After collaborating with Rajinikanth in Mani Ratnam’s blockbuster 1991 film Thalapathi, award-winning cinematographer Santosh Sivan has worked in Rajinikanth’s latest release Darbar.
Both Santhosh and Rajinikanth have come a long way in their respective fields since they last worked together.
In an exclusive interview with Indian Express Malayalam, Santosh Sivan shared his experience of working with Rajinikanth in Thalapathi and Darbar.
From Thalapathi to Darbar – The ‘Thalaivar’ Way
He has evolved a lot. During the shoot of Thalapathi, I wasn’t aware how much of a phenomenon Rajini was. We were shooting in Mysore. It was only after seeing the crowd who gathered to see Rajini Sir in Mysore and Chennai, I realised how big a star he is. He is always very humble, normal and radiant. He has an amazing presence in front of the camera and equally, if not more, off-camera. He is a person who respects technicians and other people who work in a film irrespective of the hierarchy. We used to smoke together back in those days. Of course, he doesn’t anymore. Rajnikanth is not a phenomenon that just happened overnight. He put in a lot of hard work. Moreover, he wants to do everything differently, and that’s why he has become what he is today. Whatever he does in front of the camera, he does it with a lot of conviction. He likes to entertain everyone, regardless of age. He will do anything to entertain like Charlie Chaplin.
We haven’t worked together for many years now. He even complained that I haven’t worked with him for long, but the fact is that I was busy with other work. After Murugadoss made Thuppakki, he asked me if I could be part of a movie with Rajini in the lead and I said ‘Of course’. I really wanted to do a film that’s like a tribute to Rajini sir especially at this stage of his life. What I find most interesting about him is that he is so genuine that one would love to give the best for him. Of course, there are other actors I like to work with – Kamal Haasan, Vijay Sethupathi, Aravind Swami, but Rajini sir is a bit different. I have a deep respect for him as a person. He is someone who genuinely wants to do something for people and fans. He is a meditative kind of person and has a thought process which is very concerned about others and wanting to make others’ lives better. This is the reason why he wants to venture into politics. His sense of humour is also on point. I once asked him, ‘How come you never get angry and be very nice to everyone always?’, to which he responded, ‘I get angry in front of the camera, and I also get angry at home’.
Before I start shooting, I sketch. When you start sketching people, you realize what are the attractive things about a person and what are the factors you like the most about them. You observe more when you sketch a person than you shoot. You actually spend a lot of time observing a person – which angle suits the best and things like that. I have a fascination for darker skin tones and it is something we need to celebrate and not marginalise. Everyone has imperfections. Most times, it is the imperfection that makes a person more appreciable. Once you conceive all this in your head, it becomes easier to film a person. I try to make the actors believe that the camera is their best friend, so they can be more natural and carefree while performing. So I try to create a space where everything is easy for the actors.
Darbar is a movie dedicated to Rajini Sir. That itself is a motivation that you have to give your best. He has to act as his younger version in some portions of the movie and has romantic scenes with Nayanthara. So we have made sure he looks younger to suit the script’s demands. Even though we have used technology to make him look younger, the fact is that the energy comes from him. His energy levels are astounding. At the time of Thalapathi, he never went to the gym, but now, at the age of 70, he goes. I love the fact that he is still committed to work like he is doing his first film. He also appreciates other actors and their work. I recently showed him a video song of Manju Warrier from my upcoming directorial Jack and Jill, and he was amazed by Manju’s work. I hope Darbar does well and I would love to shoot another film with Rajini sir. I feel I know him better now, and the warmth from Darbar’s set will last forever.
Challenges of a cinematographer
Not only cinematography, everything today is changing. When I first started sketching things, my grandmother used to tell me painting is original. Later, when I started photography, my father Sivan said negative is original. Now in the digital era, everything is a copy of something. But, I think sensibilities don’t change really. The more we stick to our sensibilities and cultural influences, the more you get accepted globally. It is only because my works are rooted in our culture, and I don’t imitate Hollywood style, I became a member of the American Society of Cinematographers.
I think we should stick to our roots. Of course, I do different kinds of films and documentaries. I did a documentary on my father Sivan for Kerala Media Academy. I did a documentary on farmers of Kuttanad. It’s like reading different books for viewers. You tend to do different things and see the world as much as possible. That’s why I do cinematography. You get to travel around and meet a lot of wonderful people. Cinematography is a visual language, and it’s very global. Sometimes you do commit to commercial films and then use that money to make movies you like to do, like the experimental ones.
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