” he begins, “you don’t realise it at that time but cultural influence is always there. Ravi Varma’s paintings inspire me a great deal – I’ve drawn a lot from those for my scenes.” His grandmother, he says, used to bring calendars from the palace that featured Ravi Varma’s artwork; and with a cluster of children at her feet, would narrate tales that the paintings depicted. “We were more interested in her ghost stories though!” laughs Sivan – and then sobers up, “but that was our first visual education.” [quote align=’right’]”Have you heard of Navarasas? The 9 emotions? Landscapes have them too.”[/quote]
Influences came from other quarters too. His school, he explains, was “mostly black and white.” Holidaying in Haripad was “a riot of colours; Kathakali and there was always the thrill of entering our ancestral home – with those dark rooms.” The tharavads are designed to keep the sun out, he continues, but it will find its way through shafts; the light would have a piercing quality…
If you thought this was lyrical, then Santosh Sivan gets almost poetic with his favourite subject: the landscape. “That is also a character…take my new movie Inam for instance, it is about land as well – a different emotion though,” he adds, and inquires, “have you heard of Navarasas? The 9 emotions? Landscapes have them too.”
And, he starts painting.
“Early in the morning, everything’s monochrome and when the sun starts coming out, you see colours emerging – it is this transition that I find fascinating…the fleeting quality of light, when night becomes day or the rain gives way to sunshine…like glimpses of a beautiful woman…I love capturing that.”
When landscape becomes a character, then characters, for Sivan, are inspired by real people. People he has met. “In Kashmir, while shooting for Tahaan, a bunch of boys were talking about the new AK-47 model – like how we would talk about cars – and also, I have incorporated this in the movie – they play ‘Police-Terrorist’, not ‘Police-Thief’! Inam, he adds, was inspired by a girl he met at his friend’s place – “a refugee. [quote align=’left’]“Look, after projects like Thuppakki, I don’t even need a producer… I don’t make these movies for profit. It would be a different story if I am into this business to run my kitchen.”[/quote] She never said much. We all talk about refugees. But we never know what they go through.” Inam showcases the emotional journey of a bunch of teenagers in an orphanage in war-torn Sri Lanka. “They become family – you have people in love with each other…and it’s about how their relationships evolve when the war breaks out. There’s Saritha who plays Tsunami Akka, the warden…she’s a storm, yes,” he laughs, “there’s Karunas who’s the headmaster and there’s also a boy with Down’s Syndrome who comes looking for his brother. From his perspective, everything is funny…but you can’t laugh though. You know what I mean?”
But Inam, which Sivan calls most challenging after Iruvar, is a “commercial film. It is emotional, yes…it also has action. We had 5 cameras capturing one scene,” he adds, “look, after projects like Thuppakki, I don’t even need a producer… I don’t make these movies for profit. It would be a different story if I am into this business to run my kitchen.” [quote align=’right’]“You can’t fault the simple style. Movies like Singam and Thuppakki are being remade in Bollywood. That is why Rajini sir is famous…he’s like a strange music, something that makes you wake up.”[/quote]
Commercial movies, though, excite Sivan. “I love the styling. I love listening to the crew talk about how much money this movie will make!” he laughs. “You can’t fault the simple style. Movies like Singam and Thuppakki are being remade in Bollywood. Chennai Express was an assemblage of all the sensibilities of a Tamil movie. That is why Rajini sir is famous…he’s like a strange music, something that makes you wake up,” Sivan adds, pausing to pose a rhetoric, “Why do you think the American Society of Cinematographers invited me? It was new to them.”
His latest flick, Anjaan, Sivan says, is interesting on several levels. To start with, it had an “all Tamil crew” working in Mumbai. “We would start shooting really early in the morning, get traffic out of the way. So in that sense, it was not like filming a typical Bollywood movie at all,” he laughs, “I learned some Tamil and started conversing in the language as well.” But it’s a different Mumbai that Anjaan would showcase, Sivan promises. “So on one side, there’s the dirty underbelly, and on the other, you have the posh five-star hotel culture…so many lights – beautiful and weird – and quite colourful. I thought it would be interesting to see it as pulp, you know?” He also mentions several “characters” who would be seen popping in and out of the movie; “there are people who are pretty well-off in the script. It had to have that quality of new Bombay…it’s a brighter kind of a film.”
There’s some “nice chemistry in Anjaan” as well, Sivan smiles. “You would have seen that in the songs…Samantha is an awesome person to work with. And do watch out for Suriya’s body language.”
One more thing, he suddenly adds after a thought, “even though people say we have used a new camera for the movie (Red Dragon Digital), we had several hidden cameras as well. We were using all types of cameras, really.”
2011 was a big year for Sivan. Makaramanju was in theatres. And Sivan saw himself on the big screen for the first time, playing his favourite character – Raja Ravi Varma. This was a new addition to his cap, which, in our opinion, was already brimming with feathers. Think painting, cinematography, direction and production. Was he uncomfortable in front of the camera? He vehemently denies. “It wasn’t strange. I always tend to over-act! Not unusual considering I work with children a lot. The only problem was – there was a bunch of light-boys I knew since my first project who were wondering aloud ‘why I suddenly decided to act’,” he chuckles.
In tinseldom, Sivan has his favourites. “I used to like Soundarya. She had spontaneity, just like Kajol. Shobhana too. I wish I had worked with old actresses like Savithri and Padmini.” Quiz him on recent ones and he says, “I have to think. I’ll text you.” He can instantly recall his favourite actors though – “I love Rajini sir’s skin tone. Surya’s eyes are expressive. I like Karthik too – love the Karthik-Prabhu combination.”[quote align=’left’] “I love Rajini sir’s skin tone. Surya’s eyes are expressive. I like Karthik too – love the Karthik-Prabhu combination.”[/quote]
Santosh Sivan doesn’t just make cinema. He makes arc lights too. And calls them Santa Warm and Santa Cool. Mention this to him and he chuckles, “yes, I make my own accessories – mist machines as well. I like to experiment.” He is into farming, too, he tells me. “I have a 1000 sq ft organic garden in Mumbai and have all strange things like strawberries and brinjal.” Yes, “strange” is a word that he uses to describe almost everything. Travelling is also a passion. “I am at home almost everywhere – Chennai, Kerala or Africa. I love to travel. My dream was to swim in the Amazon. But I didn’t realise there would be wild dolphins there!”
Any quirks? “I had this passion to find out who drew the first picture in the world. That happened 35,000 years ago. And that quest took me to Greece.”
There’s nothing on with Mani Ratnam right now, he disappoints, “but I have told him I want to make a film of him making a film! I will do that soon.” Sivan has a directorial venture in Tamil lined up, though, that would celebrate the “village flavor of Tamil Nadu”. “Will start work in July. Haven’t named it yet. It has a village setting – revenge, romance, the works. Lots of songs too!” He has also started work on I am Not Sita, a contemporary Malayalam (short) film with new actors.
Anjaan, his latest movie featuring Suriya and Samantha, releases this Friday.
The Santosh Sivan interview is a Silverscreen exclusive. This article was originally published in February 2014, and has been revised in August after a fresh conversation with Santosh Sivan.