Six Spectacular Frames. One Genius Cinematographer. The Name is Santosh Sivan.

Over a career spanning three decades, Santosh Sivan must have spear-headed myriad bursts of brilliance. Here, I pick out six breathtaking frames from his oeuvre that scream his name in every pixel…

Mani Prabhu

1. Thalapathi


In this debut film of Santosh in Tamil – his first ever association with Mani Ratnam – the man had to tackle the toughest challenge of all – to portray dark emotions in the backdrop of the blazing sun. The reason?

Mani was alluding to the epic friendship between Karna and Duryodhana, and Karna being the son of the solar deity, a conscious decision was taken at the script-level to synchronize most of Karna’s decisions with sun-rays. Its a tricky proposition as nuanced expressions get lost in silhouettes, when the sun is put as the back-light.

This particular sequence involves the stirring transformation of Surya into the ‘Thalapathi’, as he goes to war in a mystic silhouette against a scorching sun. Raja’s rousing theme plays in the background.

This frame speaks a lot about Santosh’s caliber as it is never easy to shoot against the sun because of dynamic limitations of film stock. A gooseflesh inciting high-contrast image is obtained, by keeping the key light low and allowing the all-commanding solar backlight to dictate the mood. Santosh actually goes on to use this ‘low-key-high-contrast’ style through out the film to get the magical Surya effect.

2. Roja


In stark contrast with the mood of his previous association with the master, this sequence in Roja required Santosh to bring to screen a soulful romance blooming amidst the astounding beauty of nature.

After a hurtful misunderstanding, love gently blossoms between the unassuming Roja and the city-bred Rishi in the alluring backdrop of Kashmir. One fine day, Rishi blindfolds Roja and takes her for a sweet surprise. At a particular spot, when Roja opens her eyes, she is in for the moment of her lifetime. She stares on, dumbfounded, at the charm of the snow-capped mountains.

There’s a momentary hint of the blue sky and the peeking sun, but it’s enough for Santosh to capture a flash of diamonds across the wide landscape, in the form of dazzling snowflakes.

It’s all pre-planned. We, the audience, are supposed to see the snow only when Roja does. And what a spectacle it turns out to be! Everything glistens. Colours are brighter against the pure white blanket that spreads as far as the eye could see.

And this particular frame, where Roja revels in a warm hug with Rishi, speaks a million words. She would be there for Rishi, come what may, till the very end. She may not be actually telling it, but we can hear her voice. Almost.

3. Iruvar


Yet another masterpiece from the ManiRatnam – Santosh Sivan duo, this time for the epic political drama Iruvar.

Thamizhselvan is married, but is irreversibly smitten with Senthamarai. The scene reflects the complicated emotions of the two, as they succumb to their lethal attraction, all the while silencing the howls of their conscience.

As the back ground score begins with an apparent hissing of bats, Tamizhselvan and Senthamarai are lying on the floor, having consummated their relationship, her hair in tangles and their clothing in a mess.

The camera slowly zooms in to capture the rapture in their eyes, spilling out through layers of fear and guilt.

As we look upon the couple from above, from a God-like position, the camera starts rotating, starting off in a gentle gyration.

This particular frame is a stunner, with Tamizhselvan’s face caught in a reflective sense of calm, while Senthamarai looks more disturbed. We could see through her gnawing  and deep-seated torment at the moment.

The frame starts spinning a bit faster, catching us off-guard at the amount of emotions, being thrown at us by the stunning lyrics. The sound of a ticking clock adds on.

As Tamizhsevan fondles Senthamarai’s cheek with his touch, Santhosh edges up the pace of the gyration, soulful humming with stunning percussions hitting on us in the background.

At one point, we are so poignantly muddled, that indecision takes over. The man truly starts playing God here. Is it the frame that is spinning? Or the ground? Or our thoughts? The questions get only stronger. Heights of emotional blurring!

4. Thuppaki


An age old action-masala motif was being staged. The sister had been kidnapped.

But wait, we aren’t that worried. At least, about the fate of the girl. Why would we be? We have seen too many of these to even manage a false-gasp. We are familiar with the ploy. And the fact that the hero would make a fitting appearance in the scene, any moment now.

If at all, the staging of this age-old action motif lacked something, it was the element of anticipatory surprise.

What fun is it then? What was the need to keep us in the loop all along? As we wait for the inevitable to pan out, we even start dwelling on the ifs and whys for a micro-moment.

But before we could exercise our sensibilities any further, there is a hushed silence. Everyone in the scene stops mid-action, with the man-in-charge trying to make sense of the disturbance.

We hear something like a distant canine sound. Is it? The camera slowly arcs around the room, taking note of the shocked expressions and pans further to reveal an empty hallway, half cloaked in some sort of factory vapours.

The aura of the frame is staggering. We get the first hint of the brilliance that is still kept in clever wraps. As we stare ahead forgetting to blink, a dog casually trots into the frame.

We know the inevitable, but yet, the setting almost grabs by the collar and refuses to let go.

A gun shot is heard. And the man holding the knife to the girl’s throat collapses simultaneously. The camera records this, and then instinctively pans to explore the sound source.

It sure seems like the edge of a wall at first sight. What next?

None at sight. Just a lone lantern, lighting up the corner.  Curls of vaporous smoke, lingering from the firearm shot. The vapours hang on for a split moment. We are pulled into the scene, all mouths gaping.

An illusory reverie. That’s what Santosh makes it look like. Somewhere, as the sumptuous, milky haze writhes around, the heart misses a beat.

And slowly, fingers of light poke through the misty mesh – filtering down the interstices of the clearing smoke – revealing what is probably one of the finest ‘mass’ moments in the history of star-vehicles.

The image of Jagadish, with that killer-stare, pointing the gun at our forehead emerges, constructing itself like a self-solving jigsaw puzzle.

The man had elevated yet another scene to a different level.

5. Raavanan


Mani had set his eyes on the Ramayana next. The film-maker’s vision was singular – he was attempting to blur the thin line between – what is perceived by the world – as good and evil.

Veera plays Raavan – the demon – the unpolished and boorish tribal leader. Dev plays Ram – the privileged ‘all-powerful’ – the resolute encounter-specialist. Veera eyes Dev’s wife, Ragini aka Sita, and kidnaps her. The motive? Veera’s sister had been tortured and brutal raped by Dev’s men. So who is the demon again?

While holding Ragini captive in the forest, Veera subconsciously starts falling for the lady. Ragini is angry and hurting, but soon softens up a bit, as she starts seeing the real Veera camouflaged within layers of apparent barbarism.

This particular sequence happens in the backdrop of a spectacular waterway, when the love-torn Veera questions Ragini about her love for her husband. Mani here seeks the help of Santosh Sivan to showcase Veera’s rugged yet striking abode. A huge stone effigy of Lord Vishnu in the ‘lying-down’ posture breaks into the rivulet, fragmented at the hip.

Initially, when Ragini equates her husband to God and all things righteous, Veera is seated on the leg fragment of the Lord himself. The supposed monster realizing his stand at the feet of the supposed divine. Rains start lashing out.

“Is your God the embodiment of all things good? An archetype of the ideal husband? Is he the most virtuous? Does he err ever? Does he love you unconditionally” As Veera relentlessly picks on Ragini’s mind, she seems to nod in concurrence. But wait, as the focus shifts to her face, the torment of missing her husband muddled by a hint of growing affection for her captor, is readily evident.

This particular frame, where Santosh contrasts Veera’s painful envy for Dev – for the things he can only dream of – with the pervading beauty of picturesque goodness, will go down in his repertoire as one of the very best.

 6. Dil Se


A lead character from the heart of India. Another one from a politically and socially-sidelined peripheral state. Bundles of contradiction in the eyes of the law and the society. In Dil Se, Mani Ratnam had ventured to take us through the leads’ tumultuous journey, as they pass through the seven stages of love – attraction, preoccupation, desire, worship, surrender, fatal obsession and immortality – as laid out in literature.

Amar irreversibly falls for the mysterious Meghna, the moment he sees her. Meghna’s obliviousness is obvious, but the more she starts brushing him away, the more he gets obsessed with her.

He relentlessly pursues Meghna and questions her coldness. In a fierce altercation, she reveals to Amar, that as a child, she had been raped by a few soldiers and that her soul seeks liberation through her suicide attack on the Indian army and the President of India. She insists on her duty to represent her people and their unheard voices.

This particular sequence, which represents the zenith of love, happens in a dilapidated fort, which Santosh brilliantly uses as a backdrop to depict emotional isolation, the dread of an impending disaster and a hint of patriotism.

Knowing Megha’s resilience, Amar realizes that it would be tough to make her abort the mission, but he can’t give up on his love yet… can he? As Meghna proceeds for the suicide attack, Amar confronts her midway and frantically attempts to hold her back.

Santosh here alternates between the master shot fixed at mid-range and stirring close-ups to bring the insane tension alive. The dripping love in Amar’s eyes cannot be missed, even though the glimmer of hope had vanished. He knows he is the only person in the world who can stop her. He forcibly embraces her and pleads her not to go away.

There must be a million thoughts running in Meghna’s mind that moment. And Santosh resorts to over-the-shoulder shots for capturing the conflicting emotions. Amar seems to be still deconstructing her mind, which seems to escape all definitions. But the blatant nervousness had given way to a calm resolve. Meghna struggles for a few minutes, torn between an unflinching love and an apparent existential crisis.

This particular frame, where she stops fighting back after a while, eventually giving in to the passionate cuddle, is so haunting that you just can’t look away. When was the last time a cinematographer thematized the entire movie in a single frame?

The explosives tied to Meghna’s chest go off, with the couple breathing into each other. Amar drowns his body in Meghna’s soul. The couple sleep in the lap of death.


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