Sreekar Prasad has been walking up to collect a National award for Best Editing every few years. For those who are keeping count, it is eight now —from five different Presidents of India between 1988 (for “Raakh”) and 2010 (Special Jury award for his work in “Kutty Srank”, “Kaminey” and “Pazhassi Raja”).
But it's not about the award that he thinks every time he sits in a dark room playing god to another man's fantasy. For someone who makes all the big decisions, this editor is an unassuming movie buff, with a saint-like temperament, without a trace of arrogance.
He has just finished work on the different language versions of Santosh Sivan's “Urumi” and Bhavna Talwar's “Happi” and is currently halfway through Bijoy Nambiar's “Shaitan” (Anurag Kashyap's banner) and Raam's “Thanga Meengal” when he agrees to sit down for an interview at his studio in Virugambakkam.
With cinema changing, even dimensionally of late, how important is formal training for an editor and how did you cope with all that's been happening?
To know the basics, it would be good to go to a school. Some learn it practically. I never went to FTII. Since my family was in the studio business, I had the opportunity to actually watch what was happening. I got interested in the process of storytelling. Basically, we are looking at storytelling with the material we have. That's the limitation the editor has. He has access to a certain material, which may not be what the director promised to give him before the film… because there are so many variables between the first draft and the final take. Through that footage, you're trying to tell the director's story.
How does one learn on the job?
I graduated in Literature and it helped me get into stories. First, I worked with my father A. Sanjivi, who was an editor, and then with other editors and in different languages. It kept me balanced because I am not tied to one approach, sensibility or culture.
So which film turned out to be the biggest lesson of your career?
‘Raakh' (Aamir Khan's early film directed by Aditya Bhattacharya) was an eye-opener because I was not exposed to that kind of cinema till then. I learnt that cinema is not just about song and dance, it's also about bringing out the inner turmoil of a character and how you can accentuate it with the visual tone.
Did working with Mani Ratnam change your style? Where does your role begin?
I just adapt to the director. I've been lucky that for most of my projects in the last 10 years, I've been involved right from the script discussions.
The major contribution that comes from the editor is how to tell the story in a way that it flows and does not deviate from the story the director wants to tell.
How do you resolve the director-editor conflict?
I have had less trouble. It's a question of give and take. We can always argue and evaluate, but I truly believe that the director's vision is what I'm trying to get on screen.
So, the single most important quality for an editor is?
Patience, to assimilate a lot of information. Over the years, I've developed a system where I do the first cut without the director.
I go through all the takes, get all the best moments out of them and then play around with them. It's probably a good idea to not cut sometimes.
You mean the best cut sometimes is to not cut?
Yes. The editor's job is to not just cut and paste. If I cut, I should make a point there. The cut should move the story forward. It's sad that people associate editing with cutting. Three minutes with 100 cuts on a TV maybe watchable, but on the big screen, it could just be tiring with so much information.
George Lucas said, ‘A movie is never finished, only abandoned'. How do you decide when you're done? How much work do you put into it on an average?
About four to six weeks for a smaller film, five to six months for a bigger film. There is no end to it. What I believe is that the first time you start doing something, you develop a gut feeling about it. That's when I am most objective about it. After a certain point, like everyone else associated with the film, I could lose objectivity. The deadline of the release is what we work with. Never have I ever felt it is perfect. It's an ongoing process. It just comes together at some point.