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One-on-One With Hemanti Sarkar

She is one of the finest editors in the film industry today, who has lent her immense skill and artistry to feature films such as Parineeta (2005), Barah Aana (2009), Peepli [Live] (2010), Kaphal: Wild Berries (2012), English Vinglish (2012)M Cream (2014), Shamitabh (2015), Island City (2015), Airlift (2016), Dear Zindagi (2016), Secret Superstar (2017) and Stree (2018). She has also edited award winning documentaries like Daughters Of Mother India (2015) and Riders Of The Mist (2015). A graduate of the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, with specialisation in Film Editing, 1994, Hemanti Sarkar takes us through her cinematic journey vis-à-vis a detailed one-on-one interview with her.

Speaking of her earliest memories of the film world and what led her to becoming a part of it herself, Sarkar recalls, “I was born in Bangalore to artist parents who also love theatre and films. They were among the first few members of Suchitra Film Society and since my sister and I were not old enough to accompany them to the screenings, they would always come back and narrate the stories of the films they had watched. My father would even sketch some frames while they did it . I don’t remember the stories they told us but I still remember those sketches from La Strada (1954), Seven Samurai (1954), The Seventh Seal (1957) and Red Beard (1965). We were also taken regularly to children’s film festivals at Bal Bhavan, Cubbon Park. I remember lovely European and Russian films of flying magicians and princesses.

The first film that I have distinct memories of is Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). I must have been 6 or 7 then and actually I was horrified when Sarbajaya dragged Durga by her hair and scolded her. Or when Durga discovered Indir Thakrun (the old relative) dead, seated under a tree or even the dreadful night of Durga’s death where the storm seemed to tear the house apart, I had never seen anything so real and so sad before. I was jolted out of my sheltered world of Enid Blyton and fairytales and those images stayed with me for a long, long time.

Another film which left an indelible mark was Battleship Potemkin (1925). I remember some activists that we knew would screen it often. They used to string up a bed sheet at different local meets and project this 16mm film. I soon knew the film by heart but each time I would watch mesmerised as the mutineers were rounded up and covered with tarpaulin and the captain ordered ‘fire’! And then, of course, I can never forget the Odessa step sequence. The woman whose child slips and falls and she walks towards the soldiers who gun her down or the runaway pram with the baby inside… They all haunted me. Other than this we saw a plenty of Hollywood films like Sound of Music (1965) or Where Eagles Dare (1968) at the neighbouring theatre and later we saw Hindi, Kannada, Tamil art films but somehow, we never watched mainstream Bollywood.

We shifted to Kolkata where I completed my Graduation with Chemistry (Honours) from Calcutta University and I was contemplating doing MSc in Biochemistry, but by then cinema had penetrated deep into me as the city’s passion for cinema was infectious. My sister would often slip me into her screenings at the Jadavpur Film Society of which she was a member. I was blown away by the films of Bergman, Fellini, Tarkovsky and Godard; not that I understood them – I was still in school but I just wanted to see more. Doordarshan with its late-night international films and its  afternoon shows of National award winners Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani Saeed Mirza, Ketan Mehta, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Girish Kasaravalli became my staple diet. Besides of course, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen’s films in the theatres.

But even then, I never thought I could actually work in films. FTII was something my father had always spoken about and when the advertisement came out in a newspaper, he asked me to give the exam a shot. At the exam centre, I realised people had actually prepared for it. I felt awful, and was sure I wouldn’t get through. But fortunately for me, I did.”

On being asked what drew her to applying for Film Editing, Sarkar says, “I knew nothing about editing except the little knowledge I had gathered from film books. It was the era of pre-internet and pre-cable TV, so getting information was difficult.However, I remember Dhaka Television having a show where they showed the making-of films. Here I saw how Steven Spielberg shot and edited a sequence for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). I was fascinated that just by joining shots – some shot in Petra, some in front of a green screen and a few close shots – he had created such a thrilling scene. It all seemed so magical to me. So, when I had to tick on the form what I was applying for, I knew I wanted to learn this magic.”

Speaking about her days as a student in Pune, Sarkar remembers,” The first few months at FTII were terrifying yet exciting because on one level, I realised how little I knew, but on the other, I really enjoyed every bit of it. My favourite were the film appreciation classes and I would never cease to wonder how Prof Suresh Chabbria would break down films and draw us a clothesline of each film! I also enjoyed Mr Sagir Ahmed’s script writing classes but most of all, our editing practical classes. Our Head Of Department, Mehboob Khan, would make us do every sequence in different ways, sometimes if only to make us realise why something doesn’t work. He never told us what was right or wrong but encouraged us to think and discover it by doing it differently. That stayed with me.

But the best part of the FTII were, undoubtedly, the film screenings every night. It is difficult to choose one film or a single filmmaker as every night I discovered something new.  From Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) to Tati’s Monsier Hulot films; from Karel Kachyna’s  I’m Jumping over the Puddles Again (1971) to the films of Kurosawa, Ozu or Eisenstein, Pudovkin or Murnau – the list is endless.”

Recalling her early days post FTII, Sarkar says, “I’m lucky I didn’t really have to struggle too much. I came to Bombay immediately after finishing the course and thanks to my FTII seniors, I got a room and a job at Plus Channel. I worked here for nearly 9 months, cutting small business stories on U-Matic for a show called Business Baatein for Doordarshan. I realised then I enjoyed doing non-fiction so whether it was a story on shortage of LPG or how breaking of the Berlin Wall was affecting the German currency, I tried to make every story interesting to watch. However, after 9 months it became tedious. I wanted to leave Plus Channel as I wanted to do fiction and assist someone on feature films. But Amit Khanna, in his own inimitable way, offered me their serial, Zameen Aasmaan (1995), being directed by Tanuja Chandra and said I could work on it at night. So, during the day I was an Assistant Editor – rolling, cutting and splicing film and every night after 10pm, I was editing a serial on my own. I think it was the year I learnt the most from watching how others cut a scene to simultaneously editing sequences myself.

After two years of working day and night in Mumbai, I finally got a chance to work with Renu Saluja. Working with her was just amazing, I imbibed her meticulous sense of organisation the way she marked and kept the cuttings  – which enabled re-edits and restructuring scenes easily. Still, more important was what I learnt by watching her at work. What she saw in a frame and why she chose one shot over another depending on the emotion that a shot evoked or how she thought of sound overlays and sound design way in advance even as she marked the shots with her neat arrows and crosses – I think it is this ability to see the film as a whole way in advance that made her work stand out. Another thing was her willingness to listen to others and what they thought of the cut patiently without being egoistic about her own cuts.”

Talking about her first film, Sarkar says, “I think people have always been very kind to me. I had taken a three-year break after my son was born. When I came back to Bombay, things had changed totally. Renu was no more. The last film I had worked on as her associate was Godmother (1999) and we had cut it on Steenbeck but when I came back, I found that no one worked on Steenbeck anymore. Everybody had shifted to a digital platform. I didn’t know what to do. I had never worked on a computer before.  I thought, ‘This is it. I will never be able to work again’. But one day when I called Tanuja Chandra just to say hello, she offered me her next film! I couldn’t believe my ears. And so, a few months later I was editing my first independent feature, Sur: The Melody Of Life (2002), starring Lucky Ali and Gauri Karnik. I didn’t even have a place to stay in Bombay at the time, so my FTII batch-mates put me up again. A friend, Rajib Biswas (who had joined as an apprentice during Godmother), helped me learn the mechanics of Avid so I managed to get going. I really don’t know what would have happened without my friends.

Apart from my initial fear of computers, adjusting was not a problem.  Actually, Video editing on High band or Beta is linear but editing on Avid and Final Cut Pro (FCP) is very like editing on Steenbeck where you can physically lift a shot or a scene and put it anywhere so fundamentally the thought is the same. But, because cutting and making changes was difficult on Steenbeck, it made us think more about the scene, watch rushes more carefully and think how to cut the scene before actually doing it.  This was a huge advantage. To this day that is how I work. When I watch the rushes of a scene I first design it in my head. I also choose the takes I’m likely to use very carefully. About the rhythm and pace, I think that because people shoot more than they did on film and the attention span of viewers have reduced over the years there is always the temptation to cut more often. I don’t think it has anything to  to do with Avid or FCP. I think what digital non-linear has brought about is the possibility of cutting and re-cutting a sequence in many different ways and enabling us to compare the results. Also, the ability of handling huge amount of footage easily. I have done documentary projects with 200-250 hours footage, in most cases done 20-25 different cuts and saved them so I can always compare them and see what works. This would have been near impossible on Steenbeck.”

When asked about her choice of scripts, Sarkar says, “I don’t think I am that big an editor that I get to pick and choose a film or that I earn so much to have the luxury to sit back and wait for a better script. That said, I think when people approach me they already have a notion in their head so invariably (for want of a better phrase) projects choose me. Projects which are mostly off-beat films with new directors and small budgets. But, even here, I agree to doing the film only after I have read the script and see if I find it interesting and whether I would buy a ticket and watch the film myself. If not, I don’t take it up because I know I would then do a bad job. And of course, I would not touch anything with a regressive outlook. I also try to alternate between fiction and non-fiction; it keeps me on my toes and ensures that I don’t repeat myself.

When I finally agree to do a film, I read the script thoroughly and make my own notes. If I feel there are gaps or emotional jumps or repetitions or transitions needed, I try and discuss these with the director. I also try to interact with director as much as I can to see how he or she is looking at the film. It’s crucial to me that I understand the director and his vision. Sometimes, I sit through two or three script readings which the director might have for other departments so I get to understand not only the director’s point of view but also how the other crew members see the film. But I have seen in filmmaking that going in with a preconceived fixed notion never works as things always turn out different. So, when the rushes finally reach you, you have to be ready to throw out ideas you had and work afresh with available material. Sometimes, I join the film after it has been shot, so then of course I have no other option but just to dive in.

I prefer not to be on sets watching the shoot. I don’t like seeing too much of what goes on beyond the frame it makes me less objective I don’t want to know how difficult it was to take a shot and if it doesn’t work for the film, then I won’t use it. Also, I think the set has a highly-strung environment which belongs to the director and the cinematographer. I don’t like to add to the chaos by putting in my two bits. And I don’t want to know the actors or their idiosyncrasies. I want to know the characters in the film and trust me that works out better for the film). But even if I don’t go on shoots, I like working in tandem with the shoot. For example, in Secret Superstar, because a major part of the film was shot in the interiors – a set in Bombay, I would get converted dailies every night which I would edit early next morning so the director, Advait, and I could watch it next night to check and see if anything additional was needed or could be done better. So, by the last day of shoot, I more or less had a rough cut ready and we checked if anything was needed before the set could be dismantled. Even for the Airport sequence, where we had permission for only 2 shifts and it was the climax. I did go on location but sat in the vanity van editing the footage on a laptop. And Advait would check it. So, it’s more like I was there at the shoot and yet not there.

I always do the first cut by myself and sort of present the film fully as I see it with music sound effects everything. I think doing the first cut myself gives me time to react to the footage, go through each take, each actor’s performance without inputs from the director. And this helps the director get an objective view when he/she sees it for the first time after the shoot. Some scenes work out better than what they had expected some don’t. If I sit with director from first day then I am already thinking like him then I don’t have time for fresh look. It’s during the first cut itself if a scene doesn’t work I normally do alternate cuts and keep. I think if my first cut is good, then sitting with the director and reworking makes it better with each round.”

When asked which of her works has satisfied her the most, Sarkar replies, “It’s very difficult to choose. It always seems the project I just finished was the best, because, to me, it seems I may have done a better job or let’s say I’ve made lesser mistakes than before. I think my work on Stree (2018) was satisfying. I had not done a horror film before this and I dread watching them but the script was so funny I had to do it. Editing it was tricky in the sense the horror had to work as did the comedy. So, you had to keep the tension yet break it by sudden moments of laughter like the frail old woman coming out and scaring Jana so make the audience jump and then smile the balance has to be fine. Another thing in Stree was that the actors were enjoying themselves so much there was a lot of improvisations on set so most of scenes were very long.  The trick was to keep it taut and pacy.

Of the other films, I think English Vinglish (2012) and Peepli [Live] (2010) were very satisfying. English Vinglish because I think the edit managed to get what Gauri Shinde’s script had intended. Gauri’s writing is very subtle very like Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing where the conflicts are not large or over the top issues but very nuanced. In English Vinglish, after the first cut, we realised that editing it normally where there was a stay on emotions by holding onto a shot say of Sashi (Sridevi) was making it into a sad story of a neglected wife /mom. The subtlety was going so we decided to cut it pacier where the insensitivity of the husband or daughter is a daily affair like breakfast. Sashi feeling inferior is always there just below the surface and never in your face and overdone. This also helped us to slip from one emotion to another seamlessly without making it a sob story. Sequences of her balancing the joy of her ladoos or the embarrassment of her daughter’s PTA, the disastrous ordering of coffee or the joy of learning that she is an entrepreneur – all these feel real and relatable, not over the top. So this was a style of cutting, which, I’m happy to say, enhanced the narrative.

For Peepli [Live], the biggest challenge was putting into shape the entire media circus that descends on the village. The script did not have anything specific written about how I was to cut the media madness. There was tons of footage – of the villagers, of the media representatives talking with villagers etc. This also included video footage from the second unit apart from what the DOP, Shanker Raman, had shot beautifully on film. There were several tracks running like the internal rivalry of the two journalists, Natha’s helplessness and Dania’s (wife’s) desperation, Rakesh ‘s story and that of Hori Mahato, the farmer who dies of starvation. There was no specific structure other than which politician would come or what the bureaucrats in Delhi did. When I saw all the footage I was like, ‘Oh My!’  On top of that, the climax after Natha disappears was also very similar so how do you structure it without it bogging down the audience and yet make it accessible? So, I used a tried and tested device of a song. Since Des Mera was used in the title I used it and used the bits of ‘Natha Marega Toh Mela Lagega‘ and cut it like a fast-paced song, which made the fair in anticipation of Natha’s death even more bizarre and absurd. The danger in Peepli [Live] was that it had a lot to say and with so many tracks overlapping, everything could have become scattered and overdone. So, the pace of cutting the media mela made it funny and irreverent in stark contrast to the slow-paced scene of Hori Mahato and Rakesh in order to keep that bit real and not absurd.

Speaking on whether directing a film is the next logical step, Sarkar says, “No, as of now, I don’t intend to direct. Being a director involves dealing with so many people and to be able to express yourself and communicate with everyone on set. To have a 100 and more pair of eyes looking at you is terrifying. In fact,  even meeting a new person or if a person I don’t know sits and watches me work it makes me nervous. But I have to say that I love my work especially when I do documentaries. People just give me the key to their edit room where I spend sometimes 30-40 days working alone trying to make sense of the footage and come up with a structure I enjoy that the most. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle and it’s addictive. So frankly, I would rather be a good editor than bad director as I have no grand delusions about myself. As an editor itself, there are so many different kinds of films I have not done as yet. There is so much yet to learn. The day I get bored and I stop learning I will do something else. Till then I am happy and content with what I am doing.”

1 Comment

  • Hemanti, one film you forgot to discuss is Late Pankaj Advani’s Sankat City. That was one film and which had a very different editing style… And l had loved that too!

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