Editing is not simply a craft but unquestionably an art-form
With two feature films and a dozen of non-feature films to her credit, editor Monisha Baldawa has all the ingredients to be a leading editor in the Hindi film industry. In a conversation with her, one notices her fresh and convincing approach towards editing which for her is – ‘an exercise of the intellect and requires time and patience irrespective of the editing platform’.
Before you label her as a ‘woman’ editor, she’ll immediately remind you that editing has nothing to do with the gender but more to do with the internal calling and a certain disposition. As her second film Neerja that has been an extremely fulfilling and rich journey for her hits theatres, Monisha talks about her journey so far and different aspects of editing.
How did Neerja happen?
I had worked with Ram Madhvani as an editor over many projects previously. So, when I got a call for Neerja I was overjoyed as I had always wanted to work with Ram on a feature film because working with him has always been very exciting.
Tell us about your experience of editing Neerja?
Editing Neerja has been a very rich experience for me. It was a creative and logistical challenge. Unlike regular practice, Ram decided to shoot the film in very long unbroken takes, often 45 to 60 minutes long. This was done to allow the actors to perform freely without any interruption. The idea was to protect the extreme realism of the film. Since at any given time there were four cameras rolling simultaneously and there were multiple takes of each segment, the volume of the rushes was huge. I had to devise totally new kinds of work – flows to organize the material.
After finding logistical solutions, the bigger problem was, of course, to find an appropriate creative approach. We were striving to get as close as possible to the actual experience of the characters in this real-life drama. The challenge was to manage time and space in such a way that the editorial intervention would enhance the realism of the shooting and also evoke an emotional response from the audience. Ram had found a way to actually capture all the nuances of this narrative with extraordinary performances from everyone. It was my responsibility to protect the performances and nuances while telling the story at a gripping pace. Ram is an ideal director to work with, he explores the cinematic form in all its complexities. This journey with him has been extremely fulfilling.
What are the different kinds of editing styles you’ve used in this film?
Style is something you develop and not borrow. There are no pre-made templates in cinema. Each film develops its own vocabulary and grammar and, therefore, Neerja too has its own unique form of expression. Traditionally there has been a debate between the uninterrupted long take and the dramatic-analytic style. In this film, we found a way to synthesize these opposing approaches keeping in mind our imperative to heighten both, the realism and the drama.
How has this experience been different from Margarita With a Straw, which was your debut film?
Both films were unique journeys. Interestingly both these films were about strong inspirational characters delivered by extremely brilliant performances. It is always a great privilege as an editor to protect and present great performances in the best possible manner. In Margarita with a Straw, Kalki Koechlin had totally immersed herself in her character. In Neerja, Sonam Kapoor has delivered an extremely honest, moving and nuanced rendition of Neerja Bhanot. Formally, though, both films are very different. In Margarita With a Straw, the chronological time is across one year while Neerja is a 24-hour drama. So the strategy for managing time changed completely. This is what makes editing so exciting as every film presents new opportunities for discovering forms.
Where were you born and brought up? Tell us about your childhood days, education and what inclined you towards films?
I was born and brought up in Pune. Though I am from a Marwari family, we had extremely close family friends who were Tamilians. They played a big part in my upbringing. You could say I am equal parts Tamilian, Marwari and Maharashtrian. After completing my high school from St. Helenas, I made the mistake of going in for a Bachelor of Commerce Degree. Commerce was definitely not my calling. As a result, I spent most of my time outside college with my DSLR camera since photography was my passion at that time. I also spent a lot of time bunking college and watching films. After B.Com, I decided to do my Masters in Mass Communication at Pune University which was more in keeping with my interests. During that time I met Prof. Samar Nakhate who became my friend, philosopher and guide and introduced me to the magical world of cinema. My decision to join FTII was to a great extent because of his influence and inspiration. I must say I have never regretted that decision even for a moment.
Was editing your first choice at FTII?
Yes, it was. I remember a specific incident when I had to organize my photographic work for an exhibition and I asked Prof. Nakhate to help me out. I recall sitting in a park with all these photographs around us and Prof. Nakhate opening up the various possibilities of narrativizing the images in different ways and me being struck by the incredible power of juxtaposition and sequencing. It was a magical moment. From then on I had no doubt about what field of specialization I was going to apply for at FTII. It had to be editing and nothing else.
Most of your projects are documentaries. Are you more inclined towards them or did they just happened?
The good thing about being an editor is that one can explore various forms of cinematic expression. I take delight in editing all forms of films – be it non-fiction, fiction or art installations. While choosing a project, the criteria is not whether it is fiction or non-fiction but rather, the subject – premise and also the people involved.
Documentaries are often perceived as simply information giving and slightly monotonous films. As someone who has edited a couple of documentaries, did you ditch the old style of documentary making and experimented with some other ways?
From Dhoosar to We Ain’t Rich or Famous but We are the Happy Pals, The Rate Race to Beyond Bollywood, Bidesia In Bambai to Undercover Asia: Voices Under the Mango Tree, Out! Loud! to Life in Metaphors: A Portrait of Girish Kasaravalli; I have done more than a couple of non-fiction films I would imagine (laughs) and found them to be as exciting as fiction. It is incorrect to say that traditionally documentary films have been monotonous. Right from Nanook of the North (1922) onwards, non-fiction cinema has been exciting and enthralling. I subscribe to Grierson’s definition, who said, that the documentary was “the creative use of actuality.” The operative word here being creative. Unfortunately, there have been some mediocre films made in the non-fiction realm but this is true of fiction too. The pejorative perception against non-fiction cinema is rather unfortunate. I am glad that the popularity of documentary films is increasing across the world.
What is the difference between editing documentaries and feature films?
Documentaries can also be feature length films. In my mind, there isn’t much difference between fiction and non-fiction cinema. There is a huge element of actuality in both and there is creative intervention in both. Every film has its own universe and tries to find its own truths. It is our endeavor to find a common human reverberation in those truths.
What’s the difference in your experience of working on a film in FTII and for the market?
You get paid for the work you do for the market! (laughs)
Also at FTII, editing is taught on film whereas in the industry editing is done on digital. How has the learning on film helped you?
Only part of our modules were edited using celluloid on the Steenbeck and although the rest of the projects were also shot on film they were digitized and edited on non-linear digital software. The modules where we worked on the Steenbeck, with celluloid work prints were a huge learning as it forces you to cut the film in your mind before rushing to the splicer. Also, working with film prints allowed us to have a tactile contact with the rushes and helped us to understand the process of editing with greater conceptual clarity.
Is the process easier now?
While the operations are definitely easier on the computer, editing is primarily an exercise of the intellect and requires time and patience irrespective of the editing platform.
An editor can change the meaning of an entire scene which the director might have shot in some other way. Will it be right in calling an editor as the second director?
I wouldn’t go so far as to call editors as the second directors. All films are re-written on the editing table. Directors are aware of this and shoot with the necessary room for re-interpretation. I look upon the editor’s job as someone who brings to life the best of the latent possibilities in the material.
Editing is all about detailing. And women, in general, have an eye for detail. Over the years, there has been a huge rise in women editors in the industry. Is it because editing comes naturally to them?
Initially, in the American studio system, only women were employed to edit films. That was because films were edited directly by cutting the negative which was extremely delicate work – in a way, the parochial attitudes towards women, looking at them more like seamstresses, at least, got them one job in an otherwise male-dominated industry. I am happy to note now that women editors are getting jobs not for their needlework fingers but for the power of their intellect. Actually, editing has nothing to do with gender. It has more to do with an internal calling and a certain disposition. It is important to know that editing is not simply a craft but unquestionably an art-form. And like any art, it requires a certain discipline and rigor.
Which veteran and contemporary editors do you follow the most?
Even before joining FTII, I was extremely enamored and inspired by the editing of Sreekar Prasad. I was fortunate to be his assistant after graduating from FTII. I learnt immensely from him and he will always be a source of inspiration for me.
Later, I had the opportunity to observe Sankalp Meshram at work which was precious learning for me.
A few other editors that I follow and look up to are Sally Menke, Thelma Schoonmaker, Stephan Mirrione and Walter Murch.