Interview: Sreekar Prasad

Posted on January 18, 2008


Picture courtesy: rediff.comom


Sreekar Prasad has slapped together some 300 films, six of which have won him National Awards. So when he holds forth on editing, you listen.

JAN 18, 2008 – IN BETWEEN DISTRIBUTING SWEETS to celebrate the opening of his small business, in between shucking off this newfound respectability and roughing up students in a subway, in between posing for (and making love to) a raindrop-splattered camera, in between joining his friends in chasing a football through the squishiest of Kolkatan playgrounds, in between counting out currency notes with an exaggerated flourish before handing them over to his doll-sized wife, and in between making an outsized nuisance of himself at a cinema hall, if you’ve gotten a semblance of a day-in-the-life of the hoodlum named Lallan, you’ve experienced the work that Sreekar Prasad does.

He edits films (and very well at that, if his crop of six National Awards out of 300-odd films is anything to go by), and he mulls over this instance – this jump-cut montage set to the Dol dol number in Mani Ratnam’s Yuva – on the way to making a bigger point about his craft. “From what I show in those stretches of ten seconds, you should understand this man’s story. If I chose the wrong moments, you wouldn’t get what was going on.” And the bigger point is this – of the editor as atavistic explorer, hacking his way through dense thickets of celluloid jungle, leaving behind an easy-to-follow trail for the rest of us to navigate.

And yet it persists, the general perception of what he does as the mere trimming of length. You rarely hear of an author being rebuked for writing a book with too many chapters – and with too little use of the backspace key – but editors are so constantly hauled up for the languorousness of filmic pace that their favourite mode of unwinding could well be a game of darts on a board emblazoned with the phrase: The Scissors Could Have Been Applied More Meticulously. “Some subjects demand a slow pace to drive home the point,” says Prasad, “and if the film still doesn’t work, there may be a lot of other factors responsible.”

It could be the actors. It could be how it’s all being presented. Or it could be that individually edited scenes may work on their own, but do not add up to an overall picture. “What works on paper may not work on screen,” says Prasad. “So then we have to take the decision of pruning (or extending) a certain emotion, or creating a lull between too much excitement.” If this makes him sound like a baton-waving conductor, shushing up the percussion while urging on the strings, the analogy is perhaps inevitable – for what is an editor’s responsibility if not to unify discrete emotional beats into a symphony of surging movement.

“But above all,” Prasad says, “an editor’s job is to help the director realise his subject.” This includes keeping a check on the director from indulging himself, and helping him get a different perspective. “He would have probably shot a scene and he may not even be aware of this emotion,” and it’s up to Prasad to open up to the filmmaker a whole new realm of possibilities left behind by the subconscious processes that always make up art. Prasad agrees that the final cut lies with the director, “but I’ll push as far as possible to make my point. I’m lucky to be working with people who believe in me – so I’m able to make my point.”

“A lot of times, we have needed to change the structure of the screenplay after the edit has started – and in most cases, I have been supported by the director.” And Prasad delves into the unlikely instance of Anand Kumar’s Delhii Heights – a generally underwhelming film whose only merit would be that it serves as a case study for Prasad’s craft. After the shooting was over, Prasad discovered that the narrative was not gripping enough. “There were three or four stories going on, and the film was sticking to one story for too long. So I had to change the order of the sequences to even things out between the stories, and we came out with a version that was quite different from the original script.”

What he’s saying, in other words, is that the movies we end up seeing wouldn’t be those very movies if it were not for his intervention and his ingenuity, but Prasad also feels that the effects of his work are most visible when his tools remain invisible. “You should never be able to recognise an edit or a cut, because the series of visuals put together should appear seamless. It’s only at the end of the film that you can appreciate if it’s been cut or put together well. In some films,” he says cautiously, “the editors try to make a statement. They force themselves on to the screen with gimmicks and special effects, but I don’t think that’s good editing.”

This is as good a point as any to ask one of those standard-issue questions about favourites-from-a-career, and Prasad says he loved working on The Terrorist. “It was more or less made on the editing table. There was a series of (Santosh Sivan’s) visuals, but these visuals could be anywhere and we had a lot of fun putting the whole thing together.” Another “difficult” film that left him very satisfied was Vanaprastham. “The story had a lot of layers. It had Kathakali, which had to be presented in a way that wouldn’t alienate the audience. Plus, we had to consult experts so that we didn’t take liberties with the art form. And we were able to get it to an internationally acceptable length of about two hours.”

Prasad is less forthcoming about his worst experiences as an editor, though he does say, “At the beginning of your career, you have fewer options, but today I can pick and choose and do something that I believe will satisfy me.” Sometimes, there’s even the luxury of getting the script in advance, which helps Prasad give feedback at a stage that feedback can actually be of use. “If the whole process is over, I can only operate within the footage that is given to me.” He also likes to give feedback after watching the rushes, “because that’s when I’m very impartial and have a gut feeling whether something is working or not.”

That’s Prasad’s thing: gut feeling. He doesn’t take notes on script drafts. He doesn’t use photo boards. “It’s just instinct,” he says. He likes to see the rushes after the sound is added, and he prefers to watch all takes. “They would have said Take 3 and Take 6 are okay, but in my experience, a lot of the first takes are very good. At least, a portion of the first take is very good.” Then he shortlists what he calls “the good moments,” and – with the exception of an action (or a dance) sequence, which is specifically orchestrated and shot – Prasad finds himself a sweet-toothed kid in a candy store of close-ups and wide shots and third perspectives. “Now it is about creating sequences with best of all these.”

“A scene is built on the performances,” says Prasad, “and the performer may have done a better job in a wide shot than in a close-up. It may not be possible, due to continuity, to use the wide shot, but the effort is to use the best moments.” And after picking and choosing the best performance moments, he picks and chooses his effects. “If I need energy, as in the Madhavan scenes in Aayidha Ezhuthu, I go for fast cuts. In this case, it was all planned even before the shoot. They shot everything on one axis – that is, the wide shots and the close-ups would be on the same axis, which is not usually the case – and to get energy, we cut at moments where the actions would open out and close.”

“The cut should give the audience a kick – because you’re telling them something.” Prasad notes the general tendency to go on cutting when there’s a lot of material, “but you shouldn’t cut to a close-up and break an acting moment. The cut could come at a point where the actor is telling you something personal – because it will add to what he is saying.” Decisions this delicate may not always serve the interests of a certain kind of film, and that’s why Prasad tries not to get into too many star-driven projects. “They take a lot of time and may not be very satisfying, though there’s better money.” At the other end of the filthy-lucre spectrum lie the smaller films, the more satisfying films – in Assamese, in Malayalam, in Punjabi, even Nepali.

At least during conversation, Prasad is no editor. Long, looping streams of consciousness burst forth with refreshing disregard to continuity. “Every action and reaction has got a certain rhythm,” he’ll sit up and say. “The rhythm can be according to the situation, according to the man, or according to the person he is talking to.” A lot of this learning came from Prasad’s father, A Sanjivi, himself an editor. Prasad was interested in literature and journalism, but after a stint with his father, he realised that images could tell stories in ways that words cannot. “I am speaking to you in full sentences now, but on screen I don’t have to complete the sentence. The first part of the line, combined with your reaction, may be enough to convey the meaning. That’s the beauty of cinema.”

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