Even thirty-six years after his debut as a freelance editor, Sreekar Prasad hasn’t slowed down one bit. 2022, indeed, has been particularly rewarding for the master editor. While his period pieces, RRR and Ponniyein Selvan (PS-1), proved to be huge box office earners, the rather intimate Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Pengalum earned him his ninth national award. The editor is, understandably, in good spirits when we catch up on a phone conversation just days after receiving his national award.
You are having a fantastic year and receiving PS-1 made it all the more special…
Absolutely (Laughs). I was eagerly awaiting the release of the film and learned that the national awards ceremony was to take place on the same day in Delhi. On the day of the ceremony, I had free time in the morning and managed to see the film in IMAX with a mostly Tamil crowd. I could feel it was working for them. Although I’ve seen it a hundred times in my studio, it’s still a thrilling experience to watch it with the public.
Were you as excited about the ninth national award as your first in 1989?
The degree of excitement varies (Laughs). However, every time you receive an award, it’s a vindication that you’re creating the right cinematic experience. This is what I have believed in since the beginning of my career. I work on all types of cinema because I want to be relevant, but when you push the bar of cinematic excellence and the effort is rewarded, it gives a high. Editing is not a mechanical process; he talks about artistic freedom, sensibilities and many other factors. So, yes, a prize, especially a national prize, always gives an adrenaline rush.
You’ve said in the past that it’s a challenge to keep up the pace in period films because there’s an innate distance between the film and the viewer. The challenge had to extend to PS-1 as well?
Yes of course. Psychologically, we’re used to thinking that period films, whether because of the setting or the characters, are slow. At Rajamouli’s Bahubali changed that notion by making the environment larger than life, and people fell for it. We could have made it exotic, but Mani Ratnam does not believe in this kind of cinema. He believes in emotions and realistic drama.
The film’s overall pacing approach, however, is quite contemporary and energetic – whether it’s the ‘Devaralan Aattam’ sequence, the way the antagonists behave and, more importantly, the war sequences. The fight sequences also weren’t done the way they’re usually shot. We managed to avoid the similarities with the movies that came before us and kept the viewer inside the war and tried to capture the frenzy. We had many discussions to distinguish the style of action sequences involving Aditha Karikalan (who is violent), Arulmozhi Varman (fury with style) and Vanthiyathevan (with a playful touch) to ensure that fights do not become monotonous . In fact, the action choreographers shot larger-than-life parts, but we sacrificed them for credibility.
What is your working process with Mani Ratnam?
He sends me the first draft of the script and we engage in brainstorming sessions over the next two months, even as the script gets refined with each iteration. As the cast and dates fall into place, the filming project is locked in. Even after filming begins, the script invariably changes (laughs). When we receive the rushes, we give the filmmaker our feedback on what works and what could be improved.
Can you share some cases where the scenario was changed in PS-1?
Initially, the film was modeled with the introduction of the three main men. It starts now with the story of Aditha Karikalan. During editing, we realized that the idea of introducing Ponniyin Selvan didn’t fit the narrative, and we wanted the story to progress with Vanthiyathevan. Then we made the drastic change to introduce Ponniyin Selvan in the second half because once he’s introduced it becomes his story.
Aditha Karikalan’s monologue is my favorite sequence in the film. I particularly liked the way you hold the mystery of the cabin until the end of the ‘Chola Chola’ song.
It was an editing decision. I asked the director if we could use a flash of Aditha’s memory during the long monologue. Even the idea of introducing their younger versions came later. We had to convey that this love story started years ago and he still wants her. He sees not his current image, but his younger self. So I chose to intercut the monologue with its younger version. When he says he died the second time – which is a thick line – when he saw her again years later in that hut, we don’t reveal what he actually saw. We sought to intensify the drama.
I really like the fact that this grief also serves as an “interval shot”. While it’s not a conventional intermission point in terms of scale, it’s grand in emotion. How was it scripted?
There was no definitive interval point when we started editing; it finally settled into place. We chose this point because we needed emotion and it is the soul of the story, even if we don’t quite establish it from the start. We thought its importance should be spelled out in the middle, so it’s clear to the viewer who stands on each side.
Achieving consistency with multiple narratives – each for a main character – must have been a daunting task.
There have been cases where entire blocks involving leading characters have been swapped on the edit table. When several arcs progress, do not spend too much time on a character because it risks creating a lack of interest vis-à-vis the others. It was necessary to ensure that the momentum did not fall while maintaining consistency in the course of each character.
The second half begins with the introduction of Ponniyin Selvan, moves to Kundhavai controlling Pazhavur, then back to Vanthiyathevan’s story, then to Nandhini, who plots Ponniyin Selvan’s imprisonment. We had to keep crossing paths between each story to juxtapose each character’s journey and keep the viewer hooked.
Nandhini’s interruption when Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar convinces Sundara Chozan to imprison her son was a wonderful moment.
It is a cinematic expression of Nandhini’s victory at that moment. It wasn’t a scripted plan. The scene was shot as a whole and the director felt it would be a good idea to use some later to depict her victory.
What happened to ‘Floor’ song?
(Laughs) It was supposed to introduce Kundavai, but we realized it got in the way of the narrative. Withholding her introduction until Vanthiyathevan came to meet her seemed like a wiser choice.
How much work is pending on PS-2?
After a few tweaks, we’ll move into post-production in a few weeks. We’ve just come out of PS-1 (smiles).