Ace Cinematographer Santosh Sivan Aims His Lens on Legendary Dad

A documentary is in the works to commemorate the unflagging contribution of the 87-year-old Sivan, to the diverse fields of photo-journalism, theatre, newspaper columns, children’s films , screenplays, documentaries besides the sure and steady growth of Malayalam cinema.

The documentary commissioned by the Kerala Media Academy is being helmed by his son, the celebrated cinematographer and filmmaker, Santosh Sivan, who has won 11 National Awards ever since he graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. Over the decades, his father has won a higher count of international, national and state-level awards.

87-year-old Sivan lives in Thiruvananthapuram.

Last week, the 60th anniversary of the oldest surviving photo studio established in Thiruvananthapuram by the multi-faceted Sivan, was celebrated with gusto and pride by his staff and students.

Among other myriad aspects, it will be up to the documentary to record the fact that Sivan Sr was a pioneering news-journalist of the immediate post-independence years as he tracked political events, and personalities doggedly and was commended by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

While Wikipedia furnishes extensive details on Santosh Sivan, there’s no page on his father Sivan, a name which incidentally denotes 30 days of the spring season. Among other myriad aspects, it will be up to the documentary to record the fact that Sivan Sr was a pioneering news-journalist of the immediate post-independence years as he tracked political events, and personalities doggedly and was commended by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. His photos appeared in Life, Span, Newsweek, Malayala Manorama, Mathrabhumi, plus practically every national daily.

Jawaharlal Nehru in Kerala.
Jawaharlal Nehru with Indira Gandhi.
Raj and Krishna Raj Kapoor with their daughter Ritu.

The unfussy Sivan Studio continues to wears its old-world ambience, even while moving on from analogue to digital photography, on the busy Statue Junction of MG Road of Thiruvananthapuram. Indeed, the studio has witnessed the chronicling of the history of Kerala, the state famously known as God’s Own Country and also of the significant events in the nation.

Invigilated by the still spry Sivan, who chose photography as his calling after tasting fame as a classical dancer, singer, painter and actor, today the photo studio is a mecca for students for whom the 87-year-old, is a mentor and living legend. Chronically shy, he shuns publicity. If you seek a conversation, he’s wont to speak in monosyllables, acknowledging any regard for his body of work, with a slight nod of the head and a fleeting smile.

Sivan with daughter Sarita Rajeev Udayabhanu.

This in contrast to his way more chatty sons – Singeeth, Santosh and Sanjeev – who are all filmmakers and bhakts of still photography – in which they were inducted right from their childhood. Their sister, Sarita Rajeev Udayabhanu, runs a travel agency and an eco-heritage resort in Allepey.

"“If I know anything about camera lighting, it’s because of dad. Naturalism is the essence of his photography. As kids of just four or five we siblings were allowed to handle cameras.”" - Santosh Sivan

Currently, Santosh is lensing the new Rajnikanth film, Durbar, at a hospital and railway station in Panvel, on the outskirts of Mumbai. Speaking to The Quint from the location, Santosh narrates, “Some TV channel interviews on my dad have appeared on the internet, but I’m striving to assemble a full-fledged documentary on my father, on whom there is scant information in the media despite his pioneering work as a photo-journalist, a portraitist and so many other domains.”

The Bride.

Adds he, “If I know anything about camera lighting, it’s because of dad. Naturalism is the essence of his photography. As kids of just four or five we siblings were allowed to handle cameras.”

A young Santosh (L) with brother Singeeth Sivan (R).

Using the sun, the source of pure lighting, instead of artificial heavy paraphernalia has been the strongest point of the master cinematographer son who has shot several lauded films, including Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi, Iruvar, Dil Se and Priyadarshan’s Kala Pani, besides the Bollywood films Darmiyan, Barsaat, Pukaar, and Asoka, which he also directed.

“My dad was the still photographer of the groundbreaking Malayalam film Chemmeen,” he recalls. “And then went on to shoot and direct Malayalam films and documentaries himself. He’s been as much of a teacher as a father down the years. He keeps his criticism to himself but I can detect when he’s been disappointed by the way I’ve taken a shot. That’s dad essentially, his silences speak more than his words. Which is why he has not received what can be termed as his just dues.”

A still from the sets of Chemmeen.

The first documentary to promote Kerala tourism “An Invitation to Nature’s Paradise” was stewarded by Sivan. In addition, he played a frontline part in the Kerala film movement. At the behest of Mrs Gandhi, he initiated a Cinema Outdoor Unit for the growth of films rooted in the state. “He’s been a true son of the soil,” Santosh exults. “While many like me who have had ambitions to work on a global front, dad has remained rooted in the soil. I have never seen him restless. If he has ever suffered a low, it was on the death of my mother (Chandramani Bai). She was his lifeline, his reason to be.”

Santosh Sivan’s mother Chandramani Bai.

The documentary, which is nearing completion, comprises interviews with Sivan Sr., the family, filmmakers, critics and photographers besides incorporating rare footage and stills shot by the nonagenarian.

The aim is to finesse the documentary within the next two months. Then hopefully, a son’s tribute to a father will be screened at film festivals and find an outlet on the streaming channels.

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter.)

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