Barely into her ‘30s and Namrata Rao is already one of Hindi cinema’s finest editors, successfully straddling both mainstream and off-beat cinema. As she awaits the release of her third film with Dibakar Banerjee, Shanghai, next week, she’s also editing Yash Chopra’s new film with Shah Rukh Khan and Katrina Kaif. She has won awards for Love Sex Aur Dhokha and accolades for Kahaani—in both cases, her astute sense of pace and rhythm enhancing the impact of the narratives. It’s evident in her work, and in the hour-long conversation Deepa Deosthalee and Vikram Phukan had with her, that Rao is passionate about cinema and understands the medium well enough to know that her intuition and skill could well make the difference between a good film and a dud.
Vikram Phukan: I'm sure people keep asking you why there is a sudden burst of high-profile female film editors in the industry?
Namrata Rao: (laughs) Yes, actually, and frankly I don’t think it has anything to do with editing, but with the changes in our society whereby women are actually making forays into many different areas that were previously unavailable to them. However, Walter Murch has said that men are the hunter-gatherers and women are the cooks. So the directors go and capture the material while the editors cook it. (laughs)
Deepa Deosthalee: Was editing a conscious career choice?
NR: It wasn’t at all intentional. I graduated in IT and it bored the hell out of me. So I did sundry things to figure out what next, including graphic design, writing, copy editing, etc., and eventually worked at NDTV as a production assistant. For some time I was really happy, till one year later, I was bored again. I applied to the Satyajit Ray Film And Television Institute in Kolkata for a post-graduate diploma in cinema and eventually specialised in film editing. I had originally applied for Sound Design, but because I didn’t have a physics background, I couldn’t do it. Then the choice was between Editing and Cinematography (there was an option to take Direction as well, but I wasn’t sure what one could learn about Direction in school) and I chose Editing. In hindsight I feel it was the right choice, because Editing is the closest you get to filmmaking—you actually put bits of the film together and it’s also the best way to learn Direction.
DD: Getting a break in Hindi cinema couldn’t have been easy considering the number of trained technicians coming out of various schools every year...
NR: I started doing documentaries in Kolkata and one of them was called I Am Very Beautiful, which has travelled a lot to film festivals. Dibakar Banerjee saw that film somewhere and offered me Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. We had a great time working together and soon after Abhishek Chaubey called me for Ishqiya because he liked my work in Oye Lucky…
Her first big break: Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye
DD: How hard was it adapting from documentaries to a full-length feature film?
NR: Initially I was quite clueless. In the Institute you do smaller films, just about one reel long. And the documentaries I did were about an hour long. Film was totally different and it hit me only in retrospect that I was playing a much longer game. I just took each day as it came. We may have got through the process faster if I had clarity of vision from the start. Oye Lucky took quite long to edit and somewhere it had to do with the fact that I was lost, because I didn’t know how to deal with so much material.
VP: Are you usually a part of the filmmaking process from the start, or do you come in only at the post-production stage?
NR: When I joined the crew of Oye Lucky, the film had been shot. Even though I had the script with me, I came in much later. We faced a lot of issues through the editing process. So we decided that the next time I would be there throughout and that’s how it happened with Love Sex Aur Dhokha. I had started editing simultaneously with the shoot. Ultimately though, screenplay editing plays a huge role in determining how much time you spend on the actual edit of the film. If your screenplay is tight and you have gone through it over and over again, then editing takes less time. However, it’s not possible to be very true to the written screenplay because you have to give actors the space to perform. Also in LSD we were trying out a new structure with new digital cameras. We started with the third story and we shot that the most. It also suffered the most at the editing table. Even now I feel that by the time you come to the third story, the film starts flagging a little. But I can only say all this in hindsight.
Namrata had a scene-stealing turn in Love Sex aur Dhokha. With Raj Kumar Yadav.
DD: How did you approach LSD, considering it had three stories shot in different styles and from dramatically different perspectives, but had to come together as a whole?
NR: We shot the third story, then the first and finally the second. So when I started editing, I edited in the same sequence. But when we showed the film to focus groups and general audiences for feedback, we realised that the most interesting part for everybody was how the stories were getting connected, or the pornographic/voyeuristic element of the film. Then we started working around that. That was the second stage. We tried to make it come together organically.
VP: LSD is supposed to be a film about ‘found footage’ and you had to create an ‘illusion of reality’ to make the film stand. Within this framework, where it should appear as if you haven't 'tampered' with the footage, did you have scope to experiment?
NR: When I did LSD, Dibakar’s brief was, ‘This film has to be edited by God’. There shouldn’t be any obvious editing or intervention and it should seem like God’s point of view. That was the first cut. Once we started showing it, we realised that not every bit is as exciting or engaging. So then God had to come down to earth. (laughs) I just took out pieces which I didn’t find interesting and tried to find transitions by making the camera blip or some plot point which gave us a reason to cut. This was in the first story.
The second story was the most challenging. Because in terms of form, it’s the most difficult to negotiate, as the camera is stationary. But it is also the most fraudulent story because I have intervened the most in it. It was not possible to play CCTV footage on a loop. That was how the first draft was and it didn’t work even for me. But in perception you don’t mind moving between different cameras or changes of location within the store. What you mind is when parts of conversations recorded on the CCTV are chopped off...
We showed this film to Nasreen Munni Kabir, who was to do the subtitling, and she said the second story is very taxing and not easy to watch. There were no cuts at that point. It was all very purist. Taking a cue from her, we went hammer and tongs doing major jump cutting and other kinds of intervention and I think it works.
DD: You also acted in LSD. How was that experience?
NR: Acting was super fun. You get to sit in a vanity van as if you are very important and then an AD comes to call you. These things don’t happen to you as an editor. Dibakar thinks I am like the character I played, so he says he cast me as I am. He is a very mean director. (laughs) Actually I have grown up in Delhi and know so many of these girls.
To be continued...