Vineeth Sreenivasan: I felt Pranav's off-screen personality would look great in Hridayam
The writer-filmmaker gives us a glimpse of the making process of his latest box office sensation, revisiting memories and favourite themes
Vineeth Sreenivasan narrates fictional stories with the same enthusiasm as with real-life stories. His latest three-hour feature, Hridayam, would've been a much longer film had he included all the unwritten scenarios in his head. A couple of hilarious scenes he narrated had me laughing incessantly. For a moment, I forgot that he was talking about fictional characters. In this candid conversation, Vineeth gives us a glimpse of the making process of his latest box office sensation, revisiting memories and favourite themes.
Hridayam made me remember some things that I thought I had forgotten. While writing the script, were you able to vividly recall everything that happened in your life over a decade ago?
I remember a lot of things. Before the pandemic, I used to travel a lot, and while revisiting friends settled in different places, we reminisced about all the silly incidents that happened back then. These meetings were not for the script. And later, when I started scripting Hridayam, all those memories kept rushing back, and I saved them as voice notes. When I sat down and heard all of them in 2019, I felt I had enough material for two films. If Hridayam had been a series, I would've included all of them, but since I'm very much a movie guy, I couldn't.
Did you take anything out after you had shot it?
Maybe tiny bits of a scene but not entire scenes. While editing, I stumbled upon one serious scene that looked like it belonged in another filmmaker's movie. It was so dark, man. I couldn't take that much darkness. I mean, seeing intense scenes is one thing, but shooting it and then seeing that scene in my own movie is something else. (laughs) Even Ranjan chettan (editor Ranjan Abraham) wondered if I did it. So we condensed it to make it look like something else. Aside from that, we didn't make any changes.
Speaking of Ranjan Abraham, he seems to have a firm grip on the length of a film. Ayyappanum Koshiyum is another example of a well-cut three-hour film. Tell us how he cut Hridayam.
The first thing I have to tell you is that there is no spot editing on my set. I don't see the rushes after I shoot something. I've only seen the first edit of Hridayam that he did. I trust Ranjan chettan's judgement a lot. Once he gives his nod, I know that I don't need to do anything else. For instance, when we shot the Darshana song, I took his feedback constantly because it required a different approach. We had to make Pranav and Darshana internalise the tunes because they preferred performing to them spontaneously. Ranjan chettan spent 20 days on that song. Now, that's the time he usually takes to finish an entire film! (laughs)
One of the advantages we had was that we got so much time to work on Hridayam. Ranjan chettan is merciless in the initial editing phase. He keeps trimming until he brings the entire edit under three hours. He has a desirable length in his mind, and once he achieves that, he only thinks about enhancing the pace or emotional beats later. He also cuts each song in a different style. He had a clear-cut plan for the entire film, like keeping the first 15-20 fast or making alterations in an intro scene or the breakup portions and whatnot.
Was he involved from the scripting stage itself?
When Ranjan chettan reads the script, a certain kind of movie runs in his head, but his thinking changes when he sees the footage. He makes every decision based on the rushes. After editing the first half, he suggested that I trim some portions in the second half. So I did, which helped in saving costs. There was a bit of extra detailing in the second half that he felt was extraneous. He told me to come up with something simpler instead of what I had already envisioned. Again, having lots of time helped.
How were the songs edited?
Ranjan chettan loves working on songs. Because of his experience with the films of Lal Jose, he usually finds editing songs invigorating. Unlike what most editors do today, he doesn't prefer reference music. He has a rhythm in his head according to which he cuts, and it's only after seeing his edit that we figure out the intricacies of the music. The music and editing are outputs of two people working from two different places. On one side, Ranjettan edits while Hesham readies a soundtrack on another. Then it's a drag and drop process that happens correctly. It's been happening that way since the Thattathin Marayathu days. There were exceptions, though. The Nagumo track, for example, was played on location, and I did the shot divisions in my head. Then, I told the art director that only certain shots would be there. Again, it aided cost-cutting. The choreography was precise and calculated. I applied the same process to tracks like Sarvam Sadha and Darshana's wedding sequence.
From Malarvadi Arts Club to Hridayam, your films depict idealistic friendships and relationships. Do you ever get concerned about a section of audiences perceiving them as unrealistic?
Isn't it nice when emotions have an aspirational quality? Some filmmakers realistically depict these things, but shouldn't there also be films that make you yearn for relationships like those in my movies? When you need a good friend, you have to be one first. Besides, it's not like such friendships don't exist. You can see them in any city. I think it's sad that some people have gotten to a point where they start questioning soft emotions whenever they see them on screen. If you look at people from our previous generations, they have had as many deep-rooted friendships as they did romantic relationships. These are not unrealistic for them. I also feel that a lot of people find retro designs appealing. We have Instagram influencers doing photoshoots in vintage settings. They all want that old-world charm either on a deeper level or a peripheral one.
Like in Malarvadi Arts Club, you chose to work with fresh talents again in Hridayam.
I realised that a film like Hridayam would take a long period to shape up. I was particular about having people who could dedicate a lot of time to this movie. I've been working with Jomon T John (cinematographer) on all my films since Thattathin Marayathu. But for Hridayam, I knew that if I couldn't get him from the pre-production stage onwards, I wouldn't have been able to plan everything well. And he has become a very busy man! So I told Joe about picking a newcomer, with which he was okay. The same goes for Shaan Rahman (another frequent collaborator), whose bag was full. I told him about Hesham Abdul Wahab. Our art director Ashwini Kale also joined the same way. Hridayam demanded the involvement of talented people with plenty of time.
How did you mould an introverted actor like Pranav?
I've always liked Pranav's offscreen personality. I felt it would look great in our film. Only when actors get comfortable can they behave on screen like they do in real life. What surprised me about him is that he gave me a lot of things in his performance beyond his offscreen personality. The post-breakup portions, in particular, stunned me. Since he is not that way in real life, it was exciting to see him go outside his comfort zone. I was also impressed with that scene where Arun reveals that he has become a dad. And most of them were first takes, mind you. We hardly did retakes -- maybe one or two takes max. I didn't have to spend too much time with him, and after a point, I stopped briefing him because we had reached a comfort level by then.
What made me happier is how he recreated those moments the same way during dubbing. I know that there have been some criticisms before about his dubbing, but on Hridayam, he brought back all the little nuances in a scene when we shot it. I remember the same thing happening with Nivin when we filmed that window proposal scene in Thattathin Marayathu. It's not an easy thing to do. I think I let Pranav think freely. When actors know that you have a strong trust in them, they'll give you their best output.
While on introverts, do you think they make excellent filmmakers?
There's only one thing to keep in mind: Stop worrying about what others think about us. That's it. When we worry about these things, we might find it hard to communicate our ideas. If we are ignorant about something, we should be willing to admit it confidently. Some actors might ask intelligent questions, and if we don't have the answer, we should tell them that. Or, you should ask them what they think, and depending on their response, you should be able to surmise whether it's correct or not. Since I'm usually sober in life, I have this pent-up energy inside me that I know where to channel. Most of the time, it's cinema or music. Vidyasagar sir (composer) told me one time that once we decide where to spend our energy, no one can do anything to us.