The shape of a film, according to Saiju Sreedharan

Editor Saiju Sreedharan on what goes into giving a film its form

Saiju Sreedharan began as a designer at Papaya Media (a company started by friends of which Aashiq Abu is also a part). Movie posters were his forte—Big B, Daddy Cool, Salt N Pepper. Then one day he edited the promotional video of Da Thadiya, and it turned out to be a major career breakthrough for him. Gangster was his big debut, seven films later, in a career that began in 2014, Saiju won accolades for his work in the medical thriller, Virus, which has a multi-strand narrative directed by Aashiq Abu. This year he is stepping out of his comfort zone (though he did Maradona last year) with two back-to-back films outside the friend’s circle, Android Kunjappan Version 5.25 and Anjaam Pathiraa. Excerpts from a chat.

You have been Aashiq Abu’s mainstay. How has that association shaped your career?

He is a friend. He usually sits in during the edits. He trusts me implicitly and with each film, the communication got better. As for the editing in his film, it’s an ongoing process, while shooting. All the scenes will be edited as and when the shooting progresses. And the final editing is to know the speed and rhythm according to his instructions. If an editor is present during the shoot, he can edit all the scenes individually. You can also collect it every 10 days from the sets. After the film gets over, we either go to a studio or an apartment to finish off the editing. It’s altogether a different experience to edit the entire film—re-watching, adding music as a reference. It’s important to keep an open mind while trimming a film.

How was it with Virus?

Virus was a tricky film. It had a lot of intercuts. Such scenes have to be carefully executed at the editing table. You also have the task of convincing the director. For Virus, they took the shots they wanted, my associate ordered the scenes individually. I was working on Kumbalangi… then, and the intercut editing pattern was done at the studio. It is my most challenging work yet.

Who decides the running time of a film?

The director. We usually get it in the first cut before editing. After a shot, it’s when we join scenes together that we decide how to treat this film. Sometimes we get references from writers or directors beforehand on how to treat a scene or cut a scene. The mood is set only after watching the entire film. Virus was planned in a style along the lines of a Christopher Nolan film.

Can you learn editing by watching films?

Of course, we can watch films and learn. There is no school to learn this. During Gangster, I was getting the hang of it through YouTube tutorials. You learn the software, besides there are so many online courses and tutorials.

I have heard that you edit with music…

The editing is usually done with music references and it is helpful for the musician to gauge at which point to start the music score, where to end and correct. But in Android Kunjappan, I haven’t used reference music while editing as it’s a big family drama. It might not be helpful for the overall mood of the film. For Malayalam films rooted in its terrain, it’s not possible to edit with music reference. But in thrillers editing with music will work.

It might have helped in Virus

The entire editing for the film was done with the original soundtrack of English films which are available on the internet. At times I recall the scenes with interesting soundtrack and use it. Often, we give the same music with the same tempo and speed to music directors, so that they get to improvise on it. You need to listen to a lot of songs for this.

So, it’s not simply a technical job…

Not really. I have this habit of watching a few inspiring scenes from a film before sitting to edit. You need to watch tons of films and have a passion for it or else it ends up as a mechanical work. The deal is always to give the best version of what you have got. What we assemble at the editing table should be done with the thought of how it will all come together in the theatre.

Usually how long does it take to edit a film?

In Malayalam usually the dates are announced in advance, and it puts pressure on us. The time depends on the film. The more time we get, the better the output with an eye on the details. And it has to be seen several times after its done, not just at the editing table but even at home, as it gives us a fresh perspective.

Has it happened that your final understanding of the film differs from the version you started with?

Sometimes what we have seen during the rough cut of a film will form a new understanding during the final cut of the film. The initial bits assembled together might not be great, with loose editing it might be tedious but during the second edit it evolves into something beautiful. There might be instances when a scene might not work for you but after working on it you might see another version of it. I don’t really think a different kind of cinema emerges out of the editing table. The director clearly communicates his vision to us.

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