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Sreekar Prasad: Ponniyin Selvan got restructured on the editing table- Cinema express

Sreekar Prasad: Ponniyin Selvan got restructured on the editing table

Veteran film editor Sreekar Prasad opens up about the many editing choices that made Ponniyin Selvan one of the best period pieces to come out of India

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Published: 04th October 2022

Even thirty six years after debuting as an independent editor, Sreekar Prasad hasn’t slowed down at all. 2022, in fact, has been particularly rewarding for the master editor. While his period pieces, RRR and Ponniyin Selvan (PS-1), turned out to be humongous money-spinners at the box office, the rather intimate Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Pengalum fetched him his ninth National Award. The editor is, naturally, in great spirits when we catch up for a telephonic conversation merely days after receiving his National Award.

Excerpts:

You are having a fantastic year and the reception to PS-1 has made it all the more special…

Absolutely (laughs). I was eagerly waiting for the release of the film and learned that the National Award ceremony was scheduled to happen on the same day in Delhi. On the day of the ceremony, I had some free time in the morning and managed to catch the film in IMAX with a predominantly Tamil crowd. I could sense it was working for them. Although I had seen it a hundred times in my studio, it is always a thrilling experience to watch it with the audience.

Were you as excited about the ninth National Award as you were about your first in ‘89?

The degree of excitement varies (laughs). However, every time you receive an award, it is a vindication that you are creating the right cinematic experience. This is what I have believed in ever since I began my career. I work on all kinds of cinema because I want to be relevant, but when you push the bar of cinematic excellence and when the effort gets rewarded, it gives you a high. Editing is not a mechanical process; it speaks of artistic freedom, sensibilities, and many other factors. So, yes, an award, especially a National Award, still gives an adrenaline rush. 

You stated in the past that it is a challenge to maintain the pace in period films because there’s an innate distance between the film and the viewer. The challenge must have extended to PS-1 as well?

Yes, of course. Psychologically, we are attuned to think that period films—be it due to the setting or characters—are slow. Rajamouli’s Bahubali changed this notion by making the milieu larger-than-life, and people fell for it. We could have made it exotic, but Mani Ratnam does not believe in that kind of cinema. He believes in emotions and realistic drama.

The approach to the whole pace of the film, however, is quite contemporary and energetic–be it the 'Devaralan Aattam' sequence, the way the antagonists behave, and more importantly, the war sequences. The battle sequences were also not done like they are usually shot. We managed to avoid similarities with films that preceded 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 the fights don’t get monotonous. In fact, the action choreographers did shoot some larger-than-life parts, but we sacrificed them for believability.

What’s your working process with Mani Ratnam?  

He sends me the first draft of the script and we indulge in brainstorming sessions over the next couple of months even as the screenplay gets refined with each iteration. As actors and dates fall into place, the shooting draft gets locked. Even after filming begins, the screenplay invariably changes (laughs). When we get the rushes, we give the filmmaker our feedback about what’s working and what could be better.

Can you share a couple of instances where the screenplay was changed in PS-1?

Initially, the film was modelled with the introduction of the three main men. It now begins with Aditha Karikalan's story. While editing, we realised that the idea of introducing Ponniyin Selvan was not fitting into 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 gets introduced, it becomes his story. 

Aditha Karikalan’s monologue is my favourite sequence in the film. I particularly liked how you hold the mystery of the hut till 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 to introduce their younger versions came later. We had to convey that this love story began years ago, and he is still pining for her. He is not seeing her present image, but her younger self. So, I chose to intercut the monologue to her younger version. When he says he died for the second time—which is a heavy line—when he saw her again years later in that hut, we don’t reveal what he actually saw. We aimed to heighten the drama.

I really like that this heartbreak also serves as the ‘interval bang’. Although it is not a conventional intermission point in terms of scale, it’s grand on emotion. How scripted was it?

There was no definitive interval point when we began editing; it fell into place eventually. We chose this point because we needed emotion and this is the soul of the story, although we don’t quite establish this from the start. We thought its importance had to be spelled out at the midpoint, so the viewer clearly knows who stands on each side.

Achieving coherence with multiple narratives—each for a primary character—must have been an arduous task.

There have been instances where whole blocks involving primary characters were interchanged on the edit table. When multiple arcs are progressing, we shouldn’t be spending too much time on one character because it runs the risk of creating a disinterest pertaining to others. We had to ensure that the momentum didn’t fall while retaining coherence in the journey of each character. 

The second half begins with Ponniyin Selvan’s introduction, moves to Kundhavai controlling Pazhavur, then comes back to Vanthiyathevan’s story and then to Nandhini, who plots the imprisonment of Ponniyin Selvan. We had to keep intercutting between every story to juxtapose each character’s journey and keep the viewer hooked.

The intercut to Nandhini when Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar convinces Sundara Chozan to imprison his son was a wonderful moment.

It is a cinematic expression of Nandhini’s victory at that point. It was not a scripted shot. It was shot as a whole scene and the director felt it would be a good idea to use a bit of it later to portray her victory. 

What happened to the ‘Sol’ song?

(laughs) It was supposed to introduce Kundavai, but we realised it was hindering the narrative. Holding back her introduction until Vanthiyathevan comes to meet her seemed like a wiser choice. 

How much work is pending on PS-2?

After some fine-tuning, we’ll go for the post-production in another couple of weeks. We are just emerging out of PS-1 (smiles).

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