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Khalid Mohamed in conversation with the famed, National Award-winning editor A. Sreekar Prasad

There are a few geniuses of cinema that I have met. The ones I admire for their sheer consistency, originality and a religious devotion to their art all live in Chennai. Must be something special in the water there, or the coffee they drink. The three are A R Rahman, Santosh Sivan and the obstinately low-profile A. Sreekar Prasad aka Nani Sir.

In fact, when a sparky young editor, Pune Film Institute graduate Meggna Aschitr, was chiselling my documentary The Last Irani Chai (2011), I mentioned Sreekar Prasad’s name in the middle of a complicated jump cut. And she nearly stood up to attention, “Nani Sir, he’s God. He’d find a solution to this cut right away. Honestly, I would give my right arm to assist him some day.” If he heard that, sir would blush for sure…unbridled praise embarrasses him. At most, he’d laugh musically, and mutters, “Thank you, thank you.”

As a film editor, even if unbeknownst to the everyday filmgoer, the 60-year-old Sreekar Prasad wields an iconic status. Those who are National Award trackers are aware that he has won the record-holding number of nine trophies for editing– the first one for his debut Aditya Bhattacharya’s Raakh (Hindi) in 1989 and the last one in 2020 for Vasanth Sai’s Sivaranjaniyum Sila Pengalum (Tamil), and still counting.

The others were for Bidydut Chakraborthy’s Raag Biraag (Assamese,1996), Saroj Satyanayaran’s English short film Naukachritiamu (1997), Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist (1998, Tamil), Shaji Karun’s Vanaprastham (Malayalam, 1999), Mani Rathnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil, 2002), and Nandita Das’ Firaaq (2008, Hindi), besides the Special Jury Award for Shaji N Karun’s Kutty Srank (Malayalam), Hariharan’s Pazhassi Raja (Malayalam),and Vishal Bharadwaj’s Kaminey (Hindi), all in 2009.

Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage's 'Paradise'(2023)

Ever since 1986, he has finessed over 600 films in various languages ranging from Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada to English, Punjabi, Bangla and Sinhalese -- of every form of budget, genre and outlook, be it commercial, fiercely independent and lord preserve the word, artistic. Both Santosh Sivan and Mani Rathnam depend on his legerdemain as much as they depend on raw stock. Some of the Bollywood big tickets he has edited include Dil Chahta Hai, Saathiya, Yuva, Gandhi my Father, Asoka, Raavan, Finding Fanny and Khufiya.

For those who’ve been hiding in the Himalayas, it may be pointed out that Amitabh Bachchan had once tweeted about the “bad editing” of Mani Rathnam’s Raavan (2010), featuring Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai. In the same breath, Bachchan had added, “but what presentation!” Haiiinh? A contradiction here, but let it be..let it be, as Lennon-McCartney sang once. Let’s not wander off into the Big B-beat, he’s entitled to his opinion after all.

The superstar was also entitled to lament the exclusion of a sequence in the film which showed son Abhishek with ten heads, an experimental visual which Mani Rathnam had conceived but dropped eventually. Nani Sir, as all editors should, firmly believes that the director is boss. An editor can conduct pro and con discussions, he couldn’t possibly dictate that no, no, no drop those 10 heads.

Anyway, that was the first (and hopefully last) headbanger faced by an exemplary professional. The editor did not come on television or social media to say half a word of contradiction. He persisted in avoiding the controversy and soldiered on at the AVID console at his studio in Chennai. When I had called him up, then, he had laughed musically, “It’s okay, it’s okay..I don’t know what got into Mr Bachchan, and that too within a day of the film’s release.” Turning the topic, he discussed the film rather than the Twitternama biz.

Shaji Karun's Vanaprastham(1999)

Amitabh Bachhcan had his say, borne out of conviction perhaps. And Sreekar Prasad had his first encounter with the blame game. End of this story.

Nani sir’s enviable career story actually began at a stuffy room where his father, the seasoned technician, A Sanjivi, told him to just watch what goes on.

Sreekar Prasad’s family hails from the Andhra village of Eluru; film doyen L V Prasad was his maternal uncle. Freshly graduated in English literature, Sreekar was gravitating towards journalism when editing began to fascinate him. The deed was done. The loss of Hindu, the newspaper, became Indian cinema’s gain.

Sreekar Prasad’s style is dictated by a film’s content; he’s a whiz at achieving a hurricane tempo for action flicks, a contemplative mood for introspective dramas and a slick-chic post-modernist pizzaz for youth-centric movies. He can make the vapid vivacious. He knows how long a frame can hold a certain emotion, cutting quick or allowing a camera to tremble and record the long cry of a woman whose mother has just passed away.

I’m talking of Karisma Kapoor’s long piercing howl in Fiza. It may not have been what the film’s pace demanded at that juncture, but Nani sir told me to take the risk, don’t cut it. He made Sushmita Sen’s Mast mahaul dance sequence rock (he cuts to the spot-on beat). He taught me that a film is not made at the shoot but at the editing table, and stick-fasted several moments of Tehzeeb when they threatened to come apart at the seams.

Mani Ratnam's Kannathil Muthamittal(2002)

So, am I raving about Sreekar Prasad just because we’ve worked together? Nopes, not a snowflake’s chance in hell. It’s simply because I’ve seen him at the Avid (he describes working on it, akin to driving a Mercedes-Benz). He’s so possessed and so into a film’s construction that a hundred wrestlers couldn’t pull him away from the spot.

He's an uncomplicated professional, maybe too simple, he doesn’t haggle for his fee or demand a seven-star suite from producers during his visits to Bombay. A bed even in a spartan guest house and an idli-sambhar breakfast are all he needs.

Incidentally, he had also sharply edited a documentary on Amitabh Bachchan, I had shot almost a decade and a half ago. The documentary, produced by the Bachchans, added up to 40 hours of material. Nani Sir brought it down to a swift four-hours and was to give it the final treatment. But then, without so much as your-leave the documentary was consigned by the Bachchans to the catacombs. Maybe because it had too many talking heads, more than ten for sure.

Among Nani sir’s secret ambitions has been to direct a feature film. At one point, he began researching and scripting a subject on the condition of children born to jailed women. He had also spoken about making a documentary on underprivileged children.

When I ‘phoned him this weekend, there didn’t seem to be any likelihood of those directorial projects materialising. Currently into editing 10 films in various languages, he appears to be yoked to editing for keeps. On asking him whether the art of editing has altered dramatically over the last four or five years or so, he replied, “Of course, though not for the better, unfortunately. Filmmakers want every scene to move at a crazy rush-rush pace. Instead of establishing characters, the tendency is to make a film consist of speedy episodes or set pieces. Global series have influenced them to a point of no return. For instance, if it’s a period film, the reference point quoted is Game of Thrones and if it’s an actioner, then it’s the Mission Impossible franchise.”

Meghna Gulzar's Talvar(2015)

Nani Sir elaborates, “Quickie flashbacks and playing around with timelines have become the norm. I guess most directors feel there should be some innovative way of narrating the story to sustain the interest of the audience which presumably wants quick information. Sadly, in many cases a film could have worked better in a linear structure.”

He continues, “there are hardly any establishing shots. Rather transition shots of a city’s skyline – whether it’s Prague, Mumbai or Chennai – are inserted so that a new scene get going instantaneously. There’s no time for reflection or a pause, in mainstream cinema. Jump cuts are used excessively. Unconventional cinema, mercifully, has stuck to a meditative pace at times but nowadays, not many of them are being made – except for say, lately I enjoyed editing Paradise by the Sri Lankan director, Paradise which won the top award at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.”

Ask him if he has adapted to the changing patterns of editing and he states, “One has to go with the flow, so of course I have. But I still edit on Avid. I haven’t switched to the Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premier Pro and Final Cut Pro which are in vogue today.”

So, in his estimable career, which films has he been most satisfied? “That’s a tough question,” he responds. “But off the cuff, I would say I was most satisfied with my work on Shaji Karun’s Vanaprastham, Mani Rathnam’s Kannathil Muthamital, Vishal Bharadwaj’s Kaminey and Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar.”

Incidentally, his son, Akshay, aspired to go one up on dad. He didn’t aim to be a third-generation editor. He studied visual media communication, and from what dad says indulgently, “He thinks big..he wants to go steps ahead of cinema.” Akshay directed the short film Adios (2012) and the quirky romedy Pizza (2019) in Hindi. He also served as an assistant director on Bejoy Nambiar’s Wazir (2016) and is now working on developing new projects.

And you know something? If I write one more word in this article, Nani Sir is likely to yell out musically, “Cut that!”

Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based journalist, screenwriter & filmmaker.

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