It's hard to clearly define film editing, and when I interview Namrata Rao at the Excel Entertainment office, and coffee is served, she uses the situation to demonstrate how one applies editing to a scene from a film.
"Is it just important that Sankhayan received the coffee in the Excel office? Or is it important what Sankhayan felt when he got the coffee?" she says. For instance, if I, in her own words, was "plotting to murder" her, the scene would be cut differently than say, if I'd come to "confide in a friend"–which might have the camera stay on my face for a longer period. Or, it could cut to a flashback of a good memory I have of some other day when I also had coffee. All depending on "what the scene is about."
It's a small snapshot of the art of film editing, which remains mysterious and invisible to the untrained eye by virtue of its very nature, which is to ensure smooth flow of the story, and whose ability to improve or transform a film is undisputed. Rao is responsible for shaping such films as Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), Ishqiya (2010), Kahaani (2012) (for which she won the National award), the documentary Katiyabaaz (2014), Titli (2014), Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) and Fan (2016). In a freewheeling conversation, she spoke about the secrets of the art form, how to notice editing in a film, how she used Mani Ratnam's Tamil film soundtracks while working on Band Baaja Baaraat (2010), and why she got fired from her first film.
Generally people involved with the making of the film are in a position to tell how that film has been edited. How can the viewer tell?
If it engages you, if you're flowing with the story, if you're waiting for what is happening next, engaged in the characters, the story is like one long arc, without any breaks… It's a very rough way to say it. If you really want to develop that eye, watch a film twice. Once, just like an audience. The second time for the emotional effect. You will notice the construction and try and remember what you had felt when you had watched it for the first time…You co-relate, that I had felt so emotional, 'Oh it is because of this, this is how they played it.'
As a student of film, how did you first start recognising the role of editing?
It took me a really long time… till I started doing it hands-on. Even in film school (Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute), I wouldn't say confidently that I could see a film and say whether the script is great or the edit. Our teacher would say 'Okay this is a very well edited film piece' and we would watch it over and over again. In order to learn how to cut dialogue, we would watch a lot of dialogue sequences – how Eric Rohmer would cut it or Stanley Kubrick would cut it. The first half of the day, we were watching and discussing sequences, and second half we were cutting something or the other every day.
For instance, right now you're listening to me in rapt attention. We can make this scene work in many ways. If it stays on you it creates a certain effect. If it's all on me it has a certain effect. Suppose we are talking and we cut away outside, that has a certain effect. So depending on what the intention of the dialogue sequence is you can really play around. Then you move on: you learn to cut ads, shorts, then you learn to cut songs and montages. You keep watching everything… but the real deal is to do it…I learnt it only because I did it.
How did the fundamental need for the editor arise in cinema?
Historically, it was about putting shots in chronological order. You don't shoot a film in order. You shoot it according to locations, days and nights and all these things… it used to be shot on different cans, later in different tapes (and now hard drives). So you put it together – that's the physical act.
Then the rhythm comes in. If we put it together this way, it feels more real or natural. If we hold a shot little more, the anger of the character comes through, or if I let the actor blink, it feels like she is in love, etc. Then you start holding back certain things and showing more of other things creating a certain dramatic effect. So the levels of sophistication keep increasing. Then sound came in, which helped you edit more viscerally.
Do you think the training of cutting on film roll gave a solid foundation?
Absolutely, because you can't do UNDO on a Steinbeck machine. No control-z function. So you actually put a lot more thought before you made an edit. Unlike today where half of the editing time is Do-Undo.
I remember as a student, to avoid getting swayed by options (and because there was no Undo function), I had made this flowchart for myself in the Steinbeck room. That I will first think about what is the intention of this scene, this shot, this cut. Then look for the performance to fulfil that intention, and then find the cut point for that same intention. So through this flowchart, I concluded that intention is king and I have followed that since.
What is the specialized skill that the editor has that the director doesn't?
In very basic terms, the Craft – to achieve a certain effect by playing around with images and sounds. And to do it in a very nice rhythm – like music. Of course, a director understands music…A lot of directors make music, just like that a lot of directors also edit… But otherwise, you have somebody who is creating the music for you, it's the same here, you have somebody who knows the craft, knows that this is what needs to be achieved. So if I increase this and decrease that or if I put that earlier or remove it, it will create the desired effect.
Then secondly, Objectivity. The director has been involved in the writing, working with the actors and in the shoot. So they might say, 'We had to put this crane on that truck and then make the hero sit on top with the bike, and it took so long…'
With cinematographers, it happens a lot because they feel like that was the best shot but you just can't see why. Or they will be like, 'Remove that out of focus shot.' But many times the out of focus shot is the best performance take of the actor. I have no clue why that happens, but it is damn common!
Can you give an example?
In the climax of Kahaani when Vidya finally takes out her fake stomach, the villain is pointing a gun at her, and she looks up. When I saw her do that, I had goosebumps. But as luck would have it, the shot was out of focus. I really felt what she was feeling – she is angry, she is sad. All of it was in her eyes, and I had to use it. We had a lot of arguments and we tried changing the take but finally, we kept it and I feel it's quite a memorable shot. Ideally, a shot shouldn't be out of focus but if emotionally it works, I use it. My first duty is towards the emotions.
You always chose emotion over craft?
That is my personal thing. A lot of people tell me that you are very crude and not sophisticated because 'Aise emotion emotion kya hota hai,' but that's what I understand… If I have to choose between feeling and great lighting, focus, great hair and makeup, I would always choose to feel. Even if the actor is not looking his best but he is performing well, that's what matters to me. But yes, sometimes the reverse also happens. That the actors are looking so nice and you feel good looking at them and you want the audience to also enjoy them. So yeah, there's never a single straight road.
You have to remember when you watch any other person's film in a theatre or alone on TV, what do you feel? What slack do you cut? When do you get bored? Your film is also somebody else's film for somebody else. I try and create some audience memory…
How are you sure that the audience will think the way you are thinking? Your way of seeing might be weirder than usual.
You have to be very aware that one, you are not very special, your way of seeing is not special… You have to remember when you watch any other person's film in a theatre or alone on TV, what do you feel? What slack do you cut? When do you get bored? Your film is also somebody else's film for somebody else. I try and create some audience memory…watch as many films in the theatre as possible. You know, when people are starting to get bored, the mobiles are out, Whatsapp is being checked: It means that at this moment you weren't able to hold the audience, those kinds of things. I'm not saying that everything has to hold. You have to make the film that you want to make. But when you have this memory, you make educated choices.
Any film that you improved from such insights?
Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), I would say, got a lot of value from these focus group screenings. We got a lot of insights. The film improved a lot and we learnt a lot too.
So the feedback gives you a lot of cues.
Yes. But one has to be discerning, because when you show it to non-film people, they might say stuff like, 'Oh I got bored there' but will not be able to tell you why. It is up to you that you don't throw out the baby along with the water. Also, it enables you to see the film from a new person's eyes, which is very valuable in the middle of the process.
Are there certain things that an editor does to maintain or retain that objectivity, like, something like not going to the sets?
I prefer not to go because if I see an actor performing I do get coloured. But I usually go for patch shoots because then you know what you want.
The director's presence can get overbearing sometimes for the editor. How do you negotiate with that?
I like to be alone in the room, that is my preference. I don't like anybody talking to me, I don't like constant feedback. If they ask me, I prefer to do the first cut on my own and then show that. But I'm fine if the directors wish to be around too. No hard and fast rules. Matlab it's not a deal breaker for me. And usually it's very boring to sit and watch while you're going click-click, playing the same line again and again in seven takes, so just the sheer repetition leads to them leaving. And when you work with the same director again there is trust but you have to build that trust in the first place.
Directors are very vulnerable in the editing process so you have to be sensitive, that's why I don't put any rules that you cannot do this, you have to do this. Everything is done, shot, this is what it is, and now we have to make the best out of this, so I can imagine how scary it must be. They have already probably lived with it for one-and-a-half or two years, and they have reached here, and if they have written the film as well then even more time has been spent on it. So you just let them be…I try not to trouble the directors too much.
Have there been instances where you thought you overstepped with the director?
I had just come from film school, and it was the first time I was editing a film. There was a certain arrogance that "I know my shit". So I was changing the structure, moving lines around, cutting out lines. I remember that I was interfering a lot and the director lost it. He was really patient with me for some days and then one day he said, 'Listen this is my film, not your film. If you want to make your film, please go and make your own film' and he fired me.
You got fired from your first film?
Yes, but I really owe my career to that firing. I thought long and hard about it, and I felt that the director didn't feel supported. Apart from the difficulties of making the film, he also had to fight me. And at the same time, I saw this Susan Korda video called 'We will fix it in the edit' — she gave a masterclass in Berlinale where she said that as an editor you are a psychologist to the director; you cannot judge him or her. A psychologist doesn't judge people who visit her. They listen and then try and give the best option possible, so if you think of yourself like that, you cannot ever blame the director. It made sense to me in that situation where I was feeling my career is over even before it took off!
It's not like there are no fights. There are fights, there are disagreements, you can't agree to everything that a director says, of course not. But you don't say it in a way that it sounds patronising. Like even my teacher used to say in SRFTI, that 'Rushes mein Bhagwan hain.' (God is in the rushes), which means 'Never disrespect the rushes.' So even if they are really bad, you never say that… you try and see what is good in them.
At what stage generally does an editor enter a film?
It is different for different films. If you're working with a director you've worked before then you are also involved in the script, you read it and give feedback. Sometimes you enter only when the film is completely shot which was the case with Kahaani, Ishqiya, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye! Actually even Titli, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, 2 States. If the shooting schedule is too long or is getting stretched, then you see rushes from the first schedule.
I prefer to start as soon as the rushes start coming in, it's more exciting, like wahaan shooting chal rahi hai and yahan pe editing. I find that exciting. Earlier it would get shot, and then go to the lab, then get washed and then printed, and then the telecine will happen, and then the tapes will get ingested on AVID – it was a long process. Now there's no lab process anymore. Everything is getting recorded on the hard drive and you can dump the footage in the evening. It's immediate.
Does music help in editing?
I like to cut with music. I feel it gives a certain attitude to a scene. When people are watching it with music there is a different kind of reaction. As Indians, we are so used to background music that when you watch a film that is silent you feel like nothing is happening. You watch the same cut with music you react differently.
But there is a downside to it. When you listen to it so many times sometimes you start getting attached to it. When you give it to the person scoring the film, he or she might prefer to work with a clean slate.
So you're saying you put your own music, which is eventually not used in the film, for your own edit flow?
For my own enjoyment, I would say, not really flow – it should flow anyway. Like in Band Baaja Baaraat I had used a lot of tracks of Mani Ratnam's Tamil films and that gave a certain attitude to the rough cut. It's very different in the final film. There is this track called "Funk Da Virada" from City of God which I had used in most of the wedding montages. It was finally replaced by the title track of the film, which is completely different.