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Exclusive Interview: Santosh Sivan on “Inam”

Posted on the 27 March 2014 by Haricharanpudipeddi @pudiharicharan

Cinematographer-filmmaker Santosh Sivan, who is known for films such as “The Terrorist”, “Malli” and “Tahaan”, needs no special introduction. In this interview, he opens up about his latest directorial, “Inam”, a war drama, which is releasing Friday (March 28) worldwide. He tells me the inspiration behind this project, why he prefers working with young protagonists and a lot more.

What inspired you to make “Inam”?

Most of my films have something to do with what I’ve studied in school. I have always tried to make some things that are related to me into films because when you say originality, it’s something with an origin. It might as well be with something that has to do with you.

In this case, I was with a friend of mine. I was having lunch with him, who is married to a Sri Lankan lady. There was amazing food. They roast spices before they cook, so it has a distinctive flavor. I asked who made this and they opened a door and there was a girl standing outside. I was told she’s the maid and she cooked it. Obviously, she was a refugee. She didn’t say anything because she wouldn’t want to say it but her eyes had so much to say and that inspired me to think about a refugee. When you say a refugee, it’s someone who has actually been really tested on survival grounds and finally has to leave his or her land.

Most of my movies I’ve directed explore the land as a character. To couple with that, I also had a friend who had a Down syndrome girl. He wanted me take pictures of her, make her look really beautiful. I was taking the pictures and I was wondering the kind of world which is mixed with innocence she’s in. I wanted to tell this story from the perspective of these two characters.

The Sri Lankan war story has been very interesting because it lets you meet so many people whose ideologies have changed because they have been uprooted from their home land. I thought it was a controversial story and it would make people point fingers. Therefore, I restrained from doing it for some time but realized later if we don’t tell our stories, who will?

Fortunately, it was during that time BBC came up with a lot of evidence on this issue. This was the first war to have extensively used mobile phones to shoot, both by the victims as well as the soldiers. All these videos went viral and it became easier for us to actually now make a film on that. We researched and decided to make a film about a group of orphans who have lost their families. They all become a family in the orphanage which is run by ‘Tsunami akka’, played by Saritha. The other characters are played by Karunas, Sugandha and we have also a special child named Karan, who is playing an important role. It’s an emotional film that revolves around these characters. It’s a very human story set against the backdrop of a war.

Most of your films have featured young protagonists. Do you consciously choose to make films from the perspective of children or what’s the reason?

When I wanted to start directing films, I started making short films with children. I have always been fascinated by the stories I read in school. All these stories have been made into films. Even “Asoka” is a movie that was discussed in school and we all used to go to sleep when Asoka’s story used to be told. Our teacher used to wonder why everybody is sleeping. We said we don’t like this guy. He asked why? We said because he (Asoka) stopped fighting and that’s why we don’t like this king. The teacher asked us how many of you pelt stones at dogs. We all raised our hands. He said one day when you will stop throwing stones at dogs, you will think of Asoka. All these small stories which were leftover I wanted to make into films. Therefore, most of my films are like that.

And is working with children challenging?

You have to sometimes act it out to them or rather you have to overact it to them. It’s not very challenging to direct children. Of course you can’t change them to do something, that’s difficult. But if you go with their flow, it becomes much easier. Most importantly, they don’t have inhibitions about how they look on the screen unlike adult actors. They also become very natural and once they get used to it it’s very easy. You can’t force them and give them their space. Even working with Karan in “Inam” is like that. You just have to go with the flow but also have to be a little firm so that they don’t sit on your head. It’s just like how a father treats his children.

We have this tendency to assume every film shot against a war backdrop, especially one involving Sri Lanka, to be a controversial film. What did you do to ensure that the film was not controversial?

When you see the film you realize it. Most people in the industry have seen it and I have got a ‘U’ certificate. You shouldn’t voluntarily try to make it controversial. You have to be objective and at the same time we have discussed everything that needs to be discussed but the path of the film is a very human story, which you can relate to irrespective of the war backdrop or anything even controversial for that matter. I also feel people like to see a human story than a documentary. In essence, it’s a story that unfolds against this backdrop and so you take it by layer and you see and people who are interested in it will understand.

This will be comeback of sorts for Saritha, who has been out of action for a long time. What prompted you to cast her?

I always used to like her and she’s not doing a big role. Basically, she plays one of the strongest characters in the film. Of course, she’s very well known and everyone think the story is set around her but the fact is that I needed someone of her nature to play this character ‘Tsunami akka’. The same is applicable for Karunas, who is not doing comedy. He’s a real character. I find most of these actors sometimes get stereotyped. They are actually very interesting actors if you take a good look at them. I also have a voiceover of Arvind Swami, who is good friend of mine. I cast him because there’s so much of reassurance in his voice.

So Karunas was not included to give the film a commercial appeal because he’s a comedian?

I don’t think anyone could cast someone for commercial reasons. If you’re going to put an actor to give the film a commercial appeal then the story everything has to go around it. For example, when you do a big film with a big star, you have to do something to make the character look larger than life. All the people have entered the industry as an actor. Most importantly, Sugandha Ram, who is playing the main lead, is actually someone who has worked in a lot of Hindi films (Tere Bin Laden, Jugni). She has worked with BBC and comes with a lot of experience. She has worked very hard to learn Tamil and it will evident on screen because she’s very real in her role.

Besides Saritha and Karunas, “Inam” features a lot of unfamiliar faces. What was the process of casting?

We had an elaborate system of casting. When you see the faces of these actors in the film, you think they are believable. The advantage of having unknown actors is that they become believable. Even young people who go to fight, they look like there is something in their eyes that wants you to believe that they want to tell you that they don’t want to fight, but they still are going to do it.

Films using war backdrops are usually believed to be very violent and your film features a host of teenage protagonists. How have you blurred the line between what is acceptable violence and what’s not?

I made a film in Kashmir called “Tahaan”. When I went there children are more interested in discussing the latest weapons than the new cars in the market. So the whole ideology of thinking is different. When you go there to shoot and you put a little rope, no one crosses it. You may not like all this but that’s the reality. In fact, this very question is also addressed in the film. Children are married off very young because they should be together and protect each other The whole of making the film was to put these young characters in the middle of a war.

Looking at all the silly controversies films are getting into nowadays, do you feel “Inam” should have been made a few years ago?

I don’t know if it was supposed to be made before. Sometimes you just make films you want to. “Inam” was not an easy film to make. Fortunately, I shoot films so I’m able to fund my own films. I can actually finance my own films. If I lose it, I lose it. But I can still afford to take that risk. I’m very happy now because it has been picked up by Thirrupathi Brothers for release. Otherwise, how do you release it? I never thought about all these things and concentrated on finishing my film because it took a lot of time for completion.

What fascinates you the most – Writing, direction or cinematography?

I think all are blended into one. As a director it’s very difficult because you have to organize money, meet people, interact with actors and literally lead from so many times. At the same time, you also have to look into the script, what needs to shot the next day and so on so forth. All the tension you can expect is there in direction.

Cinematography is a Zen process, which expects you to go out in the morning, appreciate nature because it’s always on time. If you spend a lot of time with nature, you can predict it. You know there’s rain now and when the rain clears, you get the streak of sunlight you want to capture. It also has tensions because it’s a collective art, but if you have taken some shots you can be happy at the end of the day. I don’t see all this as work. That’s why I shoot very few films as I want to enjoy every bit of my shooting. I want to be a boat that can travel to the interior and I don’t want to be ferry shooting one film after another.

I don’t write much. I basically have ideas, because for sitting and writing you need patience. You need people like Mani Ratnam, who likes to sit and write. So, I usually build on my ideas. I usually see my films as a visual narration because I like to see it like that. For instance, when writers turn directors, they bring in their own perspective or if a music director makes a film, he might see it from a musical perspective. I think everyone should come with their own perspective.

Direction is most challenging as well as satisfying, especially when you are making films close to your heart. It might not be a ‘mass’ film, therefore, you make it with a shoestring budget and for niche audience. It’s always interesting to experiment and not tell the same thing. All this doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy other kind of films because when I’m shooting films, I’m doing ‘mass’ films. It’s great fun to enter into that kind of narrative.

Does this mean you enjoy watching commercial films?

I thoroughly enjoy watching because somewhere I feel they are the extension of our old way of storytelling with songs and dance. Everything has its charm. In fact, I will direct commercial films with stars when I’m done with all the scripts that are very close to my heart. I still have a few small films I want to make.

“Inam” features a young technical team. How was the experience of working with them?

Since it’s a small film, everybody worked like it was their own film. They loved the idea of working in this kind of ambiance. We all do everything together. I think the biggest advantage when you make a smaller film is that the unit becomes one whole family. If you want to make a really small film, more than money, what you need is a group of people to carry the same zeal.

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