CHENNAI: When Santosh Sivan wants to make a point, he doesn't just say it outright. He draws you into an illustration, albeit a verbal one, which more often than not is just as colourful as some of his stunning cinematography.
Originally from Kerala, settled in Chennai, the man who took Bollywood by storm two decades ago, is still excited about working with students and young directors. Just ahead of his special session with students at The New Indian Express' Thinkedu Conclave, the country's most celebrated cameraman and possibly it's most air-free director, gets talking about his time at the Film and Television Insititute of India (FTII), working with students despite the politics at play, working with Mani Ratnam and how he learnt to make foreign critics and festival juries a happy lot. Excerpts from a conversation with the man who has shot Dil Se, Roja, Thalapathy, Asoka, Thuppakki and many more films that have shaped Indian pop culture:
You were among the first people to resign from FTII's GC. Now that the strike has been called off, would you ever consider going back?
I was the first person to resign from the Governing Council because I knew all this trouble was going to happen. This politicisation is becoming a huge problem these days. See, ten years ago when Vinod Khanna, who was a BJP member came in, this type of trouble did not happen. I still do masterclasses and workshops for students at other institutes, so If I am called to do it there, then I am game, The fact is that, I studied there, and if the school and the students want me to come, of course I will. It's not like I'm suddenly going to volunteer.
What was it like when you studied there?
FTII is a crazy place, actually. I learnt more outside FTII than I did inside. In my first year, they were giving me a camera and film to shoot for free, so I thought it was a very interesting opportunity. So I went to a park next door and took pictures of mothers and children on a swing or elderly people taking a walk, got black and white prints and sold it to them. I was making a lot of money. And that used to fund my travel. Every time there was a strike in FTII, I would travel. When the students got together, they used to agitate. So I got to travel quite a bit.
But the teaching process was quite sound thirty odd years ago?
It's honestly one of the nicest film institutes but they were a little confused really. For our final film project, they told us not to take their cameras out of Pune to shoot it, but also told us to go to our roots. I mean, honestly, what roots did I have in Pune?! So I took the camera and went back to Kerala and shot a film and took it back. They still talk about that (chuckles). Though, when I go back for guest lectures, they tell me specifically not to tell these stories!
So teaching is something that you've enjoyed? Is there a Film Institute plan somewhere on the horizon?
Teaching is interesting for me because I also learn a lot. Especially when I do things like workshops for tribal kids. I don't want only people who go to a film institute to come work for me, I like people who come from varied backgrounds. To have a school and all is a big responsibility. Rajiv (Menon) is doing well because he's good with organising stuff like this.
From taking still pictures in Kerala to becoming the first Indian to be invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), it's been quite a journey. How tough was it?
Early on, I decided that I didn't want to sit in an office. When you're from Kerala, if you're not a cinematographer then you'd probably be a farmer. We weren't farmers but we grew up like that! When I was invited to join the ASC, I spoke about using Indian themes and cultural tropes and they were psyched, because they love people who don't try to be like them. Here, today, everybody is excited and think it's a great thing if someone says that your film looks like a Hollywood film. They think it's a compliment, but it's actually stupid. Our benchmark should be to take it from within our culture. like a simple kolam, with which you can do a lot. It makes them go OMG and they love it.
Internationally, people really love your work. How'd that happen?
I always like to think i'm just starting out. I want to go somewhere where nothing is expected of me. I'm not afraid to take risks. When I passed out of FTII I had this dream of shooting five Black and White films, but that never happened. But life is strange because I managed that with the opening sequence of Rajinikanth's Thalapathy. Internationally, when The Terrorist premiered at Sundance, people picked it up and called it one of the most visually appealing films ever. So they came up to me and asked me 'which lab' and I promptly told them 'Gemini Lab'!
Some of your biggest films have been with Mani Ratnam. Do you pick your directors based on what they're like or the script?
I've never felt cramped working with different directors, because working with someone like Mani Ratnam is a beautiful experience. He takes what you know and enhances it. Working with people like M F Husain helps you learn so very much. At the beginning of my career, I worked with plenty of newcomers and they bring so much energy and freshness and you know after 2-3 lines if the story is really theirs. So I let them dictate the styles. That's why Thalapathy doesn't look like Iruvar and Iruvar
doesn't look like Roja or Dil Se or Raavan. The tones and feel are different. Sometimes I don't know whether it's a script based thing, because stories do change midway. Sometimes it's the director. But I make only one film a year. Heroes sometimes ask me to do films for them but I say no, because it's a director's medium.
It must be nice being able to manage all your projects doing just one big film a year.
People tell me that I'm very expensive, but I only work on a percentage of the budget. If it's a very low budget film, then I am there taking that small percentage. People just say that about me, but it's not true. Sometimes it's good to command a price!
Lots of cinematographers talk about how digital cameras are never the same as shooting on film. Is that true?
These days a lot of people are making movies with their phones, If you look at entries to places like Sundance, a lot of their movies are shot with small cameras and low budget technology, so it's not a big deal. Sometimes it even adds to it. When I shot Thuppakki, which was one of the first films to be shot entirely on a digital format, it wasn't because the producers couldn't afford film. It was because we needed to film a hero like Vijay standing in the middle of a busy Bandra street using 5 or 6 hidden cameras and we felt that we could only do it with digital tech. In fact, one camera was in his hand. Image capture is very important. The capture will always change. You don't know what will come tomorrow. I personally love the idea of shooting on film because it's complex and more true to life. It is connected to people because they always look better when shot on film. Maybe I'm just a purist. Digital is more handy.
Santosh Sivan will be in conversation with students and handle a special session at TNIE's Thinkedu Conclave on February 9 at 5 pm at the ITC Grand Chola. Entry for students is free. Details and registration: www.newindianexpress.com