A film according to Bhatia is written thrice – when it is written, when it is shot and when it is edited. Here Chesta Shah Sengupta demystifies the editor Deepa Bhatia to reveal the secret behind her cutting edge
For a person who became an editor more by chance than intent, Deepa Bhatia has a stronghold on her craft and machine. She comes across as being a conscientious and meticulous editor, with her ‘fundas’ on cinema in place. She is well read, opinionated and decisive - quite a bundle to handle for directors who merely want an operator and not an editor. She brings her intelligence to her profession and her well developed aesthetics have often changed the course of several a film.
“I actually didn’t ever realise that I wanted to be an editor; I didn’t even know that I wanted to work in film, to be honest,” reveals Bhatia. “I think there were two definite turning points as I look back. One was the experience of watching Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala when I was in school. I remember watching the climax when Sonbai (Smita Patil) flings the chilly powder in the Subedar’s face (Naseeruddin Shah) and the second, was watching Istvan Szabo’s short film You with no real linear structure. It was then that I understood that cinema could have such a free-flowing and abstract form and was attracted to it” says Bhatia. “It was much later at Govind Nihalani’s insistence that I actually started editing. It was his generosity that gave me my first break, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa, a film that I cut on the Avid,” she adds.
With no previous experience Bhatia went and edited the film. “When you’re learning, what are your options? Either you keep assisting, or you do Ads, other stuff, to keep yourself fuelled. Editing was the way for me to be closest to films. I didn’t want to do Ads and TV. I love cinema. Editing gave me a chance to be close to the medium; to work with the best material till I found my own voice as a director this is a process… It made me work in the purest form of the film medium which was very exciting. So that’s how the journey’s been,” shares Bhatia.
At heart, everybody wants to make films. Bhatia learnt a lot as an assistant to Nihalani. “I think it makes me a better editor. I’ve spent a lot of time on the floor, so one understands the work flow, processes, difficulties, and you are not so insensitive to the process of film making,” she says. It was Bhatia’s sheer luck that Nihalani had an errant editor who would not turn up in time for edits. She used to land up at the studio and try and put together a few scenes so that the project timelines did not suffer. Those were the days when non linear was very new and top-of-line editors from the advertising and commercials world were allowed to sit on the machines. Bhatia was such a novice that she invariably had to ask the studio attendant to put on the machine, so she could open the project and see the bins. “I remember even earlier, Govindji working at Western Outdoor and exploring the possibility and method of editing multi-cam footage on the Avid. I was only assisting him then, but I remember how we struggled with syncing etc, trying to make sense out of the machine. Today, of course one has much more knowledge and control,” she says.
According to Bhatia that’s the easy part. “If you sit with me for three days you’ll know how to cut. The physical functions of cutting are not difficult. These machines are designed so well. And Avid I think is a near perfect system. I’ve always said that nothing goes wrong on the system in the work flow,” she says. “But I was still a little intimidated then, because I’m not from a film school or from a technical background. I was never nervous about the creative process of cutting – it was as if I instinctively knew what I should be doing,” says Bhatia. “It was Govindji who made me see that I could be an editor,” she says.
Bhatia looks upon her job as a huge responsibility to the film maker. “On his film a director is so close to the material that I’m the voice of reason. I’m the one who looks and says, you know- this can be changed,” she says. “I think editing is the last hope for any film. A film maker may be so consumed by his film that he may or may not see his own material in another way,” points out Bhatia.
“At the edit table it’s the last chance to improve, rewrite, correct what could be great material or not,” she says. “Like in My Name is Khan, we experimented and moved shots around quite a lot to tell a different story or create another interpretation”, she elucidates. “This is magic, I tell myself. You can actually take footage and tell a different tale and nobody would even know. I think what happens in an editing room is magic but very few are privy to that. I did this and this. I moved something. It’s magic for me,” divulges Bhatia.
Editing, according to Bhatia is more of a creative process than a technical one. “Sure there are technical things like transfers at the right frame rate, work flow, settings – the machine itself - that’s the least complicated and challenging part,” she says. “I tell my assistants if I take a scene all of us can cut it. Some may cut it better, some less good. The point of difference lies in the fact is how many can realise the relevance of that scene to the story?” she says. “It’s understanding the role in context of the larger picture of the film. That’s where editors lack. We think that our job ends at cutting scenes well. But our job is to inspect film and the script in entirety, to question our material,” explains Bhatia. “In many ways editing is very close to direction. It needs to be understood as cinema. Just because you’ve shot it doesn’t mean it is right. Just because it’s visualised doesn’t make it right either. You might need to tweak it to finally work for the narrative,” she says.
After Bhatia cut a few films for Nihalani she decided to take a sabbatical to gain perspective. “I just stopped. Because somewhere down the line, I knew I was cutting on instinct. There was a science and grammar that I needed to know better,” she says. “I took three years off. I watched films, I read books on editing. I was studying in my own way. I never went to film school, I had no references. I never sat behind Renu to see how she worked. I had to find my own language,” shares Bhatia.
As she rightly points out, technology moves so fast that no two films have the same work flow anymore. “In Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa, we cut on an avid media composer which is still what I use. On that film, we did our basic sound work on the avid, including dialogue clean-ups, laying the background music and so on. These tracks had to be transferred to the sound console for mixing. The avid has two audio outputs. So, we would transfer two tracks at a time, then two and then two and so on. The tracks from the avid were the ones to be used in the sound studio. When I did Deham, we requested Real Image to make us an eight track output panel. So I could do an eight track output in one pass. By that time I did Dev, audio files were transferred as OMF’s. Every film your work flow is changing. So of course you need to be on top of how things are done. But it is all getting easier,” clarifies Bhatia.
Today technology has made everything so easy according to Bhatia. “We take a mix through the DI, we sync it and check it while mixing. The chance for error therefore has become absolutely minimal. So technology is making your job easier and easier- it allows you to better your work,” she says. But remain forewarned she quickly adds. ” One needs to inculcate discipline. Be as accurate as you can, when you mark a shot. I study the footage several times before I begin my edit. At times for the first week I may not cut at all,” she discloses.
Bhatia gets involved in the film at the level of the script. “When I read the script, I make copious notes and give my director my inputs. To me, it’s the first experience of the film and I never forget it. I read it first like an audience, one go from start to finish. Then a few times academically and structurally to analyse what is working, what isn’t,” says Bhatia. “I work the one-line on paper, the changeovers, the song placements. I remember, Rock On has a back and forth structure. It was really a perfect script. One of the few things I felt when I read it was that the first flash back was written from Debbie (Joe’s wife) point of view (POV). The first thing that came to my mind was that the first flashback shouldn’t come from a non-band point of view. And when we cut it, it looked wrong. So, we cut the flashback from Aditya’s POV. It was a small change that we made but it helped the film,” explains Bhatia.
For Bhatia her work and approach is clear. “When you’re battling the process of film making you have to be on par with your director. He has conceived the film, shot it, lived with it for a longer time than you. But when you’re fighting it out on the table, you have to be equal to him, know the material as well as him. Otherwise he won’t listen to you,” she discloses. “I work hard at internalising the script very thoroughly as soon as shooting commences. A few days into the shoot I ask for the material. This way, I start getting a feel. So if I need pickups, if performances are not pitched correctly and so on, for whatever it’s worth I can give those inputs on the board,” says Bhatia. “I work simultaneously - shoot and cut. I don’t let the director shoot in the dark. I make notes. Some I don’t share with the director. But I will make a note, that a scene made me cry. I try to examine, come as close to the script as possible. I try to be as alive as I can in terms of giving inputs,” divulges Bhatia.
Once the film is locked, then it goes for upgrades and sound. Bhatia tends to work a lot with sound as well. “I try to put sound effects that are within my control. Otherwise there’s no sense of the experience,” she says. “I like to see the sound in my cut. If the director encourages, I get involved. It’s a way of protecting my cut. I do visit the sound studios; go through the mix, when it’s possible. Sometimes, directors don’t want it, and I respect that. But DI supervision, visual effects everything goes through me,” she says.
Maybe it’s her penchant for perfection or just the kind of person Bhatia is. “It’s the perspective. Any good editor brings a point of view to balance the directors’ proximity to the material. It requires somebody to objectively tell you that may be the thought could get better. I wouldn’t work with a director who didn’t give me space. I need film content that I respect,” says Bhatia.
In the final analysis Bhatia says, “I’m not working to please or satisfy my director, I’m working for myself - to fulfil my own standards. Commitment to my work is above anything else for me and if I believe something is good for the film I fight really hard for it. I want to be a part of films that count, that changed something for someone watching it. For me, work is worship and I want a body of work that stands not for my ability but for itself,” concludes Bhatia.
• As director
Nero’s Guests - The age of inequality (2010)
• As Editor
My Name is Khan (2010)
Detective Naani (2009), Har Pal (2008),
Yuvvraaj (2008) (consulting editor)
Rock On (2008 - Star Screen Award for Best Editing)
Taare Zameen Par (2007)
Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (2005)
The Hangman (2005)
Hum Jo Keh Na Paaye* (2005)
Dev (2004), Deham (2002), Thakshak (1999)
Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998)
* for television