Santosh Sivan: We treated Rajinikanth’s face as a landscape
The ace cinematographer talks of shooting Darbar, his philosophy behind cinematography, and how he feels rooted sensibilities can make individualistic art
Santosh Sivan speaks of cinematography like one would about poetry. He calls himself nature's student and speaks of how the world wakes up to monochromes in the morning, and soft light slowly waking up colours in the air. The day, he says, holds the Navarasas for us. “Sunlight even dictates architecture and it is beautiful to be a student of that." Santosh’s work has shown that he tries to recreate these observations in films. "To an extent," he says with a smile. "Everything with life has a mystery to it. I try to create a blend of darkness and light to see if there's mystery in the frame," says the veteran cinematographer, who is the only Indian to be part of the coveted the American Society of Cinematographers.
One might think that for someone who sees such philosophy in art, commercial cinema might not be the best fit. But Santosh Sivan refutes that with a diverse body of work. His last film, for example, is Darbar in which he collaborated with Murugadoss and Rajinikanth. He treated faces as landscapes here, he says. "If you are going to film anything, there should be something from your perspective."
The last time you worked with Rajinikanth was Thalapathi (1991). How have you evolved as a technician in this time?
We only look at the perspective provided by a film. Thalapathi had more scope for nature in its cinematography; Darbar meanwhile has an urban setting and is the story of a cop, a baaad cop. (laughs). The visual possibilities are limited here. But then, I figured we would treat Rajini sir's face as a landscape. With the help of makeup and costumes, we lit him to make him look like he did when he was younger.
If you had done Darbar back then, would you have approached it the same way?
If it's the same story, there is only one way to go about it. You can't work independently of it. This is a film Murugadoss had discussed with me when we were making Thuppaki. He has wanted to work with Rajinikanth for more than a decade, and we decided that when it happens, I would shoot the film. It was a commitment I enjoyed making in order to get to work with Rajini sir.
Shooting Darbar was like watching it in a theatre because the sets were full of cheering and whistling fans. (smiles) Rajini sir has a presence that radiates on screen; if he is in the frame, you would look at him. With Thalapathi, we were obsessed with the metaphor in the film, but here, we wanted to make Rajini look younger. This could be done on account of Rajini's energy, which defies his age. He has always been charming, now he’s even more so. After the shoot, he would walk to the vanity in the same way that he would have earlier done for a shot.
The tone and style of the film get conceived over multiple discussions with the director. How were those conversations with Murugadoss?
Darbar was shot in Bombay, which is full of colours, lights, and neon. So we wanted to bring that in. Even in the railway station fight, we made sure it was a vibrant place as we also have a song going on in the background. We put Rajinikanth through all kinds of moods, in various parts of the film. If you see it carefully, he goes through an array of colours or hues. It isn't very deliberate but it is definitely there.
You have mentioned previously that sketching a face helps with understanding the person better. Do you do that with films as well?
It works with everything. The advantage of sketching a face is you truly observe the details of the face. And no one's face is perfect. But sometimes, these imperfections make them very attractive. Sketching and still photography helps me understand the human face. I want the actors to behave as if the camera were their best friend. When you get that confidence with the actor, they are more liberated in front of the camera. Be it Kareena in Ashoka, or Madhoo in Roja or Manish in Dil Se, we had little makeup on them. It is good to see their skin; when they cry, it feels more real.
You have said that big commercial films serve to have you do experimental films.
Initially, when I started, I used to work only with newcomers. You would imbibe their energy, and learn from them. When you make a film with stars, there's a formula to it. It doesn't get experimental. So when this helps me do what I want to, I am happy. It isn't always the script, it's also the people. Agreeing to do a film is a commitment and it is better when you know the people you are comfortable with. It is about diversifying your roster, and not just pick films for the money.
What do you enjoy about commercial cinema?
Commercial cinema touches people's lives again and again. For example, the songs are engrossing. You film a song and it gets played after ten years. Our songs are beyond language. When Arriflex interviewed me, they wanted Chaiyya Chaiyya in that video. Chaiyya Chaiyya has strangely inspired Dancer in the Dark if you look at it. Music, like feature films, has great recall value. I think I love that; when you see it, you remember everything.
You worked through the transformation from film to digital. How do you perceive the shift?
When I used to sketch, it was considered 'original'. When photography came, the 'original' was a negative. And when it was digitised, it became a copy. In the sense, it was a lamp that was lighting another one. I was prepared for it. Films had more adventure to it. But the truth is, no matter the technology, the sensibilities don't change. It has to have roots in your culture -- in your handicrafts and visual arts. Those make us what we are. It is like how you get the best fish curry at a fisherman's house because the fish is fresh. When you film something, you should be able to smell it.
Vetri Maaran once said that since Tamil didn't have a strong parallel cinema culture, it gave us an audience more accepting of experiments. How do you see this? Can every crossover be called commercial, in the conventional sense?
In fact, I just did a film called Centimetre in Tamil, with Manju Warrier and Yogi Babu. It is a blend of genres, and people who were working on it said it was very commercial almost as if that were an accusation (laughs) I think everyone wants to make a commercial film, nobody can resist it. But everything has to fall in place.
In parallel cinema, on the other hand, the audience you aim for is important. I made The Terrorist because when I can watch a Japanese film, why can't an American watch a Tamil film? I figured the best way for me to do that is to write my film with my camera. However, we need all kinds of cinema -- talkies, musicals..
Why do our films struggle to find global acclaim? Some say we need to give them what they understand, and others feel we should present stories that are unapologetically about us.
I was invited to be part of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) because they found my work to be diverse and different. We have our own way of decorative arts. They love it and that's what they look for from India. Here, people think it is a compliment when someone says our film looks like a Hollywood one. I think that's ridiculous. Europe's filmmaking is almost wiped out because of Hollywood. But we have retained our individuality.