A frame typically captured by Santosh Sivan’s camera has the lush, lyrical strokes of an Impressionist painting — bold colours, shafts of multi-hued light and the outdoors combine to create scenes where detail is sacrificed for the big canvas, the mise en scène. It’s a skill that the cinematographer and director attributes to the hours spent outdoors while growing up in Kerala. He says that Kerala’s natural light, its perennial clouds, and the light that burst through them, shaped his visual language. His first English feature film, Before the Rains, has that characteristic lushness, with all the trappings of a colonial tale set in the exotic East. After it released in the US in May, it received applause from both mainstream and independent film critics.
Sivan has a lot on his plate at the moment — he has just finished directing and shooting Tahaan, a modern fable set in Kashmir, and will soon start working with John Malkovich for a film adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s celebrated novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. With Before the Rains slated to release in India by the year’s end, he spoke to Lounge about directing a multicultural crew and what’s in store for the future. Edited excerpts:
‘Before the Rains’ is about a lot of things: forbidden love, class barriers, imperialist hypocrisy, culture clash. What about Danny Verete’s ‘Red Roofs’ — the short film from which it is adapted to the Indian context — really appealed to you?
The basic concept is from there, but Before the Rains is a feature with an entirely new premise and its own layers. It explores the choices human beings
make, and the consequence of those choices. What appealed to me the most was that it had a universal resonance, something that could happen even in a big city, where people of different cultures are curious about each other, and attract each other dangerously.
(clockwise from top) Rahul Bose (left) plays T.K., an Indian worker; the love story is central to the film’s plot; this is Sivan’s fourth feature film.
Many Merchant-Ivory productions have explored these themes and in the process have painted India as the exotic land of superstitions, spiritualism, slaves. Did you have to consciously avoid those clichés?
The film has a premise where a British planter, Mr Moores (Linus Roache), and an Indian, T.K. (Rahul Bose), are consumed by building a road into the mountains to source and trade spices. They start out as friends. Later on, characters played by Nandita Das, Jennifer Ehle and John Standing come in and a drama is set in motion. The portrayal of different cultures does bring out taboos and customs of the land, but it is not meant to exoticize the land. The emotional centre of the film is very human and, therefore, universal.
You’ve directed as well as shot your earlier films —‘Asoka’, ‘The Terrorist’ and ‘Anandabhadram’. How do you tackle both roles?
Since I have been exposed to different kinds of cinema, I can practise a universal language, which is the visual language. I conceive of a story and its execution visually, and, so, both roles overlap.
This is your first English film. Did the language make any difference to your working style while extracting performances out of actors?
We all speak English, so it wasn’t much of a problem, although I do think in Malayalam. We had a lot of actors from Kerala, and Tamil ones, too. And, there were crew members from Mumbai, the UK (for sound), Hollywood producers and English actors. It meant adjusting to, and understanding, different types of working methods.
After ‘Asoka’, you haven’t directed a big-budget commercial Indian film. Is anything on the cards?
Asoka was not a big-budget film, it’s just that it had scale and stars. Before the Rains is made with a bigger budget. I’ve just finished shooting a film called Tahaan in Kashmir — a kind of fable with modern elements of conflict, which will release in September.
Tell us about your association with John Malkovich. Have you begun working on ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’?
John Malkovich saw my film The Terrorist at the Cairo International Film Festival in 1998 and helped me release the film in the US as a de facto executive producer. We recently met in Los Angeles, and he asked me to direct the film.