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When the Film Came to me I Fell in Love With it Immediately

When The Elephant Whisperers came to me, I fell in love with the project immediately. The idea of telling the story of two baby elephants
Sanchari Das Mollick editor Elephant Whisperers
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The Elephant Whisperers made a lot of noise after the Oscar winning reality. The Mudumalai National Park elephant camp has since turned into a hot tourist spot. Even the Prime Minister visited the place to have a first-hand view. Guneet Monga produced and Karthika Gonsalves directed The Elephant Whisperers, a 39-minute documentary that transports you into a world you never knew existed before watching the film. The film unit comprised two cinematographers and two editors. One of the editors, Sanchari Das Mollick, an FTII post-graduate in editing, is a Kolkata girl and daughter of a noted documentary filmmaker, author and teacher of cinema Subha Das Mollick. In a detailed interview, she talks about how she stepped into editing and much more.

Shoma: What sparked your interest in learning cinema academically? 

Sanchari: My interest in cinema was sparked at a very early age. I grew up watching world cinema and loved this form of storytelling. I started learning it academically accidentally. Initially I wanted to be an architect but due to my A level results coming in later than Indian Board results I was to miss a year if I was to study architecture so I started studying Mass communication in St. Xavier’s College Calcutta.

Shoma: Why editing, specifically? 

Sanchari: During my last year of mass-com we had to make a group film for the final project. I landed up editing this group film and enjoyed the process immensely even though it was laborious and tedious. The jigsaw puzzle nature of the job engaged me. Putting a story together piece by piece. Engaging the audience with the story and in the  emotional journey of the characters. 

Shoma: What was the FTII experience like? 

Sanchari: From here I went to FTII to study the 3 year course in editing. This was my first time away from home. I won the scholarship two times for coming first in my class. FTII as a film school doesn’t dictate what kind of films the students should make. One is free to explore any type of narrative or form– from hard core Bollywood to complete abstract cinema. In my editing course we were the lucky last students to learn on the Steenbeck. Steenbeck editing tables can be used with both 16 mm and 35 mm optical sound and magnetic sound film.

The process of editing on film on a Steenbeck instills discipline. It is the discipline of thinking before cutting. Each cut on the Steenbeck takes physically ten minutes. Mark the point. Slice the film. Tape the joint. Spool the film. It can’t be undone with just clicking control Z. Each splice needs thought and an internal debate. I still practice this process to this day. Which makes my storytelling stronger. 

Shoma: Tell us something about your diploma film. 

Sanchari: My diploma film was called ‘no closeup’ directed by Gul Dharmani. It was a story of two lonely neighbors who mostly communicated through their windows. So, the title. – “Gazing through life from afar. “

Shoma: Which was your first professional film as editor? 

Sanchari: My first film was Quick Gun Murugan. I assisted Rabiranjan Maitra, a noted editor of films mainly in Bengali cinema. Directed by Shashank Ghosh, Quick Gun Murugun has been exhibited at the London Film Festival, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, the New York Asian Film Festival and in The Museum of Modern Art, New York City (MoMa).

Sanchari Das Mollick
Holding the prized trophy

Shoma: What is editing all about for a lay person like me?

Sanchari: Film editing is both a creative and a technical part of the post-production process. The term is derived from the traditional process of working with film which increasingly involves the use of digital technology. The film editor works with raw footage, selecting shots and combining them into sequences which create a finished motion picture. At its most fundamental level, film editing is the art, technique and practice of assembling shots into a coherent sequence. The job of an editor is not just to mechanically put pieces of a film together, cut off film slates or edit dialogue scenes. A film editor must creatively work with the layers of images, story, dialogue, music, pacing, as well as the actors’ performances to effectively “re-imagine” and even rewrite the film to craft a cohesive whole. Editors usually play a dynamic role in the making of a film. 

Film editing is the only art unique to cinema, separating filmmaking from other art forms that preceded it, though there are close parallels to the editing process in other art forms such as poetry and novel writing. Film editing is often referred to as an “invisible art” because when it is well-practiced, the viewer can become so engaged that they are not aware of the editor’s work.

Shoma: Explain the difference between digital editing and non-linear editing systems and the impact on the total filmmaking process?

Sanchari: With the advent of digital editing in non-linear editing systems, film editors and their assistants have become responsible for many areas of filmmaking that used to be the responsibility of others. For instance, in the past, picture editors dealt with just that—pictures. Sound, music, and (more recently) visual effects editors dealt with the practicalities and other aspects of the editing process, usually under the direction of the picture editor and director. However, digital systems have increasingly put these responsibilities on the picture editor. It is common for the editor now to cut in temporary music, mock up visual effects and add temporary sound effects or other sound replacements. These temporary elements are usually replaced with more refined final elements produced by the sound, music and visual effects teams hired to complete the picture.

Shoma: Explain the difference between editors and directors.

Sanchari: Film editors and film directors have different responsibilities. Film directing generally refers to the making of the entire film. From deciding how the script is going to be interpreted on the big screen to choosing the cast of characters to getting the right acting from the actors to editing the work, all these fall into the category of film directing. Film editing is what happens after all the scenes of the film have been shot. This is considered an art form in itself. The reason is because film editors do not just mechanically put together scenes so that a film has a beginning and an end. They have to be able to internalize the script and combine the footage taken in a very creative manner so that the scene flows seamlessly, engaging those who watch it. The film editor must still have his own sense of artistry in compiling the scenes and collaborating with other members of the post-production team to ensure that those who watch the film will be drawn to it. Through their work, film editors have the power to make the audience feel an emotional connection to the film. They are also integral in realizing the film director’s creative spirit for the film.

Shoma: How do you look at your work with ‘The Elephant Whisperers’?

Sanchari: A substantial slice of my life goes into my work. When I choose a film I am completely immersed in it. My life becomes the film I am working on.  When The Elephant Whisperers came to me, I fell in love with the project immediately. The idea of telling the story of two baby elephants was the most exciting. Once the shoot was over, I started my work. I watched the footage for almost three months and made notes and formed a broad storyline. After this, I discussed with Karthiki Gonsalves, our director, what her vision for the story was. Many discussions helped us cement how the complete journey of our characters should unfold, the story of Boman and Beli,  Raghu and Amu. Then, came the tedious task of putting all the shorts of the story together with the interview pieces and weaving a comprehensive emotional story that would connect with the audience. It was a story of the people of this land. A story of the surviving animals. A story about how they have lived together for years and continue to do so. After the lineup was ready, Karthiki and I polished the film to her liking. That is when Dough (Douglas Brush) the other editor and one of our executive producers, joined us and  guided us on the nitty-gritty’s of storytelling over Zoom. This took around six months. Dough guided us patiently and wisely. All three of us agreed that the film should not be a traditional “national geographic” kind of animal documentary but rather a slice-of-life story of our characters which will help the audience get to know them on a more personal level. And the viewer can feel like they are spending a day with our characters.

Shoma: Are you happy with this international triumph?

Sanchari: I am so happy that our little story has reached so many people and touched so many hearts. As a storyteller, all I want to do is move people emotionally when they watch my stories.

Images courtesy: Sanchari Das Mollick and Netflix

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has won the National Award twice, in 1991 and 2000. She has authored 26 published titles of which 14 are on different areas of Indian cinema. She holds two Masters Degrees and a Ph.D. in History (Indian Cinema). She has also won a few Lifetime Achievement Awards from different organizations over time.

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