After Santosh Sivan's last directorial effort in Malayalam, Urumi, 11 years ago, many hoped to see him try something on a much bigger scale.
He briefly circled a Kunjali Marakkar project with Mammootty, but after Priyadarshan beat him to it with the same subject with Mohanlal, the former’s version now seems unlikely. Santosh’s interest was in something smaller.
“Everyone wants me to make epic films,” he says. “I was approached with big subjects. I, however, wanted to do something contemporary, quirky, and relatable.”
A sci-fi comedy directed and lensed by him, Jack N Jill would’ve been released earlier if not for the pandemic-induced delays. The Malayalam-Tamil bilingual, which has artificial intelligence among its main elements, was also an opportunity for the National Award winner to work with Manju Warrier.
“I really like her as an actor, and I often regret not working with her. Jack N Jill is a platform I created to showcase her various artistic skills —singing, dancing, and some action.”
The idea, says Santosh, was born out of a discussion he had with his schoolmates at a reunion. These friends comprised a group of doctors and one NASA scientist.
Through Jack N Jill, Santosh wanted to talk about the “past and future” and, hopefully, explore some existential conundrums. (The Tamil version, titled Centimeter, features Yogi Babu.)
Science fiction is a genre rarely touched by filmmakers in Kerala. Is it so hard to pull off here?
First of all, we can’t afford the level of visual effects employed by Hollywood or other industries. What I did in Jack N Jill is something that won’t hurt our budget to a great extent. The subject is not too complicated or wacky. It demanded only simple VFX shots. It has a story that everyone can follow with all the ingredients that make up a commercial entertainer. It would’ve been too expensive if we had overcomplicated it. I did Jack N Jill because I wanted to do something audiences have not seen before.
Is being your own director of photography less stressful?
Yes. I prefer doing it myself, not just to avoid creative clashes but also to find a way to add scale to the film if we don’t have the necessary funding.
Do you get emotionally attached to your shots?
No, we shouldn’t. We have to be aware that we also have other people working with us. We have to plan it in a way that avoids unnecessary shots. Anything that doesn’t serve the story should go out, no matter how great it looks.
Have you had a moment when you had to take out something you loved shooting?
Actually, yes. Most recently, in fact. For an upcoming anthology for an OTT platform, I had taken some candid shots of animals, but I had to remove them because they had apprehensions about keeping them in.
Looking back at your filmography, is there any film you felt could’ve been made differently?
Not really. I don’t really look at what people are saying. You do what you can in the best way possible at that time. Everyone can have different views on different things. There will always be a group of people who like or dislike your work. We make something in the hope that the majority appreciates it.
What’s the last film you saw that, according to you, had mind-blowing cinema-tography?
Two films. One is Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. I found its shots interesting, and I liked how they experimented with the VFX. It stood out. The other is Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. It, too, was shot very well. Aesthetically appealing without playing to the gallery. I was awed by its remarkable blend of black and white, shadows and light.
You’re the first Indian cinematographer who made me look at nature and light in a different way...
You know, of all the films I did, I believe Roja was the one that got people in Mumbai seriously interested in my cinematography. I think where you are from has a lot to do with your work. Basically, our people, culture, and visual arts have a lot of fascinating things to offer, so somewhere along the line, I think if we are very much interested in those things, they slowly seep into your work.
After getting invited to be a member of ASC (American Society of Cinematographers), one thing I’ve noticed is that they did that because they found your work different from theirs. They like originality. They like it when people bring their cultural influences to their work and not imitate another’s work. When your work carries elements that you grew up with, then your work will stand apart.
Do you believe a director should know all aspects of cinematography?
I think it’s good when the director doesn’t know too much about everything but knows enough to say whether he likes something or not, or whether we should make a film in a certain way... There are many filmmakers like that. Even Mani Ratnam would say something like, ‘I don’t want to know how you do it. Just do what you have to do.’ It’s okay not to get too much into the technical aspects. Here’s the problem: the more you know about cinematography, the more you think something is difficult to execute and that maybe you should not attempt it. When you don’t know too much but only need to get on screen what you envisioned, then you free yourself from those technological hurdles that often happen. When you form a great team, you don’t have to worry about such things. A skilled cinematographer is always a great asset to the team.
How do you look at current technology like StageCraft (virtual production) with which you can ‘control’ nature? For example, in Matt Reeves’ new Batman film, they even shot a car chase using it.
Well, technology is always going to keep changing. No matter how better our equipment gets, we should always trust our aesthetic sensibilities; we don’t want to move away from that. When you point your finger at the moon, we should only look at the moon, not the finger. (laughs) Of course, we can always use various tools to enhance our work, but we can also think of innumerable ways to make a film. For example, we can do a mythological story realistically without affecting the budget. If you can imagine anything, you can do it. You have to keep yourself updated and understand how to execute certain things. They require time and money—especially time. As I said earlier, it’s not very easy to do with the Malayalam cinema budget. Naturally, it’s possible if you are willing to spend money and do it pan-India.
You are shooting Barroz (Mohanlal’s directorial debut) in 3D.
Barroz is a different kind of film because it has a very different story and is well-supported by all the technological advancements, including the fact that it’s 3D. And then there is Mohanlal at the helm, who wants to do something original because he is a very visual person. You can expect something interesting.
What keeps Santosh Sivan going? Aside from a passion for cinema, of course.
Well, sometimes I do documentaries. I did one called Oru Kuttanadan Karshakan, after which I developed a fascination for farming. So I bought a few acres of land near Pondicherry and grew a forest. I even converted the terrace of my Mumbai apartment to grow plants that attract butterflies and little birds. Aside from that, I also paint a little.
You once made an excellent point about how it is necessary to have plenty of life experiences to be a good filmmaker or cinematographer.
Exactly. See, for example, when you travel a lot, you start learning, and that I think is the best way to learn about things because it’s not a group learning process like you have in your school or college. The other experience is solely personal, and it opens your mind to new ideas and sights.