Interview with Santosh Sivan, cinematographer and director.
Santosh Sivan belongs to the top of Indian cinematographers and is among the worlds best cinematographers..
Interview takes place Dec 2000, on the shooting of his film Asoka the Great.

 

Can you tell us about Asoka the Great, the film you are doing here and why you are doing it.
Actually Askoka is very much a part of the Indian psyke, Ashokas symbol is also on our Indian notes.. more that all that, he is one of the first people to spread buddhism, and also the first king to realise what war did to people, innocent people, and desided that he would change. He actually transformed himself from Chunt Ashoka which means bad Ashoka to Dharma  Ashoka which means, right Ashoka, a Ashoka who has reached a certain level 

 

you know one with peace and things like that.. so he did everything after this Kalinga war which we are portraying here. After that he became what you call someone.. a prophet of peace.. and he wanted to spread buddhism througout the country.. so he initiated everything, you know.
It is also through that Indian became more or less a  mother country after that, mother country in the sence that it never wanted to wage wars .. you know what I mean..  itís like in  our homes.. if a child  enter a fight, then father or mother says, ok donít go and fight, sit at home.. we never actually encourages people, you know, to confront.. maybe a farther country would be more.. like Germany which would like to attac. So it is basically the exact opposite of that.

 

So when I was in school actually, there was a teacher of mine, who always used to enact how he (Ashok) defeaded the Kalinga people, and finally how he thought of all he had done.. he used to enact this whole scenario which I thought was very interestingÖ  and it stayed on with me and I decided to make a film.. in Bollywood, which is actually a raw name I think.. itís actually a fantastic kind of industry which does a lot for different kind of people.

Somewhere we all believe in the tradition of Indian film making.. ití s a tradition that exixts with us because we are fascinated by songs.. I mean itís almost like saying that if you go to prayer itís a song.. a prayer is a song, you know.. and most of us actually relate to something above.. in terms of a humming, a tune, a song, it buzzes in your head.. and even if you want to have fun and go to a discotequeÖ so in our country we treat songs as very much a part of the narrative.. and we have no quarms of defending it.. or I think itís fantastic.. and I really think itís something thatÖ  when people go to the theatres they look forward tooÖ and it is our tradition.
So in this film also, even though it storyvice and contentvice might not be the typical Bollywood
film..
all the traditional style of Indian film making I very much wanted to be thereÖ because I enjoy seing them, so I should have it.

 

Can you tell about this major big set up here (hundreds of hourses, elephants, camels, thousands of people etc.)
Now we really do have a big set up here. In todays time we could of course go in for special effects where we can multiply and we have the resources, but I thought it could be very interesting to go for it in a real sort of way, because I really feel that the tentency of people to, you know, re-do what has been done in the West Ė because they always try to re-do something that has been done there Ė so I was trying to get out of that also and get into the real action and emotion and everything, and we have the resources, it is not that we donít have the resources to get something like this going, and you really feel like you are in battle, when you shoot like that, you know. Some times is it very inportant that when you have people fighting in such a big scale, that they also feel the emormity of the situation.. itís like if I was a singer and I suddenlly wanted to sing a song and I was singing a song in a place which actually was a real place, where some great singers used to sing. Then you feel, you know,  there is a kind of feeling that you have.. so I wanted to make the feel like that, so that the people also, who are acting in it, get very charged about it.det.

 

And I hear that the fighter are profesional.
Actually it is a very big country and we have very very different states with very different cultures and languages and everything, because India is only united by maybe religion and all these  people.. kings, like Ashok and mythology and all that..  so we have got a representation of fighters, because, it is from India - like buddhism also - the martial arts also went form India, so we have the original of the martial arts people.. thatís the Kalari (martial art people from Karala), like the Paiko from Orissa and the Manipuri Assamese, you know. So we have all these kind of different regions, because the whole film has also folk arts of there places, the songs of the places, so they are all combined together to give a broader picture.
So we have people, and even people who work in the film, from all over the states, some of then donít even understand Hindi.
Itís more than a training, itís more like a devotion to the arts, because their parents would have been involved in it, so they started learning it, so it has become a tradition and they are trying to keep up the tradition of their family. Itís like that in most of there things, specially when it has do to with art forms, because the whole idea of arts is derived from devotion, because the songs are done for devotion and everything is done for devotion. So we have a saying, where you have these traditional arts performed: you donít need an audience you just need a flame, you know. So itís a devotion most of it, so it can be to a praise of god, and it can be done alone also.. so these people have kept it alive and today everyone is very particular of maintaining our culture.. so I think more and more is done to uplift that.. so I think it is very interesting when you put all that in a film, which is not very seldom done, so we are trying to integrate all that going together in the film

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And I have been lucky because as a cinematographer I have worked with various directors.. one of my favorites is Mani Ratnam who I have shot four film for. Then I have done Priyadarshans film, and a lot, a host, of other films, you know, different filmmakes and things like that.
So somewhere I have also learned from these people, but when you want to make yourself I donít want to put all than into my film.  I want to do a film which is myself actually, so I made a film where you took off all you learned, because I have always been shooting I an artificial rein, so I decided I will make a film in real rein. So I did  everything that I could not do when I was shooting (for others) and I madeTerrorist, and when I made a lot of childrens films, which were all with children and no artists, you know.. all of them were new, new kind of people in the films.
Tell us about you works, your other works. I have seen some of them, you works as a cinematographer, and I have seen Terrorist, but people home they donít know anything.
Actually my dad used to make a lot of films, he is still a filmmaker, so as a kid I used to travel with him to various places and I discovered all these things that I am using in the film now.
So I used to travel a hell of a lot around the country, and I thought it was very interesting because without really realising it. I was actually learing a lot of first hand information, like you will have learned by coming here, you know what I mean.
Then as usual of course I went to an academy, 
the film institute I went to in Puna, where I did the secondhand education, where you 
saw a lot of film with  people who a like minded and exchanged notes, ideas.. copied he he, you know all this.. and then later on, at a stage you realised that you want to do things for yourself. You are not trying to impress someone.. you  just want to know what it is that is really you, what does it reflect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And of course Terrorist was very good for me because I had a patron saint, an American actor John Malcovitz, who saw the film in Cairo and gave it all the awards. Then he actually presented the film and released it all over US, and later on he also promoted the film and it released in 20 countries, and the actress in it, this girl called Aisha did a lot of foreign film, she is also in Star Wars and things like that.
But it has also given me a lot of exposure..  so now you have representation.. an agent, a layer and all in LA, so you get a lot af scripts from Hollywood to read, but I though I will make this film, because I thought I will make a film with very traditional Indian storytelling and present it as a film of ours, and maybe I can release it all over Europa and everything.. and maybe be acccepted as we are.. not make concessions to tell: ok, you donít like songs, so we donít have songs.. no, we have songs.. see if you like it. Itís like that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I did not want to jump into some kind of film, which I could not relate to, just like that, because I always wanted to make a film which is very much within the Indian tradition af storytelling which is of course with songs, lot of emotions, real people, you know what I mean, very real emotions, what a son would feel for the mother, all kind of emotions, with all the songs, and is really something that moves someone, and an Indian can relate to very easily.
So I was thinking of making this film like that, and maybe presenting it to Western audience, which will maybe react or try to understandÖ and I am sure if all that is strong enough then you get involved with the film, and once you get involved with the film, then I think it is all right.

 

 

 

 

And also I wanted to shoot this film, because it is about transitions. I wanted to shoot in such a way  that I bring in all the times of the year.. like we have shot in mist which is the softer side of him, in the rain which is the romantic side of him. Then we have shot in a time when where was only dew, and then we have shot when it is winter, summer. And then this, the sun is really harsh, it is when he becomes this impossible conquerer who wants to conquer. So we have tried to also relate it to the different times in a year. So the film starts with all lush green and mist and soft light and.. then everything gets harder and you know, things like that.. which we are trying to do, because as a cinematographer I also want to be able to tell it wishfully in a certain way, because I always think that, you know, people get effected by the time of the day, also because the person you are normally in the daytime is not what you are at night..  things change a lot.. a lot of decisions you make at night, donít believe them.. (he laughs) .. no, you also get scared.. you know sometimes.. at night.. you think you heard a sound and you are a littleÖ and all these things start to work.. so I always thought it would be interesting to relate.. in fact in Terrorist I also have done like that.
The mind is like water. It can come like that, like a waterfall, or it can be static like a pool, and it can be like drops of water.. so I try to relate like that sometimes. Yeah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Shah Rukh Khan, the producer and the star of Ashoka den Store.
Actually when I was planning to do this film, because I am from Trivandrum, the South of India, (meaning Santosh comes from a totally different film world than Shah Rukh Khan) so I had a chance to work with him when I did this film called Dil Se (Mani Ratnam), where we had travelled all over India, shot here and there and all that, so I thought that this man will be able to bring to live this character, Ashok, which actually is about a the transition  a man goes through. He is born very pure, then he becomes corrupted and then he becomes pure again. So I was always thinking that this person (Shah Rukh) could do it, so he was nice enough, when I approached him with this thing.. he is producing the film also you know, so it worked pretty well I think and he is a very interesting person to work with that way

Helle:
very devoted

Santosh:
yes he is very devoted. Not only devoted. I think he is putting in a lot of.. yeah.. and also he wants to do something different too.