Mahesh Naryanan, one of Malayalam cinema’s top editors, talks about weaving together a seamless movie experience

There’s an air of restlessness to Mahesh Narayanan; it’s as if he’s got miles to go before he can get some sleep tonight, or in this case, miles of film reel to edit. “I don’t have much to say about myself…,” he begins. We beg to differ. After all, Mahesh is one of Mollywood’s top editors, with a long list of box office hits to his credit – films as varied as classy Beautiful and racy Traffic to bombastic Sound Thoma and thrilling Mumbai Police. With Kamal Haasan’s Viswaroopam and then Chennaiyil Oru Naal, the remake of Traffic in Tamil, earlier in the year, Mahesh cut across to Kollywood. Even as the 32-year-old’s latest Malayalam film, Vishudhan, hits theatres this week, he’s hard at work on Vishwaroopam 2 and the Hindi version of Traffic, directed by Rajesh Pillai. Not bad for someone who set out to be… a cinematographer!

“(Laughs) It’s true. I’d always wanted to study cinematography, because I have an interest in photography. It came as a surprise when I got selected for the editing course at the Adayar Film Institute. Initially, I had no idea about editing, but it quickly grew on me,” recalls the Kochi-based Mahesh, who hails from Poonkulam, near Pachalloor, in Thiruvananthapuram.

The youngster who studied at Arts College for his pre-degree and at University college for his undergraduate degree (English literature), credits the “extraordinary” film viewing culture in the city for nurturing his passion for the movies in the first place, apart from his interactions with like-minded film enthusiasts and the active film society movement in the city. “I’d always dreamed about a future in the movies. Actually, my mother, G. Geetha, wanted me to become an Ayurveda doctor like her. Now, Amma is happy that at least my brother, Ganesh, has followed in her footsteps [Mahesh’s wife, Remya, is a software engineer and his father, Narayanan, is a former employee of FACT].”

And when he’s into something (even when he is talking about himself, as we quickly find out), Mahesh goes non-stop. For instance, soon after he joined film school in Chennai he dived right into gaining experience editing documentaries and short films, beginning with one for filmmaker B. Lenin, and has never looked back. “From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to work in the Malayalam industry, commercial cinema specifically, even though the institute trains students for work in Doordarshan, the Film Division, and the like,” he says.

Mahesh’s friendships with people in various “circuits” seem to have helped him further his career. In the beginning there was the documentary/short film clique in the city that gave him a chance to work with industry veterans such as C.S. Venkiteswaran (in Matha to Ma) and R. Sharath (in Bhoomikkoru Charamageetham). Shortly afterwards, Mahesh got his first feature film project – Lenin Rajendran’s Ratrimazha (2007). “I came in the place of editor B. Ajith Kumar, who was occupied with another project. Incidentally, I got to work on Shaji N. Karun’s docu-fiction A.K.G. because Ajith ettan was again tied up with something else. Ratrimazha took almost a year to finish but I enjoyed the experience,” says Mahesh.

Meanwhile, his Chennai connections led to several ad films with cinematographer-director Rajeev Menon. “I’ve edited almost a 100 ads for him – Parle, Asian Paints, Toyota…, over the course of six to seven years. In fact, for a long while people in the industry knew me as an ad film editor rather than a feature film one. All the ads that I have done with Rajeev were storytelling ads, which means we had to communicate a gamut of emotions, expressions and images in 30 to 60 seconds. I thrived on the challenge and it also helped me in the long run when I started working on films.”

The ad film circuit also put him in touch with ad-director-turned-filmmaker V.K. Prakash, who had then just completed horror flick Moonamothoral. VKP invited Mahesh to work with him on his next flick, the Hindi film Phir Khabie. “VKP and I share a good rapport and I’ve worked on some six or seven of his films to date, including the Mammootty-starrer Silence, which I am currently working on,” he says. “It’s really important for me to have a good rapport with the directors. An editor must be able to understand the point of view of a director and pick up on it. Good communication between them is vital for a film. That’s why I keep working with directors such as VKP, Vyshakh, Rajesh…,” he adds.

But that does not mean an editor should always dance to the director’s tune… “I insist that I do the first cut [taping together raw footage into a basic storyline] myself. That’s where I express my creativity; where I get show what I want to say, what I feel about a film and what I understand about it. Of course, the end product would be completely different – in fact, I want it to be different from the first cut. Before we get to the end product, though, there will be a lot of arguments, yelling etc. I don’t give up easily. The fights are never about personal egos, instead we all realise it’s about the product.”

Then, the key to good editing says the veteran of 32 films (and counting) is understanding the audience. “You've got to understand that the audience for a Pokkiriraja is not the same as one for a Makaramanju – incidentally, I was editing both films at the same time. If you’re catering to the masses there is no point to showing things subtly, simply because they wouldn’t understand it,” he explains. “Ultimately, though, editing is a hidden art, one that works best when the viewer is so engaged in a film that he is not aware that it has been edited!”

Although he seems a bit jaded with commercial Malayalam cinema at the moment (“if you see one scene you’ve seen it all”), particularly the rush for satellite rights, and is frustrated that filmmakers/producers here rarely give a film due time at the editing table (“I recently edited a two and a half hour movie in three days”), Mahesh is still very enamoured by cinema. So much so that he’s turning director. “It’s all set to go on floor in January.” Mahesh's reel adventures continue.

PLAYING WITH FRAMES

Malayalam cinema, says Mahesh, is slowly subscribing to the British way of filmmaking that focusses on real time. “More than one person talking, the focus is on the reaction of the other. This allows the editor to play around a bit. I’m currently experimenting with it in the commercial format.” he explains. One film made on this concept is Beautiful. “For the film, apart from the storyline, I deliberately included certain hidden emotions, gestures and the like. Another is Traffic. In the film there’s a scene where Anoop Menon is talking on the phone to Jose Prakash. Following the conversation, Anoop stays silent for 30 seconds. It was a huge gamble because we didn’t know how the audience would react. But it paid off.”