Bharat Ane Nenu, Rangasthalam, Arjun Reddy: How recently successful Telugu films are changing the debate on runtime
With the success of longer films such as Bharat Ane Nenu, Rangasthalam and Arjun Reddy, the makers must try harder to keep the audience hooked
In 2017, just before Vijay Deverakonda-starrer Arjun Reddy released, social media was abuzz with the news that the film was over three hours long. The opinions were sharply divided, ranging from ‘It’s almost suicidal for a film to be that long’ to ‘This is the gutsiest call taken by a director in a long time’. Finally, when Arjun Reddy released, it went on to become a cult hit, and the debate on runtime vanished into thin air. Recalling the dilemma he went through during the editing process, director Sandeep Reddy Vanga says, “The original cut I had in mind was close to 3 hours 35 minutes, and finally, I got it down to a little over three hours. A lot of people had panicked when I told them about my initial plan, but I knew I had enough material to sustain people’s interest. Almost everyone I met suggested that I bring it down even further to 2 hours 30 minutes, but, in hindsight, I think I made the right decision.”
It wasn’t the only film which went way past the 150 minutes barrier, which has become a synonym for an ideal runtime for a film, although most films have consistently landed in a zone somewhere between the 2 hours 20 minutes and 2 hours 40 minutes. Why is this a big deal? Turns out that a shorter runtime of a film is one of the first things that piques audience’s interest, and it’s an indicator, like some directors proudly state, that there won’t be any ‘lag’, which is one of the most popular buzzwords both within and outside the industry. Last year, apart from Arjun Reddy, SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Conclusion too, was close to 2 hours 47 minutes, which is nearly 8 minutes longer than Baahubali: The Beginning. And this year alone, two big budget films — Rangasthalam and Bharat Ane Nenu — were 2 hours 59 minutes and 2 hours 53 minutes respectively. With big budget films going way past the average runtime, this calls for a deeper evaluation of how several films have had to bear the brunt that people don’t have the patience to sit through films which are lengthy anymore.
Naveen Nooli, editor of Rangasthalam, says, “It’s all about the content. If it’s engaging enough, then you have the liberty to go all out to say what you really want to. While editing Rangasthalam, Sukumar and I felt that an 11-minute comedy scene wasn’t in sync with the mood of the rest of the film. So, we decided to trim it and reshoot some part of it to maintain continuity. It’s almost always a director’s call about what should be part of the film and what can be trimmed.” Talking about how directors call the shots, Naveen adds that every director has a certain pacing in mind, and that has a huge impact on the final output. “Some directors love fast cuts and they believe that it makes the film crisper. Few others prefer taking ample time to set up the story and let the audience grasp the story and the atmosphere,” he adds.
The importance of editing cannot be undermined and in the words of Francis Ford Coppola, who once said, “The essence of cinema is editing. It's the combination of what can be extraordinary images of people during emotional moments, or images in a general sense, put together in a kind of alchemy.” If a film turns out to be boring, a lot of fingers are pointed at the editors, most of the times; however, the key factor that dictates a film’s output is the writing itself. T S Suresh, one of the prominent editors of the Tamil film industry, says, “If you look at the overall picture, it’s the writing which contributes nearly 50 per cent to how good or bad a film might turn out, and then, 20 per cent of it comes from performances, and the remaining from editing and sound. It’s very difficult to salvage a film on the editing table if the other two factors don’t work well.”
Over the years, mainstream action dramas have fallen into a template where you can pretty much guess where a flash point is going to occur. And if a film doesn’t engage you within the first 20 minutes of the runtime, it becomes a mammoth task for the filmmaker to harness the enthusiasm of the audience. In an interview, SS Rajamouli once said, “You might have a thousand different ways to narrate a story, but it’s really important to hook the audience into the narrative quite early into the film. A lot of distributors and theatre owners keep telling filmmakers that the audience need a high within the first 15-20 minutes. I can understand their perspective because they understand what works and what doesn’t after watching how people react to films. So, it’s the director’s job to identify those trigger points and it’s one of the most difficult tasks while writing the screenplay.”
In the absence of these trigger points, when the content doesn’t quite engage the audience, there’re plenty of chances that audience will end up complaining about ‘lag’ in storytelling. But what is lag in first place? Praveen KL, editor of films like Chennai 28, Aranya Kandam among many other Tamil and Telugu films, says, “I see ‘lag’ in storytelling as the absence of emotion. Editing is not about trimming a scene or a set of scenes to make the film fast-paced. The emotion has to be sustained. In recent times, I was thoroughly impressed with Rangasthalam and even though it’s close to 3 hours, I thought it could have been another 5-7 minutes longer. That’s the effect good storytelling has and in such cases runtime doesn’t matter even if it hits the 180-minute mark.”
The genre of a film too can have a huge impact on the runtime. For instance, horror films are always shorter in their duration compared to family dramas, because there’s only so much fear that one can go through. Sports dramas and biopics, on the other hand, are quite tricky. “MS Dhoni: The Untold Story is close to three hours, but not every other sports drama can be that long. Since it’s the story of Dhoni, the emotional connect is different and people don’t mind watching more content; however, if you are narrating a fictional sports drama, you can’t compare it with a story like Dhoni’s. The younger lot among the current directors are quite open to suggestions, but sometimes people are adamant about what they want. In such cases, editors have no choice but to play along. Sometimes the decisions work, and sometimes, they might backfire,” Praveen KL adds.
For theatres, especially multiplexes, a shorter runtime is a blessing in disguise because they can add more shows of a film. And there have been numerous instances where production houses have insisted that the film be no longer than 130-140 minutes. Whatever the case might be, the only thing that matters is how good is the story. Sandeep Kumar Vanga puts it in perspective saying, “Arjun Reddy is about the journey of a character who goes through a lot of ups and downs. It could have been a short film too, but I wanted the audience to go through the whole journey. Sometimes, you just have to trust your instincts and have faith in what you want to show. If you get it right, people will be kind to you.” The question now is, in an age where people get easily distracted with their mobile phones, will cinema hook them with the magic unfolding on screen?
League Chairman Shaji Mulk also said that Dhoni advised them about the league strategies before the start of this T10 tournament.
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