The Master of Light

Santosh Sivan has become the first Asian recipient of the prestigious Pierre Angénieux Excellens award, an annual tribute given to cinematographers at the Cannes Film Festival
Santosh Sivan on the set of  Lahore 1947
Santosh Sivan on the set of Lahore 1947

It is showering honours for India at the Cannes Film Festival 2024. Apart from classics like Manthan (1976) being screened and Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine As Light entering the in-competition section after 40 long years, the festival has now recognised the masterful eye of cinematographer Santosh Sivan. He has been awarded ‘The Pierre Angénieux Excellens in Cinematography’, an annual tribute given to cinematographers.

For Santosh, his visual style comes from how he saw the world as a child. It feels nostalgic because it emerges from the memories of his native town in Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. The affinity for visuals ran in his genes. His father, Sivasankaran Nair, was an established film director who also owned a photo studio in the town. Naturally, Santosh would accompany him for his shoots. Under his guidance, Santosh understood the nuances of light and shadow. The beauty of nature left an indelible mark on him.

This can be seen in the stunning landscapes in Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992) that captured the rhythm of the land with an urgency or the dramatic, tangerine hues of the sun setting across the frames in Rajinikanth’s Thalapathy (1991). The environment becomes a major motif in his work as seen in the haunting images of the moving train and the dark tunnels in the iconic ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ from Dil Se… (1998). Further, his visuals create gateways to delve into the psyche of the characters. For instance, the magnification of the core conflict in the Shah Rukh Khan starrer, Asoka (2001), where the warrior king is captured lying in a pool of blood with dismembered bodies, marking a shift in his life as he gives up violence after experiencing its futility.

Dil Se
Dil Se
Asoka
Asoka
Thalapathy
Thalapathy

Along with the teachings of his father, it was also the influence of his grandmother that shaped Santosh’s artistic journey. In an interview, he recalled how she would encourage him to sketch and observe the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma (interestingly, he played the role of the celebrated painter in the 2011 film, Makaramanju, his only outing as an actor). Carrying these early learnings along, Santosh went to study at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), graduating in 1984. The first film that he shot after this was the experimental Malayalam film, Nidhiyude Katha (1986), which was about an artist who visits a beautiful village to find inspiration for his work. However, larger recognition followed after he shot Aamir Khan’s gangster drama Raakh (1989). His stark use of light and shadows on Aamir’s face is among the major highlights of the film, placing it in the larger context of its grim themes.

Raakh
Raakh

Further, it was the Tamil film, The Terrorist (1998) that was written, shot and directed by him, which earned him international acclaim. It told a moving story of a teenage suicide bomber who has a change of heart when she discovers that she is pregnant. It was received well internationally, particularly by actor John Malkovich and film critic Roger Ebert who said that the film was “scripted by the camera”. Consequently, cinematographer Michale Chapman, who has shot Martin Scorsese-films like Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), used scenes from The Terrorist as a reference in his workshops. Later, he recommended Santosh’s name to be included in the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). In 2012, the cinematographer became the first person from Asia to be included in the ASC.

The recognition at Cannes is yet another feather in his cap. Santosh joins the prestigious list of other cinematographers who have received the honour in the past including Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for LoveChungking Express), Edward Lachman (CarolFar from Heaven), Agnes Godard (Wings of DesireBeau Travail), Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt LockerCaptain Phillips), and Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 20491917). His life has been about capturing moments in all their authenticity with a graceful shimmering of light and an unhurried sculpting in time. All this while, he stood behind the camera to adorn the image. As he becomes the moment now, all lights turn, the lens reflects his smile and as for his images? Well, they rise to the applause.

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