Smriti Kiran: Film editor Prerna Saigal grew up in a joint family in Delhi. Films were the staple entertainment that would bring everyone in the house together. Her mother, Anureeta Saigal, was a production coordinator on big-ticket international firms like Kamasutra: A Tale of Love and Monsoon Wedding. So, the idea of working in film was not alien to the family.
Prerna’s interest and journey in cinema began with a school project that she desperately wanted to be a part of. In 2003, while doing a bachelor’s in journalism and mass communication at IP University in Delhi, Prerna assisted documentary filmmaker Gauhar Raza on his film, In Defense of Our Dreams. He encouraged her to join the editing course at FTII in 2004.
Post FTII, she worked on a host of documentaries in different Indian languages, both as assistant editor and editor. Apart from working on projects as an editor, in her early years, she has worked as second unit director and script supervisor on Victory, and first assistant director and post-production coordinator on The Lunchbox.
Her sensibility altering break came when she began working on Vasan Bala’s Peddlers. She was both associate director and editor on the film. ‘Before Peddlers, I was working on a machine, but with Peddlers, I fell in love with the process all over again,’ Prerna said in an interview. She went on to edit Danis Tanović’s Tigers, Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet, Vasan Bala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, and last year, she edited Afsos, a series directed by Anubhuti Kashyap.
Despite a solid and steely body of work, Prerna has always chosen to let her work speak for her, and stay very, very far away from public speaking. I’m thrilled that she has made an exception for us.
Welcome to Dial M For Films, Prerna! Thank you for giving us your time.
Prerna Saigal: Thank you, Smriti. The reason I am here is because during the screening of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota in Delhi, I was just hoping and praying that the mic didn’t come to me during the panel discussion – but it did. Somebody asked me, ‘How was the process of editing Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota?’ He was really excited because he’d enjoyed the film. I was so scared. I said, ‘Oh, it was fun. It is always fun working with Vasan. I was just following his vision. That’s it.’ While exiting the auditorium, you said, ‘Prerna, that boy wanted to know your process, and you just stole that moment away from him.’ So, I’m sorry, wherever you may be.
I’m here for that boy, and I would speak as much as I can about whatever I do; try to bring you into that gufa where I work, and let you in. There are no secrets and surprises. It’s all fun and games. I’m in a very lucky situation, and in a job which I really love – started to love.
Smriti Kiran: Prerna, I want to start from the very beginning. What are your earliest memories of engaging with film? How did the love affair with cinema begin?
Prerna Saigal: My love affair was very superficial, initially. It was purely for entertainment. I’m from a Punjabi family, where you bought tickets, called your chachi, mami, tai and all your cousins, and went to watch a film. It was fun. I enjoyed the film because I was with them. We laughed together and brought back songs and dialogues, which we would later re-enact. The whole experience was always about entertainment, fun and good times. That’s how I associated myself with films.
Not just with films, in fact, even with television. It was a joint family. When Doordarshan used to start, there would be a beep mark. My grandfather, apparently, would always switch on the TV five-ten minutes beforehand, and we would only see the colour bar and listen to the beep mark. I used to be so excited to know that there was something about to start, which I would watch being plonked on the sofa. That experience was really good, and that tone would fill up the whole house.
“As soon as I heard the beep mark, I was transported back to my childhood days. That sound was really important to me.”
Years later, I joined a Mass Communication course. I was a very clueless teenager and I was in this course because of my closest friend – Guneet (Monga); we were studying together. Once the module on print media finished we went into the audio-visual module. We were taught the basics first: to stripe a beta tape. It’s very technical: you have to fill in the time code before you put in the actual footage that you want to work on. The professor told us to add the colour bar for five seconds and then the beep mark. As soon as I heard the beep mark, I was transported back to my childhood days. I was so happy. I said, ‘Oh, my God! I have heard this tone.’ My professor was like, ‘Prerna, what happened? You’re a college student.’
I can’t tell you how happy I was because that sound took me back to my childhood. I came back home and told my grandfather, with whom I mostly watched television, the entire story. That sound was really important to me. Nobody understood, but it was important for me.
The reason I’m telling you all this is because sound plays a very important role in our lives. It tells us about things before it happens; if it just happens, then it informs us, or it leads us to it. There are so many things our mind is already conditioned to know because of sound. For example, I’m sitting in my drawing-room, watching TV, and I hear the car come in. I already know that my father is home. He opens the door, comes in, takes a bath, and comes to the dining table. It’s not a sudden jump for me – it’s not that I hear him coming and I see him next in his night suit, not understanding how it came to be so. I can understand the transition because I know all that must have progressed between the two visuals. My mind is already accustomed to everything that happens through sound. We don’t train ourselves; we experience it, and then we know it by association. If you hear a thunderstorm from a room without windows, you’ll know that it’s going to rain; you would take an umbrella outside. You don’t have to be told to take the umbrella outside. You already know it. The baby cries, you know she’s woken up; you go to that room, you pick her up and console her.
What I’m getting to is that sound is always there, it’s conditioned in your mind; we filmmakers use that for our advantage.
Smriti Kiran: Prerna, you stumbled into editing because of a school project that you wanted to be a part of, and the only available position was of an editor. What was that project?
Prerna Saigal: There were five projects that were supposed to be made. The class strength was 60, which was divided into groups. Whoever had written the script and had been the earliest to submit it became the director. If you had a good rapport with that boy or girl, you would be in that team; what role you got in the team was up to them, and so I got editing.
“People feel that editing is a lonely process, but it’s not. You have to interact with so many people; you have to understand their point of view.”
We did everything in order to compensate for the budget-less exercise that it was. We served samosas; I even had my grandfather play a role because we needed an actor. If we needed somebody 83+, my grandfather was there; if we needed somebody who was three years old, my sister was there. This is how we were making the film. We enjoyed the whole process.
The shooting was fun, but when I came up to the editing table, the whole interface was at first scary. I didn’t know what was happening. But the moment I started discovering the software and putting the cut together, I found magic – that’s a word that you can actually use because you’re trying to put things together, trying to make it make sense. The scenes could be shot somewhere else, and there could be empty takes present, and you’re trying to figure out what is what.
It’s also a team effort. For me, it was very important. I’m not a solo person. I discuss my job with people. I enjoy editing because it is collaborative: you speak to the other person, you take notes, you understand. People do feel that it’s a lonely process, but editing is not a lonely process. You have to interact with so many people; you have to understand their point of view.
Coming back to my college project and its screening. For the first time, there was a whiteboard, and it was projected on it. The feeling of seeing something that you’d made bringing laughter or a reaction to the point that you had cut it to — even though I did not know the meaning at that time — was amazing.
It was like a role reversal. Earlier it was me, who was sitting on the sofa and watching, now there were these people sitting on a sofa and watching something that I had made; not alone, but with the whole team. It was fun. It was as simple as that because I was not justifying it – that I did this cut for this reason – I just put it together because I felt like it; it was simply my gut feeling that I should put it together the way that I did.
I enjoyed the appreciation. I enjoyed the fact that people were understanding the story and discussing it. It was very interesting. I have stumbled upon many things; I’ve been lucky that way.
Smriti Kiran: When the project finished and you saw it screen, what made you stay? What got you hooked to editing?
Prerna Saigal: There is another technical thing, not emotional, that happened, which was college recruitment. In college, we were all worried about next kaam kya hoga. Guneet, my childhood friend, and I were the two people who saw a poster about editing and applied for the role. We were just two girls sitting in that room. Gauhar sir came in thinking that he’d have to choose. But who could he have chosen when there were only two people? And so, we were selected; again, by luck.
We were in Gauhar sir’s editing suite, and we were editing with him. Sir was amazing. He was so patient with us. We weren’t editors. We had done just that one project on Adobe Premiere Pro, and he was so open to our ideas. It was about the Gujarat riots and it was a really heavy topic to deal with. We had our point of view as college students, and he was listening to us. I had used a dissolve and cross-fade effect without really knowing that I was doing it. All those things were because I felt like it. I wasn’t using it as a tool until now. I did not know what I was doing. But I could see that by doing this, I was enjoying what I was watching. You are, after all, your first viewer. That’s when Gauhar sir said, after watching the project and my work style, ‘Why don’t you apply to FTII and Jamia?’ I thought that if I applied to Jamia it would be good since it was in Delhi, where I lived. Somehow, Jamia and FTII entrances happened on the same day. I half-heartedly finished Jamia’s and ran to the FTII examination. I missed the three-year course and entered for the one-year course instead because that was available.
I was writing the paper, and I saw that it had Math in it. I wrote ‘Not applicable’. I thought I’m not here to do Math. I remember there was a visual, a picture, a top angle shot of a sadhu sitting under a tree. They wanted to know what angle it was and to explain it. So, I wrote whatever I thought, and I think that’s what they liked about my answer. It wasn’t technical at all. That’s what, I think, helped me go through it. Even in my interview, when they asked me what was the difference between a jump cut and a normal cut, I said, ‘If I’d have known, I would not have come here. I want to learn. I don’t know.’ They must have thought, ‘Isko toh le lo. Bechari ko padha dete hai.’
FTII opened a lot of doors. I have always stumbled upon things that I’ve used to my benefit. Somehow, they’ve always helped me move forward. They have never hindered me. My glitches, even in the edit, have always worked in my favour. It works only if you try to find a solution for it.
Smriti Kiran: Out of all the things that you could have spoken about, why did you choose sound overlay? Why is this so important to you?
Prerna Saigal: Generally, editing is considered as a visual thing: you cut visuals and you join them together. But sound plays a very important role. A film is not a film until the sound is added to it. It doesn’t have the same effect. I have experienced and found out how important it is first-hand, through my journey, and how important it is to let people know that it is not just a sound designer’s job. Visuals are not just a DOP’s job. It’s everybody’s collective effort. We have to work together to make a film. How sound transforms and how magical the cuts become was always something that I was very hooked on to. I’m sure this technique is used in every film. Sound overlap is used in every film and on every level possible. You cannot finish a film without sound.
I don’t know when sound really started mattering, but the way this tool came into my toolbox is interesting. It was, again, in a project that we were doing at FTII. Six months of the course had finished; we had learned everything theoretically. Now, it was our turn to use it practically. The whole team sat together and did storyboarding, which I had suggested. This was a mid-term assignment. I said, ‘Let’s take an enclosed room, where a girl is stuck; she looks at a picture and sits idly on the bed, hopeless.’ The next shot was of a lake.
On paper, it sounded fine – that there’s a contrast here: first, it’s interior, night time, then day, and a lake. It sounded beautiful. When it came to the edit table, it was just not working. I kept trying and trying; it feels really simple now, but I was stuck then, and I was like, ‘Why is it not working? Ye hi toh socha tha.’
“As an editor, you should never crib about the rushes. You have to try everything before you say or decide that something is not working.”
Prashant Naik, my teacher, came to the room and asked me what the problem was. He asked, ‘Have you tried everything? I said I had. Then he asked me to show him the rushes. He saw the rushes, and he said, ‘Prerna, the answer is right there. You can easily do it.’ I asked him how. He said, ‘There’s a close-up of a drawer that closes when the photograph is kept inside.’ I said, ‘Yes, but I need that shot later to show that she is alone.’ I realised that I was fixated on that shot. I wasn’t thinking beyond. I wasn’t looking at the rushes from another perspective, which as an editor, I should have. I have to see rushes in every way possible and keep looking at them to find the solution to the scene because the rushes will always have a solution in it. He said, ‘Try this: when she closes the drawer, leave a few frames on to the next scene,’ which was the wide shot of the lake. I tried it, and it was a brilliant cut. It flowed well; it wasn’t jarring at all; it worked.
Next day, I went back to sir and told him, ‘Sir, it was brilliant. Aisa hi socha tha!’ He said, ‘Aisa kahan socha tha? Humne toh kuch aur socha tha.’ But that worked. It was so nice for me. I knew it, I had studied it. I had seen those films, and I was told about it, but I’d never used it. So, you have to use it to know how it works. It will work differently for different people in different situations. This shot might not have worked in some other situation, but it was working here.
He said, ‘First of all, never crib about the rushes.’ As an editor, you should never crib about the rushes. As an editor, go through the rushes as many times as you can. You have to try everything before you say or decide that something is not working. Your edit decisions should be dependent on having tried out everything possible in your head. That was a big learning. I immediately took that tool and put it in my imaginary toolbox, and I was ready for Mumbai.
Smriti Kiran: In an interview, you said something very interesting. You said, ‘I believe that a film is written on the script table and it is grammatically corrected on the edit table.’ What were your early and most important learnings that you had once you knew that you were on the path of finding yourself as an editor?
Prerna Saigal: Firstly, it was to believe that it’s a collaborative effort, and it’s the director’s vision that you’re following. But that doesn’t reduce your workload at all; in fact, it increases it because he has something in his mind which you have to put on screen. You have to be very, very close to the script; you have to be honest to the script. I generally read a script once or twice, and then when we are editing it, I read the scene as it comes. My first step, therefore, is to make the cut exactly like the script. My entire first cut is always like the script. If there are no shot transitions mentioned, I will not put them. It will be exactly like it is there in the script. It’s very important for us to start at level one. I don’t reach a magical cut immediately. It has to be a process.
The first cut is where you sit with the director. Half the time, the director knows that the scene won’t work because of something, and he might have shot the sequence thinking about something else altogether. There are sometimes extra sequences shot as well, which are not there in the script. So, he would say, ‘Vo daal ke dekho.’ You could then decide if something seems repetitive or something is taking too much time. So, you start discussing with the director. Then you take out your toolbox, as you call it, and you start tweaking things, with the director being there because he has to know where the film is going, because he will also guide you on what is important. It’s not a solo process.
He could go out for four or five days and then come back to it, yet you would have to follow his vision ascertained through the discussions and notes that you would have made. Then, when people will see it in screenings, they will give you certain opinions and options, which, in all likelihood, you’d know won’t work because you either tried it or you will be angry and say, ‘Ab bas, ab nahi sunna.’ But somehow you always end up using the suggestion that they’ve given you. I always make that cut even if I’m not showing it to anybody. It’s on my paper, and it’s always done; whether it works or not, it is always tried.
“My entire first cut is always like the script. It’s very important for us to start at level one. I don’t reach a magical cut immediately. It has to be a process.”
Then you start using your tools, and you start using your various transitions to make the film that it is. Nowhere do you lose the track of the story. When I say it is grammatical tweaks that we do, it is exactly this. These are tools we use to enhance an emotion, or make the motion a little compressed, or to jump time and space.
Smriti Kiran: How does sound overlap help the narrative creatively?
Prerna Saigal: Filmmaking is, in a way, re-enacting reality. You’re showing reality in another form, which you are already aware of. For example, sound – you know certain things happen after certain things. We can use that information in a film, like the car for example. I’ve used it in Afsos, in episode five where Upadhyay (played by Heeba Shah) gets stabbed, and the next shot is that of the psychiatrist’s office. We don’t show anything – the car, the travelling, entry or exit, nothing – it was simply that the car stops and Upadhyay enters. I wouldn’t say this was taken directly, but you do know how, in your childhood, the sound of the car stopping signified that your father was home, and then you would see him directly on the dining table. It isn’t exactly interpreted that way, but that thought came from there, subconsciously.
It’s not just sound overlap. It would be unfair if I say that it’s the only tool. It’s one of the tools that I enjoy because it has a story behind it and how I started using it.
I would like to say that all the transitions that we use in the edit are always a replication of a real-life thing. A wipe, for example – you have buses wipe in front of you, or you have a person who acts as a wipe if you’re in a restaurant when they come in and, say, take the glass away. When the wipe happens, you know ki glass chala gaya. Even if you take the example of, say, a page peel. You read books, you change pages, right? It’s used in real life. It’s not that a black hole comes into your real-life visual if you’re browsing books in a bookstore and you find the book that you want. You zoom in to that particular book that you want to pick up. So, an iris is something like that. Whatever these tools are, they’re actually something that has happened in real life. The mind is accustomed to understanding why this is happening.
So, as an editor, we play on that; as a filmmaker, we play on that – how we could use it in the narrative to make it free-flowing.
Similarly, sound cuts are already there. The human mind is already aware of how it works. These types are actually called J- and L-cuts, coming from the alphabets. If you see the shape of it, you’ll understand that one is where the sound starts before the image comes in, and the other is where sound follows into the succeeding image or cut.
The image of the interface above is of FCP, which is Final Cut Pro. If you see the interface, you’ll see that the blue lines are the video files, and the green lines are the audio files. The faint line in the first quarter, which extends across the files, is the cut.
If you look closely, you’ll see that the sound has started before the next visual comes in. The first visual is of Supri (played by Radhika Madan) giving a punch, and the next one is that of a mesh net on to which Surya (played by Abhimanyu Dassani) falls. This was a test video which we had shot to see how we would shoot. So, the sound takes us to the next cut. The punch isn’t shown on Supri’s hand, but we jump to Surya banging on to this net. This is a J-cut, where the sound starts in advance; its opposite – where the sound lingers on to the next cut – is called an L-cut. This process makes the whole thing very seamless.
Smriti Kiran: Basically, sound starting before the next shot comes in, and sound that lingers on to the next shot that you cut to is what you are referring to as a J- and L-cuts because the lower lines in their shape, the sound files, take that shape in either cut.
Prerna Saigal: Yes. It unifies the cut. It’s covering the cut. These cuts can be used at various levels. It’s not just on single shots. It can be done on scenes as well, transitioning from one scene to another; it can be from the start of the film to the end of the film.
A great example of this is Contagion. It begins on a black frame, and you hear people’s voices in the background, so you know it’s a crowded place, and there’s a cough. Then you see our character there. It’s a closed shot. You don’t really see the wide shot, and they wouldn’t have to shoot wide since they had already established through sound that it’s an airport. They could finish the scenes in close up, and hence focus on the details – for example, the cup, the peanuts that she had – instead of establishing things. That’s how the choice of shots change. It’s an edit decision to choose to use these shots here because you already answered certain questions with sound.
Smriti Kiran: Apart from really big projects, you’ve also worked on independent films. Peddlers was that one passion project that you did, where you were the associate director and also the editor. There were five days of footage that were lost. For an independent film, that’s massive because you don’t have the budgets to reshoot. Does the use of intelligent editing and these kinds of tools also help in logistically threading the narrative together?
Prerna Saigal: When you said that with Peddlers I fell in love with the process again, that’s exactly what I want to say here. Initially, I was a purist; I would always go by the book. Nowadays you don’t have five days of footage. Vasan, apart from being my husband, is also my mentor. It was he who opened up my mind. I bullied Vasan into making me an associate director on the film because I had stopped liking editing. It may have been because of the process that I was going through or the people that I was meeting. I felt that I wasn’t happy doing editing because nothing was happening. It wasn’t challenging for me. It was unnecessary labour that I was doing. I wasn’t going anywhere. So, I told him, ‘I want to be an associate director. If you make me an associate director, I will edit your film.’ I don’t know what Vasan saw in me. Maybe I was too loud, and he just relented. But I am so glad that I did this film because it taught what Naik sir had taught me: to respect your rushes and that your answers are always there in them.
As an editor, we have to find a way out, and that’s our job. Everybody has done things, and now it’s our job to make it happen. If the footage is lost, it is lost; and there is no way that the film cannot be made. It’s not an option. This is when a glitch becomes your power, and it is an opportunity to experiment.
The first mention I saw of myself – that Prerna’s editing is worth mentioning – was at Cannes. I couldn’t imagine my name appearing in a review until then. I enjoyed the movie. I simply thought, ‘I’ve had fun working on this, editing this film. Now let’s see what I can do next.’ But I couldn’t deny that I was in love with the process, I was enjoying it, and so it somewhere stayed with me.
Whatever we shot for Peddlers, we used in the film. Vasan had a great grip on the script, and whatever he wanted, he shot. In the case of a crucial scene, it helped that I was on set; I was aware of the problem. When Vasan came up with a solution, it was evidently clear to me how it could be done. There is an important fight sequence in the film between two characters. We had called for two cameras to shoot the scene. Somehow, we ended with a Red MX and an Alexa. Now, the footage from these two cameras did not match – you couldn’t use it together. How would you film a fight sequence from one camera? You have to keep the people engaged; you have to make sure that there is fear and gore; people need to see the good side of one person, and the truth behind the other; and here you could see only one angle, if at all it was shot with only one camera. How would you do it?
“As an editor, we have to find a way out, and that’s our job. If the footage is lost, it is lost. This is when a glitch becomes your power, and it is an opportunity to experiment.”
Luckily, there was a shot taken of character B which was the aftermath of the fight. Because we could get that shot, we took it. It wasn’t planned in any way. That shot ended up becoming the most significant shot that we used to finish our climax. What we did was, we started the fight, touched upon the topics that had to be touched in the visuals, and the rest of the fight finished on this character. Through this, we were able to show what was happening to the other character as well: he was being beaten black and blue and his bones were breaking – none of which were shown; these were done purely through sound. It suddenly became such a scary shot. It was really brutal. Even when we watched the film at Cannes – we watched it there for the first time because we were only ensuring that the film was finished so that we could send it to them – we too were taken aback by the sound and the visuals, and just how the scene had been done. After the screening, I remember, a person came up to Vasan and said, ‘You don’t look like a dangerous guy.’
The sound design was done by (Anthony) Ruban, but the idea of putting the sound of bone cracking and such were all taken on the edit table, which we stumbled upon because we had no other option. We had to finish the film. When you start a film, there is hope and whatever little money attached, you have to finish the film. So, this was an opportunity that resulted in some great editing decisions, which also helped the movie in ways we could not have imagined. Suddenly, the climax became tenfold stronger.
There’s always an opportunity. Always try to find that; it makes the process more exciting and fun. In Afsos, of course, we couldn’t get the shot of the queen talking on the telephone, there is a shot of Buckingham Palace where the queen’s telephone conversation is overlapped. Somebody had dubbed it. But it solved the purpose. That is the magic of filmmaking: you’re making people believe even when they aren’t seeing it. Sound does that. That’s why it’s a fun thing to do.
Smriti Kiran: Sometimes the grammar of an edit becomes different because you’re thinking about other considerations apart from the narrative while working on a mainstream film, like market considerations or accentuating certain parts, that you might not in an independent film. Could you tell us about the producers’ approach that you would have to accommodate on both counts?
Prerna Saigal: As an editor, you’re not forced to put in a song. The director’s being forced to put in a song. I will just have to cut it and put it in. The pressure is not on me. People do take that pressure on themselves, but I don’t. If there is a song that works on the script level and if the producers and director have decided it, then I will put it in. It could be something that is required, or something from a commercial point of view, where they would have promised that this will be there and is essential for the film to release. Who am I to stop that from happening? I can’t stop them from putting that song. It’s a director’s call completely.
Having said that, one needs to understand that there are constraints, such as duration, in both categories. In Peddlers, for example, we had to use shots taken by 5D or GoPro, because we didn’t have shots. I cannot be choosy in that regard and say that this footage won’t work here. I have to put it in; I have to respect the rushes in that case. Though in Bombay Velvet we had no restrictions as such, I went in knowing that there would be four-five song sequences in it, because it was a so-called commercial film. Also, Anurag (Kashyap) sir was taking all the pressure upon himself, so it barely reached me – I was simply editing it with a clear mind. I haven’t really done many commercial films, but going into it, you’d know that the script itself would tell you there will be a song here or a song there. Nobody is going to force you to put a song.
Aaj-kal I think everybody has become clear. You know what you’re getting into. When you sign a film, it’s not like you know it’s an offbeat or a festival film, per se. They all want to be commercial and want it to be played in festivals and gain recognition. As long as producers get money, itna koi pressure nahi rehta. If at all there is pressure, it is on the director. It’s not on the editor. That’s the thumb rule in my life: never take pressure for anything, everything will be sorted. So just chill.
Smriti Kiran: How much of editing is technology and how much of it is sensibility?
Prerna Saigal: Sensibility is everything. If you don’t have a sensibility, what are you going to do with the technology? You cannot do anything. But now times have changed. Earlier, people were working on film reels. People have to increase their knowledge about technology and even the process, like editing non-linear as compared to linear.
Thelma (Schoonmaker) told me about this software called Lightworks that has a special control panel, which is like a flatbed editing system, specially created for her. It makes her editing experience similar to what it was earlier. But, again, since everything is non-linear and it has to be given to various departments, the technology and artistry involved have to be linked. This, in Thelma’s case, is done by an associate of her’s, who is amazing technologically. Not knowing about technology doesn’t hamper Thelma’s efforts – not knowing Avid or Premiere Pro doesn’t matter. Her mind, the sense with which she sees the rushes, the cuts, the discussions, her reasons to do something, simply, are not technology-driven. That is her sensibility.
I have never worked on Steenbeck. I’ve seen it during my one-year course at FTII, but we weren’t allowed to work on it because it was another course altogether. I did see it – I don’t know how it works – and found it fascinating. I have always worked on non-linear. It’s important for me to know the technology. I have to explain things to the sound department or some other department, so I should know the things that I am talking about. If they tell me that it cannot be done, I can then tell them that it can be done and show them how, or vice versa. You have to grow and evolve with technology. You can’t just say that you have a good sense of it and so it should be done like that. You have to be open to technology.
“If you don’t have a sensibility, what are you going to do with the technology?”
For example, FCP 7 is dying out. Avid is still there. FCP 10 has come in, so has Premiere Pro. See, the basics for all of those are the same. It’s just the interface that keeps changing, and you have to grow with it. Bombay Velvet was done on Avid. Because it was a big-budget film, they could afford Avid, which is very expensive software. There is also an associate who works with you. So, for young people who want to get their feet inside the edit room, learn Avid. You’ll get money, you’ll be paid well, and you’ll get a chance to be in the edit room.
Technology is important now, but it’s not the only thing. It’s maybe only 20%. It’s a bonus if you know it.
Smriti Kiran: Prerna, you’ve spent about 14 years in the industry. If I were to transport you back in time, what are the things that people can do to just learn? To get the best out of their experience there?
Prerna Saigal: You have to get your foot inside the room first. At any cost, you have to make sure that you are there. Luckily, I was there. Even though I may have stumbled inside the door, I was there, fortunately, to have experienced those things, and I was aware of whatever was happening. For somebody who is starting out, I feel that being an assistant is always good. Going step by step always makes your life steadier. You can make mistakes at that level, and once you’re an editor, you don’t have to be scared of making those mistakes (but you have to learn and make sure that you don’t do it again).
Film schools are a great idea if you can go. It’s a place where you can make all the mistakes and learn from them. It’s also a place that will make you feel more guarded and comfortable. But if you can’t go to film school, for whatever reasons, please start assisting. It sounds good to hear that I never assisted anybody, and did whatever I did. But I had to assist; I had no option. I was glad that Shan Mohammed, who is another FTII alumni, gave me a chance to assist him on his film, Frozen. I was also a rushes runner on Frozen, by the way. I did every possible thing that they offered me. In that first year, I think I only earned 30,000 rupees. There was no money. Still, I was enjoying it. I was doing something that I was excited about. It was shot in black and white. I was a part of the discussion between the director and the DOP. Subconsciously, it was all coming in my head. It was so immensely valuable. You cannot pay a price for that.
So, you should first enter the room – be a part of any project in any capacity. Later, supposing that you’re an AD, you can say that I want to be a post-production AD. You can learn things there. Be open to it. People will love you if you want to become a post-production AD because many people leave after the shoot is complete. Shooting is one part, which is fun and difficult, but post-production is another ball game altogether. So, get your foot inside, join the industry in any capacity and be open, because every stage is learning.
I remember being the script supervisor, I used to love watching the live rushes on the screen. So, I was also a part of the edit in Victory. I wasn’t a part of the edit team. I was the post-production AD. Another thing: when I was the post-production AD, there was also a chance to be the second unit director, where I had the opportunity to shoot the opening montage of the film. The associate and first AD said that it couldn’t be done. I told them that I’d do it. I’d travel and get the shots needed. I felt that giving me a film camera and film to shoot on, and to travel, would be invaluable. My brief was to shoot cricket in every form. So, I told the director that I’d shoot blind cricket because I remember my mother used to go to blind school to buy diyas, where she had also gotten to know about blind cricket. They thought it was a good idea. I took my mother’s help to secure permission, and I went and shot it. They liked the footage and asked me if I could shoot some footage in front of the India Gate. With no permission and a film camera, I was there batting by myself and shooting, so we got a shot there. I can’t tell you the kind of experience it was! We also shot some footage aboard the mini-train in Darjeeling, where all of us were shouting, looking down at the valley below, ‘Bat maaro, ball maaro!’ It was an amazing experience. I remember one reviewer said that keeping the film aside, the opening montage was the best part. I was credited for it, and I was so happy. I never said no to it. I was there for the edit of the shot as well; of course, Ballu sir did it and made it into what it was, but he was really happy with the rushes and the variety he got. I suppose that came subconsciously because I am an editing person at heart, so I could figure that it would make the entire setup more 3D and give the shots some variety. We were not only cutting on people playing cricket, but also on reactions. I took those shots because I was experienced in editing.
Smriti Kiran: You have not only worked with Indian directors but also directors from the West like Danis Tanović on his film Tigers. What is the difference between working with a person in a Western outfit and working with a person in an Indian outfit?
Prerna Saigal: In Bombay Velvet, there’s a pan to a newspaper that says ‘Godse hanged.’ It’s clear what the time and place is: India has attained independence – the mood is set. This shot gave additional flavour to the montage.
When Thelma saw the shot, she asked me what it was and what was the reason behind staying on it for so long, because Godse didn’t mean anything to her. They know who Gandhi was, but not Godse. This helped me a lot on Tigers. Danis is an amazing person. Initially, I was scared of him. He’s a Bosnian-Punjabi. He is so much fun to be with. He, too, loves the process of editing. So with him, it was important to explain certain things because it was a language which he did not understand. He was a viewer – the eyes – from the West, in this case, and I was handling the Indian perspective of the edit. A lot of explaining had to be done through the visuals.
“Filmmaking and the language of filmmaking is universal. It’s only the interpretation of certain parts which need to be explained.”
We would discuss the rushes every evening for 15-20 minutes, and he would often point out that he’d liked a certain take because the dialogues were really good. I asked him how he was able to figure it out without knowing the language. He said, ‘Prerna, I just follow the eyes. If the eyes hold on to me, I hold on to the shot.’ That’s the sign of a great director. He had the script so firmly etched in his mind. Therefore, in this case, the Western sensibility and Indian sensibility was clearer. You can see it in the way it is shot as well – the way the Indian part is shot and the way the Western part is shot. For example, the colours that you see in the film are a little over-the-top because that’s how the West sees us. It’s not India but Pakistan, yet that perspective remains. Certain jokes are a little over-the-top, but not as much. They even have a little Bosnian flavour because Danis has brought in his own take, too. It can be seen in the dining room scene, where the mother says something along the lines of ‘Khaana pehle khaa lo, shaanti baad mein rakh lena.’ This was from his family experiences. This was brought into the scene by Danis.
Filmmaking and the language of filmmaking is universal. Either the film speaks to you or it doesn’t. The clarity has to be there. You have to watch the rushes. You have to make your notes. You have to do the first cut. You have to do the views. It’s only the interpretation of certain parts which need to be explained. That’s how we relate to international films so many times. There are certain points that connect with us, and certain track points, like the bit about Godse which Thelma did not understand, would not connect due to obvious cultural and historical differences, which have to be ironed out. Otherwise, it is a universal language. People around the world understand. That’s how films work.
Smriti Kiran: What are the few things that you feel can change about the industry that can make it a more humane place?
Prerna Saigal: I’m going to talk about editing first. I don’t know why people have a fear of sharing or giving credits. I don’t know why people try to chop off the credits of editors. Why? It’s an important place to be in. It’s an important department. Every department is important, and so is editing. What’s wrong with giving the editor a credit on the poster? I find it extremely weird. There’s even a clause on the contract sometimes which states that the right to give credit rests with the producer. Arre kaam kiya hai, toh naam toh daal do. Kya jaata hai? Aisa toh nahi hai ki kaam nahi kiya hai. Why don’t you share credit?
A norm that I find really disturbing in the industry, which stems from a very chalta hai attitude, is not paying people on time. Things such as treatment, equality are all there, but ye toh basic hai na? You have to pay people on time. Why do people have to send reminders again and again, especially after the post-production? Everybody is paid, but suddenly, editors’ ke liye paisa khatam ho jaata hai. I find it a little weird to understand that. Even in ad films, everybody else’s payments would be made, but the editor’s payment would be made after the film is sold. What is so wrong that you don’t want to pay the editors on time and pay them well? Not just editors, but the post department in general.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Avadhoot Borkar: In a movie with a complex narrative, where there may be different types of scenes with different rhythms altogether, how can one effectively maintain the flow?
Prerna Saigal: It’s a question which depends on the script and how it’s written. But you have to have a common thread. It’s very important to have something that is common to all the elements, be it action or romance or drama, and in equal measure. Let me give you the example of Bombay Velvet, where we had to show the growth of Bombay into the huge place that it is, Johnny and Rosie’s (played by Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma) love story, Khambatta (played by Karan Johar) cracking land deals, and simultaneously, journalists writing about all these events, and much more, culminating with the end of Naak Pe Gussa. It’s not an exact example of sound overlap, but it does contain it along with dissolves, wipes and superimpositions in order to bring the story in and thread it all together.
We also see a shot of Khambatta telling Rosie that he knows about Jimmy Mistry (played by Manish Choudhary) and her. Also, while explaining the land deal, there’s also a subtle shot of Khambatta touching his hand; we show a shot with romantic undercurrents between Khambatta and Johnny; also, the plight of the minister who is being harassed because he has the negatives. These play out with jazz music in the background, which segues into Naak Pe Gussa. The montage ends with Rosie being at Bombay Velvet and a press conference which led to it all, where the minister speaks against having Nariman Point built. He did it because Rumi Mehta and Khambatta had a deal. These were five-six tracks which we brought together with the help of music. It bound all of that.
There were also several sound overlaps: Jimmy Mistry typing goes into the visual of how the revolution is taking place; Johnny looking at Rosie lovingly, yet taking care of Rumi Mehta and all – bringing them cigars, introducing and greeting each other. All of these people in Bombay Velvet are all important; how it culminates is how we bring their stories together. We start in one place and bring it all together with the help of sound, music and overlaps because we are dealing with a lot of characters and issues. You need that one unifying factor. It depends: if it works here, it won’t necessarily work in your case. You need to know the script. You need to know the final result of the script to take all these edit decisions about how you will put it and where.
Manas Mittal: How does your approach differ on the edit when you edit a fully scripted or designed sequence as opposed to something that was improvised?
Prerna Saigal: There are two scenes from Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota which I can take as examples to illustrate. One was clearly written in the script, including the transitions that had to be used, and the other was something that we created on the edit table.
The thing that we did on the edit table was the scene when young Surya runs away from the apartment building and enters the bungalow that his Aajoba (played by Mahesh Manjrekar) owns. It starts with an overlap where he is shown to be thinking about his broken promise to Supri, and Aajoba tells him that he now has a responsibility towards his father, and goes on to tell him about himself. He says, ‘Main bhi teri hi tarah tha jab main chhota tha. Main bhi Netaji se milne gaya tha.’ When he starts telling his story, we begin the montage of Supri running out. The moment he says, ‘Aur jab main Netaji se mila’ we see Michael Kamaraj.
These two were completely different scenes. They were taking a lot of time in the narrative. But they were beautiful, and we really wanted these shots to be in the film. Of course, there were ADRs that were added later on. But the thing is that it wasn’t shot with that plan. Those visuals magically started making sense – how Aajoba might have run, they are also running in the same way; how he must have faced his problems, and how they encounter their problems – when Aajoba’s narration was placed as an overlap; it unified those two scenes which were earlier taking 14-15 minutes logistically. After we made the edit, it turned out to be an eight-minute scene. Suddenly, it also became impactful, because you were seeing what he was saying. This was one of those cuts which we created on the table.
Just to clarify: the scene between Aajoba and young Surya is there in the film, but the story that Aajoba narrates isn’t. Earlier, it was that he reaches the house, he runs away, Aajoba beats the goons and then the story is spoken about. So, this is how we brought those two things together and made it more interesting, hopefully.
The other scene, which was there in the script, was of Supri and Surya meeting when they are adults, as they are pushing Master Mani (played by Gulshan Devaiah) on the wheelbarrow while there is a fight going on in the background, playing out through sound. That was a call that Vasan had taken – that even if there was a fight, they’d do anything for Master Mani. He was very clear from the beginning that he didn’t want to shoot that – the fight was secondary. They’ve found each other, which is already shown through Supri’s reaction when Surya says ‘Ouch,’ because nobody else does that. She knew. Also, if he’s calling him Master Mani, then it became obvious that it was indeed Surya kyunki Master Mani bas yahi dono bulaate the. We’d already cleared those things. That’s when the overlap happens. This was there in the script, but the previous one was something that we reached at after going through it on the edit table.
Abhishek Singh: How do you balance your vision with the director’s vision since they could differ on the edit table?
Prerna Saigal: First of all, we need to know that it is not a fight in the edit room. We both are working towards making the same film. Vision is one, and so is working together. But I also have to give him options for a scene. If I feel that a scene done in a certain way can also be done in another way, I will keep the option ready. I have to show it to them. The film is their baby, though. Eventually, how the film is going to look will be their decision. Nonetheless, I have to put in all the possible options to them. They need to see it. Most of the time, we do bring in – I wouldn’t call it the editor’s cut – the cut that we have decided.
The Mard sequence that I spoke about was done randomly. Everybody kept saying that it was too long. So, I picked up the visual and put it on the sound, and it worked, which means that I catered to Vasan’s vision as well. It’s a thought that came to my mind and connected to the vision that he had. The vision has to be the same, in any case. It’s not a battleground. We are all working towards making the same film, the same story.
After FTII, I did feel like I had to be extremely firm as an editor. But I realised later on that it isn’t about being firm, it’s about telling your point of view, putting it across. It’s a two-way process. You show your vision, then it’s up to the director to take it or not.
Priyanka Arora: As a student of editing at FTII, you’d know that we have always been told that we are supposed to cover up for everybody’s mistakes, but the sound designer is the only person who can cover up for our mistakes. How important are your interactions with the sound designer in this regard? Do you note down the sounds that could be used during prep?
Prerna Saigal: Sound is important, as I have said repeatedly. I generally do a little bit of sound design myself and then send it across. Of course, there are certain things that have to be smoothened out in the sound process. I’ve worked a lot with Anthony Ruban. Because we’ve worked on so many projects together, we know each other. We speak over call, where I tell him what my cut was and where I need some smoothening. It is, again, a collaborative effort, where I tell him my problem, and he plays his part in it. Of course, sound design is an important part. He is, in effect, making the film 3D. If you take Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, my job is to show the difference between Supri and Surya’s punches, or where they miss punches – this is my responsibility because it is the call of the narrative.
The final fight sequence, between Surya and Samurai (played by Prateek Parmar), is displayed like a game with points, where we had to show Surya losing two points. Visually, it looks like a punch, but it is my responsibility to add the whoosh effect to denote that it’s a miss. It’s very important for me to give those pointers to the sound designer. The process is not about hiding mistakes, it’s about making the film more engaging and interesting. It’s an important job. I find sound very interesting because it makes your scene what it is. Even in Peddlers, Vasan and Ruban added a Tamil song because it meant something to them. With the inclusion of the song, the area that the scene was set in reflected the dominance of Tamilians there, where we see a Maharashtrian and a Bangladeshi in a Tamilian household. That’s how them being in a Tamilian household was conveyed.
These are small things that are not in your face but make an impact, and help you to automatically understand.
See, Peddlers is not an example that I can give here at all when it comes to prep. We would just take the camera and shoot. There was no prep. You had to be alert; your tools and your editing instinct had to be sharp enough. From the perspective of an associate director, it was more of an on the job thing, because editing came later – I wasn’t even thinking about editing while shooting. But since I was living with the rushes, it certainly helped while taking the decision to edit and editing it. For Mard, however, we started doing that right after we read the script and went into prep. We started collecting a lot of sounds. We also did some research on fight sounds because they can sound comical, so we had to be sure about what sounds we were using. Even in the offline stages of editing, the sound had to be correct because it was telling something about Surya as a person, considering he was very serious about landing his punches well and was a martial arts fan. It was very important to cater to his viewing experiences as well for Vasan. Editors generally have a box full of SFX. But in the case of Mard, to get the right sound of the punches was important. We did have a bank ready along with some reference songs, which were not used in the film but we cut on those. We did that in Bombay Velvet, in fact. We downloaded a lot of jazz songs.
Priyanka Rehel: How do you accentuate the importance of B-rolls and montages using transition tools and sound effects apart from J- and L-cuts at the start and end of a scene? During which stage of production are the B-rolls and montages planned and done?
Prerna Saigal: Even though Peddlers was a small budget film, there were a lot of ambient shots taken, which really helped us to compensate for the lost footage. I bound it together with sound coming from a radio. All those B-rolls helped me in establishing the area and making us aware of where the story is set, which was the Worli village.
If I had to take another example, I would take Tigers. B-rolls in Tigers were very important. The sound of babies crying was on a B-roll. It was shot in Pakistan, but we had to show it in a way that Dr Faiz (played by Satyadeep Mishra) was indeed showing the babies. Sound played a very important role. The sound was dubbed in such a way that it remained the same even when we would cut across scenes, so people wouldn’t understand what we were cutting to. These things were shot separately. Sound, of course, made a nice bridge to cover it.
B-rolls really help us in certain situations that we might be stuck in, in establishing a place, and so on.
In Bombay Velvet, we see shots of workers’ working and land filling up, which were already thought of and taken by the second unit team. B-rolls were a very specific job here. For example, the shot where Khambatta tells Johnny to stab the person and play it on the projector was shot properly by the second unit, and the effect was put in later. It was already thought and planned at the script level itself.
As for Peddlers, those shots were just taken as we went along knowing that we would fall short of rushes – Peddlers was a different experience altogether. In Tigers, again, B-rolls were planned; the shot taking wasn’t planned, but we knew what we wanted.
Yashodara Udupa: Could you tell us a bit about using silence and how it helps draw attention to something or evoking certain emotions like fear or mystery?
Prerna Saigal: I don’t know how best to explain it, but, say, the room tone would be silence. I don’t often know how I’ll use it; it mostly depends on the film. I can tell you how it was used in Martin Scorsese’s Silence. It starts with silence. Even the logos of the production companies involved do not have any sound; it was specially requested by the creative team that the corporations do not add any music to their logos. They purposefully did it that way so that people were drawn to the film. That’s a good example. Even in Amour (by Michael Haneke), there’s no music apart from the piano sequence. They haven’t used sound at all, because they have shown that no windows were open in the otherwise quiet house itself. Only once the windows open do you hear sound flowing back in again.
To explain how I use sound, I can only say that I do it instinctively. It’s a very powerful tool.
Avinash Madivada: Is there a difference in the edit decisions that you take while editing a mainstream film as compared to an offbeat film?
Prerna Saigal: I don’t have a plan for every film. When I enter the editing suite, I am nervous and blank. I read the script, I watch the rushes, and I become even more nervous. Then I take notes, and slowly from there on the film starts falling into place. The script becomes the Bible. That’s my process for every film. The editing style is always directed by how the script is. The script demands an editing style. Like, Tigers required intercutting between two stories – that’s the style. But there will be a film, like Pagglait (by Umesh Bist), where it will be singular, which is due to the fact that you’re only following one person throughout the film. The way I ensured it was that there is some mention of the person or the person themselves was there throughout the film.
Taking edit decisions is not a style or an approach that I harbour within me. I don’t have a style – that’s the best way to approach any film. You go inside the room, go in with a blank mind, and let the rushes fill it up, and you’ll automatically get the answers. When you start editing, the rhythm will be there. Rhythm can also be ascertained from the way that shots are taken. You would understand how they’d want you to cut. These things come with experience. A DOP won’t call me or tell me. It’s automatic. It’ll flow. That’s how it will happen. So, you have to view the rushes repeatedly to find the rhythm and cutting style inherently present in it.
I don’t think I’ll ever have a cutting style. I don’t want to have a cutting style. I want to reinvent. Why would I have a cutting style? I want to be different in every film that I do. It’ll also be fun that way, no? I also don’t approach films using those categories, by the way. Both those types of films have to be engaging. You have to be honest to the subject and the script while cutting any film. That’s the only way.
Sujay Bhonsle: How does an editor work with unfinished VFX work?
Prerna Saigal: There are two kinds of unfinished VFX works: one, which doesn’t affect the narrative much, as there may only be a green screen in the background which would have to be worked upon; and the other is that which does affect the narrative, like Mani’s leg in Mard. I was lucky with that too – Gulshan Devaiah is a great actor and he was limping all throughout the shoot. But I was thinking what if he did not. What if he was thinking that I’d walk aur mera limp aa jayega? That would have been a problem for me.
When we are working with VFX shots, we have read it in the script in the first place. So, we start imagining it in our head, and then also discuss it with the VFX supervisors. For Bombay Velvet, we did sit with VFX supervisors who had created pre-viz for certain exterior shots of Bombay, for example. I had already seen those visuals. Once you’ve seen them, you’re aware. It’s at the back of your head, and hence you start cutting the film from the narrative’s point of view. You won’t bother about the green screen. You would cut a dialogue sequence as a dialogue sequence. You will cut between two scenes for what they are narratively because you already know the end product.
In that meeting with the VFX team, it is clearly laid out what they are going to do. So, you have an idea. Once you’re aware of it, it’s not difficult at all. Again, Mani’s leg was a real cause of concern, but Gulshan was limping and jumping as a one-legged person would in any case. Had he not done that; it would have been a problem to cover it. I wonder how I would have shown it. If somebody is limping, they have to have a little bounce, right? That was my worry, but it was sorted. It didn’t bother me much, thankfully.
You have to be in touch with the VFX team, however. You need to see the pre-viz, and see how they are planning to do certain things, and if your cut would be affected by it. It could also be that they come in and watch your cut and then plan how they’d introduce VFX based on that cut. It’s a back and forth process essentially.
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