Satya, Shahid, Snip!, Citylights. These are just a few of absolutely brilliant films this man has edited. He won a National Award at the age of 23, worked with some of the finest names in cinema, traveled the globe, and trotted off to the stage for awhile. If there is something this man hasn't done, it is giving up. More than two decades since he started, the passion in the guy barely seems to have dimmed. He just finished his first complete screenplay 'Aligarh' and is gearing up for a lot more. We catch up with Asrani who gave us insights into his work, life, his passions and more.
Let’s start from the very beginning. Do you remember any influences of films or television that you had during your childhood?
My father was a big fan of directors like Satyajit Ray, Gulzar, Woody Allen, and Akira Kurosawa. I was a huge Amitabh Bachchan fan, but my dad made sure I also watched the cinema of the world. 'Goopi Gayan Bagha Bayan', 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron', 'Angoor' and 'Fiddler On The Roof' are some of my early cinematic memories. I also loved the comedies of Peter Sellers and Mel Brooks. Sellers' 'Party' was a childhood favorite.
You made a music video at the Jaihind College intercollegiate festival, where Sunil Sahajwani, the brain behind the television show ‘BPL Oye’, was a judge. It was probably your first attempt at directing a complete video. How did it happen? What made you take part in the competition? What was the experience like?
There was no such platform for kids my age to explore cinema then, so I had to create that Music Video contest. I was part of the Rotaract club at Jai Hind College and I influenced my peers to put on that show. I had a home video camera that my uncle had given me and I decided to make the first video, where I shot with the street children of Bombay. I was surprised that there were so many other film aspirants who were keen to participate. The contest was a success and I even won a prize for my video. Sunil, one of the judges, was kind enough to give me a job on 'BPL Oye!'.
For a number of people, Ram Gopal Varma’s film ‘Satya’ served as their gateway to cinema. It was also your first feature as an editor. How did RGV find you? Do you remember your interactions with the RGV of those days?
I was doing promos for various films. I got a chance to meet Ramuji while doing promos for 'Daud'. We clicked the moment we met and he took me on board for 'Satya' where I also assisted him on set. I have great memories of Ramuji. He was humble to his craft, hungry to succeed, and had a wicked sense of humor.
Satya also saw the introduction of Anurag Kashyap and Manoj Bajpayee. Do you remember the time you spent with them during the initial years? How has your relationship evolved with them over time?
Manoj was a dear friend during the making of 'Satya'. We used to ride around on my Kinetic Honda and grab cheap beers. He was hard working and passionate and most of all was a truthful actor. I think he is exactly the same today. I got a chance to work with him on 'Aligarh' and I saw the same Manoj from 1997. Maybe with a few grey hairs here and there, but he's still pretty innocent. Anurag was full of beans, passionate, and with the ability to think on his feet. We shared a mutual respect during the making of Satya, but later we lost touch.
You managed to win the National Award for ‘Snip!’ What do you think was different in the editing of the film? Given that you were quite young at that time, did it help change the way you were perceived?
'Snip!' was an 'out-of-the-box' film. The director Sunhil Sippy has a wacky sensibility and didn't care two hoots for the mainstream narrative. He allowed me to have a ball with the storytelling and luckily the National Awards jury appreciated that! A National Award is an honor for life. I was 23 when I received it, too young I suppose to know its real value. It endorsed me big time, but also put a lot of pressure on me to deliver before my years. There was also envy from some of my peers, who just dropped out of touch after that.
You slipped away from the limelight for a few years post 2003. Where did you drift off to during the period? Is it because you are selective about the films you take on? How do you decide on the film you want to edit?
I went away to do some growing up. I was working since the age of 16. By 25, I had won the countries biggest awards, been part of a seminal film like 'Satya', and was pursuing mainstream films that I had no real connection with. So I decided to move cities and discover my voice. When I returned to do 'Shahid' in 2011, I was clear that I would only choose films that stood for more than commerce and titillation. They must attempt to raise questions and stand as honest documents of our times.
You prefer staying away from the sets of the films you are going to edit. Why? Where do you busy yourself when the shoot of the film is underway? Do you keep track of the progress of the film?
If I'm not editing another film during that period, I travel and I write. I love the set, but I don't enjoy being on set for films I edit as there will be nothing left to discover on the table. Also the distance from the filming process allows me to objectively view the rushes.
Editing in India is often interpreted as only cutting films down. Do you think that is true? How do you think this misconception can change?
It is changing. Editors are getting their due. Earlier they were seen as technicians who only managed the length of a film, today they are seen as storytellers and key creative collaborators. In my 20 years in the industry I have seen the value of the editor rise quite satisfactorily.
Once a film is made, it is the director’s baby. He prefers holding on to it. However, the editor understands the parts that you need to let go of. What do you feel of having a director interfere in your work? How do you manage to have your say in it?
If the director is mature, he learns to let his baby go during the edit. He allows a fresh perspective to mold his material, as he maybe too attached to it. But with all said and done, its his signature at the end and eventually I go with his vision. He's the one sticking his neck out to make the film.
There were a few years you spent on the British stage. You co-wrote and co-directed ‘Bollywood: Yet Another Love Story’. Do you recount how it was back there? Any encounter that fails to leave your memory?
I worked on three British stage productions and I learned a lot from them. Theatre is alive. You get reactions for your lines instantly and you have chance to change them for the next performance. Plus, I learned how actors often improvise and make lines their own. Also things are professional in the UK. Everyone is equal and I saw a complete absence of any kind of star system.
Could you give us five films (classics included), whose editing absolutely surprised you?
'JFK', 'Reincarnation Of Peter Proud', 'Ardh-Satya', 'Parinda' & '12 Years A Slave'.
Hansal Mehta has nothing but praises for you. The two of you share an incredible bond. Do you remember the first encounter? What made the two of you click this well?
Manoj Bajpai recommended me to Hansal for 'Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar' and I did promos for it. We hit it off instantly. Hansal respects talent, he nurtures it like you would a child. We collaborated on 'Chhal' and we had such a blast making that film. Then there was a gap of 11 years, till 'Shahid', for which he pulled me out of a self-imposed exile. Today, we are starting our 6th film together. Hansal is like an older brother, we fight, but we want the best for each other. We've seen each other through some trying times and we both share a compassionate world view.
Similar to Rajkummar Rao, you have said that you prefer your work on City Lights over Shahid. What is it about City Lights that appeals to both, you and Rajkumar Rao?
In 'Citylights', Hansal presented an interesting and effective character in Deepak, the poor Rajhasthani migrant. I also liked the family values that the film stood for. Also Raj's performance stood out for me. I think he did better than in 'Shahid'. Shahid was a great real-life character, but in 'Citylights' Raj had to create Deepak and he lost himself to the character. The dialect he spoke, his body language, was simply brilliant. While editing, I often forgot that I had seen this actor before.
Despite the incredible acclaim that content driven films receive, we still struggle to drag audiences to the theaters without star power. How do you think we can bring more footfalls?
There is no formula for more footfalls, but there is a formula for smaller budgets. We should make big ideas within manageable budgets, draw the right audience in and nobody will get hurt.
What would you recommend for beginners who want to get into editing? Does it help to go through a course on it, or is it a process that has to be learned by making mistakes? How can they make their way into the industry?
Everyone must find his or her process. I learned on the job, but I have successful peers who've gone to film school. Whatever you do, know this: there is a lot of hard work involved. I stayed 6 out of 7 nights in the edit room during 'Satya', sleeping 3-4 hours some nights. I was out of work for years when my films flopped. Plus the films that I pursue are not big ticket films, so I don't drive a BMW. Beginners shouldn't believe fairy-tale stories about people having made it without a struggle. Even star children, born with silver spoons, struggle to sustain their careers. There is one thing that feeds you and drives you though, and that is real passion.
For an editor, you’ve spent a good amount of time writing and directing. You have made music videos, promos, and even directed for television. Have you always had an inclination towards making your own material? What fascinates you more? Do you see a future for yourself in them?
I enjoy editing a hell of a lot. The thrill I get when I put disjointed moments together and a powerful sequence emerges, is pure magic. I would never want to let go of that. I also enjoy writing right since childhood, so I will write new material and maybe even direct someday. But it doesn't matter what role I play in the film, as long as I get to be part of exciting cinema.
You’ve written your first complete screenplay, ‘Aligarh.’ How is the film shaping up? What can we expect from it? Can you give us a premise of what the film is about?
I have done the screenplay and dialogues of 'Aligarh'. It is based on a true life event where a senior professors private space was invaded by uninvited cameras. It tackles an outdated law of the IPC, Section 377 and talks about our right to our privacy. It attempts to question our subjective notions of morality. 'Aligarh' is in final post production and should release by the end of the year. All I can say right now is that it is a very important film.
Are you as impressed with Apurva Asrani as we are? What else would you want to ask him? Let us know in the comments below.