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To Sir With Love…

According to American Writer, Willam Arthur Ward, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” There is little doubt that Professor K Ramachandra Rao, former Head Of Department of the Film Editing course at the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, where he taught for 3 decades, belonged to the last category. A man who nurtured and taught some of the best film editors in the country – Arunaraje Patil, Javed Sayyed, David Dhavan, Renu Saluja, Reena Mohan, Bina Paul, Arghyakamal Mitra, Rajkumar Hirani, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Arjun Gourisaria, Sanjib Kumar Dutta, Irene Dhar Malik – the list is endless.

Professor Rao or Rao Saab as he was known, passed away on 24th July, 2017 at the age of 93. The following tributes from his former students (and even not his students) from the FTII tells us of the high esteem in which they hold Rao Saab.

Arunaraje Patil
Film Editing, 1969

When the name Rao Saab is mentioned what gets conjured up is an image of a very enthusiastic human being who was not only passionate about cinema but also of teaching. The love for his students was so evident in all his interactions with them. I have known very few people like him who were not self conscious – he moved freely waving his hands gesturing to emphasize a point – his wide smile literally enrolling people to listen to him. You could call him a live-wire in that sense. Sometimes when issues cropped up between the Direction department and Editing department or between the Direction students and editing students as is normal in any educational institution he took up the defense of both his department and his students almost ferociously. No one could win an argument with him and he did not suffer fools gladly. It was actually fun to be around him because you were constantly learning something from him not to mention the enthusiasm which was contagious.

He made a huge difference to us. He nurtured us, taught us, encouraged us and created a space to give full vent to our creativity. He was very inspiring and had solutions to every problem in editing. I learnt to cut music and make perfect music overlaps for mixing music from him. Classical music is not the easiest to cut and I had quite a few challenges in the documentary on Bhimsen Joshi that Vikas & I made at the Institute. In the film we actually had a sequence where I put a song out of sync on the visuals of the great maestro singing just to draw attention to the visual aspect of his recital. And he let us do it.

I distinctly remember him at the old Moviolas where the film ran vertically and you had to stop it manually at the exact frame. He was so adept at it. He would often take the film in his hands and move it briskly forwarding it until he found the exact frame. He was always so fully self expressed whether he was teaching theory or practical! It was very obvious that he loved what he did and his students too. He was ever so proud of our accomplishments and there are generations of us, his students who have felt that we were very lucky to have him as our teacher and mentor.

All I can say is thank you, dear Sir, Rao Saab, for having been in our lives!

Tanuja Chaturvedi
Film Editing, 1987

Some images and thoughts….

I always touched Rao Saab’s feet… My Guru then and now. As a mark of the overwhelming respect and affection I felt for him… The care he took of me as a person (even questioning me about my then boyfriend, Niranjan)… I felt looked after and cared for. So when I was passing out, I went to touch his feet. Prompt came his response, “Aah…. don’t have to.” But in that half -tilt I knew he was very thrilled.

His words…. “If anyone comes out of a Movie theater and says how wonderfully you edited the film…. (all of us smiling in anticipation)…find a well nearby and go and jump in it!” Why? we wailed. “Because your own ego and cleverness has got in the way of the director’s vision! Your work should be invisible. The audience’s experience should be to the whole and not one part.”

My Diploma film’s negative cutting took me 15 days. Kaka was hounding me and lurking to tear my cement joints apart (which never tore ). Miserable, I was wearing gloves, with the velvet cloth and the blades and magnifying glass….day in, day out. Then Rao Saab accosts me outside his room, with those lattice windows…. I was so bugged.

Rao Saab – Why are you taking so long to cut the negative?
Me – Sir, I have 438 cuts in my Diploma!
Rao Saab – Aah… (Miklós) Jancsó must not have had 400 cuts in his entire career!

And we both burst out laughing….

He loved my track-laying for my diploma… stuff editors used to do and still should… Some sound designer types do it now…

The idli meals that I could go to his house and eat… And he would tell his wife in Telugu something… And I understood… Wickedly, I told him I know what you said to Aunty… “Aah…what… I said?” You told her that she has no mother so feed her properly. As 6 idlis were put on my plate, Rao Saab beamed…

His father was the Editor of Chandamama children’s magazine which was huge for me… My favoritest magazine for all times! Rao Saab was immensely proud of his father’s achievement…

Dev Anand presenting Rao Saab the Lifetime Achievement Award at the FTII Main Theatre on the occasion of FTII’s golden jubilee. Photo courtesy Tanuja Chaturvedi.

Arjun Gourisaria
Film Editing, 1989

In 2014, when Nishtha Jain’s and my work on Gulabi Gang landed me with a National Award for Editing and when the congratulatory phone calls and messages started pouring in, I knew I needed to call Rao Saab.

It had been exactly 25 years since I had last seen him or spoken to him. For a quarter of a century, I had often thought of him, talked about him and, sporadically, asked after his well being from Arghya Kamal Mitra, who, I knew, had kept in touch and had become like a family member. But I had never, in all these years, ever actually spoken to the man himself. As I took his number from Arghya, he told me I’d have to speak really loudly, since Rao Saab had become extremely hard of hearing. I looked around me at the sparsely populated, high-ceilinged, even-a-whisper-reverberates-as-a-rude-shout, Mumbai International Airport waiting lounge for BA 198 to Heathrow. But I knew I could not delay this call. There was too much back-patting going on, and I needed perspective.

As I heard his gruff and powerful “Hello?”, I threw years of inculcated civic sense and well-mannered upbringing out the window and shouted:

“Sir! This is Arjun, Sir. Gourisaria.”
“Who? Who?”
“Sir! Your student, Sir! Arjun Gourisaria!”
“Ah! Gourisaria, eh?”

My surname, rolling off his tongue like a sort of long drawn out fond Southern Indian musical phrase was enough to give me goosebumps. The protesting and shocked stares I was getting from the 40 odd sufferers around me ceased to hurt.

Before I could say anything further, he shouted:

“You got some award, no?”
(Still at the top of my voice) “Yes Sir! National Award, Sir!”
“What? What? What award?”
(Now literally screaming, leaving an audience of 40 with no possibility of doubt) “NATIONAL AWARD FOR EDITING, SIR!”

And then, magic happened. The grand old man started guffawing. ‘ROTFL’ will never do justice to the layers of cynicism, grounded-ness and dismissal of the very possibility of any awards for editing, mixed, in equal measure, with pride and joy, that rolled out at me through that bizarre laugh. And then, as if to drive the point home, he said:

“But don’t stop working, eh? Don’t stop working, okay?!”

I won’t, sir. I promise you, I won’t. And thank you for having taught me, even after 25 years, exactly which shot, which frame to terminate the sequence of praise, congratulations and jubilation at. Thank you, Rao Saab, for the grounding.

With Arghyakamal Mitra, Film Editing 1986, Debasis Guha, Film Editing, 1989 and Sanjib Kumar Dutta, Film Editing, 1991. Photo courtesy Sanjib Kumar Dutta.

Monish Das
Film Editing, 1992

In 1989, as a young man from Kolkata aspiring to make films I had applied for the Course in Film Editing at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. One might ask, why did someone who wanted to make films had applied for the Editing Course and not for the one which taught Film Direction? Well, the first reason was the prevailing ‘intellectualised’ atmosphere of the city and the precocious ‘knowledge’ about films, filmmakers and film theory – all of which combined to create an impression that a ‘film is made on the editing table’ and once one knew about the nitty-gritties of editing the logical progression would be to make films – become a filmmaker. Two of my departmental seniors from the university where I studied economics where already at FTII studying Film Editing at FTII and they also encouraged me to join the course. It is from them that I first heard about the legend of Prof Ramachandra Rao, – Rao Saab – the HOD of Dept of Editing and how he had taught and inspired generations of editors who had not only made their mark in Indian cinema but some of them had gone to become filmmakers themselves.

Rao Saab would remain a distant figure during the first year Common Course. He did not take any class of the first year students. His participation in the film discussion sessions where we all analysed the ‘art and aesthetics’ of cinema was perfunctory. He seemed to care a fig about film theory and the general impression one could gather all he was bothered about was ‘cutting’ and had a great disdain for all other aspects of cinema. His ‘conservativeness’ put me off – how could a man be so dismissive about Tarkovsky et al who were the reigning Gods of Cinema at FTII! His vehement opposition to the students’ strike – was another factor in my growing antipathy with him. In fact, I began to wonder, what was so special about this gruff and taciturn man who seemed to think editing is the be all and end all of cinema!

The enigma/mystery of Rao Saab cleared up for me in my second year at FTII when the specialization sessions began and Rao Saab started to take our theory and practical classes. After completing the first of the series of practical exercises which made up the specialization course, I called him to check my work. Rao Saab, sat at the Steinbeck with a glass marking pencil in his hand and put on the exercise I had done. At the first cut, he stopped the Steinbeck, looked at me and growled, “Bah! Das, Chop off 6 frames!” At the next cut he nodded, for the next one he said, “Das, add 3 more” – the pattern continued while I furiously took down the notes of the suggestions he made. After he left, I made the changes he suggested and ran the corrected exercise on the Steinbeck. Lo and behold! It looked so fresh, so pacy and rhythmic! And it opened my eyes not only to the magic of editing but also to the caliber of the man and why he was so highly regarded as teacher.

The same pattern continued throughout the practical classes. We were given the rushes and told to do our stuff without any suggestion from the faculty about what to do with it. We made our cuts, Rao Saab would come and have a look, give his suggestion – we recut our work accordingly and kept on discovering what really editing was all about. But it was during the morning theory classes that we could interact with him more intimately and realize beneath the gruff and growling exterior lay hidden a man who deeply loved cinema – minus the pretensions. He told us Satyajit Ray’s editor knew nothing about editing and Pather Panchali (1955) was a badly edited film with a lot of unnecessary dissolves! He analyzed portions of Seven Samurai on the Steinbeck and his love and respect for Kurosawa was palpable. Buoyed by the Kurosawa experience, I and my classmates badgered Rao Saab to analyze Godard, knowing fully well his apparent disdain for the ‘innovations’ of the French New Wave. Much to our surprise, he agreed and we rushed to get the print of Breathless. He put the first reel on the Steinbeck and in his patented manner explained us the intricacies of the innovations of Godard’s ‘cutting’ technique but also letting us know that the editing decisions made by Godard were wholly in synch with the film’s narrative and overall style. But to me, at a personal level, I can never forget the thrill and excitement of the day when he taught us about editing documentaries – his analysis of the editing pattern of the opening sequence of Louisiana Story made us realize how a documentary can be really made at the editing table! So inspired were we, that some us made a vow that we shall only edit documentary films!

It’s been years that I have last met Rao Saab. I think he would have been much disappointed by the fact I stopped being a professional editor for a long ago. But I must confess, my not being an editor has nothing to do with the lessons I learnt from him or my other teacher’s at FTII. It’s a personal choice, fueled perhaps a bit by my own ego and also being tired off cleaning up other people’s ‘shit’ which is perhaps a part and parcel of being a professional editor. But the lessons about editing and cinema in general I had the good fortune of imbibing from Rao Saab have stayed with me. I can still hear his voice when I make a cut on the films I make and on the occasions I teach about filmmaking and editing in particular. The news of Rao Saheb being no more floods me with memories of analyzing, debating and learning films and filmmaking in my salad days. And I am sure, his legacy and his memories would stay alive in the hearts and minds of generations of FTII students (and the brilliant editors who have contributed a lot to Indian cinema) who had the good fortune of learning from him and interacting with him.

Prof K Ramachandra Rao – a warm and generous man, a brilliant editor and a great teacher – Rest in Peace, Sir!

Jabeen Merchant
Film Editing, 1995

Rao Saheb had retired by the time I joined FTII to learn Film Editing in 1993; but it turns out that old teachers find it as difficult to stay away from the Institute as old students do. So, luckily for us, he came back to conduct a workshop.

Just a little while before that, we had watched Alain Resnais’ masterpiece, Last Year At Marienbad in the Main Theatre screening. None of us had quite understood its difficult structure that moves back and forth in time and space. This was the beginning of our second year. I, at least, approached all the “master” filmmakers with awe, convinced that if there was something I didn’t relate to, it was I who had to work harder to “get” it.

Rao Saheb began his session with a story about the first screening of Marienbad at the FTII campus. It was, he said, a momentous event attended by a number of renowned alumni, and deep discussions followed. Except, he told us wryly, the projectionist had mixed up the reels by accident and none of those lauded art-house filmmakers had noticed! I think back on that morning when all of us cracked up with laughter; and I realize that my memory of Rao Saheb, all too brief, is precious because he taught us that nobody is sacred and nothing is beyond our power to understand.

Next, we sat down in front of the Steenbeck and loaded a reel of film. It was the opening of Godard’s Breathless. As we watched, he abruptly stopped the machine, the image frozen on the tiny screen in front of us. Then, he reached inside, pulled a length of film out into his hand and commanded, “Look at this cut!” I found myself staring, not at a cut on a huge movie screen but at the actual joint that Godard’s editor Cecile Decugis must have made. And an epiphany came. Even the most awe-inspiring filmmaker has to sit down at a table exactly like this and cut and splice one shot to another, just as I’m supposed to do. Even the most amazing shot in the world’s best film, started out as a strip of celluloid in some editor’s hand. This is my work.

At SRFTI, Kolkata. Photo courtesy Shyamal Karmakar.

Sashikanth Ananthachari
Motion Picture Photography, 1985

Rao Saab with his outspoken, forthright manner would have obviously been a misfit in the industry of his times, and he said that when he saw the advertisement for a teacher at FTII, he had immediately applied. The editor, to Rao Saab, was more often than not treated as a ‘flunky’ in the industry, and he respected his craft too much to let it be devalued. The industry’s loss was really the gain of the Institute and us his later students.

Sometimes, I would venture into the CRT to attend one of his classes; it would be interesting if a film was being projected; Rao Saab could be seen fidgeting during the screening, and every few minutes he would snap his fingers. Snapping his fingers indicated that he thought that the shot in the film had ‘died. Most films, in his estimate, were too loosely edited with shots held unnecessarily longer than their actual ‘life’. In his typical Hyderabadi Hindi he would exclaim, “Woh shot mar chuka hai, kyon mara hua chuhe ko ithna keench raha hai?!” [The shot is dead, why are they unnecessarily stretching the dead rat so much?]

I being a votary of the long take, initially used to be dismissive of Rao Saab and felt that his ‘grammar’ was derived from Hollywood films. I thought his criticism did not apply to the ‘grammar’ of the films I wanted to make; ‘serious’ cinema! But as he had such tremendous clarity in his pronouncements, I would make it a point to sometimes look at films from his perspective and try to understand what he saw as the life of a shot and when he felt a shot was dead.The editing students learning with him, were obviously under awe of him, and could be easily spotted in any screening; like their teacher, they had picked up the habit of snapping their fingers when they thought a shot was dead! It used to be very irritating watching a film with ten people constantly snapping their fingers!

My opinion of Rao Saab changed when I attended one of his classes where he was speaking about the editing of Antonioni’s film, Passenger. I looked afresh at the famous last 7 minute shot with Rao Saab and his students. We were watching it on a Steenbeck and Rao Saab would pause frequently to stress how the shot had been sustained. He ‘deconstructed’ both the visual and aural choreography of the shot. He said that the shot ‘flirted’ with death; a few more frames and the shot would be truly dead; Antonioni, manages to extend and sustain the shot, either with a new visual movement or just a simple sound effect. He said that it was an injustice to call it just a shot; he said that it was an entire sequence in itself, and then proceeded to rewind the film to show us how the filmmaker had ‘built’ up the film to reach this sequence; he called these the ‘markers’ and explained that how the images of Jack Nicholson waving his hands around as though he were floating, and later Maria Schneider repeating the same gesture, emotionally built up to this climactic shot.

Maulee Senapati
Film Direction, 1997

As summer was easing into spring three years ago, I, along with my senior from FTII, Mahadeb Shi, and accompanied by batch mate, Sriguha, went to see Rao Saab, the tall teacher of Film Editing, in Hyderabad. Our batch was not fortunate enough to have Rao Saab as a teacher though the tall teacher found ample mention – just like a legend does – during numerous conversations with seniors from the Institute. When one of my seniors I am most fond of and consider to be more of a brother, Mahadeb Shi, came to Hyderabad to teach as a guest faculty at the film institute where I was working for over a few months then, we made plans to see Rao Saab at his home in in the southern city rich in history and lore. This meeting with one of the most respected teachers of my alma matter remains etched as one of the most memorable incidents from my days in Hyderabad.

When we reached Sir’s home, we were greeted by his welcoming wife. “Rao Saab is resting”, his wife told us as she made us seat and went in to call her husband. At 93 years of age Rao Saab was suffering from hearing impairment, while his tall frame seemed somewhat burdened by advancing age. “Nowadays he takes a little time to recognize visitors”, his soft-spoken wife said as she took a place between where Roa Saab sat and where we were standing to greet the tall man. Old age and the handicap, however, did not at all deter the much respected teacher’s spirit in finally connecting to one of his favorite students, Mahadeb Shi. Suddenly, all the visible traces of infirmity in the man vanished like smoke from his elongated face as the body language turned instantaneously swift; the long arms started swaying at ease like that of a music conductor in motion. Soon, Rao Saab started conducting what seemed more of an unending but thoroughly engaging session. As I silently watched the transformation in a teacher after meeting a favorite student of his, the unfolding epitomized the dense narrative of a teacher’s abiding passion for cinema, coupled with sheer love and openness towards his students.

Pointing to a caricature of his done by another friend and senior, Shymal Karmakar, who is presently heading the Editing department at SRFTI, a remarkable piece of art presented to the tall teacher during a felicitation at SRFTII some years back, Rao Saab recalled names of his students at ease including those from 1960s and ’70s. His unfailing memory made him recall and share experiences from the long past with rare articulation, which included personal anecdotes during Kurosawa’s visit to FTII, and Rao Saab’s visit to Sweden backed by what he described as a maddening wish to meet Bergman at the remote island where the Swedish maestro used to live. In between the lively conversation, Sir rose up from the cane chair like a spirited youth and rushed into their living room leaving his wife along with rest of us amazed and watching in anticipation the reason behind Sir’s sudden reaction. Rao Saab came back with a few thick, hard covered books held firmly between his frail hands with distinctly elongated fingers. “Have you read these?”, the teacher asked his students. Pointing towards me, he asked, “Does the institute where you are teaching have these books in its library?” Such was the passion of the man towards cinema and students of the art which his advancing age failed to veil.

As I sat silently listening to the tall teacher talk, I was time and again reminded of the only other time I had an occasion to meet him in the past when he had visited the campus while we were still getting grooved into the intricacies of filmmaking. One morning, I met Rao Saab somewhere near the Editing department. After enquiring about my discipline, he asked me a firm question rather subtlety, “How well have you understood life to be able to learn filmmaking?” Rao Saab is no more, the question he had asked me way back in the early Nineties to which I had no answer then, continues to resonate within, still. A single question which premises the very vision of the art called cinema, which evidently mesmerized the man even at his ripe old age. Remarkable mentors have always had their own ways. That one question from a teacher enhanced and signified my perception about the cinema I wanted to learn and pursue. Witnessing Rao Saab’s passion years later, ascertained the significance of an untiring passion of a mentor towards the three things which gifted him with utmost happiness perhaps, love for cinema, an openness towards students of the complex art form which teachers like him made it easy for those he had mentored to understand, driven by no less untiring quest to connect with, and portray life and the lust for living, unperturbed by advancing age.

REST IN PEACE on the lap of Cinema, Sir. Adieu…

Rao Saab was felicitated at SRFTI, Kolkata in 2014. Here is a clip of that event.

Header photo courtesy Shyamal Karmakar, Film Editing 1987.

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