Mani Ratnam’s new movie Chekka Chivantha Vaanam pairs him once again with Santosh Sivan, who has shot six of his previous productions. The celebrated cinematographer did not reveal much about the multi-starrer, whose sprawling cast includes Vijay Sethupathi, Silambarasan, Arvind Swami, Arun Vijay, Jyothika and Aditi Rao Hydari, except to say that it won’t be similar to his previous collaborations with the feted filmmaker. “If you notice, every film that I’ve shot with Mani is different,” 54-year-old Sivan told “The present film is shaping up nicely and is also interesting because of the wonderful star cast that it has.”

The Ratnam-Sivan collaboration began in 1990, when Ratnam contacted Sivan after seeing his work in Aditya Bhattacharya’s debut feature Raakh (1989). “I had shot it on a different stock and it was being shown to many directors,” Sivan said. “He must have seen it too. Then, he called me for Thalapathi, which was great fun to shoot. This was the first time I shot a film in which there are songs. It was also an interesting team: Rajini sir [Rajinikanth] – everyone sees him differently, but the fact is that he is a very simple person, Mani himself who back then was already pushing the envelope all the time. And then there was the wonderful Thota Tharani too, who did the art direction.”

The look of Thalapathi, released in 1991, had a great deal to do with its source material. Ratnam’s film starring Rajinikanth, Mammootty, Shobhana and Arvind Swami, was inspired by Karna’s story from the Mahabharata epic. Sivan and Ratnam decided to bathe the entire film in what they called a “Mahabharata period tone”.

Thalapathi (1991).

Rajini’s character is named Surya, “a man born of the sun”, Sivan said. “We decided to try and bring the sun into his life visually too. Now we couldn’t always shoot in the early morning or the late evening sun. So, we used mirrors and old tungsten lights to create that effect. Also, Rajini sir has a very interesting skin tone. A kind of golden light works very well for him. I’m also fond of such skin tones and prefer them over the fairer tones. The idea is never to change a tone but to appreciate it.”

Thalapathi was the first time Sivan shot seven songs, a task he had never attempted in his previous work in Malayalam cinema. What goes into shooting a song?

“It really depends on the song,” Sivan said. “I vividly recall the shoot for Rukmani Ruumani, the song from Roja. We picked the Hoganekkal falls in Karnataka, which was often featured in films. We decided that we would shoot at night. The practical ramifications were crazy. We didn’t have the infrastructure back then to light a waterfall. So we had to work with very few lights. Then we also had dancers, most of whom were elderly women. It was quite a challenge.”

Rukmani Rukmani, Roja (1992).

By the time Roja was made in 1992, Sivan’s approach had changed from the time of Thalapathi. Ratnam’s terrorism-themed drama, about the kidnapping of a government cryptologist by Kashmiri terrorists and his wife’s efforts to free him, is among the director’s biggest hits. Roja also marked Ratnam’s first collaboration with music composer AR Rahman.

“The narrative goes from Sundarapandiapuram in Tamil Nadu to Kashmir and you’ll notice nothing much is done to highlight the surroundings,” Sivan explained. “The idea was to be as close to nature as possible without going over the top. We see the landscape as the characters see it. For instance, the first time we see snow in the film is only when Roja herself sees it. It was a simple film.”

Mani Ratnam’s next movie with Sivan, Iruvar (1997), is described by the cinematographer as his most challenging project. Loosely based on the friendship and fallout between Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran (Mohanlal) and Dravida Munnetra Kazgaham chief M Karunanidhi (Prakash Raj), Iruvar was all about the shot-taking.

“The camera constantly keeps finding different compositions and frames through which to look at characters,” Sivan said. “As a cinematographer, you need a particular kind of sensibility to know how to compose and how to keep changing them. It is a film about people, and we needed people to dominate the frame. I actually thought I could pay my tribute to Subrata Mitra, Melli Irani, Wilson Master and VK Murthy. I remember having this insatiable urge to do things differently. Every day, I came to the shoot like someone who was possessed. Mani Ratnam was shooting the film like it was a documentary. If you notice, real time is used very interestingly in Iruvar.”

Iruvar (1998).

One composition in Iruvar has been frequently praised – a top-angle shot of Tamizhselvan (Prakash Raj) and Senthamarai (Tabu) lying on the ground close to each other. Sivan’s camera points downwards and encircles the characters for the length of the scene. The camerawork heightens the intensity and turmoil of the lovers – Senthamarai has left her family and come to live with Tamizhselvan.

“That particular scene would perhaps not be very difficult to shoot in today’s times with all the technology that we have,” Sivan said. “But it would have also been too neat and not as organic as it was back then. It was a small room and I was sitting on top of a crane with my camera and the actors were lying down. I was literally just seeing the first and the last frame and can’t even pull focus on it. It was akin to grinding gram. I remember telling Mani that the shot is jerky but he was like no, let’s go ahead. So I actually used a lot of light, shot it on high aperture so that the focus would not be in trouble and the depth of field would take care of it. It took us all a couple of takes and I was sweating by the end of it.”

Prakash Raj and Tabu in Iruvar (1998).

A year after Iruvar, Sivan shot for Dil Se, in which his love for landscapes merged with his fondness for close-ups. “I actually treat faces like landscapes,” he said. “When you sketch someone’s face, you’ll study it much more than you might while taking a picture of them with a phone. Also, you’ll realise that some of the imperfections in them is what makes them so special.”

Dil Se, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala, is the last entry in Ratnam’s political trilogy after Roja and Bombay (1995). The movie stars Shah Rukh Khan as an All India Radio presenter who gets involved with Meghna (Manisha Koirala), a terrorist. The movie underperformed at the box office, but is one of the finest Ratnam-Sivan collaborations.

Dil Se was like playing to the gallery – it has landscape, close-ups, just everything that one can think of,” Sivan recalled. “It was shot in all kinds of locations which in a sense elevated you. When the narrative reached Delhi, I used an old lens to shoot the moody landscape. I began the film with the camera as it tracks into an out focus. I used a different lens then. Once someone asked me how I shot that particular opening scene. Honestly, you just try out different things – one is not thinking of whether to do a scene such that it gets noticed later.”

Dil Se title track (1998).

Sivan has also directed 13 titles, including Halo (1996), about a girl’s hunt for her missing dog, The Terrorist (1998), in which a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam soldier begins to question her mission after she becomes pregnant, and Asoka (2001), the historical on the Mauryan ruler. He made The Terrorist, which famously won praise from the American actor John Malkovich, because he wanted to shoot a subject on actual locations. “I shot the film in real rain and wanted to show that filmmaking can be like this too,” Sivan said. “Our atmosphere is filled with dust. So it was a challenge to shoot the film. But I wanted to make all the weaknesses into advantages.”

In between rustling up the money for his own projects, Sivan notches up credits on mainstream productions – he most recently shot the Mahesh Babu-starrer Sypder (2017). “It doesn’t make sense to ask a producer for money when you can try and finance films you want to experiment with this way,” Sivan said. “I’m right now making a few documentaries. I also shot a film in 20 days when Mani Ratnam’s film was getting delayed. But I’m not ready to talk about it yet.”

Is there a best movie yet?

“I always keep thinking my best work is yet to come,” Sivan said. “Being a cinematographer is a 24/7 job – one tends to observe everything around one, like how all the clouds gather before it starts to rain or after the rain, suddenly there is a streak of light and immediately everything looks so beautiful.”

It was while teaching tribal children in Arunachal Pradesh to print black-and-white photos that Sivan says he had a life-altering experience. “One day the kids’ dog died and we took him to the forest to bury him,” Sivan said. “It became pretty late after we finished and on our way back, the kids became very quiet. They said that there were chances of finding tigers and even pointed me to some paw prints. I asked them what they would do if they saw a tiger. One of them said, ‘I’ll run very very fast and climb a tree very very fast.’ When I said I didn’t know if I could run that fast, one of the others said, ‘When you see a tiger, you’ll automatically learn how to run and climb fast.’ I think that was quite profound. The key is to keep the tiger alive within you to keep pushing you to learn new things.”