The GRAFTII recently paid tribute to the film editor Renu Saluja, whose untimely death in 2000 deprived the Hindi film industry of one its best editors. The book, Invisible: The Art Of Renu Saluja, was released at Crossword a few months ago, but somehow, all of seemed very far away to me. It wasn’t until Praba Mahajan mailed me a few days ago that I started to remember my own (very brief) association with Renu.
In the years that I studied at the FTII, the editing students of the FTII had about thirteen exercises to complete, in addition to all the work that they did as a team – the song sequence, the documentary and the diploma film. One of the exercises that was given us much later in the year, more or less at the time we were also editing our diplomas, was a scene from Khamosh. This was, in effect, a workshop exercise, because every year, Renu Saluja, who edited the original film, would come down and supervise out edits.
Now, Khamosh was shot using film like toilet paper (to borrow, I think, Ketan Mehta’s slightly unusual way of putting it). Which meant that every shot had numerous takes and the whole scene was shot from every conceivable angle. In the scene we had to edit, a shoot out is happening on a road, and six (five? I’ve forgotten!) bullets are fired. Several things happen almost simultaneously, and our job was to bring all of this together.
The thing that Renu was most celebrated for was her ability to construct scenes radical ways and interpret them so that something that even the director had not conceived of was realised on the editing table. This is a unique gift, not given to even the most competent editor. In this exercise that she had set, our job was one of not only construction, but also interpretation.
We had several fragments of action, and there were an infinite number of ways in which they could be ordered, so that a story was told. The crucial question, “And then what happened?” had several answers, all of them potentially the right one. Of course, this was possible only because we were editing this out of the context of the entire film.
So we were to have already assembled the scene before Renu arrived. She usually stayed for a few days, looked at one rough edit, made suggestions and stayed until she had seen all ten editors’ final versions of the scene.
The day she was to arrive, we were all nervous. Here was this famous editor who had worked with every single major director of the previous decade, and she was going to be sitting next to us when the lights were off and the Steenbeck flickered to life. What could we construct that would compare with that experience?
It would be facile to say that Renu was gentle and genuinely appreciative of every unusual or new way of ordering the scene. She was all of that, but there was, in our minds, a gap between her enormous skill and this pleasant person that was not entirely bridgeable in the space of a few days. When she stopped the Steenbeck to go back and look at something again, my heart stopped. When she said, “Ah, you’ve chosen that take, have you?” I searched my memory frantically to try and remember which other take I ought to have chosen. Was this the wrong one?
But the point of the exercise, as we learnt, was that there was no right or wrong; no one way to do anything while editing. It was the equivalent of a sentence that can be punctuated in a number of different ways to produce different meanings. And it was the single most liberating piece of knowledge I acquired at the Institute.
But I digress.
The horror that I alluded to in the title is about to make its appearance right about now.
Did I say we used to edit in the dinosaur years? This meant that we had to mark on the Steenbeck the shots that were ok and separate them from the ones we didn’t want to use; we had to use the synchrometer to match the relevant sound takes with the shots we’d chosen; go back to the Steenbeck to mark where the cuts would be; come back to the synchrometer to make the cuts and splice the film (ok—editing lesson over).
Next to our editing tables where the synchrometers were, were bins on which we hung the strips of film that were not actually in the scene. The bins were essentially a huge bag hung on a steel frame, to hold the film so it would not trail all over the floor and get scratched. At the top, like an old four-poster bed, was a piece of wood with nails in it, so that we could hook out film easily on it. From here we suspended all the bits of film where the claps are, the flashframes, the portions before and after the fragments that went to construct the sense of the scene. With Khamosh, we discovered, this amounted to a lot of film hanging in the bin! When the entire exercise was over, we had to neatly roll up the film and put it away in cans.
The last evening that Renu was there, everybody was feverishly working late into the night to finish up so that she could see everyone’s edit before she left. I had finished showing her my exercise and she had no problems with it, so I only had to pack up and leave. But I was infected with everyone’s urgency. I could have left the clearing of the bin until the next day, but I wanted to finish it up right then.
So under Renu’s watchful eyes, I started to unhook pieces of film and roll it up. But there was so much of it! Everything tangled up, curling, twisting and impossible to separate unless I heaved the whole thing on the floor. I had a growing roll of film in my hand, almost reel length, and that meant I was in effect using only one hand.
Renu silently watched me struggle, and occasionally went across to someone else’s table to talk to them about something. I was almost in tears. I should have thrown the whole thing back in and left it for another time when I was less tired. Instead, when Renu was at a Steenbeck, I found a giant pair of scissors and started to hack at the film at the point where the tangles were most intransigent. I didn’t care if I was cutting the film mid-frame! I just used the scissors until there were deep red marks between my thumb and index finger.
Just then, Renu emerged from the editing room and stood transfixed at the door. Totally absorbed in my mutilation, I was unaware that she had returned. I paused to take a break. And I realised that Renu was looking at me in utter horror. Her eyes were enormous behind her spectacles and she was speechless.
I had no idea what to do. Should I drop everything and flee and hope that she wouldn’t recognise me the next time she saw me? Should I apologise? After such a massacre, what forgiveness? What could I say?
After a few seconds, Renu recovered. She sat on a stool next to my table and calmly continued to watch me. Having started, I had to finish. And I did, trembling all the while. At the end, Renu said, quite mildly, under the circumstances, “If you ever come to assist me, you can’t do this, you know.”
I’m not sure what I said in reply. The only thing I knew was that I would never. Ever. Ever. Ever go and ask to assist her on a film. So many of the editors today who are doing great work -- Sanjib Dutta, Hemanti Sarkar, Jabeen Merchant – assisted Renu. But I never did. The memory of what I did still haunts me.
That was the last time I saw Renu, unfortunately. There was so much more to learn from her. And she could have edited so many more films had she not been snatched away. But all those regrets are best consigned, like discarded pieces of film, into the bins that we no longer see in editing rooms.