Being Santosh Sivan


This is a story that  I did that ran in the June 20, 2008 issue of India Abroad.  

“I’m from Kerala, I live in Chennai and work in Bombay, also a bit in London, and I often come to the United States, but I am basically a backwater boy from Kerala.”  

Given how Santosh Sivan described himself recently in a phone interview from Los Angeles, it is not surprising that a man so at home in so many different places is equally comfortable slipping between the role of director and cinematographer.

In the years after graduating from the prestigious Film and Television Institute in Pune, he first made a name for himself with his work as lensman on films like Dalapathi, Roja, Iruvar, Dil Se, all helmed by Mani Rathnam, and then stepped out to direct Halo, Malli, The Terrorist and the sprawling historical epic Asoka.

On the Los Angeles leg of his trip, he met, among others, legendary stage and screen actor John Malkovich, a fan of the Indian lensman’s work dating back to The Terrorist.   Malkovich made Sivan an offer Hollywood A-listers would have found hard to refuse:   to direct the big-screen version of Nobel Prize-winning author J M Coetzee’s 1980 masterpiece Waiting for the Barbarians, a book that thematically plays into these troubled times and that the cognoscenti regard as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

Before the Rains, Sivan’s first English-language endeavor (it also contains some Malayalam dialogue), is set in his native Kerala in the late 1930s.   It stars British actor (and Indophile) Linus Roache as a landowner who has gambled all he’s got to have a large road built prior to the start of the monsoons, so he can send out truckloads of spices.   Roache’s character, Moores, whose wife and child are back in the UK, has also gotten himself into a risky relationship with his married housemaid, Sajani, played by Nandita Das.   The third, and pivotal, person in the film’s story is Rahul Bose as T.K., Moores’ intelligent and loyal foreman, who is very fond of his British boss, but is also feeling the tug of the growing Independence movement growing around him.

The quartet of Sivan, Roche, Das and Bose gathered on the red carpet in Tribeca, and also participated in a press day in Manhattan, topped off by a reception at the Indian consulate, where the group, also accompanied by Jennifer Ehle, who plays Linus Roche’s wife in the film, answered questions from a mix of Indian and non-Indian journalists.

The film had an initial opening in New York and Los Angeles on May before gradually opening wider.   Sivan also took time out during his visits to the two US cultural capitals – and a side trip to present his film at Pittsburgh’s Silk Screen Festival – to discuss his larger body of work with India Abroad.

Reflecting on the experience of attending the Tribeca Film Festival, Sivan drew parallels between the film and his host city:   “We had this very interesting cast from Hollywood, from Bombay and from Kerala, all putting in their different kind of acting skills together along with crew, like the sound crew from London.   We had different people working with different languages, and in English with so many accents.   Then finally the audience, in a place like New York, a place of different cultures, all sitting together watching the film.”

Before the Rains is poised to swing wider still, with a British premiere June 19 at the Edinburgh Film Festival; it will then open in Australia and New Zealand later in June before finally arriving in India, and Asia.  

Asked why an Indian opening was coming at the very end, the Thiruvananthapuram native laughs, pointing to the Indian Premier League tournament that was then capturing the country’s undivided attention.   “Besides,” he adds, “the film is in English primarily, and not in the Indian narrative style, with songs and like that.”

Sivan adapted Before the Rains from a story in the 2003 Israeli film Yellow Asphalt.   When it was originally brought to Sivan’s attention, he said, he imagined re-setting the story in the countryside of his home state.   He drew on the object of a childhood curiosity when he began the adaptation.  

“When I was a kid, I used to go through all these roads that wind up, those really very narrow roads that go into the vineyard hills, to the spice places, and there’s always stories of how they made the road when the Britishers came, and it’s named after this and named after that, these roads leading up into our mountains, and we have never met these British people, but their mark has been retained there.   And you keep thinking how it must have been, how our forefathers must have been there.”

Most of the film is shot in Munnar, whose tea gardens are most often associated with Tata Tea, which Sivan credits with having tried to maintain an ecological balance, including rotational cutting of trees for fuel.   When it came to filming the scenes of the road being built, which is central to the story, the crew was able to use some abandoned roads, minimizing impact on the land.

Given how often actors will toss out the chestnut “”¦but what I really want to do is direct” one can’t but help wonder if Sivan chafes at the times when he relinquishes the director’s chair and returns to the role of cinematographer, and yet he seems entirely at peace with the back-and-forth:  

“I actually enjoy filming, it’s a very Zen thing.   I love doing cinematography and I feel my directing experience helps me understand what the director is going through, understanding him and not just being interested in light alone.   So I feel that [directing] actually helps you become a better cinematographer because it’s good to know what the other person is going through.   It’s almost like an actor feeds a director.”

Reflecting on the movie-going public, Sivan observes that they have grown increasingly sophisticated and informed.   “I think today the audience has learned to understand so many different things going into a film,” he says, “Before, few noticed.   A film was something you would only see in a theater so there was a mystery and magic and the stars were there.

“Today a star is not necessarily in the theater, you can have him in your room on the monitor, the television screen.   People’s understanding of cinema has become much more, it is no longer a mystery that unwraps in a big theater.   Audiences are able to identify a signature with the cinematography, just like the way a painting is done.   There is a certain amount of creativity and innovation given in favor of the cinematographer, and they’re able to understand that.”

Sivan has high praise for the quality of technical work that can be executed behind the scenes in India today.   The processing for Before the Rains was done in India, the same is true for Tahaan, the film Sivan just finished shooting in Kashmir (it was processed in Chennai, but, Sivan adds, he could have done it in Mumbai also).   “Today India technically has advanced to really interesting levels.   We have our own home market which loves Indian narrative in our films, which I also enjoy doing.   There is so much employment for all these people, and you find more and more innovations.”

Sivan is at his most comfortable when he talks of all the technical advances of recent years, with digital and special affects, and the impact it will have on the moviemaking industry in the future.   “I think it’s amazing.   I actually embrace all the changes that are happening.   What has happened is there is a marriage between film and the digital platform, which actually retains the image for a much, much longer time than in the print.   At the same time, you see an old film, you see the scratches, and it actually gives you nostalgia.   The very idea of digital means, in a very simple way, lighting one lamp to another lamp, so you have two lamps, not a copy of it.”

To further illustrate his perspective, Sivan tells this story:   “I used to teach in Arunachal Pradesh after the Film Institute, because I didn’t want to be an assistant to anyone.   These kids had taken me to the forest, and they all have swords and all and they said”˜Oh sir, here are two tiger prints.’   And I ask them “˜What do you do if you see a tiger?’   “˜Sir, you climb a tree.’   “˜But what if I’m not good at climbing trees?’ I ask them, and they say “˜Don’t worry sir, when you see a tiger, you’ll learn to climb very, very fast!’   With digital, you will change to the times.   You will see the tiger and you will learn to climb.”

The opening up of markets has brought with it a certain schizophrenia.   Asked who he keeps in mind when he makes his films – an Indian audience with its own sensibilities, or an international audience – Sivan says: “Cinema is a universal language, it is for everyone, whether you see it here in New York, or it is seen in my home state.   I expect everyone wants their film to be seen by everyone, and the more diverse the better.   And I believe if I can see a Japanese film in India, I don’t understand why you can’t see a Malayalam film with subtitles here.   Maybe that’s how you start understanding more and more about the film culture.”

Whose work does the well-regarded filmmaker like to watch?   “One of the people that I really admire,” says Sivan, “is Subroto Mitra, he used to shoot Satyajit Ray’s movies.   We have seen their movies and learned from them.   And so we have actually understood that we didn’t have to discover some of those beautiful ways of looking at things.   That has been done through trial and error.   And I like Days of Heaven, that’s a film I think is fantastically done.   I like Apocalypse Now.   And of late, I think even No Country for Old Men is also very interestingly shot and is something new and different.”

His cinematography has always yielded talking points for the cineaste, curious little niggles in the back of the brain that you seek answers for.   I ask, for example, why he decided to picturize the first song in the Mani Rathnam-helmed Iruvar – a film that marked the coming out party of Miss Aishwarya Rai onto the marquee, opposite Malayalam superstar Mohanlal – in black and white.

The question prompts Sivan into a discussion on the presence and absence of color:   “Actually this black and white thing is very interesting because my whole intention of going to the film institute to study was so that I could get to film a few black and white movies.   I had no other ambition in life.   But by the time I finished, everything became color.   But I really love black and white, all of us have a nostalgia for it.   Mani Rathnam also loves this thing.   We used black and white in our first film together, Dalapathi, in the train sequence.   In Roja we explored a monochrome feel, a blue feel. where the songs happened.   In Iruvar it was very easy because you’re trying to recreate a black and white era in cinema, so it was only logical and convincing.”   He add with a laugh, “I think maybe I’ll get to do my full length black and white film some day.”

The Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Dil Se took him to Ladakh, and its beauty presented its own challenges.   “Every place has its own way of being beautiful.   It’s like looking at a person’s face.   If you ask me “˜Can this person be photographed beautifully?’, I think there’s something in her interior that can come out, if you treat it like that.   If you try to make everyone look like Aishwarya Rai, it might not happen.   Every face has an imperfection, if you ask me, but if you make them comfortable with the imperfection, if you shoot them with the same kind of love and understanding, whether it’s a landscape or a person, you will find something amazing in them.”  

Inspiration, like beauty, can come from anywhere.   Sivan tells of a trip to Sweden, and how in the springtime, the Swedes are “so excited because the light is on top.   In India when the light is on top, no one shoots.”   As soon as he returned to India, Sivan did a film called Fiza which featured a song called Mehboob Mere on Sushmita Sen, that he, drawing on the inspiration from his Sweden trip, shot mostly in top light.  

Though US reviews of Before the Rains have been less than spectacular, Santosh Sivan’s future looks, nonetheless, as though he were lighting it.   He is represented by the famous Hollywood talent firm, Creative Artists Agency, who send him scripts to consider; then there is the John Malkovich offer, and in his next film Tahaan, shot on location in Kashmir, he combines two subjects he has covered successfully in the past:   children and armed conflict.

“I studied a lot of little stories in school, they were for children, so the first films which I wanted to make were these children’s films, Halo and Malli.   Because I came away from Kerala and stayed in Chennai, and because I was shooting all these Tamil films like Dalapathi and Roja, I saw these things reflected, these contemporary issues like terrorism, and all were things I could identify because it was happening around you and you were hearing about it, so I made The Terrorist.   Ashoka was a film that, again, I actually learned at school.   Sometimes you also get into films like Before the Rains where you can put a lot of things that you identify with, or elements you have heard or read about. ”

As he prepares to wrap, the always-jocular Sivan returns to his original topic, the two roles he shuttles between with ease: “I can’t suddenly switch streams.   If I get very upset with someone while shooting, I always console them by saying “˜It was not the director, it was the cinematographer, so forgive me.’   I don’t want to be something else, I want only to be myself.”

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