Santosh Sivan


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 first Indian to be part of the coveted the American Society of Cinematographers.

“I was first invited by American cinematographer Michael Chapman, who shot Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Subsequently, two other members sponsored me. Then there was an interview that was reviewed by all ASC members,” Sivan said.

Sivan said he was informed about his selection last week and it would be announced in the next issue of the ASC journal American Cinematographer.

Multi-talented Sivan, who graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, is an actor, producer, director and a cinematographer who has worked in Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and English cinema in a career spanning more than two decades.

A four-time National Award-winning cinematographer, Sivan has worked on 45 feature films and 41 documentaries till now.

I want to dedicate this honour to my father who was a regular reader of the American Cinematographer,” said Sivan. His father, also popularly known as Sivan, is an award-winning producer and director.

The young cinematographer added that he was deeply moved by a note send out by Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Beristain who was present at the ASC meeting on behalf of Sivan’s sponsors, Theo Van de Sande and Michael Chapman.

“Everybody thanked us for proposing such an interesting and original mind to our organisation. Santosh Sivan was a big star at the membership meeting of the ASC last Saturday. He blew everybody away with his wit and phenomenal vision,” read the note by Beristain.

“Just before his meeting, the committee had interviewed another prospective candidate whose main strength is in the stereoscopic (3D) world, the well attended meeting had a good deal of technical information, so they found – in their words – very refreshing to hear Sivan.”

Currently, there are 302 cinematographers from 20 countries as ASC members. The society also has more than 150 associate members working in ancillary sectors of the motion picture industry.

Some of his works


How can a massive film, starring a superstar like Shah Rukh Khan, ending with him winning a massive battle, be an anti-war film? Have a look at this image. The film opens with Asoka’s guru giving him a sword, explaining how it can only see blood.

Later, after seeing the devastation he has caused in the war, see how the sword blinds him? It is when he throws it away that he begins his journey into Bhuddism.

For a culture that devours cinema and the discussions that follow, we’ve been unkind to the visual quality of films. Most of us can, at any time, rattle off a hundred punch dialogues from the films we’ve watched. The same goes for music and background scores. A single beat would suffice for some of our friends to start air-drumming the entire history of an instrument and how they’ve been used in our films.

Yet this devotion we find so commonly with reference to the aural arts, have not always been associated with the visual. Though it’s impossible to find a film lover who isn’t a fan of a music director, we know so many people who can’t name a single cinematographer. And for all the songs we’ve collected in the form of cassettes, CDs and MP3s, it’s not like we’ve taken the trouble to create a folder of JPEGS to save some of the most beautiful frames we’ve seen.

But if you’re willing to start such a catalogue, Santosh Sivan would be a fitting title for the first folder. One of the few stars of his field and the only Indian cinematographer to be inducted into the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), the man has created timeless images that are as powerful as they are pretty, as deep as they are vast. Below is a list with a few such images, classified film-wise, even though these screenshots fail to do justice to their real beauty.


Again, there’s an entire series of books that are just waiting to be written about the visuals of Dil Se. But let’s start with this one. The line goes, “Mujhe maut ki god mein sone de, teri rooh mein jism dubone de,” in this visual which almost forewarns us of the film’s ending. But is the ending a tragedy or the ultimate stage of love? See how it’s a mirror image of Michaelangelo’s Pieta. If someone’s already written the book, do send me a copy.

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