Santosh was born into a family of artists. His grandmother used to teach him painting and music in the palace and as a kid he accompanied her to the palace. These visits gave him an opportunity to become familiar with the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, a nineteenth-century Indian painter whose renowned works were themes from Hindu mythology, and everyday life of his times. He graduated from Loyola School, Thiruvananthapuram.
His grandmother often narrated the mythological stories of the themes of these paintings, where in the postures, colours guided the imagination. This turned out to be his very first visual education ( later he made some of these into celluloid and also acted as "Raja Ravi Varma" in a feature! ).
His father used to make documentaries and during holidays he would excitedly, volunteer to help. These trips were very interesting. He loved sketching with charcoal, and was fascinated by details that you observe when you want to sketch. During these travels to remote areas in South India, He was fortunate to listen folklore's and stories of people of the land. He is the younger brother of filmmaker Sangeeth Sivan and elder brother of Sanjeev Sivan. The trio are the sons of the well known cinematographer and director Sivan.
Santosh, a founder member of the Indian Society of Cinematographers and the most awarded Director of Photography in India, graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India and went on to completing 45 features and 41 documentaries.
He was awarded the National Award for best Cinematographer for the films Perumthachan (Malayalam/1991), Kalapani (Malayalam / 1996), Mohiniyattam (Malayalam / 1991), Iruvar (Tamil/1998) and Dil Se.. (Hindi/1999).
Santosh was honoured by the Japanese Society of Cinematographers and has been on the Jury for the Busan Film Festival. He is a "mentor" to students for Mira Nair's "Maisha Film Lab: in Uganda and is a director to the Sivan Foundation of photography. He was also a governing council member at the Pune Film Institute.
As a director, Santosh won his first National Award in 1988 for the film Story of Tiblu (1988). His film Halo was honoured at the 43rd National Film Awards as the Best Children's Film and Best Sound.
Santosh received worldwide accolades for The Terrorist (presented by John Malkovich), which won the Best Director, Best Actress Awards and the Golden Pyramid Award for The Best Film at the 23rd Cairo International Film Festival. It was awarded the National Award (1999) for The Best Tamil Film and was an Official Selection at the Sundance, Seattle and Toronto Film Festivals of that year. The film was also listed in Roger Ebert's 100 Best Films (1999). the film was Quoted as being "a film scripted by the camera"
Following the success of The Terrorist, Santosh's film MALLI won the National Award for Best Environmental Film in India (2000), the National Award in India for Best Child Artist (2000) and was honoured at the 18th International Festival of Film for Children in Poznan, Poland where it won the Poznan Goat for Best Director, Best Child Actress & Best Music and the Best Film-Audience Award at the Indian Film Festival|Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles in Los Angeles.
Santosh's subsequent films include ASOKA, which screened at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals (2001) and Navarasa, which won the National Award for Best Tamil Film (2004) and the Monaco Award for Best Film & Best Supporting Actor awarded at the Lyons Film Festival. The latter also participated in the Pusan and Rotterdam Film Festivals. His debut Malayalam Language film as director, Anandabhadram (2005), went on to win several State Awards, including Best Director & Best Cinematographer. Santosh has worked as the Cinematographer in Gurinder Chadha's Bride & Prejudice (2004) and Paul Mayeda Berges' The Mistress of Spices (2005).
Santosh directed Before the Rains which is premiered as a Special Presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival (2007). In addition, his short film PRARAMBHA, which was created for the Bill and Melinda Gates AIDS Foundation, also premiered at the Mavericks section of the Festival. It won the National Awards 2007 for Best Producer and Best Director in the Educational and Motivational Film category.
His latest Malayalam film, Urumi (2011) was screened at the Indian Panorama of the International Film Festival of India to be held in Goa 2012, to Busan and NHK film festivals. He was also the cinematographer for the Tamil movie Thuppakki, starring Vijay & directed by AR Murugadoss.
In an interview, he said that some films he chose, not mostly because of the story but due to the very fact that he was comfortable with the director, a bigger pay cut and friendship things. That's how he was roped for Spyder movie starring Mahesh Babu & directed by A.R.Murugados.
In 2008, Santosh Sivan Films was formed, as a Pvt ltd concern, with Producer Mubina Rattonsey and Milind Verekar. The company has not only handled film ventures successfully but has to its credit numerous commercials, documentaries and music videos as well. Feature film credits include Terrorist, Malli, Navarasa, Anandabhadram, A Hollywood film "Before the Rains" for Echo Lake Productions, Prarambha, a short film for The Bill and Melinda Gates AIDS Foundation, Tahaan-A Boy with the Grenade, Urumi-Vasco Da Gama and more recently done Ceylon.Tahaan, won a High Commendation in Children's Feature Film section at the 2009 Asia Pacific Screen Awards and UNICEF Award at 11th Olympia International Film Festival for Children and Young People in 2008 held at Greece. It also won "The German Star of India award" at "Bollywood and Beyond" festival at Stuttgart Germany in 2009.
Santosh's documentary Farmers Portrait is near completion. He makes films on health and environment issues, like the Polio campaign with Amitabh Bachchan.
His 2007 release, Prarambha won the National Film Award for Best Educational/Motivational/Instructional Film at the 55th National Film Awards. The film dealt with the stigma attached to an HIV + person. It dealt with a little boy who had been ostracised from school only because he is diagnosed with HIV. This film highlighted the plight of the boy and highlighted the ignorance of the society towards this virus. It dealt with the myths surrounding HIV and aimed at educating the masses through an entertaining story weaved around the little boy. This was produced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Aids foundation and was shot entirely in Mysore.National Film Awards
Kerala State Film Awards
1992 – Aham – Best Cinematography (Colour)
1996 – Kalapani – Best Cinematography
2005 – Anandabhadram – Best Cinematography
1994 – Pavithram-best cinematography
Tamil Nadu State Film Awards
1992 – Roja – Best Cinematography
1996 – Indira – Best Cinematography
2010 – Raavanan – Best Cinematography
1999 – Dil Se.. – Best Cinematography
2001 – Halo – Critics Award for Best Movie
2002 – Asoka – Best Cinematography
Filmfare Awards South
1997 – Iruvar – Best Cinematographer – South
1999 - Vanaprastham - Best Cinematographer – South
2002 – Asoka – IFFA Best Cinematographer Award
Star Screen Awards
2005 – Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities – Best Cinematography
Zee Cine Awards
2005 – Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities – Best Cinematography
Won:1998 – The Terrorist– Best Director at Cairo International Film Festival
1998 – The Terrorist– Golden Pyramid at Cairo International Film Festival
1999 – Malli – Adult's Jury Award for Feature Film and Video (2nd Place) at Chicago International Film Festival
1999 – The Terrorist – Grand Jury Prize at Cinemanila International Film Festival
1999 – The Terrorist – Lino Brocka Award for Best Film at Cinemanila International Film Festival
2000 – Malli– Poznan Goat for Best Director at 18th Ale Kino! International Young Audience Film Festival
2000 – The Terrorist – Panorama Jury Prize for Honorable Mention at Sarajevo Film Festival
2000 – Malli Emerging Masters Showcase Award at Seattle International Film Festival Awards
2004 – Malli – Audience Award for Best Feature Film at Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles
2005= Navarasa=Monaco International Film Festival (Monaco)
Won - Best Supporting Actor - Bobby Darling
Won - Angel Independent Spirit Award - Navarasa - Santosh Sivan
2008 – Before the Rains – Grand Award for Best Theatrical Feature at WorldFest Houston International Film Festival
2008= Before the Rains= Crystal Kodak award for best cinematography.
2009, Tahaan= Tahaan won a High Commendation in Children's Feature Film section at the 2009 Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
Tahaan Won Best feature film award, CIFEJ Award (Centre International du Film pour l' Enfant et la Jeunesse)and UNICEF Award at 11th Olympia International Film Festival for Children and Young People in 2008 held at Greece Than won "The German Star of India award" at "Bollywood and Beyond" festival at Stuttgart Germany in 2009 Urumi=
Nominated:2001 – The Terrorist– Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film
2001 – The Terrorist – Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Best Foreign Language Film