Sreekar Prasad: RRR's success in the West is an eye-opener
National Award-winning editor Sreekar Prasad discusses the evolution of cinema, the audience’s sensibilities and the storm called RRR
Sreekar Prasad’s Twitter bio fittingly reads, ‘Learning is an everyday experience’. Even after 600 films and 9 National Awards in a career spanning nearly 4 decades, the enthusiasm in his voice when he discusses his craft is palpable. Over the course of his career, he has seen it all—successes, failures, criticism, accolades, creative challenges, and more. Does he still find newer challenges and tougher obstacles in his craft? “Every film is a challenge. Every filmmaker is unique. If there are 60 scenes in a film, we have 60 challenges. And once it is all put together, it leads to another bigger challenge. It is not the easiest of the jobs but if you enjoy the process, it doesn’t tell on you.”
In this conversation, the editor, whose craft transcends genres and languages, opens up about the finer details of the art of film editing, how consumption of cinema has evolved over the years, and of course, the reason behind RRR’s success in the west.
Excerpts from the conversation:
After spending 38 years in the film business, you must have developed a fairly accurate judgment about the success of films. From your experience, how do you look at the sensation created by RRR among the western audience?
It is a huge surprise because we knew that it is a creation of a filmmaker who is known for making larger-than-life films, and it was made for a specific audience — Telugu people. When we started off, I liked the fact that RRR had the soul of a Telugu film. Many films labelled pan-India films should be called pan-India releases instead because they don’t cater to everyone. People from the North are seeing them as South Indian films. So I was happy that SS Rajamouli wanted to make a Telugu film.
Although there have been instances of our films reaching the Western audience, they are mostly restricted to Indian pockets or the film festival circuits. The reach of RRR in the West is an eye-opener because we believed that the song-and-dance routine was a hindrance in presenting our films abroad.
I am happy that it reached them because it is usually us who keep getting excited about their films and it is a nice feeling to see the West reciprocate the same excitement.
I also think RRR is SS Rajamouli’s most evolved work because it knows where to create a high and where to give silence, at times when filmmakers are dreading silence. The scene where Bheem meets Malli uses silence beautifully…
It is an emotional moment that holds on its own. The filmmaker has to make the moments work. Even Mani Ratnam uses silences a lot. He tries to create a blend of silence and music that helps the emotion and does not just underline what’s on screen.
Sometimes, there is music for everything; if they cry, there’s music, if they laugh, there’s music. It takes away from cinema, which is not just a commercial tool but a person’s expression. This purpose is being defeated because films are not being consumed as a whole these days; there is an inclination to enjoy individual moments, and when you walk out, you don’t remember the whole film. Temporary gratification is taking over the larger experience.
The attention span of the audience has clearly taken a beating and they are becoming restless due to silence…
Attention span has definitely gone down due to the advent of other means like the internet and smartphones. They are enjoying 10-minute videos too. Filmmakers have to be aware of the fact that one can cram much more information into a 1-minute video on a 21-inch screen.
The restlessness in theatres is not related to the attention span but to the sound in theatres. Our audience has been habituated to hearing sound at incredibly higher levels for years now. Even a mediocre product can be bombarded with a lot of music so the audience doesn’t even have the option to think.
Filmmakers think that the audience won’t be receptive to the film if not for the music. What the filmmaker doesn’t understand is that if the scene or the emotional moment holds well, silence will also work. Sometimes, filmmakers and we want silence, but we fear the reactions.
Is working with younger filmmakers a more liberating and, say, authoritative experience?
There is no such thing as an authority here because we are all working towards a common goal. While working with a youngster, there is a new kind of excitement from their ideas and style. This excitement is what I am chasing at my age. See, there is an easy way of making films—establishing shot, close and mid. Unfortunately, 70 per cent of Indian cinema is verbose. What is the difference between that and theatre? If the younger filmmakers what to experiment, the first thing I tell them is to reduce the verbosity so it becomes a cinematic experience. You may have social messages and might even want to educate people, it is a free form. What matters is how cinematically it is told.
You have been someone who has closely observed both South cinema and Bollywood. What is your take on the changing dynamics?
The background reason for this would be the fact that until a few years ago, the North belt was only consuming films made by Bollywood. There was nothing for them to compare with. In the past decade, a lot of people began watching Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada films for free on YouTube. And surprisingly, some films have crores of views. Around five years ago, I was working on a Telugu romantic film and one of the producers asked us to retain all the fights. But I knew that the film doesn’t need fights and we removed all of them. But we had to add all the fights while selling the Hindi version. I noticed that there were a lot of stakes for the producer, who was financially benefitting from this YouTube version. And then came COVID-19, and OTT changed everything. There was a perceptible shift in the audience’s preference.
Hindi cinema has been making similar films for the past few years. I think they will also come back now, with Pathaan doing well. It is just a phase of disconnect between the audience and the filmmakers.