God is in the rushes

Still from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo  

What is this editing?” My mother asked me suspiciously. “It is storytelling with pictures and sounds Amma,” I had told her while packing my bags for film school. “I have never heard of it,” she said. Well, I didn’t say it then, but neither had I.

I had been an avid Doordarshan film watcher all my life. The only English film I had seen till I was around 16 was Jurassic Park. So when I sneaked into an Akira Kurosawa retrospective in Delhi’s Lodi Road to bunk college, I didn’t know my life was about to change forever. Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Red Beard—these four films watched back to back, in a single day, altered some critical synapses in my system. I felt o’verwhelmed. And for reasons I couldn’t explain then, felt understood.

From that day on, I became obsessed with films. And after a long drawn struggle with the self, parents, and our neighbours (“Filmon ki bhi koi padhai hoti hai?” they had asked), I decided to apply to film school–SRFTI (Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute) in Kolkata. Then the real problem came up. I had to choose a specialisation and had no idea what. My middle-class brain came up with Film Editing. I had just quit my IT career “to do something creative,” and this ironically sounded like a “technical enough” type of job. There would be machines, and in case I found nothing else, I could try to work in a studio, earn some salary and also put my knowledge of computers to use.

Little dark room

In film school, apart from watching life-altering films and living away from home, I discovered strange things, like films are not shot in order of sequence or emotion. Instead, they are put together later. On the editing table. Actors don’t say all their lines together or in one go. Instead, shots are taken over and over to get better performances (‘takes’), and one can choose which part of which ‘take’ to use, for greater impact. On the editing table. An illusion of speed and time can be created, maintained or broken. Drama and emotions can be withheld, manipulated so on, so forth—all this, alone, in this little dark room. I was awestruck. Editing can do so much? I had entered Wonderland, by chance.

A film being edited the old-fashioned way in at Gemini Studios, Chennai.

A film being edited the old-fashioned way in at Gemini Studios, Chennai.   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A film is a story told three times over. A writer thinks of a story out of thin air and writes a script. The visuals, the situations are in her head and so are the characters. The director interprets this script in her way, gives faces to the characters, context to the places, situations with the help of a very creative and talented crew. Words become visuals and audio. The editor then “cuts and joins” these visuals and audio to create an engaging story as close to the director’s interpretation of the script as possible. In some cases, all these three could be one person. Either way, the film keeps transforming into a new ‘being’ in all these three stages. The essence remains the same, but the details change.

As the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had said, “The film is made in the editing room. The shooting of the film is about shopping, almost. It’s like going to get all the ingredients together, and you’ve got to make sure before you leave the store that you got all the ingredients. And then you take those ingredients, and you can make a good cake—or not.”

Like a mosaic

A lot of people liken editing to cooking (and maybe that is what brings up the routine question—why are there more women editors than men) but in my head, it is like a mosaic. A mosaic created with small, colourful pieces that need to come together in a way that makes sense from up close as well as from far—which means that each scene and performance needs to be comprehensible and also work emotionally. And all the scenes put together need to work as an engaging story and also an emotional experience. The structure matters, as does the texture. There is no right or wrong editing; it is either effective or ineffective.

We see “cuts” around us all the time. There’s an invisible rhythm to life. Some images and sounds invoke certain feelings in a certain rhythm. From how we look out of the window right in time to see the cat jump down the wall. Or how the person we are staring at in the coffee shop realises something and looks right back at us. Or how we peek into the auto-rickshaw next to us right when the couple in it starts to kiss. There is a start and end point to how we observe our world and the corresponding story our mind makes of it. Somewhere this is also the job of editing—to translate this rhythm to the screen.

Editing works at a visceral level—you feel it in your body even if you can’t articulate it. Just like what happened to me that day in the Kurosawa retrospective.

Like if a shot starts with a flock of birds flying away, it has a different impact than the same birds walking around, eating grain before flying. Or an actor blinking her eyes at the beginning of a shot has a different meaning from her blinking at the end of a shot. If two characters are having a heated argument, and we create a silence in between during the edit, it may increase the tension. Or cutting from a really small, dark prison cell of our character to a wide-open field with grass swinging in the breeze can cause relief as well as a desire for freedom, both for the character and the audience. We all understand these things, maybe not obviously, but we all do and perhaps it is this that makes cinema universal.

And because it’s so subconscious, there is only one rule in editing—that there is no rule. Whatever works, works.

Sometimes you can get away with a jarring discontinuity (actor smoking in one shot, not smoking in the next) if the audience is emotionally absorbed in a scene. And sometimes you can instil a certain feeling in your audience simply by changing the placement of one shot (ending on the face of one character instead of another). Sometimes, increasing the length of a scene makes it more engaging. Therefore, it feels shorter. Also, sometimes, not cutting is the best way to cut something. Tiny editing decisions can have an enormous impact on how the audience is taking in the story. That’s why it is an invisible art. Its impact needs to be felt more than its presence.

Magic intact

I read quite often that if a film was “fast”, the editing was good or else it was bad. Sometimes people tell me “The film didn’t work for us but the cuts were quite good”. Or as Amma still says, “I know more about a secret agent’s work than yours.” Honestly, I love hearing these things.

Not being fully aware of the nitty-gritty of editing and other background arts keeps the magic of cinema intact. To be fully immersed in a film, one has to believe that whatever is happening on that screen is happening to someone, somewhere and is not a tailored piece put together by a lot of people.

Editing for me is the most meditative of all film processes. It is a “karat vidya” (knowledge acquired by practising regularly). A film may take anywhere from three months to a year to edit. So, one needs to be patient, persistent, watch the rushes many times, try different permutations, and be constructive with the criticism and feedback.

God is in the rushes, and my job is to find him. In that sense, it is also a lot like life—there are expectations, but no rules. It is as random as it is mathematical, and things may or may not work despite all your efforts.

The National Award winner for Kahaani has edited 25 films, including Ishqiya and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy. She is very interested in knowing why people do what they do and say what they say.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2021 8:30:36 PM |

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