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April 4, 1997


"I want to make films only I can make"

Suparn Verma

Santosh SivanSantosh Sivan, the national award winning cinematographer, whose works include Raakh, Roja, Dalpathi, Rudali, Kala Paani and suchlike, is now readying to make his debut as a Hindi film director with Halo.

This is not - repeat, not, his directorial debut - three years earlier, under the banner of his brother Sangeet Sivan, Santosh had come up with a megahit adaptation of the Eddie Murphy film The Golden Boy. Yodha, Sivan's version, had Mohanlal and Madhubala in the lead and Bollywood baddie Puneet Issar in a standout role as the leader of the evil forces - the film, marked by technical finesse and scripting of a very high order, proved to be a mega hit on the southside marquee.

Halo, his first film in Hindi, is the zany story of the quest of seven year old Sasha for her lost puppy, 'Halo', through the streets of Bombay.

The story introduces a variety of characters - an orthodox nun, a newspaper reporter and a 'Donahue' kid with a video camera, who follows Sasha and her four year old friend Anil from the home of a paranoid dog catcher to the neurotic editor of a newspaper, a smuggler who uses dogs for his operations, a psychotic Police Commissioner and a colorful gang of street urchins.

The plot is further convoluted by Sasha's criminal lawyer who refuses to lie, a gluttonous servant and a lovesick teenage cousin. With this crazy mix of characters, the city of Bombay spins out of control, as the film zooms towards the climax.

As soon as I introduce myself, Santosh hustles me out of the air conditioned office he was in and into an under-construction room. "We can't smoke in there," he explains with a burst of hearty laughter, his thick beard setting off to perfection, the gold teeth set into his lower jaw.

Halo "Halo," he says, right at the outset, "is based on a real life event where this girl I knew lost her dog. It was her determination to find it, that triggered off the idea."

"I realized, I needed so many things to shoot a film that I decided to make the film with just five people. I want to make films that only I can make," he says between deep drags of the cigarette. "I'm tired of this commercial cinema and the so called art or parallel cinema, where you have people pissing on railway tracks.

"It's time we changed all this. The parallel movement movies have the same storylines, about the exploitation of the poor, and it has been going on long enough."

"I have shot Halo as realistically as possible," says Sivan. "This film is about Bombay, and we have shot it in such a way that there is a timelessness about it. The film is loud and down to earth, we have street urchins participating, and most importantly there is a humane feeling about it, there is a feeling of sharing, of love, despite all the madness in the film.

"I wanted a climax which makes you both happy and sad, that makes you laugh and cry at the same time - I wanted sunshine and rain and, luckily, I got what I wanted."

Santosh's forte has always been a high level of technical expertise, and the cinematographer-director promises that his latest venture will live up to that rep. "The camera work has its own values - there are no traditional trolley shots, for most of the film I was holding the camera in my hand and running about."

Kanika Myer is one of dozens debuting in this film - in her case, as editor. "We completed the editing in some five-six days," she smiles. "I have this habit of editing with sound, no other editor I know edits that way. Santosh gives you a lot of material to work with, no two takes of the same scene are shot in the same way. He has shot it the way ad films are shot."

"Normally, directors break scenes down into shots and the shot breakdown is provided to the entire unit and the editing crew. But in Halo we did away with the entire formal routine, because during the shoot they were improvising till the last minute. The whole process was very interactive."

Santosh, for his part, looks totally relaxed as he recalls the film-making process. As early as Yodha, in which a five year old kid is the pivot of the story, he had revealed a penchant for filming with kids. And this time, the story revolves exclusively around children - so what was it like?

"After some days of shooting," he chuckles, "I didn't know whether I was making the film or the children were making the film. They are very easy to work with, provided you treat them like grown-ups. And they do their homework. Benaf Dadachandji, who plays the role of Sasha, used to come to me every morning and give me a big smile and then slowly her face would fall - and then ask, how was that? You see, she was even then rehearsing for the climax of the film."

"Even the parents were very supportive, they were very eager that their kids perform well. I don't think that film-making is just the job of the director, it is a cumulative process."

HaloSantosh has in the past, both in his directorial debut and in the films he has shot with others, shown a tendency to use rich backgrounds and sets - here, however, he was working with a limited budget, leading one to wonder whether this hadn't cramped his creativity. "There is something beautiful in limitation," he says, "you spend so much of money aping someone and end up being mediocre. So it is better to work with constraints and use your imagination to come up with something creative."

From the film, we move to the general topic of his own speciality - cinematography that, even his critics concede, is right up there with the best in the world. So what does it take to make a successful cinematographer? "It's very easy to be successful," he feels. "You have so many visualizers opening Blackbooks and using ideas, but it must be difficult to sleep after that."

"Nowadays, all films try to imitate the glossy look, the makers think that the formula is to have good music, get Prabhu Deva to dance, you have a hit film! The reality is that there is no formula for success."

What seems to be the problem? "Oh, we are too apologetic about our films. After Guru Dutt and Satyajit Ray, there has been no progress in Indian cinema. We are still interested in relating to Indian cinema - that kind of film is not accepted anywhere else. It's a matter of time before the present generation is going to get into the act. We don't need art cinema - we need interesting cinema."

Santosh has worked with top notch directors - and obviously he has learnt from them enough to venture into the field on his own - the question being, what has he learnt? "I have learned a lot from all my directors. A director needs to have stamina, determination, patience and try to see the whole film. That's why I respect directors who write their own scripts, and that's why I felt good about writing the script of this film."

What was the most frustrating experience of his life? "Shooting the Rukmani Rukmani song for Mani Ratnam's Roja," he smiles. "You had waterfalls, old ladies dancing, nothing could be heard over the waterfalls, the lights kept on going off and to top it all it was slippery. Recently Mani and I were sitting together, laughing about it. For all it's headaches, though, the effort was worth it."

So what are his future plans "I want to make Ashoka, because I want to make an old peoples' film," with another flash of gold as he cuts loose with one of his trademark laughs. "I don't understand why everyone calls Halo a children's film, nobody calls the other films, a film for old people, do they?

"Actually I have always been fascinated by Ashoka. I wanted to make a film that hasn't been messed up beyond recognition on our television screens. Television has made a farce out of our mythology. It is time we did something about it."

And where, in his view, is cinema heading? "The future indicates more business deals than interesting films - but I think it is a growing market and, nowadays, with television it seems to have reached new heights. But if you keep your budget low you can make successful films."