‘Mani Ratnam Believes Only In Characters, Not Star Power’

The award-winning editor Sreekar Prasad has plenty of films to his name -- including Sarkar, Saaho, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy -- besides this week’s releases -- Chekka Chivantha Vaanam and Pataakha
‘Mani Ratnam Believes Only In Characters, Not Star Power’

In the words of the American filmmaker-producer-editor, Joe Dante, "Editing is where movies are made or broken." The most sought-after editor Sreekar Prasad echoes the same. He believes "there's no right or wrong method" in the craft. Simply put, he says, whatever works, works. Whatever doesn't, doesn't. I began the conversation expecting he'd be precise — as an editor. But, he wasn't. His responses were rather articulate and detailed. Most importantly, with 'no cuts'.

Excerpts from a twenty-five-minute chat follow:

Your first film with Mani Ratnam was Alaipayuthey. Is he still the same?

As a filmmaker, he has evolved a lot. As a person, he has calmed down a bit. (Laughs) Even today, he makes films with so much passion. He has an air of confidence — that's both calming and reassuring. He respects technicians and gives us the freedom to execute our thoughts. Well, I've known him for almost two decades. We always learn when we work together, and our friendship extends beyond work.

How's Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (CCV) different from your previous collaborations with Mani Ratnam?

Whenever he makes a film, he tries to explore something different — in terms of narration, structure and storytelling, etc. CCV has love, action, emotions and violence. The story revolves around a father and his sons. As for this one, I saw the script develop into a well-made product. I had cut the trailers from a commercial point of view, of course, with Mani Ratnam's inputs. We wanted the audience to indulge in discussions watching the trailers. The response, as we expected, was fantastic.

Sometimes, as an editor, you need to be ruthless. I'm sure you and Mani Ratnam would have had disagreements.

Suggestions — yes. Disagreements — no. Because Mani Ratnam understands how the process works. Because what you conceive in mind not necessarily be the same when you shoot. Additions and deletions always happen — when you put everything together. The screenplay changes, too. I see editing more like sculpting. How I help the story move forward without compromises is what I set out to achieve, besides making the director realise his subject. There had been instances where films had been lengthier post editing. With like-minded people like Mani Ratnam, it's easy.

I'm curious to know how you ignore or retain a particular shot.

It's just instinct. In a wide shot, an actor may have done a better job than a close-up one. I choose the best. It depends on someone's performance rather.

Ten or fifteen years ago, we never saw an editor give interviews or open up much.

Your work should speak for yourself, and I don't give too many interviews. (Laughs). Hey, but, what happens in front of the camera attracts the press, really, right? Unfortunately, everyone thinks about the editor only when a film is draggy. It's funny. You can appreciate a film only at the end. In the middle, you can't say, it has been cut or put together well. Also, we don't come into the part of publicity at all. In fact, I can walk with a pair of shorts on the roads without being recognised for who I am. It's a blessing. (Smiles)

I'm sure. Over these years, you've balanced both art house and commercial cinema. What interests you more?

Initially, I didn't do many films in Tamil. I consider myself lucky for getting excellent art house cinema in English, Telugu, Assamese, Malayalam and Oriya. Filmmakers from the East and North would come for post-production here (Chennai), and I eventually got to work in other languages. Indian cinema is mostly verbose, and suddenly when something less-verbose comes my way, I was up for it. I've always loved films with more emotions, more visuals and fewer dialogues. Visuals tell stories in multiple ways that words can't.

As for your question, I can't distinguish. Ultimately, cinema is a universal language and story is important. I love commercial films, too. But I try to put the sensibilities I had acquired from art house films into commercial ones. Everything has a rhythm. I try to translate it to the screen. Less gimmickry, better cinematic experience. (Laughs)

But commercial cinema is star-driven.

There are limitations, yes. But exceptions like Mani Ratnam do exist. He believes only in characters, not star power. He doesn't compromise on the character for a star. When I do commercial films, my editing pattern is naturally based on the star power and fan-craze. To the best of my knowledge, I try to make those exaggerations 'believable'. Do you get what I'm saying? (Grins) Thankfully, no director has pushed me to do things I don't believe in.

It's interesting that you don't hesitate to collaborate with newbies and aspiring directors even today.

It's a mutual learning process, and I see youngsters promising, and brim with energy and fresh ideas. For example, I edited Chezhian's To Let, which won the National Award under the Best Feature Film category in Tamil. That way, I like Kattradhu Tamizh-fame Ram. His films are original and feed the soul. Sometimes, money doesn't matter. You go out of your way to support good films and a director's vision.

Do you have a say on the placement of songs in films?

When misplaced, songs can kill any film. My job is to make sure that the viewer isn't distracted and there's a flow between the sequences. Otherwise, I understand the importance of songs in Indian cinema, as they give a sense of high to the audience.

Name a few films of yours which were challenging to work on from an editor's point of view.

Aayatha Ezhuthu, Firaaq, Okkadu and Kaminey. Aayatha Ezhuthu had a unique tone and narrative, which was something unattempted during the 90s. I found Firaaq tough because it had five stories run parallel to each other. Okkadu, on the other hand, was visually-challenging. The other one — Kaminey — took form in the editing room. The editing was supposed to have been done by someone, and finally came to me.

Tell us about songs that have been interesting to edit.

Oh, all films by Mani Ratnam. Because he tries to bring in variety in songs. In Alaipayuthe, we shot a song in reverse (Pachchai Nirame). In Aayatha Ezhuthu, I'd say — Yaakai Thiri — because of the treatment. In OK Kanmani, Mental Manadhil… As a concept, it was simple, but the execution wasn't. For the emotional value, we incorporated a blurred effect to show a sense of movement as Dulquer Salmaan and Nithya Menen danced.

You juggle multiple projects and keep yourself busy even at this age.

(Smiles) CCV and Pataakha are releasing this week. Currently, I am working on the final cut of Super 30. The rest — Kayamkulam Kochunni, Sarkar, Saaho, Kalank and Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy will hit the screens only next year. I'm good. (Smiles)

You've seen the process of editing evolve, and is there any particular practice of filmmakers that hadn't really change?

Indian filmmakers write lengthy scripts — despite knowing the attention span of the audience. They think they need to show a certain amount of footage to make the movie-goers engaged. But technology has somewhat made our jobs easier.

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