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In flashback mode

SARASWATHY NAGARAJAN catches up with filmmaker and cinematographer Santosh Sivan as he talks of projects new and old


He admits that all the films directed by him were created because "I am on a nostalgia trip."



ON A ROLL Santosh Sivan unwinds after the release of `Ananthabhadram' Photo: S. Gopakumar

Santosh Sivan rumples his curly hair, rubs his face, rolls his eyes and after a great deal of time he laughs and says a trifle sheepishly, "Yes, if I were not a photographer, I would have been a farmer."

He explains, "See, both professions are very closely connected to nature. As a student, I used to cycle to the Medical College ground to play hockey. I used to observe the sky carefully for signs of rain. After some time, you can notice the changes in the clouds, light and wind. That is when I began to closely observe nature, much the same way a farmer scrutinises the skies."

The award wining director-cinematographer, whose film `Terrorist' was included in the best 100 films of the century by film expert Roger Ebert, was in the city after his `Ananthabhadram,' the first film directed by him in Malayalam, had been released. He was on his way to finalising the cast for his next film that will be shot in Munnar.

"All I can say now is that Nandita Das would be acting in the film," he says.

In his father's studio, Sivans, at Pulimoodu, Santosh was in a nostalgic mood.

Nostalgia inspired films

Speaking fluent Malayalam sans a put-on accent or airs, the FTII-trained cinematographer's ability to narrate stories seems to be as captivating as his skills in visual narration as he patiently answers questions about his films and craft. And he points out that stories and experiences that fascinate him have motivated him to transform them on celluloid.

"For instance, it was the story of `Ananthabhadram' that captivated me. The stories my grandmother used to tell me used to take me to a world of mystery. It was the same feeling when I heard this story and I have tried to capture that in my film," says Santosh.

"In fact, when I showed it to Mani Ratnam he asked me `Santosh, is it really cold or am I feeling it because of these dark and damp caves in the film,"' adds Santosh.

He admits that all the films directed by him were created because "I am on a nostalgia trip."

A student of Loyola School, Santosh confides, "My film `Malli' was based on a short story we did in school. When my friends saw it, they called me and said, `Eda, this was the story `Blue Bead' that we did in school and you made it into a film.' Similarly, `Navarasa' was made after I met transsexuals who told me about the Koovagam festival at Villipuram in Tamil Nadu, and their customs. It was made on a shoestring budget. There are no actors and I have shown the world of transsexuals through the eyes of a 13-year old girl Shweta. No sets, costumes or script. It is a docu-fiction. I make money by working on different projects and then when I find something that I find satisfying, I bank roll the project."

He adds that `Asoka' was also a kind of nostalgic trip as he was fascinated by the character of a man who decided to give up wars after one of his greatest victories.

"Similarly, I am a great fan of Ravi Varma and it was my way of paying tribute to him, when I recreated some of his works in my films," says Santosh who paints and sketches. He feels that he may have inherited it from his paternal grandmother, who used to paint. "In fact, I will be working on Shaji N. Karun's film on Raja Ravi Varma. I had worked with him in `Vanaprastham' as well. We have a perfect understanding, perhaps because he is an introvert and I am not one."

After having worked on films like `Perunthachan,' and `Kaalapani,' what was it like to direct a film in Malayalam?

"Well, the comfort level was very high. Moreover, it is the rich landscape of Kerala that inspires me. I became aware of this when I was shooting in Ladakh (`Dil Se') and London (`Bride and Prejudice'). The terrain in Ladakh is so hostile. English architecture, films and stories reflect their weather. The buildings are meant to bring the sun in while buildings in Kerala are designed to keep the sun out. The light comes into our rooms with so much force. Kerala is a land of plenty."

Bitten by the travel bug

An avid traveller, Santosh maintains that travelling is the best way to observe and learn people and nature. "As a student in FTII, I used to go to the parks and click pictures of mothers and their children. I used to sell that to make money and with that I would travel. I doubt if there is any part of India I have not travelled," he says.

One of his short films that he made during his stay in Arunachal Pradesh called `The Story of Tiblu' fetched him his first National award for the best short film in 1988. "You could call it a labour of love. So were the one-minute films that I made for the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation. It was something I did for my father and I put my heart into it," he says.

Going traditional

A great admirer of Kerala's traditional art and culture he says, "I have derived a great deal of inspiration from our arts. We have a rich visual culture and even in `Ananthabhadram,' I have used certain aspects from Theyyam dancers and Kathakali to create the wizard Digambaran's image. The colour, long nails, kohl-lined eyes and so on were inspired from Theyyam and Kathakali."

Moving on to his next film he says, "It is an English film set in the early forties. It is about planters in South Africa. When I was scouting for locations, I found that there were remarkably well-preserved colonial bungalows in Munnar. Even the forests there resemble the dark tropical forest. We could not shoot in Ooty or Kodai as the forest there have a European feel to it," says Santosh.

And his success mantra?

"At the end of the day you have to be honest with yourself and only do something that gives you complete satisfaction."

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