The art of the editor

Jai Arjun Singh
Persistence of Vision
Opinions - IN

There's an unfortunate tendency in mainstream film "reviews" (you know, those hurriedly written 300-400-word things that appear each weekend in our newspapers) to break a movie up into its constituent parts and "grade" each of them: acting is Average, cinematography is Excellent, music is Good. Overall rating (presumably obtained by punching a few keys on the cell-phone calculator): three-and-a-half stars.

One of the many problems with this approach (and with the short, summarising review in general) is its failure to examine how interconnected the many elements of a film can be - how they can play off, inform and embellish (or hinder) each other.

In response to the widespread savaging of Abhishek Bachchan's performance in Raavan (a sample of such savaging here), Amitabh Bachchan claimed that poor editing was responsible for the oddness and incompleteness of Abhishek's gestures. Apparently his character Beera's demented head-shaking and bak-bak-bak-ing was part of a larger plan that was never seen all the way through.

It's easy to see this explanation as a father's attempt at firefighting, but it got me thinking about the relationship between acting and editing. Take an example from Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick's superb black comedy about nuclear destruction. In his book Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, John Baxter suggests that Kubrick used unconventional cutting techniques to make George C Scott's performance (as a blustering, war-mongering American general named Buck Turgidson) seem more buffoonish than it already was: this was done by cutting away before a gesture had been completed, or by shooting multiple takes and using the most over-the-top ones.

Watching the film again, I can see what Baxter is talking about. In an early scene, when Turgidson is called away from a sexual tryst with his secretary, he says "Old Buckie will be back before you can say blast-off" and opens his mouth wide in a mockingly predatory gesture. But before he can close it, there is an abrupt cut to the next scene, leaving him frozen (in the viewer's mind) in a ludicrous pose. Later, when he dashes about the War Room urging the American president to take action because the Russians "are getting ready to clobber us", the shot is held for a second or two longer than it should have been, creating a deliberately awkward moment where Scott seems unsure what to do next - almost as if he's waiting for the next actor to say his lines, or for the director to yell "Cut".

The effect of this cutting is to give the role another dimension - an off-centre quality that the actor, at even his most manic, couldn't completely have planned. But that mustn't take any credit away from Scott's superbly mobile performance, made up of a series of exaggerated facial gestures that make him seem like a cartoon character (he reminds me of the bulldog in Tom and Jerry). Great acting and clever editing comes together beautifully to achieve the film's goal of making a laughing stock out of every jingoistic military man.

On the other hand, the refusal to cut too much is usually seen as a boon to a gifted actor; a lengthy take allows a performer to dominate the frame, to have the audience to himself for a relatively long time. You often see this in adaptations of wordy stage plays or chamber dramas where the movie is very faithful to the source. Actually, why go to those extremes: stick with Dr Strangelove and watch the hilarious scene where the American president (the most subdued - and the funniest - of Peter Sellers' three roles in the film) struggles to maintain his cool during a phone conversation with his Russian counterpart. In this scene, with very few cutaways, the actor and the writer are the major beneficiaries.

Editing can also transform a writer's original intention for a scene or a character. While working on a monograph about Kundan Shah's cult comedy Jaane bhi do Yaaro last year, I had separate conversations with the film's dialogue-writer Ranjit Kapoor and its assistant director Sudhir Mishra about the scene where the drunk builder Ahuja (Om Puri) comes across a corpse (Satish Shah) in its coffin, mistakes it for a driver in a broken-down sports car and has a (very one-sided) conversation with it.

When Kapoor wrote the sequence, his intention was to give Om Puri a scenery-chewing solo routine resembling the drunk scenes Amitabh Bachchan had been doing in films like Naseeb. During post-production, however, editor Renu Saluja realised it would be better if the dead body were turned into an equal participant; after all, two-person comic scenes often hinge on one character being the active member and the other being the bouncing board or the foil. So she cut to Satish Shah a few times, turning his blank expression into a counterpoint to Ahuja's slurred monologue A few well-chosen inserts were enough to convert the scene into a jugalbandi of sorts, altering the original vision.

The sight of Shah sitting up in his coffin, clutching a wreath like a steering wheel, eyes lowered as if in private contemplation of this bizarre Purgatory he finds himself in, makes the scene funnier and more energetic than it would otherwise have been. Watching him, I'm also reminded of the famous Kuleshov experiment, where an actor's blank gaze was intercut with shots of various things he was supposed to be looking at (a bowl of soup, a beggar) in such a way that the viewer interpreted the same expression in different ways, depending on the context (he's hungry, he feels pity, etc). This is, of course, a classic case of performance not featuring in the equation at all - of cuts leading a viewer to project emotions onto an actor.

Which brings us to an important question: would the Kuleshov experiment have worked with supremely inexpressive chunks of beefcake like Suniel Shetty or Steven Seagal, creating the illusion that those immobile faces hide working minds? Or are there things that even clever editing can't achieve?

Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based freelance writer. His monograph on the film Jaane bhi do Yaaro is being published this year by Harper Collins India. He writes the blog Jabberwock.