RENU’s MUMBAI / रेणूजी की बम्बई

On October 13, 2017 by admin



Amrit Gangar 


The title might sound as unpredictable as Renu Saluja’s ‘cuts’ in the films that she edited in her short but brilliant career in Mumbai. Renu Saluja (1952-2000) sailed across the shores – both parallel and mainstream. And on both sides of the river, we’d invariably discover precious pearls of her creativity. When Praba Mahajan informed me of the titles of the films to be screened as part of the GraFTII’s homage to her, I found that out of eight films, five – Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (A Summons for Mohan Joshi, 1983), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (Who Pays the Piper, 1983), Parinda (1989), Dharavi (1991), Split Wide Open (1999) – had a direct relationship with Mumbai, the city where Renu lived all her working life.[1]

It’s all about Renu’s Mumbai, thought I. A strange claim, but in the film production line-up, she was the final artist who had to weave a definite story from the available footage; cutting and splicing shots and sequences, honing the director’s vision, and imperceptibly her own, too. In the process, she had a legitimate claim on the ‘city’. These films so palpably demonstrate how strongly she must have felt about her city, else how could have they evoked its indomitable self and spirit in their peculiar pace and pep?[2]

To me Bombay is the city of ‘cuts’ (not in the corrupt sense of ‘cut’ practice, but in its dramatic sense), the astonishing ‘experiential cuts’ that you find while walking on her streets, or driving on her roads, or travelling in her trains, you always encounter the unexpected, on every step, at every moment. And these ‘cuts’ Renu Saluja must have experienced and internalized to give back their spirit to the films that she gave the final shape to as editor. In the crevices of their ‘cuts’, the punctuations chosen by Renu Saluja breathed the city. It matters little whether she was born in Mumbai or not. But cumulatively she was writing a meta-cinematographic ‘editorial’ about Mumbai. I think she was giving us a Baudrillardian high, “Where is the cinema? It is all around you outside, all over the city, that marvellous continuous performance of films and scenarios,” said the philosopher.[3]

Editing was the final scripting stage of a film, Renu believed. A script is first written on paper – once, twice, ten times; it is then rewritten in the director’s mind and in the minds of the technicians and actors. Then a major rewrite takes place in shooting. Finally in the editing, it is constructed bit by bit with images and sounds. As she once said, one needed as much time to do sound as the actual picture cutting did. She always worked in close liaison with the sound recordist after the final cut.[4]

I had the privilege of seeing her very briefly when she was working on Ketan Mehta’s film Sardar.[5] However, in that short time, I could see how terribly frank she was in voicing her opinion, how deeply and frenetically committed  towards ensuring that the final work excelled. Within her svabhāva, temperament, she seemed to be in a perpetual quest, fathoming pace and rhythm of a moment, and that was the magic of her art and craft of film editing. Practically she travelled through the linear-non-linear, analog-digital span of the Moviola to the Steenbeck to the Avid. It has often been speculated that editing is a process that draws its momentum from the editor’s subconscious and Renu, through her subconscious, was able to make visual and emotional connections even between seemingly unrelated aspects.

For every filmmaker, I suppose, the initial challenge is how to take off, how to set the story ball rolling on the screen. Watch any of the films edited by Renu and mark the ways they take. In those few foundational minutes, she skillfully quintessentializes the macro world of the story into its contextual microcapsule, while the rest, as it were, would be just an elaboration, an unfolding. The way she ‘cut’ the first seven minutes in Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! is remarkable. It is difficult to make out whether she cut it on music and song or was it the other way round. I saw it over a decade and a half ago but still can’t forget the juxtaposed image of the dying fish; perhaps because of the power of Renu’s montage that could enter the Brechtian conscience. The way we are introduced to Mohan Joshi and his wife Rohini and their ensuing struggle to get their chawl tenement repaired – it sustains even today. It is Saeed Mirza who has so consistently evoked Bombayness in his oeuvre – the city’s neighbourhoods, its lifestyle, its street language, its hybridity, its oddities, its aspirations, its agonies and ecstasies.[6] Last year, while participating in the IBM² seminar on the New Wave, Mirza said, he was the most regional filmmaker in India.[7] As editor, Renu very subtly understood the filmmaker’s urban ethos.

In Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, she introduces us to the city through her initial cameo-cuts, as the photographers Vinod Chopra and Sudhir Mishra (screen names for Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani, respectively) wait for clients at their newly opened studio. We get the snatches of its streets and high-rise buildings, passersby and a lonely puppy stopping and peeing on his way forward, as if from a Jaques Tati. Renu’s ‘cuts’ create a characteristic atmosphere within the film’s pupa that would gradually pave way for the film’s developed ecology. I think film editing is an art of ‘ecology’. Only an accomplished editor such as Renu Saluja could explore its intricate sub-texts for the director. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron was an epicenter of the youthful creative energy and camaraderie. You have to just look at the credits and the naming of its characters. Besides being editor of the film, Renu also assisted Kundan Shah on direction, along with Sudhir Mishra. Today, it would sound like a fairy tale but this great and meaningful comedy was made with only about Rs.8 lakh. And remember that was not in the silent era. The film remains Renu’s tour-de-force in editing, one that uses no gimmicks or special effects. It is slapstick with an abundance of  gray matter that in turn respects the gray matter in the viewers’ heads.

The way Renu constructs Parinda’s prologue and brings us hamārā shahar, our city, is again memorable. It was a macro-view that unfolded from the close-up of the setting sun to the micro, the story, via the city’s feel. Parinda, a gangster film (or its generic affiliates such as film noir and the film policier) is a significant work that explores the criminal darkness lying in the city’s lungs. While retaining some of its popular masala ingredients, Renu, very skillfully and stubbornly held the film together to its basic self, translating the director’s vision. Parinda weaves an intricate web that deals with Bombay’s underworld and its over-powering capacity to destroy ordinary dreams and pleasures of the city’s residents.[8] “The gangster,” R. Warshow said, “is the man of the city, with the city’s language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring, carrying his life in his hands like a placard, like a club … for the gangster there is only the city; he must inhabit it in order to personify it: not the real city, but the dangerous and sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world.”[9]

As a versatile editor, who knew the ‘musicality’ and the rhythm of her craft, Renu could signify the intricacies of the film’s plot. In Parinda, for instance, the discontinuity in the editing imbued the killing with a level of grandeur, ritual spectacle and ‘primitivism’. In the aesthetic framing of death and its repetition in the film, Renu, on her own terms, evoked the classic Eisenstenian montage, ‘the act of killing is never directly shown but created through an effective editing pattern.’[10]

Dharavi takes off through a लघु-गुरू लघु-लीला, micro-macro-micro passion play, with a difference. While following the director’s script, the way Renu cuts the prologue, or juxtaposes the scenes, set the film’s ecology, unfolding in images and sounds.

As the scene opens with an aerial shot of Dharavi, we see the widely spread hutments of Asian’s biggest slum! As we go closer, the prologue begins. It’s a dialogue from a popular film, where the hero speaks about his first experience of Bombay city. And as it is revealed, the prologue is a part of a popular Hindi film, being watched by a crowd of people on a small 16mm screen. [11] By and large, Dharavi, was a scripted cut.

To Renu, sound was as important as the visuals. According to her, one needed as much time to do sound as the picture cutting. She always worked in close liaison with sound recordist after the final cut.[12] In this sense, she almost echoed Ritwik Ghatak’s feelings, “We are so used to calling cinema a visual art that I sometimes fear we shall soon forget that sound has an important world of its own. In fact, sound has that much importance in a film as it contributes to the aesthetic quality of the visuals.”[13]

Essentially the way Split Wide Open charts its narrative journey conforms to Renu’s overall philosophy of using introductory leitmotifs within the ma-mi metronome reversed or mixed. True to its intrinsic narrative nature, Renu imbued Split Wide Open with a brisk staccato pace and rhythm, along with an impressive sound track. Split Wide Open is comparatively the most non-linear and post-modernist of narratives. Again, in its foundational moments of the film, Renu gives us an ‘ecological’ but unpredictable feel of the film’s underlying story through dominant motifs of mafiosified water and the city as an elaborative ellipsis. The catapulting plays of light and shadow, along with the play of proximities (close-ups, long-shots etc. from the viewer’s retina), Renu structures the film on its eerily complex terrain.

Filmmaking, obviously, is an art of improvisation that continues up to the stage of editing. Though editor follows the script and the director’s mind, s/he had to khel khelo with the footage at her/his disposal. Being a perfectionist and a visionary, Renu always strived to infuse a subliminal power into the film’s soul without making any personal value judgment. And to achieve it, she would often ask the cameraman to take extra shots without actors, because that would give her enough freedom to build up a scene. Editing is the stage when a film really begins to come to life, wrote Satyajit Ray in 1966, “and one is never more aware of the uniqueness of the film medium than in watching a well-cut scene pulsate with a life of its own.”[14]

Viewers often say that editing is invisible to them unless the film is slowed down and analyzed frame by frame. Also editing is as much that goes out of film and as much what stays in the film. Viewer cannot see what is thrown out from the film that was originally conceived. This invisibility factor is perhaps a principal reason that editing is seldom considered while watching a film; it is not as tangible as costumes, photography, music, or acting. Dozens of joined shots fly past the eye at twenty-four frames per second, and the cumulative impact is of an overall image, emotion, or sensation. Even one shot of two frames (imperceptible to the conscious eye), specially inserted within a longer sequence, can disrupt audience expectations or mould emotional response. I think, this is quite evident in Split Wide Open, and of course, in many other films that have Renu’s definite editorial stamp.

Viewing Renu Saluja’s body of work, I find it her ability to construct a prologue that in a few moments could capture the remaining film’s conscience and that too, not in a predictable manner to be quite visionary. This was like a musician setting the tune and the tone for further elaboration. It is coincidental that the five films in the programme bond a bond around our city, the cinematic city, and their editor Renu Saluja. It should be interesting to study Renu’s Mumbai through her ‘building’ art of editing, through the city’s paces and throbs, its unpredictable ‘cuts’.

Somehow Renu Saluja always reminded me of Anne V. Coates who, of course, was a generation older than her. Largely known as David Lean’s Oscar winner Lawrence of Arabia’s editor, Coates began her career with The Pickwick Papers (Dir. Noel Langley, 1954). Those days, in Europe and North America, there was little that women could do in film except continuity and editing. Coates selected the latter. Renu wanted to take to direction course at the FTII and had to select her second choice, editing , in a time in India when it was not considered to be women’s field. Renu became India’s second qualified film editor, after Arunaraje Desai.[15] But I think Renu remained the most prolific practicing film and video editor. And once out of the institute, she straightaway plunged into her job and became an integral part of the ‘parallel cinema’.

Perhaps unlike Coates, Renu plumbed  the film’s moods and trances with her uninhibited natural élan. Hers was an electric presence that I could feel in those brief moments in her editing room. And I presume, after she started editing a film, even the space called the ‘room’ did not exist – it was an expanse of ākāsa (space) that she floated in to capture a moment in kāla (time) from the available material, the way the scenes were shot and lighted, and the sound was designed, and song recorded. Post-production editing exercise is a challenging job, needing a tremendous amount of patience and passion, and tuning with the director. With her vision, Renu moved through the treacherous labyrinth of filmmaking, and on the way, generously shared her knowledge with many others. Through an intuitive, ephemeral process, Renu, in the final analysis, created an essential film.[16]  Amen.



[1] Alumni Association of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune (GraFTII), Graduates of the FTII.

Other significant films edited by Renu Saluja, that related to Bombay include Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (Dir. Saeed Mirza, 1980), Ardh Satya (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1983), Is Raat ki Subah Nahin (Dir.  Sudhir Mishra, 1996) Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai was Renu Saluja’s debut film as editor.

[3] Jean Baudrillard, J. (1988)  America, London, Verso; in The Cinematic City, Ed. David B. Clarke, Routledge, 1997.

[4] Reflections on Editing, Yogesh Mathur, Lensight, A technical journal for the celluloid and electronic media professions, June 2000, Film & Television Institute of India, Pune. As Mathur said, Renu Saluja was the only editor in the history of Indian cinema who was so blessed with talent and creative acumen that made her a celebrity in film world.

[5] She received a national award for the best editing for Sardar.

[6] Films from the City of Dreams, Amrit Gangar, Bombay: Mosaic of Modern Culture, Eds. Sujata Patel and Alice Thorner, OUP, 1995.

[7] Other participants were Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. Arun Khopkar was the moderator. All of them are FTII alumni. I had the privilege of organizing a series of seminars on different national and international topics as part of the Osian’s-Cinefan 2005 at Siri Fort, New Delhi. IBM², Infrastructure Building for Minds and Markets.

[8] Rich and the Uncanny City: Memory, despair and death in Parinda, Ranjani Mazumdar, Sarai Reader 2000: The Cities of Everyday Life.

[9] R. Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture, New York: Doubleday in The Cinematic City.

[10] Ibid. Eisenstein believed that montage was produced by the collision of two pieces of film unrelated to each other. The content of a film should unfold in a series of shocks linked together in a sequence and directed at the emotions of the audience. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, Sergei Eisenstein.

[11] For a sneak preview of some scenes from the script of writer-director Sudhir Mishra, see Cinema in India, an NFDC Publication, February 1991.

[12] Reflections on Editing, Yogesh Mathur, Lensight, A technical journal for the celluloid and electronic media professions, June 2000, Film & Television Institute of India, Pune.

[13] Sound in Film, Ritwik Ghatak, Cinema and I, Ritwik Memorial Trust, Calcutta 1987. Though Renu worked substantially on video, she didn’t enjoy it much because there was not much track laying in it. Video magazines and television series did not require complicated sound track, she had felt. However, despite her love for silences, later on she is said to have developed a fear o f them feeling that the audience would not be able to afford it unless it was at a very dramatic point.

[14] The Technicians, Amrit Gangar, Frames of Mind: Reflections on Indian Cinema, Ed. Aruna Vasudev, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, UBS Publishers & Distributors Ltd., New Delhi  1995. Now, I don’t use the word ‘technicians’ instead I call them the director’s ‘fellow artists’.  Essentially they are all artists.

[15] According to the GraFTII’s website Arunaraje Desai passed out from the FTII in 1969 when she was the only woman among 13 editing students. Renu Saluja passed out in 1976; among 8 students she was the only woman. Gradually more and more women took to specialization in film editing.

[16] Geof Bartz’s term in First Cut: Conversations with Film Editors, Gabriella Oldham, University of California Press, 1992. Having a long documentary film experience, Bartz has edited many films including his debut Hiroshima / Nagasaki: August 1945, produced by Erik Barnouw (Coeditor: Paul Ronder), 1969.


Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai-based film theorist, curator, historian and writer.



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