For the last 160 days, Hotel Crowne Plaza, Room no: 1423 was the temporary address of cinematographer-director Santosh Sivan. Since he debuted in Malayalam cinema, this is perhaps the longest time he has spent in Kerala. Along with the promotions of ‘Jack & Jill’, he was also shooting Mohanlal’s debut directorial, ‘Barozz’.
The germ of an idea for ‘Jack & Jill’ originated during an old student's reunion at Thiruvanthapuram Loyola school. They all came together to celebrate their reunion at a hotel. There were doctors, engineers and even NASA Scientists. That’s where he got the idea of setting a story in the backdrop of Kerala’s traditional grove temples and a modern sci-fiction lab. He was always fascinated by the aesthetics of Kerala, old grandma tales, the green lakes and grove temples.
When the new generation keeps asking him about the latest finds in cinematography he will tell you this— “When you point a finger at the moon, we should look at the moon. Technology is a mere pointer to that direction. And that’s exactly what we should see.”
Of course, there is no way Santosh Sivan cannot mention Mani Ratnam in his interviews. “I have done 6 films with Mani Ratnam. He played an instrumental role in popularizing my name outside Kerala. But when we sign his films, there isn’t enough space to do other films. Most of his films have long schedules. But yes, the remuneration will be solid. Mani meticulously plans his films. While during ‘Roja’ we had taken a decision. It is only when the heroine witnesses the snow mountains that the audience will also view that gorgeous spectacle. Because it was important that the audience share the exact excitement of Madhoo. And it worked out perfectly.”
It was the dose of history he learnt in history teacher George sir’s classes at Loyola school that inspired him to make ‘Ashoka’ (starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor).
“Invariably history will be the first period, after lunch recess. We would be sleepy and tired after nonstop playing. George sir would perform and teach. While teaching about Ashoka, somehow George sir didn’t like the fact that his students were so unenthusiastic. Why? Didn’t you like Ashoka? He wanted to know. How boring is it to listen to the story of a King who has denounced war, sir? Then he asked us—"How many of you throw stones at a stray dog? Many students raised their hands. “One day you will stop throwing stones and that day you will see Ashoka.” That was what inspired me to do ‘Ashoka’. While I was doing the film, we were all under the hangover of television historical dramas centered around Mahabharata and Ramayana. So the audience who had gotten used to watching Kings and Queens in gold finery living inside giant ornate palaces, found my simple Ashoka too simplistic to digest. Even today ‘Ashoka’ is hailed as a film ahead of its times. And that makes me happy.”
He has a ready answer to a cliched question everyone asks a cinematographer. “When you look through the camera, who did you find the most stunning?” Was it the obviously beautiful Aishwarya Rai and her green eyes? or was it Madhoo? Or Kareena Kapoor?”
“It’s an actor's inner radiance that makes them beautiful in front of the camera. It doesn’t come from cosmetics. I was mesmerised by Kajol when I shot her in ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hain’. She doesn’t wear much makeup or splashy costumes, but the minute you call for action, she stuns you. Manju Warrier and Tabu are like that. When it comes to Manju Warrier, her talent hasn’t been fully utilized yet. Today she is even part of the big league in Tamil cinema. 'Jack & Jill' is an experiment.”
There is a golden rule that Santhosh Sivan has followed all through his career. If he works continuously for 6 months, the rest of the year, he travels. Occasionally he might do a documentary in between. It might be about the paddy fields at Chambakkulam or about the pink dolphins in Amazon forests. He is growing a 3-acre forest at Pondicherry. A forest where peacocks and rabbits visit in the evenings. He has a huge garden at his flat in Mumbai. Recently he travelled to Orissa to frame the glorious Jagannatha Puri temple at the behest of Orissa CM, Navin Patnaik. The govt is investing a lot of money to convert some of the modern shops back to the form of how shops looked 100 years ago. He has to capture those views as well. Santhosh Sivan has so much to explore, learn and unlearn. Travel is always an educator.