I Was Merciless As The Editor: Abhinav Sundar Nayak On Filming & Editing His First Film

The editor-turned-filmmaker takes us through how he transformed the entire genre of Mukundan Unni Associates at the edit table
I Was Merciless As The Editor: Abhinav Sundar Nayak On Filming & Editing His First Film

Prominent editor Abhinav Sundar Nayak remembers letting go of around 11 films and the opportunity to edit them following the success of Godha (2017). But the editor-turned-filmmaker carries no regrets. His debutant project, which has been a long time in the making, is all set to hit the theatres this Friday. Mukundan Unni Associates, starring Vineeth Sreenivasan, sees Abhinav share both directing and editing credits.

"Eventually I did come in to this field to become a director, so I cannot make that a side business. I have no regrets," he says in a conversation with Vishal Menon.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

The trailer and marketing campaign behind Mukundan Unni Associates have already created a lot of buzz. The idea to create a ‘fake profile’ of the lead character Mukundan Unni (played by Vineeth Sreenivasan) was a clever move…

It’s a small movie. So we had to do everything to create a certain level of curiosity from our side to attract the audiences. The idea to create social media profiles for the character was very spontaneous. It was not a planned move or anything.

You have become a feature film director after working as a editor for close to a decade. With that experience, given that you’ve also co-written Mukundan Unni, did you find yourself thinking like an editor even while writing? For example, did your working script have transitions and montages? 

The script itself was quite crisp without the need to shoot a lot. So I guess my editing mind started to work during the writing stage itself. But because of my experience as an editor, I also knew that I would have liked a few more options for certain scenes and shots when I sit down at the edit table. At times, we get only few options but we would have hoped for a few more shots. For instance, if we shoot a particular scene as a single take, it might feel right when we’re shooting. But later, I’ve had many experiences where it just didn’t match with the rhythm of the rest of the film. To avoid this, I’ve shot a few scenes in a couple of different styles with the edit in mind. I also shot a long take in the film, which my crew seemed very pleased with. But on the edit, I myself had to break it down to two because that’s the rhythm I was going for. Because this was my first film, I didn’t want to take many risks or be overconfident. That’s why I had three options while shooting—option A, option  B, option C. But I haven’t shot anything unnecessarily.

Were you rigid during the shoots or did you leave room for changes?

I like improvisation at every stage and I do not stick on to something that’s already fixed. It was not shot like it was in the first script, and it was not edited the way it was shot. While editing, I realised that the genre of the movie itself got shifted. We shot according to how it was in the script but during the edit, we kept getting new ideas and the genre itself changed. Initially, the movie was a bit darker but with the new edit, there’s a lot more room for outrageous humour and even stretches of dark comedy. After this edit, I feel the movie has become more entertaining. 

Given the reduced budget, were you able to shoot the way you wanted to? 

Originally, the plan was to shoot in a linear manner from first scene to the last. Because the film itself is a character’s journey, I thought this would also help the film’s growth. But because of the budget issues and because it was my first film, I couldn’t. If we had shot it like that, it would have required 60 days. But we were able to finish it in 45 days with these changes.  

Director Abhinav Sundar Nayak in the sets of Mukundan Unni Associates
Director Abhinav Sundar Nayak in the sets of Mukundan Unni Associates

You mentioned that the genre itself changed during the edit. Was that a natural change or was it a big call you had to make one day?

After shooting, I took a one month break from the whole process. This was when my friend, editor Nithin went about working on a first cut.  I got into the editing process only after that. And then with Nithin, we worked for over four months to reach this particular version. In terms of a decision, I guess you need to simply trust your judgement in the editing stage. I kept showing these edits to Nithin and that’s how I got the objectivity. If the genre changes, it also means all the stages of production that come after changes too. So the music changed and we had to re-dub the film many times. In fact Vineeth had to dub for his characters 5 times in total. He had to keep travelling back to Kerala. 

I’ve heard that editors keep a safe distance from the filmmaking process to retain that objectivity. Is that why you took that break after filming? 

I was quite merciless on the edit table. I do not think I was extra attached because I wrote and directed it. The reason I took the break was just to cool down and it helped me detach myself. Breaking that single shot into multiple shots too is a result of me being able to think like an editor. 

What were the thoughts behind making Vineeth Srinivasan do a dark character? His darkest role yet is the one in Thanneer Mathan Dinangal (2019).

While writing, I had a different actor in mind. The idea was to make it on a larger scale. It’s been a dream to make a movie so we wanted the first film to be a bigger film even though it was the same script. That didn’t work due to issues with the actor’s dates but Vineeth was always there in my mind. When the first person said no, Vineeth told me that if everyone says no, I will act. He said, ‘keep me as the last option.’ That’s his good heart. Which other actor would say such a thing?

The second reason I didn’t go to him first is because I feel the ideology of this character doesn’t match with the ideology of Vineeth. This put me in a dual mind whether he will do it or if he will ask me to make some changes to the script. But when he came on board, he gave us all the freedom. After the edit, I thought if not for Vineeth Srinivasan, the movie would not have come out like this. He is an irreplaceable part of the movie.

Did you have to consciously make changes to tackle Vineeth’s image of mostly playing the good guy?

We had the confidence that he could pull off a darker character. In terms of risk, we have tried to keep the film’s budget small. But for the audience, we made sure we didn’t cast Vineeth’s friends in other roles in the film. That I feel has helped in separating his earlier screen image from the role he’s playing in Mukundan Unni. It’s like we’ve taken him out of the world you usually see him in. 

Becoming a filmmaker has meant that you’ve taken a long break from your editing career. How does that affect your regular, everyday life? 

It can put a lot of strain on you, both in terms of one’s personal life and in terms of finances. Even my co-writer Vimal (Gopalakrishnan) had to go through a lot of strains as we tried to focus all our attention on to this project. 

I understand, given how editing is generally considered among the most stable professions within the film business...

Yes! After Godha (2017), I got around 11 film offers across languages. It’s like I stopped taking up editing work when my career was at its peak. But I have no regrets because if I did those movies, I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate so much on this script. Eventually I did come to this field to become a director, so I cannot make that a side business. Also while editing, I cannot treat that as a side hustle either because it is a director’s dream. Even while editing, I want to completely get involved in the process as I love editing the most. I cannot multi-task. If I multi-task, it will definitely reflect on my work.

We’re just days away from the movie’s release, but given the changes brought about by the pandemic, do you think we’re at a place where one can make a movie without any sort of spoon-feeding or dumbing down?

Not exactly. The audience today does not encourage mediocre content, even if it’s mass masala or completely commercial. But I will not say that Mukundan Unni Associates is a movie without any kind of spoon-feeding. It’s definitely a movie for the commercial audience. The ideas used in the movies are bit outrageous and a bit risky. If I had worked on a set with an actor who didn't give us creative freedom, then this might not have worked. It’s not an unsafe film but after the edit, I feel we’ve taken it to the safe zone. The edit itself has made it much safer compared to the script. The movie becoming successful is also important for us because we have worked on it for years. Finally, everything depends on the audience's reaction. Fingers crossed.

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