Santosh Sivan
Interviewer : Jyothsna Bhavanishankar | Camera : Maran | Text : Jyothsna Bhavanishankar | Coordination : Inian
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His eyes, a true reflection of his camera, never shuttered, ever remaining open to find the hues around in all its exuberance. It was a treat to capture the moving essence of the “Santosh” Sivan’s narrations related to the stills that move through his lenses. Senior Editor Jyothsna Bhavanishankar accounts the jubilance of Urumi’s success as Santosh Sivan unfolds in an exclusive tête-à-tête.

What is the inspiration behind Urumi?

Whenever you travel to Goa or Fort Kochi or such places, you will always find a suite in the name of Vasco da Gama who is revered as a discoverer of India. But when you delve deeper into the history, you will realize that he discovered India for the Western world but he is the conqueror, the first colonial ruler in the world as they all came to trade in pepper but instead of trading they decided to conquer the place.

Pepper in those days was the King of Spices and when Vasco da Gama came for the 2nd time to India, his intentions were different and he showed his violent streak by attacking the ship that came from Mecca and killed many people and cut the ears of Brahmins who came for negotiations Since our people were not united, it was easy for him to overpower us. The guns came, the cannons came and finally they conquered us and ruled us for 400 years.

A small peppercorn changed our


Hence I thought it would be interesting to make a film that would show the small peppercorn changing the entire history of India. I think for every Indian it would be interesting.

I decided to do Urumi in different languages because every Indian should see this film as these are the events that changed their lives. And also in those days there was no Malayalam as it was a mix of many languages like Tamil and that’s how the script came along.

I discussed with Prithviraj and we decided to produce it ourselves instead of going to a producer. We also had a lot of help from other actors like Prabhu Deva and Arya. Genelia took extra effort and got trained in horse riding and Martial arts to put up a performance as warrior princess which is very different from the roles that she had earlier played in her career. Whenever you give challenging roles to these artists, they put in lot more into it. Vidya Balan also got trained in dance. The cast included Nithya Menen and Tabu who did a guest appearance. We also had people from all over India like Amol Gupte of Stanley Ka Dabba and Taare Zameen Par fame.

Genelia took extra effort and got

trained in horse riding

How did you manage an ensemble cast in Urumi?

Once the subject is interesting and you narrate the subject to everyone, there is a curiosity as to how you are going to pull it off because it is not easy to show Vasco da Gama coming with 16 ships and attacking. There is an interest and most actors are very supportive when it comes to doing something different.

People who wrote history are the

people who won

How much of fact and fiction are there in Urumi?

There is a lot of fact in Urumi. The script writer Shankar Ramakrishnan has researched extensively about Vasco da Gama’s life which is 90%. The other part is a universal story which could happen anywhere in such circumstances, which of course is fiction. Unfortunately the people who wrote history are the people who won. After 15th century when Vasco da Gama came and went back, there were many discoveries in the Western world. We might have lost a lot and things may have gone from here too. There is no one to tell our side of the story. Hence I wanted to tell it from our perspective.

Urumi is actually a flexible sword to keep away outsiders and it also has a very strange character in that it rolls back. The film is designed in such a way that it talks about the present and the past. In the past some people came and exploited our land and it is happening even now. Perhaps the people who lived then are the people who live now. Still we are not united and our progress is not uniform. The film has also portrayed this aspect in a different manner. Besides that, Urumi has its entertainment commercial aspects like song, action, humor and there is a universal storyline. However, beneath all that you also come across the main knot.

Why is the Tamil version being released after the Malayalam one?

We wanted to release it simultaneously but due to elections and IPL, we decided to release the Malayalam version and then the Tamil one. Anyway, they are two different versions.

How has been the response for Malayalam Urumi?

Very Good! It has completed 110 days and has done well critically and commercially. I feel it is good for a film to be viewed by as many people of different nationalities and languages as it talks about a very interesting time in History.

Biggest challenge while making Urumi

When you make a film based on History, it is easy to make sets. The more money you have, the bigger the sets. But I feel that 15th century is a time which was pollution free. It had an ambience which we dream of. To get that feeling without telling it was pollution free, you need to get into that kind of ambience where people really feel it was pollution free. It is difficult to get these kinds of subtleties. For instance, there are these waterfalls which are there for 6-7 days when it rains and then it disappears. It is difficult to shoot in such places as they are dictated by time and nature. This was challenging.

Film making has only challenges

To coordinate people from different languages into a scene and integrating it is challenging as there are many people who do not understand Tamil or Malayalam or Hindi. And all of them are acting together. But this is not new to me as I have done this before and worked with foreign crew. And as such, film making has only challenges.

I enjoy creating my own world

You seem to have a fascination for history and folklore e.g. Anandabhadram, Asoka and now Urumi. Your comment

I am not sure if it is a fascination. When I did Anandabhadram, it was a grandmother’s folktale. There are different kinds of film makers. I might be a filmmaker who is fond of the visual language, a writers’ style could be more verbose and a musician’s angle could be musical. Everybody has their own sensibilities. The more perceptions you have, the more interesting the film making would get.

In my case I would say visual language is very interesting as I have done films in many languages. As a visual language person, I enjoy creating my own world which might or might not have existed. To create that world and ambience to tell my story, I need complete freedom and it is very challenging. Hence it (creating my own world) is very appealing to me. It may not be about a period or folklore. I think it is interesting just to let your imagination run free.

Where do you think Urumi stands with respect to Pazhassiraja, Asoka or Jodha Akbar?

I don’t think these films can be compared with Urumi as they are period films. Urumi has a lot of facts in it. For instance when your ancestors first saw the gun or the cannon, the reaction that is being shown is something that happened and it is the fact. We are exploring the world where our ancestors might have seen this or faced this. And our ancestors were very hospitable to foreigners who came here and ruled which is very interesting to watch .

Our ancestors were very

hospitable to foreigners

Your acting debut as Raja Ravi Verma in Makaramanju

Acting was just an accidental thing. I am in the industry for quite some time and if I had wanted to act, I could have done it long back. But I am not kicked about acting.

My grand mom used to teach music in the palace. So, I remember as a kid going there and seeing the paintings. My grand mom would come back and show us the calendar with Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings and she would describe their mythological relevance which I thought was very interesting. These were one of my first visual education which is why may be in Anandabhadram, you would see influences of such images. Wherever you go in the world to a Malayalee house, you will find a Raja Ravi Verma painting which is some kind of nostalgia and a sort of connect with your moorings.

So when Lenin first gave the offer of acting and not shooting, I almost fainted. But because of all these factors and may be in a way they associate me and my work with these things, I was approached for this role. Sometimes opportunities come and it is up to you to take it or leave it. Since he (Ravi Verma) was a painter and they wanted someone new and since I also paint and I can understand the sensibilities, I thought I could give it a try. I of course warned them but it was interesting to be on the other side of the camera and it was very easy especially to work with Madhu Ambat who I have known for a long time and it was all friends working together.

“My God, you have four


Then everyone said, “My God, you have four heroines in the movie”. As Ravi Verma was a painter, he had many muses. But I also had good feedback from people like Giridas Gupta who was in the jury. But sometimes it is easy to do a role like that not any role because you need genuine actors to portray different characters.

Despite being a highly respected name in mainstream cinema, what makes you do small films very often, like Navarasa or Tahaan?

First, when I started making films, I did children’s films and made Halo in Hindi and Malli in Tamil and then I made Terrorist which won many awards and international patronage. Then I did Asoka with Shah Rukh Khan. So I have been doing different kinds of films including one in Hollywood - Before The Rains. I always feel that making films is like reading literature. Sometimes, it is newspaper, sometime you want to indulge in a book, sometimes it is comic while some other times it could be a non-fiction. I feel film making should have that freedom. I don’t do films as a means of survival or for financials reasons. Whenever I do a film, I would like to do something that I feel like at that moment. I would like to keep it that way. I am fortunate enough to have a career in cinematography where I can go and shoot whenever I feel like. And there also I can do a big film or a short film. Sometimes I do commercials. It is good to keep yourself enjoying your job always. I like the variety which does not mean I will not do 100 % commercial film.

Making films is like reading


What is the point in doing a film

where everything looks like

special effects?

You are yet to work in a film which has employed a lot of special effects. Your comment?

It is very interesting to work in a film involving special effects. There are a lot of special effects in Urumi but you can’t catch it. It is a big challenge trying to do a film with lot of special effects without the audience realizing it. What is the point in doing a film where everything looks like special effects? With the kind of digital platforms and the knowledge of technology that we have today, we can do a lot of mythological stories as we have treasure-trove of such stories in our literature. We can make them into movies without them being tacky or special-effects oriented. We can actually make it very natural and we need to go with the flow of the story which is very important.

Would you like to associate yourself in a project that has special effects too?

I love doing special effects film and technology is fascinating. I would like to execute it in a way that is believable and technical people also should feel it is done well. Graphics and special effects need pre-planning. You need to have a thorough study and understanding and when you actually go about executing it, you would have actually done all that in detail. Then you will come up with an end product which people will find it fascinating.

You handle the camera for your directorial ventures. How do you manage?

I don’t differentiate between cinematography and direction. I think the most important factor that a cinematographer can bring about is the one I was talking about showing a pollution free atmosphere on screen. In most of my films, landscape is a character by itself. I think we are also able to give it a lot of scale without actually paying for it. I think there is a little coordination. But that does not mean that I will not work with other cinematographers. And I am always supported by a very good crew.

I don’t differentiate between

cinematography and direction

Don't you find the multiple roles taxing?

Everything is taxing. When you know you can capture something in a particular way, it becomes easier to weigh the possibilities. I think everyone comes with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes it is advantageous while some other times it is not because you are always at it. It is how you look at it. I can say 70% I enjoy and 30% I feel someone else can handle.

Do you think the Indian film industry is up to date with the latest developments in cinematography?

I think we have an interesting set of talented cinematographers. There is also this digital boom that is happening now. There are many who are shooting films digitally and as long as your sensibilities remain pure and interesting and you have something new to offer, then there is something to it.

Can you compare the candid cinematography with the difficulties of engineering images on sets and locations?

I think it is like ‘horses for different courses’. You can have a film for style which is dictated by the script. I think sometimes you can have highly mobile camera and I don’t think there are any sets of rules. It is like music- the piano is there what kind of music you want to play in it depends on you. Camera is just a tool and what you want to do with it rests with you. movie.

Can you tell us about your working with Mani Ratnam and Shah Rukh Khan?

It has been a pleasure working with them.

Subrata’s work has a timeless


Your favorite cinematographers

I like Subrata Mitra’s work and also D K Murthy’s. In those days none of the current facilities were there and Subrata’s work has a timeless quality. Even now, when you see them, it is not dated. He did not do fashionable cinematography because when you do fashionable cinematography, it goes out of fashion. It is the timeless things that stay on.

When I went to study in film institute, I saw Charulatha and even now when I see the film, it has the timeless quality. This is how one’s work should be. When you embrace nature and its beautiful ways, then I think the timeless quality will come. Cinematography is very taxing and you are always a student. When you think you have shot in every different type of setting, something new will emerge. And hence you always remain a student.

What do you enjoy the most- acting, directing or cinematography?

I don’t know about that. Like I said before, I don’t know about acting too much. Directing a movie is very fulfilling and it is an interesting journey. When you make an issue based film like Navarasa, or a children’s film like Halo or a very serious film like Terrorist, you are not looking at the mass appeal. It might have a niche appeal but it is a statement that it is very interesting to male. In those respects, it is a fulfilling.

Directing a movie is very fulfilling

At some point of time you would want to do things in your life that are not materialistic that will belong to you even when you are not there like a book or a film. It remains for a longer time. No on can take it away from you because it is your thinking. It is interesting to invest in your thoughts.

For instance Navarasa is a film that I really treasure a lot because it is done in a very simple way. When I did films on AIDS, I came across the third gender who said that they are always being ridiculed in our films. I wanted to look at them in a very different manner and they liked it. It is not a planned move or a conscious effort to do a particular kind of film. Something that triggers inside!

There is never an enough point

for money

One thing about money is that there is never an enough point for it. You can say enough to many things but not for money. That’s why you have so many scams these days. The fact is that there is no end to money and you are not going to take it anywhere. I think it is interesting to put your hard earned money in something which becomes a film or in such creative output.

I admire people who write, paint or make music. I think those are very interesting creative areas where your work will turn out exciting if you are a little truthful. I am not saying you have to be truthful all the time and do only original kind of work. May be one complements the other. You make a commercial film and with that money you do something that you like. That’s what I do. After shooting a big film, I take that money and do a children’s film. May be I am not the typical director and I also have the advantage of knowing a lot of actors. But that’s how it is with me.

Tags : Santosh Sivan, Urumi, Genelia, Arya, Prabhu Deva, Vidya Balan
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