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Smriti Kiran: I find editing the ultimate act of love. You’re given all the ingredients to create a dish that needs to taste a certain way for the people who consume it and fill their heart with a unique emotion. A longtime collaborator of Martin Scorsese, renowned editor Thelma Schoonmaker said that it’s very hard for people to understand editing. “It’s absolutely like sculpture. You get a big lump of clay, and you have to form it — this raw, unedited, very long footage.”

Shweta Venkat Mathew rose to prominence with Anurag Kashyap’s classic Gangs of Wasseypur. She has edited short films, advertisements and feature films. Her impressive repertoire includes Devashish Makhija’s Bhonsle, Amit Masurkar’s Newton, she was the consulting editor on Zoya Akhtar’s Made in Heaven, Vinil Mathew’s Hasee Toh Phasee, Siddharth P. Malhotra’s Hichki, Akshay Roy’s Meri Pyaari Bindu, and even under lockdown, she is working to get Vinil Mathew’s Haseen Dilruba out to us.

Shweta is going to be talking about the preparation before you actually start editing. Then she’s going to talk about the first steps when you actually get into the edit room and finally, the key challenges faced by the editor and how to overcome them.

Editing is one of the cornerstones of filmmaking. What is the trajectory of an editor coming on board a film?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: Smriti, there are different kinds of people in this world. One who thinks that editors are important enough to be called at the scripting stage, or when the script is 80% there. These are the people who know who they’d want to collaborate with, so they get their editor on board and involve them by narrating and discussing the script, then getting their feedback. That’s type one.

Type two are the ones who call you one day before, or one week before the edit, saying that they have the film shot and they’d like you to begin editing it. I don’t understand how that works out, but, yes, there are those also. Lastly, there are those people who’ll have a rough cut ready because they might have editors in mind who generally keep busy and who might not be able to come on board from scratch.

Let’s talk about the first one. Thankfully, that breed is increasing right now because people are understanding the importance of having an editor on board early on, which is very important because if there are any issues with the screenplay or with the flow of the narrative the editor can point and mark those portions out to refine the script. Not only that, but I also think that it’s very crucial because the editor can then help in cutting down the excesses. These may be beats that might not be needed in the script or the film. A good editor would be able to point them out and mark them. Then people could come together to have a kadak script, so to speak. You have to get everybody on the same wavelength, which is very important. Having every member of the crew on board from the initial scripting stage until entering production is essential.

“Marinate in the rushes. Watch them.”

Having said that, I would like to limit my involvement during scripting because I get easily fatigued if I get too involved in the day to day affairs of scripting and shot division. I do my job, of course. But, I like a little bit of distance because when I finally start viewing the material, attacking the footage, I have a bit of spontaneity left in me. I’m not already fatigued with what I’m going to see.

Smriti Kiran: As far as your process goes, how do you prepare before you actually get inside the editing room? What do you do when you come on board a project?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: The first and foremost thing one has to do is to view the footage.

What happens in narrations is that people’s visual palettes come to the fore. For example, if I tell you a scene, say, a boy waiting for a girl at a coffee shop, you might imagine it in a completely different way than I would. For me, it’s very important to understand what this film is going to look like. It could go either way. Viewing your rushes is one of the most important steps in this process before you begin editing.

The important thing in this stage is to be able to get onto the same page as the director. That’s extremely important for you in case you want to begin your journey with the director because you’re going to be spending close to seven-eight months editing. So, marinate in the rushes. Watch them.

Earlier, when people would shoot films, the producer would screen the rushes for everybody just to get an idea about whether or not everybody is on the right track. It’s the same funda. This helps me with two things: first, get on the same page as the director in terms of visual sense; second, it helps me memorise the shots because then I know the shots specific to each scene.

“It’s human instinct to react and immediately start editing. So, for me, it’s essential to put it together according to the script.

I need to store them somewhere so that when I really need to access that information while I’m editing a scene, it proves useful. I know my shots. I know what I’m in for. At the same time, if there is something which I’m missing and I need to call for more ambient or mood shots to plug in the gaps, which might not be available later on, I can call the team shooting at the location immediately and ask the director if those shots can be taken. So, viewing your footage is step one. There are no shortcuts to this.

Smriti Kiran: Do you put a timeline to the edit, and either start approaching scenes individually and tighten it as you go along or does the process begin mid-shoot as you keep receiving footage?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: Generally, films are not shot in chronological order. A director might start shooting scene 54, then go to scene 100, and then come back to scene one. We know that this is how the flow is going to be. You start taking individual scenes as they come to you. If scene 54 has been shot first, I need to see it in isolation. I start editing that particular scene and whatever comes after it. We then slowly put them together in a timeline and build the whole narrative. For me, it’s essential that I see the film as the director sees it in their mind. It’s also fair to them.

I start editing right away. To use the technical term, there’s nothing like assembling. It’s human instinct to react and immediately start editing. So, for me, it’s essential to put it together according to the script. I have to show that to the directors.

Smriti Kiran: How does the progression from reading to watching the rushes to putting together the scene work? What are the factors that make you decide when, what and how to cut?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: That is the biggest dilemma ever. I was interning at a studio where I learnt an important lesson from an advertising director who said that even if you don’t know, don’t show that you don’t know. We are also human beings; we come and look at a scene, and we are made to feel as if we are supposed to know how to cut it. But, no, you’re also trying to grapple with the material and trying to find a way around it.

“I am going to cut on emotional beats. Nobody cares about continuity.”

There are a few points which we have to keep in mind. First, when we see the scene for the first time, we need to figure out what is the intention of the scene. By intention, I mean seeking out the purpose of the scene in that film. We know the scene in the script, but when you’re editing it, how are you going to approach it? That’s when understanding the intention comes in.

Second, what is the emotion that comes with the scene, and where does it come in the script? What is the emotion that I have to land? What is the final thing I need to derive out of the scene? Where does the scene take me to? I start building a scene, so where am I supposed to land with it? Apart from that, you have to consider how the story is progressing at that point in time in the film. By this stage, you already know the script like the back of your hand, so you know how it may fit into the story.

There are other, smaller things like continuity. People who know me well know that I don’t look at continuity at all. It takes them a while to get around to that. It just doesn’t strike me. You could be wearing a pair of glasses in one shot, and I couldn’t care less about it in the next shot. I don’t care that I haven’t noticed it. It’s horrible for an editor when somebody points out a continuity error. I get very annoyed by it. Don’t tell me if I haven’t seen it because my eyes will only be going there. That also decides the cutting point at times. However, I am going to cut on emotional beats. Nobody cares about continuity. I have unlearned a few things. People listening to me know that there are some steps that you have to follow regardless.

A scene will have different types of shots – a wide or a close on the same action. If it’s a director who believes in coverage, they will cover it from every possible angle. You will have lots of shots to play around with, but the idea is to choose which shot will work for that moment. There is a wide and a close for the same action. It might speak differently to you. A wide of the same action as opposed to a close would give you scale. A close up would give a little bit of intimacy, which may or may not be required. You’ve already prejudged.

All this is a combination of experience and instinct. You have to rely on your instinct or intuition. You can’t just pinpoint why you are choosing a particular shot. It just works. I can’t really define it. I can only call it intuition because it is something that you acquire by observing things around you. It is something which you have acquired by the experiences you’ve had.

I know exactly how you’re going to react if I’m going to crack a particular joke. I observe you and your timing. I need to be able to feel that timing in my gut. So, when I cut shot A with shot B, what am I exactly doing? What is happening? There is an information exchange taking place, information that is being passed on from one shot to the other. It could be information in terms of content. It could be emotional information. When I join two shots, or what we call in editing lingo, juxtaposing two shots, what am I getting out of it? What is it doing to me? That is what I need to gauge. Also, how long do I hold those shots? Do I hold it longer? That depends on intention. What do I intend to do with the scene? Do I want the audience to be emotional? Do I want them to feel a certain kind of emotion?

I was revisiting The Remains of the Day (by James Ivory) recently. It’s one of those rare examples of a film being equally good as the book. People don’t get it right. It’s very difficult to. The Remains of the Day primarily works because of the cast and performances. It was bang on.

There is a scene where Anthony Hopkins, who plays Mr. Stevens, and Miss Kenton, played by Emma Thompson, are hiring a new maid. It seems to be a very functional, a very simple scene. The dialogue sequence between them is cut in a very predictable way. At one point, Mr. Stevens asks the maid to step outside to have a conversation with Miss Kenton. He turns to Kenton and asks, ‘Weren’t you supposed to leave with the German girls?’ She says, ‘Yes, I was supposed to. But I’m a coward.’ At this point, the focus is entirely on Emma Thompson.

The Remains of the Day (1993) by James Ivory

I realised that the reason why the editor held onto her is because we needed to feel her helplessness. We feel that whatever she had set out to do, she wasn’t able to do it. Then we come to Anthony Hopkins. The conversation goes on briefly until he confesses that she means a great deal to the house and himself as well. At that moment, we return to Kenton, and we see the possibility of something happening for her in the house in her eyes. She feels that Mr. Stevens is finally ready to come out with his true feelings for her. He asks her to call the maid back inside. This is played out on Miss Kenton.

Now, it could have easily been on him, right? That would have made it very functional. But we hold on Emma Thompson because through her we are building an idea of despair. We are with her. We feel her desperation. She has been pushed to that moment where she thinks there is a future, a possibility of a relationship between them but it is slipping away.

“Cutting is easy. What happens when you hold onto it?”

I found it extremely interesting because holding onto that shot a little longer created that extra layer of emotion. They could have easily cut it in a way that would have rendered the scene functional and missed this beat, but the fact that they held onto Emma Thompson was a stroke of genius.

I studied at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). I remember we had a workshop by this very senior editor called Mr. Subhash Gupta. I was cutting a scene from the film Naam, starring Sanjay Dutt and Kumar Gaurav. We worked on Steenbeck those days with reels of films. We weren’t really well versed with Avid and the other digital tools of editing.

At the time of assessment, he came to see my cuts and told me one very important thing. He said that I was scared to cut. I said, ‘Oh, does that really show?’ He said, ‘Yeah, just let yourself free. Don’t be afraid to cut.’ That was one school of thought.

What I learned over the years is that it’s equally brave to be able to hold onto a shot to make a point. Cutting is easy. What happens when you hold onto it? When you have to decide the duration of the shot based on your timeline, what happens if I hold on to that shot for that extra beat to give me a completely different meaning?

“If the character is in no hurry, the editor is in no hurry either.”

I remember watching Thithi (by Raam Reddy) some three or four years ago. It’s one of my favourite films. There is a scene with no dialogues between the father, Gaddappa, and the son, Thammanna. They are obviously two different sides of the same coin. Thammanna is sitting at a Xerox shop. He wants a few papers in order to get what he wants out of his father. Gaddappa is this carefree human being who doesn’t care about life and lives in his own world. There’s a tree in the background. While we are on Thammanna at the Xerox shop, we see Gaddappa dropping his bottle in the background, near the tree, while going through the frame. He drops the bottle and runs to get another one. He’s in no hurry. He’s entering and exiting the frame at his own leisurely pace. The shot doesn’t end there. We hold on to the shot for an extra beat. There is no music. There is only the rustling of the leaves, which provides for the beats in the scene.

Thithi (2015) by Raam Reddy

I was blown away by this moment because in a very subconscious way it’s giving us the character of Gaddappa. If the character is in no hurry, the editor is in no hurry either. These are things that you find out when you’re editing a film. I might be wrong. Maybe it was a design thing. But holding on to that shot for a few extra frames sometimes works wonders.

I read an anecdote from the shooting of this film called The Graduate (by Mike Nichols). In the last scene, Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross run away and catch a bus where they sit on the last seat. They are extremely excited about the future. They have accepted it, and they feel that they have done the right thing.

Now, while filming, director Mike Nicholls just let the camera run. He didn’t call cut. Both the actors in the scene felt that the shot was over in terms of their performance. They sat there waiting for the camera to cut. But the director didn’t. If you notice closely, you see Dustin Hoffman looking straight, wondering what the hell is happening. Katharine looks at him and then somewhere off-screen. A beautiful moment between them translates to a moment of uncertainty through this. Suddenly, from being very sure, they become uncertain about the future. Holding onto a shot for that extra beat gives a completely different meaning than what you started off with. It builds by being hopeful but ends on a very uncertain note.

Smriti Kiran: Let’s talk about one of your films, Newton. To understand the milieu where the film was set in, Amit Masurkar suggested you watch a few documentaries and do a bit of reading. He was also aiming for you to understand how to approach the edit. Could you talk about the key chase scene in the film?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: The chase scene was basically carrying forward the idea of holding onto the shot. In the scene, Newton (played by Rajkummar Rao) takes the EVM machine and the CRPF guys give chase. It was shot like a proper chase sequence, cut like one too, and set to the right kind of music that a chase would have, but something about it was not working. One could see that something was amiss. We couldn’t figure it out.

So, we hit upon the idea that what if we were to completely eliminate the chasers, the CRPF officials, and instead just stick with Newton? The sequence was not edited out altogether. It was edited, yes, but emotionally we were still with Newton. I’d probably used all the shots that were shot for the sequence of him running to create the feeling that he doesn’t care. He’s just running with the EVM machine. He’s so desperate to reach the booth and continue with the polling. The moment we fleshed it out in the edit, we were able to stick with only his character and emotions. I may have cut to the CRPF officials giving chase just once in the shot. But the moment this happened, it worked beautifully.

Newton (2017) by Amit Masurkar

I then realised that sometimes holding on or creating the impression of holding on, being with a character, gives a completely different perspective to the scene.

Smriti Kiran: Do you tend to be partial to certain characters while editing? If so, how do you detach yourself? Do you also tend to lose objectivity while editing if you like one character over the other?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: The biggest problem is when you start editing you know where your partiality lies. It’s very difficult to pull away from that moment and be able to edit. I can tell you an anecdote from this film which I was working on. I can’t tell you the name of the film.

“I lose objectivity the moment I see the rushes.”

We had multiple iterations of the cut. One of the producers once came and asked, ‘You don’t like the girl too much, do you?’ I didn’t quite understand what he meant by it then. I know that if I meet with the actors a couple of times and I don’t like them, it shows. I learned to be careful. So he asked, ‘Why don’t you like this particular person?’ I said that it wasn’t like that. I went and reviewed the cut nonetheless. I said, ‘Shit, that’s the problem’. I was cutting away from her too soon. I need to be able to disengage myself from that and be able to focus on the characters. I have to remove the person from the character and edit.

So, yes, you do tend to be partial. That’s why you’re surrounded by a very good team who put you back in place when you realise that you’re going off track. It happens many times.

I lose objectivity the moment I see the rushes, the first time I see the footage. It’s very difficult. That first freshness that you have, you lose it the moment you set your eyes on the footage. Again, you keep editing and make iterations of the scene and all that, but at some point, you give in and have to rely on the people around you. They average out the reactions and understand whether you’re in the right place or not.

Smriti Kiran: You’re really honest when you say that the moment you see the rushes, you lose objectivity. Who then pulls you out and brings objectivity back into the fray?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: Once your film is ready, you start showing the film to different people from all walks of life. They could be college students, could be your driver. People do different things to understand what the reactions could be. If seven out of ten times things are hitting the right notes, then you’re safe. Otherwise, you really need to distance and work towards it.

Smriti Kiran: How do you manage when the pace, cut point and feel on the edit table goes against what you had initially agreed upon with the director?

“Actors’ rhythms often determine the way you cut.”

Shweta Venkat Mathew: We all start with a certain rhythm for the film. When you watch the footage, you sense that this is the note that the actor has hit. Now, there are many actors who don’t get it, who don’t understand the rhythm of the scene or haven’t understood the script. In that case, you have to adapt yourself to the scene. Every scene has an inherent rhythm. When you shoot, it may completely change and may not be what it was supposed to be anymore. So, you have to adapt yourself according to the inherent rhythm of the scene and approach it. It’s not always a negative thing. It could also be for the better.

There are great actors who improvise and give it a completely different rhythm. For example, Bhonsle (by Devashish Makhija), which I edited, completely relied on the actor’s rhythm. There was nothing in the film which gave me a cut point. They had so many constraints to shoot the film. They didn’t have the budget or the location. Everything was crammed. The cinematographer, Jigmet (Wangchuk), has done an absolutely wonderful job. But what does it mean for me? I don’t have space to play around with anymore. The mood is set and the actor brings out the rhythm. Manoj Bajpayee’s character has brought in an intrinsic rhythm, which I take as a cue to cut the scenes. Actors’ rhythms often determine the way you cut.

Smriti Kiran: According to you, how much does sound design impact the edit?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: A lot of times when you’re editing, you get stuck. There are these little things which you fall back on and they bail you out. One, as I mentioned earlier, is the rhythm that the actors bring out in a scene. You take a cue from that many times when you don’t know which way to go. At times when I’m really stuck and don’t know how to begin a scene, I just keep scrolling up and down. Let me give you an example.

“Sound design bails you out sometimes. It helps you find that rhythm in a scene.”

There is a short film called Taandav, again, directed by Devashish Makhija. All he had for a script was three pages. The first scene was the visuals of a visarjan; it was only a one or two-line scene in the script. But the footage that we had was close to four hours. So, how do you start creating or building an idea?

It was like documentary footage. It was at the crazy Mumbai visarjan, people dancing, screaming and shouting. There were firecrackers being lit, drums being played, garish lights all around and a DJ blasting. There was a full cacophony. They shot and covered this scenario.

We spent half a day struggling to understand how to go about it. Then we thought, why not start this differently? Why don’t we use the location sounds and create a sound bed? I said, ‘Let’s edit the sound first’. We cut the shots to build this idea of chaos. I’d previously spoken about holding onto a shot, but in this case, we kept cutting. That worked because we created a very chaotic mind space for Taandav. We created a sound bed and created chaos. We built an idea of chaos.

So, sound design bails you out sometimes. It helps you find that rhythm in a scene. For me, the sound is very essential. I have realised over time that I’m very obsessive about the sounds that I use.

There are two kinds of sounds: diegetic sound, which plays from the source of the visual – for example, a dog barking in a frame will have the sound of the bark; the other is non-diegetic sound, where sounds are added in order to enhance the scene to create a certain atmosphere, say, heightening the tension.

A great example of its use is from a film which I recently revisited called The Untouchables (by Brian De Palma). There is an iconic scene where Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia are waiting to intercept and kill a character.

It starts in a train station. We see a cradle coming up, and we hear a lullaby-like sound effect. When you have a baby in the frame, the scene becomes vulnerable. Especially with the sound, you realise the kind of risk involved. The tension is heightened. If you have a baby in an action sequence, you can almost gauge the tension while watching it because our first instinct is to save the baby.

It was an extremely clever thing to do.

The track plays from the beginning of the scene and ends only when the shootout happens. There are sounds layered on top of each other – the clock ticking, footsteps, and the elevator chiming every time somebody comes out – and then we hear a slight click, a low hum of music coming in.

“Sometimes you just need to create a space where you can understand how your characters play in a scene.”

All this together created a palpable space of tension. These created a very anxious moment. Of course, the scene is edited beautifully. But if you notice, there aren’t many shots. It’s also a very well storyboarded film, but there aren’t many choices of shots. Some shots even keep repeating in different portions. But the sound enhanced the anxiety to another level.

Similarly, one of my favourite scenes from Gangs of Wasseypur is Sultan (Qureshi)’s death scene. It was a fabulous scene on paper. I realised that Wasseypur is a lot like Game of Thrones. People just die at the drop of a hat.

Again, there is no music. It all works out on the sound design. There are the sounds of a market. A Bhojpuri song plays whenever Murari’s phone rings, who has multiple phones. There are bikes and cars moving along the marketplace as well as kids running around the place. Against a backdrop of these sounds, we see Sultan colliding with his attackers.

All of this gives a very different mood. You don’t need music. Sometimes you just need to create a space where you can understand how your characters play in a scene. You can create tension using sound as well. So, sound is a huge thing for me.

My team knows that I spend a lot of time on sound. At the end of the day, after I finish a scene, I tell them to download the sounds of various things. Let me come back to Newton. Another favourite scene of mine from the film, which was also very difficult to cut, was the forest walk scene. I wasn’t sure how to edit the scene because the crew had shot over a number of days in the forest. The scene in the script had the characters walking to the booth, starting at daybreak and ending at some time mid-morning. It’s a montage of people walking in the forest. They shot it over different days. They did not film the entire walk in one go. At the end of each day, we would take a few shots of people walking. It was also shot at different times of the day. These were the shots which we had to edit together to create a sense of a few strangers going on a mission.

Newton (2017) by Amit Masurkar

I wasn’t getting the rhythm. I wasn’t understanding how to approach the scene. Our first instinct is always to put music, which is horrible. One has to be able to edit a scene without any music. That’s one learning that I have acquired. We thought why not strip music entirely? Let’s just stick with sounds of the forest.

I downloaded sounds of different kinds of birds. I put them on the scene along with the sound of the feet grappling under the dried leaves in the forest. We layered those sounds and got the scene in place.

Amit came in and said, ‘But there are no birds in the forest in reality.’ I told him, ‘I have just downloaded these because they are helping me. I need them as a reference to create a rhythm. So, let the birds be. You can remove it later on.’ So, we stuck with the idea of having a sound design. It gave me a musical rhythm.

Smriti Kiran: Shakun Batra’s session was devoted to understanding how to create rhythm in a scene. He stressed on the fact that among all his collaborators who help create the rhythm, the editor is key because they eventually heighten the narrative beats that you want to hit in a scene, which is also called ‘landing the scene’. What does landing a scene and rhythm mean to an editor?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: Rhythm can’t be pinpointed. It’s there but it’s intangible. It’s around you, within your subconscious. You have to tap into that. The thing that comes closest to my mind is a very silly example, but it helped me understand.

Take the simple activity of cycling. You’re cycling very fast using a certain set of muscles, be it the hamstrings or calf muscles. They are working in tandem. They’re working in rhythm to be able to give you a certain pace. So, scenes, similarly, have their own rhythm. But when they fall into the larger scheme of the narrative, they might lend a completely different pace. It might differ and sometimes that’s very disappointing because what you feel the scene should have achieved by moving the narrative forward might not have been achieved.

You come back and try to understand why it is not working in the larger scheme of things. You keep at it. You scratch the older version and start afresh. So, yes, you may find the rhythm, but it might not fit in well with the final scheme of things.

Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on Facebook

Sayani Gupta: A lot of actors feel that editors are actually responsible for making or breaking an actor’s performance because they can really mould and shape it, and take out all the things that might not work. Do you dislike working with actors?

Can you also talk about the process of cutting to music? Do you feel that reference music sometimes works better than background music?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: I work well with an actor’s footage if I haven’t met them before. But my judgment is slightly impaired if, say, I know you personally and I have to edit something of yours. It has to be done. But it’s a little hurdle that I have to cross to be able to remove you from the character. You have to be able to differentiate between the two.

Coming to music, I definitely feel that reference is better. There’s actually a meme which says editors spend 90% of their time sourcing reference music. It’s just very difficult because we understand the tone of the scene to be a certain way, and so we pull out references from John Williams.

It’s not fair, to be honest. We put in music and expect the same thing to be recreated. It’s actually better more often than not, but once the edit is locked after it goes to the sound department, the only other time that you watch the film is with the cast and crew. Then your film looks completely different. Music pieces are different, the sound is different. You tend to exclaim, ‘What has happened?’ Mostly you don’t end up liking it. It feels annoying. You feel that your music was much better than what the music director has composed. It’s just a matter of getting used to it.

This brings me to one of the few cases where music has really worked for a scene. In Gangs of Wasseypur – Part 2, there’s another chase sequence with Definite Khan. It was very well shot. We had a standard edit ready with the sound design in place. Sneha Khanwalkar, the music composer on the film, walked in with a track. Music composers have a set of tracks from which the director chooses to create the soundtrack of the film. She had composed a track called Dil Chi Cha Ledar. Anurag insisted on placing the track during the chase sequence. It didn’t make sense to me at all. But I did it, and it worked beautifully in a very quirky way. I just made minor tweaks to the edit, which gave me a clue that the rhythm of the chase was right. I didn’t have to tweak it much. We just placed the song and it gave a completely quirky feel.

Similarly, in Gangs of Wasseypur – Part 1, when Sardar Khan gets killed. We get a lengthy shot of him getting shot at, coming out of the car after the attack, holding his gun, holding his head, and moving around. It’s a beautifully choreographed shot. Sneha comes in with ‘Jiya Tu Bihar Ke Lala’; I wrote it down, and it worked like magic.

One thing I learned from this was that music has to help the emotions of the film. It can’t dictate them. They are already laid down. The music helps to enhance the quirks. It helps guide the audience to feel a particular way. Music essentially helps me a lot, the right kind of music. But it cannot override the emotion of the edit. It has to help me define it.

Shakun Batra: Which actor have you most enjoyed editing, and why?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: Manoj Bajpayee, of course, because I have worked on about four films with him. The other actor that I absolutely enjoyed editing is this writer called Hussain Dalal. I have seen a lot of his stuff and a lot of his footage too.

I like that he improvises. That’s such a refreshing thing for an editor because you can take these improvised bits and add them in. Sometimes actors get it, sometimes they think about how it’s going to play out, that maybe if I add this, it might give a different texture to the scene.

Hussain is also somebody who I have edited out a lot, unfortunately, for length reasons. But I’ve always enjoyed it whenever I worked on his footage.

Ishika Mohan Motwane: How do you deal with a creative dispute between you, the editor, and the director (in certain cases the director is also your husband, Vinil Mathew)?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: That dispute is a different dispute! I’m just going to stick with the director-who-is-not-a-husband dispute.

When I graduated from the Film Institute, I had these lofty thoughts in my mind about how an editor is the person who calls the shots and decides everything. At some point, I realised that if you have a point that you feel strongly about, make it.

There’s also an art of approaching the director with your points. You cannot just throw them at the director. They will not like it because it’s a film that they’re making. You can navigate, try to manipulate and see if they are receptive to those points and bring it up in the edit.

After a point, however, I give up. What if the director is not able to understand what I’m saying? I might be wrong. I may be pushing my point too hard because I may want it one way and the director may want it another way. At some point, I do give up because I realise that if this was a film that I wanted to make, I would have made it myself. If this is a story that a director wants to tell, then let them say it the way they want to.

Anurag (Kashyap), during Wasseypur, would be very stuck on how a scene should be. I realised it early on that I won’t say anything. I just kept quiet. I let him come to the point where he understands at his own pace. I think he even acknowledged what I was doing. He said, ‘I can understand what you’re doing. I see that, and I appreciate it because you’re not forcing down your opinion or beating me down with it’.

Unfortunately, I don’t do that with my husband a lot. I should stop forcing down my thoughts on him. But with directors, I tend to be very careful and try not to force my opinions on anyone.

Utsav Prakash: While editing, certain scenes that the director may hold dear might not have the right emotions. It wouldn’t be adding to the story in any way. This would also make the film lengthy. What conversation do you have with the director, in this case, to bring down the runtime?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: It’s a very tough thing to do. These ‘dear’ shots, as you call them, can be dear to two-three people. One, the production because they have spent money on it. Two, the cinematographer because they spent time designing it. Three, the director because it gives them scale or whatever.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for the editor. You put it in your first cut. You let the director come to the decision that it’s not working. When push comes to shove, it just disappears from the film. Sometimes I can be very ruthless. I know people who say that I don’t look like it. But I’m also trying to understand why people do this. I try to incorporate the shot and make it work. If it just doesn’t work, then I have to tell the director that it isn’t working.

In Newton, there was a shot with a helicopter. I was against it. I kept saying that there is no money for the film, but we’ve spent a lot on the helicopter. I still put that shot in the film. I tried making it work.

That’s another reason why I don’t go on locations because I don’t want to know what’s going on. If you have spent six hours designing a shot, I don’t want to know because it’s not helping me in my narrative flow. I don’t want to know what has gone on behind the scenes because that will affect me. It’s tricky. I do try to make it work. But if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

Raashi Metkari: How involved are you in defining the visual language of the film with the cinematographer?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: The film needs to visually speak to me by making me feel whatever is happening in it. There are times when we do tweak, say, the colour to suit the emotion of the scene. I tend to stay away from working with a colourist. I do give my feedback. I do go once in a while to look at the grade. If I have notes, I take it to the director.

Generally, cinematographers like to be left alone with that department. If I have that kind of relationship with the cameraman, then I do say how I feel. More often than not, I just go to check out my cuts. I don’t get too involved in terms of the visual sense.

Having said that, if I’m, say, trying to create a montage where I’m using different kinds of shots, then I do tweak it visually to give it a freshness. I don’t want to make it seem like you’ve already seen that before. I flip things around. I reverse them. I add a flash or flair or whatever my tool allows me to do in order to create it, and hope and pray that it’s recreated in the DI. So, it depends on what is happening in the story and whether it’s really required.

The films that I’ve worked on, fortunately, are visually stunning. Sometimes, also, the cameraman instinctively shoots according to the cut. They know that what they are shooting will be used for the edit. So, they shoot specifically with the edit in mind. That’s when I feel, while viewing the footage, that the cameraman is actually communicating with me and saying that this is for me and that I need to use it. That happens sometimes. I don’t visually alter much then.

Rohun Rege: What do you do when you struggle with ending a scene? And have there been instances where you made an unscripted change to the scene and it worked for you?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: I’m struggling to edit a scene from the film that I’m working on right now. In this case, I try to put the next scene immediately if I have it at hand to help me understand where it is taking me.

Sometimes when we edit a scene, you know you’re coming from a certain place but also have to go elsewhere from there. You realise that I may need to end the previous scene earlier so that I can come into the next scene much earlier. For that, I need the next scene to be able to gauge where I’m going to cut the previous one. That automatically happens once the two scenes fall in place and interlock, and the jigsaw is finally getting solved. You’ll know exactly when to cut your scene.

The most irritating thing is when directors don’t think about how they’re ending the scene, or actors don’t think about giving that extra beat. Actors are finished the moment the lines are over. I don’t get my cut point. I don’t get a landing where I can end my scene. I keep telling people, – of course, actors don’t listen – to give it a beat because I’m struggling hard to get a smooth transition. You need the next scene to be able to gauge that.

Ardehl Nainan: How does an editor edit and achieve the nuances in the narrative in a film that is in an unknown or foreign language? Also, how beneficial is it to work across regional industries?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: I’ll take an example from my own experience. There are two ways of editing a film whose language you don’t understand. I’m talking about language in terms of the spoken language. One is to have a transcript. The other is to get your rushes subtitled so that you can edit off that because then you’re only focusing on the expressions and emotions of all the characters.

There was a Konkani film which I worked on for a bit called Nachom-ia Kumpasar, directed by Bardroy Barretto, who is a fabulous editor. I have watched him at work during my initial days. I used to assist him. It was a biopic on the famous Konkani singer, Lorna Cordeiro.

He asked me to come over and take a look at the edit. He said, ‘I want you to re-edit it.’ I went to watch the film, and I said to him, ‘Roy, It’s in Konkani. I don’t understand.’ He said, ‘So what? It doesn’t matter. It’s on music. You will understand.’ So I did understand the film. That’s the beauty of language sometimes. That’s the beauty of the musical.

I started cutting it. After a point, I told Roy that I really needed the subtitles. He said, ‘No, you don’t need it because you will understand the rhythm of the music and you will catch on to that and be able to edit it’. Human nature is such that you adapt yourself – you get used to hearing that language. Of course, there are the basics such as what they’re saying, but even that you could understand from the rhythm in the dialogues. You understand what they’re saying and then purely cut it for the emotions. That’s a very interesting exercise which I did.

Coming to your second question. One thing which I really want to do is edit something within our own region, our own country. I would love to edit a film in another language.

I was recently watching this film called Axone (by Nicholas Kharkongor). It’s a beautiful Assamese film. After watching it, I felt that I want to do something like that because you understand the people, the culture, and the language. An editor doesn’t get to travel for work that often. But working on different kinds of films can help you understand the culture, the different people and characters. That’s something that I’d really like to do.

There are such beautifully edited films being made in the Malayalam film industry. They have a very unhurried way of cutting, a very organic way of editing. I want to explore something like that. I really hope to do that someday.

Sanghmitra Jethwani: While in the process of editing, there is a microcosm of every scene that you cater to and a macrocosm of the entire world. How exactly did you strike that balance in Gangs of Wasseypur, possibly the longest set of footage you have edited? How did you make it seem like a film despite the fact that it had enough footage for a web series?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: Gangs of Wasseypur was my second film, and my second film with Anurag. It was set in a completely different milieu, which I wasn’t exposed to at all. I did not understand this world. I’m a person who has been born and brought up in a city. I didn’t even realise that a world like this existed.

While approaching something completely alien to me, I read up a lot on that world. Thanks to Google and Wikipedia, you have information which you can easily access. I acclimate myself to the world. I understand the geography, I understand the way people behave and live. That’s one thing that I do.

With Gangs, there were two scripts – part one and part two. Part one was all about Sardar Khan, played by Manoj Bajpayee, and his journey. Part two was about Faizal, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. It was all about his childhood. Once the assembly of part one was done, we did part two. Anurag realised early on that the non-linear thing just wasn’t working. So, he completely shuffled it around. He took the childhood portions of Nawaz’s character and put it in part one. This completely changed the structure. That way part two became all about revenge. When you see that a fabulous script is not working when you put it together in the edit, these are the decisions that you take.

This was on a macro level. We had shot and edited those scenes individually. We put them together according to the script, it didn’t work on that level. So, we reshuffled things around and decided to go linear. It was almost as if part two had become a prequel to part one. You take these decisions when you review the cut. You realise that this is where the script allows you the flexibility of changing the structure on a macro level.

Vinayak Chhabra: How important is it to stick to the length of the script while editing? For example, cutting an episode for a show where the length of each episode is 22-23 minutes.

Shweta Venkat Mathew: Shows are actually very well planned as compared to films because they have a script for each episode ready. A big learning from the television serials that I used to be crazy about is that you have to end it at a hook. You need to be able to go to episode two. Your pilot episode has to rock. Your second episode has to end at a point which immediately makes you go to the third episode. A lot of it is scripted.

For example, we changed the end of each episode in Made in Heaven so that there was a bit of a hook for us to go into the next episode. We internally restructured the events that were happening in the episodes if the script allowed us to, and ended on a hook. A lot of it is decided in the script. Sfor ometimes we have the flexibility to do it in the edit.

Ashutosh Sahu: What is more important – cutting the movie look-wise or emotion-wise?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: No question about it – it has to be the emotion. I know cinematographers will kill me. Emotion is a thing that defines the film. If you cut for looks, for design, and if you’re not feeling anything, then it’s an empty shot, an empty moment. The idea is to be able to let the audience feel what they should be feeling with respect to the scene. I can say that it’s a beautiful shot. But if it’s not doing to me what it should be emotionally, then it’s empty. It’s always for emotion.

Sakshi Bajaj: How do you find yourself moving forward from a scene or a cut that you are trying to perfect in terms of clip speed, transitions, colour palettes or the length of a sequence or scene?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: I find that I cannot move from a scene that is not at least there in some sense. I need to be able to crack the code because that determines a lot of other things – for example, the graph of the characters. I have to hit that note, figure it out and then I can move on.

Again, transitions and speeding have to be defined by emotions. If you feel that a shot in slow motion needs to be played out normally, this decision needs to be made by understanding how the scene is playing emotionally. A transition is tricky. I don’t use many transitions. Having said that, what is a transition? You do a transition every time. A cut is a transition, right? You’re moving from one space to another. You’re connecting two shots. Then there are other transitions like dissolve, which are physical transitions. I do it if I feel that the scene requires it.

In fact, I recently re-discovered dissolves while working on the film that I’m currently editing because I’d stopped using them. I used it for a particular scene. It gives you a time transition but it also gives such a lyrical feel to the whole scene. Whether you need it or not depends on how you’re reacting to that scene.

It can be horrible sometimes. I don’t know why people do such horrible transitions. I don’t know why they do it when it’s not needed. But, yes, the biggest transition for me is the cut.

Akshay Anil: How different is your approach while cutting a comedy scene to an action scene? Do you think the editor’s sense of humour is an important factor in editing a comedy scene?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: You are approaching every scene for what it is. You don’t classify scenes as such.

With a comedy scene, yes, I do feel that the editor should have a good sense of humour to be able to crack the timing. Sometimes the actors do it very well. Sometimes just by the timing of the cut, you can bring that in. For example, the scene in Thithi which I spoke about is a very simple scene. But the timing of it, holding on and not cutting, was splendid. Cutting a little later, a little early, or cutting to a person are things that come with the timing of the scene. These things come to you through observation.

This is one of the biggest grouses that I have with people who come to work with me nowadays: they are constantly on the phone and don’t observe things around them. As a result, they are unable to gauge how people react to different situations at different points of time. It is essential that one observes because it can define your timing, and comedy is all about timing. Comedy is all about reaction. You can choose your cuts depending on the character that you are interested in. It comes from intuition. Sometimes there are scenes which don’t have any comedy, but you can create it by the sound or the timing of a cut.

As for action sequences, I’m going to go ahead and say that, for me, action sequences are not difficult to cut. Action is like a song, right? It’s choreographed. A good action sequence is choreographed. You cut according to the choreography of the action. Then it’s only a matter of massaging and refining those cuts.

What’s interesting about action is that there’s a flexibility to the shots. You can create a sense of disorientation while cutting an action sequence. For example, in Wasseypur, the action was beautifully choreographed. Within the framework of such scenes, I could bring out the tension between the characters by cutting to different people at different points of time. It gave me flexibility. You can jump cut in a very irreverent kind of way. You have to create that kind of jumpiness to create a sense of disorientation.

I love cutting choreographed action sequences because a lot of the hard work is already done by the storyboard artists and action directors. The good ones know exactly what they want. So we just enable what they have imagined. It’s not very difficult to cut an action or a fight.

What is indeed difficult to cut is impassive action or fight sequences, where you’re creating tension. For example, in The Hurt Locker (by Kathryn Bigelow), there is a famous sniper sequence. It’s not physical action but the action and the tension are palpable. That is not choreographed. That is when you have to be there and be at it.

Navya Shetty: If you are asked to edit a biopic of a sportsperson, and you don’t know or hate watching that sport, what would you do as an editor? What are some of the challenges that you would face?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: If it’s a sports biopic, I obviously have to understand the sport in order to approach the film better. Then again, within the framework of a biopic, there are certain beats which are already scripted, and you need to be able to hit those beats. You need to be able to edit in order to land on those beats. A sports biopic is not only about the sport, it’s about the person as well. Sport is also a way of expressing emotion. For example, Chak De India (by Shimit Amin), which was fabulously edited by Amitabh (Shukla). There is, of course, the logistics of the sport, but nothing can beat emotion. You’re emotionally invested in the characters, which helps you create the narrative.

Even if the biopic is on a politician or anybody else, for that matter, they’ll have these hidden narrative beats in their lives too, which you can hold on to and then weave your narrative and edit it.

Ish Raheja: Once my first cut is complete, I tend to question most of my editing decisions that have relied on my intuition. In doing so, I also tend to question my intuition. How do you deal with insecurities as an editor, and give yourself enough freedom to make changes without their consequences bearing down on you?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: I don’t think you need to be so harsh on yourself. As I said, editors also don’t know how to go about with things. When it’s just not working out, it’s not working. Give yourself a break. Step aside. Step back for some time. You have to know that it’s the director’s film. Unless it’s your film, then it’s a different ballgame. But if it’s another director’s film, I’m sure they would have some kind of input to build on that. You come back to it eventually and figure it out.

I don’t think it’s insecurity as much as it is being unable to accomplish it the way you want to. See, all the clues are there. When I have the time once the edit is done, a very important process that I follow is, what I like to call, doodling. I keep scrolling through the rushes of the scene – not to solve a problem but to keep looking for that missing piece of the jigsaw in the edit.

Plus, having a team of reliable people who can give feedback helps. I sometimes call people whom I trust, who are very good at feedback – brutal or otherwise – to help me get out of the rut.

Dhwani Guru: How does your instinct tell you that a film is complete? How do you take that step back from a film and send it for the post-production process?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: There is a joke which I totally believe in: An edit is never complete. It is only finished when the producer says, ‘Get out of the room’. Even if you go back to an edit, which you might have done a few years ago, you will cut it differently. So, it never finishes.

We have deadlines. We have the pressure of deadlines, which kind of define ki abhi bas karo. By the time you finish a film, your instinct is dead. You know that this is your film and it can’t get any better than this. Somewhere down the line, you know that you’ve told the story. You have focus group screenings, and you see people reacting positively, and you then realise that you have come to the end of it. So, it’s kind of defined by the deadlines that we all face.

Yamini Nibhnupudi: When you started working as an editor, what is the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: I came from the institute. We all have these thoughts where we think that we’ll be able to edit and change the world. I took up a job with Pixion Studios. I worked in advertising for seven years. I understood that the first thing to do is to be comfortable with your tool. It’s absolutely essential regardless of what people may say.

People also don’t tell you about the pressure of deadlines. It’s a very practical thing. But they don’t tell you that people will be breathing down your neck. If the initial hurdle of getting comfortable with your tool is crossed, then the storytelling comes automatically. Then you’re just translating your thoughts onto the screen. Yes, tools keep changing. There is new software coming every day. Even kids are editing at home now. What is it that you bring to the table? What sets your edits apart from other people’s edits? Once you know that you’re not grappling with the initial thing of how to edit, you can keep editing as much as you want. If you want to be an editor, edit. Whatever you shoot, you shoot to edit.

You may be surrounded by at least 10 people sometimes in the editing suite. People are constantly crackling away. They will not let you do your job. Somebody told me that the trick is to not completely shut yourself off and to keep your ears open. There are a lot of interesting things going on. Apart from that make sure that people have disappeared from the background. You have to concentrate on your footage and material. You have to be able to alienate yourself from the surroundings and focus on the job.

People will try and rattle you. If you feel that you’re getting bogged down by people around you, kindly ask them to leave the room and leave you be for how much ever a time that you need. It’s extremely essential. People will let you be if you ask them. No matter how senior or junior you are, you need that space to yourself. If you aren’t able to focus, ask people to leave. That’s something I learned in my initial days.

Akhil Reddy: When you are editing continuously one day after another, do you tend to notice any patterns in your style? If yes, how do you break from the way you edited yesterday and have a fresh perspective the next day?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: Let me talk about what I recognised about myself very early on. I have a tendency to cut very sharply. I don’t leave any room for breathing. I now consciously try to be careful and give room to breathe between cuts when it’s needed. I think it comes from being in advertising, where you’re determined by duration. You want to fit the story in a 60-second framework.

In my initial films, I must have cut a bit too sharply because I came from a certain background. On a day to day level, I’m very happy with one scene. If I’ve cracked the code, I move on. But when I come back to it two weeks later, I wonder what is going on. I say to myself that this is not the way I saw it. You have to step back and be able to revisit it. If you still have a good feeling about it, great. If not, then you go back to your rushes and see what can be done about it. This happens a lot in tandem with the director because the director also needs to react. You’re not the only one reacting, right? He too needs to give his input.

Prashanth Ramachandran: How do you keep your energies up as an editor on days that aren’t going well in the studio?

Shweta Venkat Mathew: We have good days and bad days in the edit room. We’ve been through hell too. I’ve been lucky enough to surround myself with and work with a good team of people. If somebody can understand your sense of humour, it can really keep you going.

There are horrible days. Days when the director turns around and says, ‘This is just not working for me. It’s shit. What are you doing?’ At that point, you just want to be surrounded by happy people who support you. Things can go wrong.

The good thing about film editing is that you don’t carry your work home. Now, of course, it has changed; you are working from home. But you generally edit in a studio and you don’t take it home with you. I don’t take it home. I come back and completely empty myself. The next day is another day to begin. So, a good team makes a lot of difference.

To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Shweta Venkat Mathew in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.

For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.

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