Remembering Renu Saluja, the unsung genius of Hindi cinema on his birthday
With her work in films like Ardh Satya, Jaane bhi do Yaaro, Parinda and Bandit Queen, Renu Saluja made lasting contributions to Hindi cinema, as well as becoming the first female editor to make a significant breakthrough in a field that was hitherto there considered a domain of man.
Almost 40 years later, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, the 1983 satire directed by Kundan Shah continues to be a revered classic and just as relevant to our times, if not more so. However, did you know that his iconic Mahabharat parody scene initially lasted over 30 minutes? Or was the movie itself over 3 hours long, way longer than the stipulated time allowed by the NFDC movie producers? It was only after filming that Kundan Shah and his team realized that they had exceeded their script by several miles and now had to cut the film down by over an hour.
Enter Renu Saluja, the film’s editor, who was present throughout the filming of the film, and understood the mood and temperament of the film as much as its writers and director. If the movie looks fresh today in its pacing and rhythm and feels cohesive, big credit goes to Saluja who not only brought the movie to the desired length but also gave it some edge with which to the filmmaker was struggling.
Today when we discuss the brilliance of movies like Jaane Bhi Do Yaarolike many other classics, we often fail to discuss the contribution of editors – Renu Saluja was a rare exception, however, leaving unmistakable imprints on the cinema of which she was a part.
After graduating from FTII in 1976, Renu Saluja began his career working on projects by fellow bandmates and up-and-coming filmmakers like Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Vidhu Vinod Chopra (whom he had married in 1976, shortly after). near the time they passed out together). And with his work in movies like Ardh Satya, Parinda, Dharaviand bandit queen, Saluja made a significant contribution to the arthouse cinema of his time. If you browse the major works of parallel cinema from the 80s and 90s, chances are you will find Saluja’s name in the credits. Khamosh, Sardar, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, Is Raat ki Subah Nahin, Godmother, Hey Ram – the list is endless.
Nihlani’s Ardh Satya (1983) was a major breakthrough for Saluja, as it was the first time she left her FTII circle. However, she more than proved her mettle with Ardh Satya, which had the pace and energy of a thriller and brilliantly captured the turmoil and angst that ran through the veins of the city. There are a lot of scenes where a scene abruptly ends with a strong physical movement – like Inspector Haider (Shafi Inamdar) slaps a suspect or Anant (Om Puri) hits his bike guy in frustration – and the visual blends in perfectly. in the chaos of the bustling city and its streets.
In one of the film’s most notable sequences, just after a usually submissive Anant meets his father (Amrish Puri) for the first time, we see Anant and his father in a half-length shot, as they get drunk together and the father tries to reach out to his son. The shot stays calm and aloof, before we suddenly cut to a quick closure of Anant lashing out at an unexpected moment of rage at his dad, as he accuses him of being abusive to dad’s mom. Anant, followed by an equally brief shock to his father’s face. The moment is all the more striking because of how Renu suddenly pulls us into this unsettling closeness and extreme discomfort.
At Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi (1992), as Ramkaran (Om Puri) tells his wife Kumud (Shabana Azmi) about the progress in his business plans, there is a brilliant transition from the busy highway where they are standing with a car that whistles, at the wheels of a passing train with a group of children who shit right next to it. It’s a searing visual of reality and reverie coexisting in oblivion, joined by the symbol of relentless speed that Bombay never lets go.
Renu Saluja believed in the importance of sound as well as visuals in creating rhythm in cinema. It was evident in the way she edited the first part of Saeed Akhtar Mirza ‘Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho’ (1984) where the visuals and the satirical song about life in Bombay blended perfectly. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989) in particular is a glorious testament to the power of cinema when a filmmaker works in perfect sync with his technical team. Whether it’s the opening Bombay montage that never seemed stranger, or the seamless transitions between past and present in many scenes as Karan continues to be haunted by the incident that turned his life upside down. , Saluja has achieved a haunting lyricism here with Parinda Edit. (Saluja would win both Filmfare and National Awards for this film that year)
Renu Saluja was one of the few (if not the only) editor to religiously attend the shootings of her films, while not interfering in the director’s process. And yet, there were times when Saluja collaborated with the cinematographer for shots that she thought could add to the scene – like for Sudhir Mishra. Dharavi, Saluja asked for some shots of a few fabric curtains that are often seen hanging outside the Ramkaran factory. The way Saluja uses these shots of billowing curtains at various points adds great lyricism to the narrative. Likewise, in Parinda (1989), Chopra had originally shot one of the scenes – where Kishen (Anil Kapoor) kills one of Anna’s gang members – in a different style, and only later achieved the desired effect was not reached. Renu Saluja then asked cinematographer Binod Pradhan to take some independent shots of the machines at the oil factory where the scene takes place. In the final scene, as Rama’s body slides down the chute, we cut a montage of the grind of noisy machinery operating at overwhelming volume – the effect it creates is chilling.
While Saluja had an uncanny ability to grasp the director’s intent, she also often asked to be left alone for the rough cut, to have an independent attempt at reinterpreting the film. Saluja was a firm believer in the idea that editing was the third and final step in scripting a film, and it showed how she had helped shape films like Dev Benegal’s. Split Wide Open (1999). As her husband and long-time collaborator, Sudhir Mishra, said of her in an interview, “The value of a good editor is that he tells you what you really did while you’re caught in what you think you’ve done.” Shekhar Kapur also noted in ‘Remembering Renu’, a documentary about Saluja’s life and works, that during their collaboration on bandit queen, there were two scenes in particular where Saluja wanted to cut a little early, away from the protagonist’s face, while Kapur wanted to hold back the extended stay. Saluja relented, and only in retrospect did Kapur realize that Saluja was right.
And yet, the consensus remains that Saluja remained largely an unquestionable authority figure in the editing room. One of these stories tells how Saluja, when editing Jaane Bhi Do Yaaroeven refused to assemble two of the scenes that were shot, let alone edit them, as she was certain they added nothing to the narrative.
Renu Saluja was also known for her meticulous organization of all the images that would land on her table, and was always ready to make changes in the composition of a scene, which also meant a systematic curation even of NG shots (a colloquial term designating shots that are unusable for some reason, or as the abbreviation indicates, “No Good”). Filmmakers like Govind Nihlani and Shekhar Kapur would shoot their scenes extensively, getting multiple angles and shots for any given scene. At such a time, it became more difficult for their editors to keep their images matching and accessible as they approached their edit. As Kundan Shah explains in the documentary “Remembering Renu” speaking of her working process, “she broke it down into a beautiful creative method.” Perhaps the fact that editors rarely got assistants these days for low-budget movies helped Saluja create her own standalone system.
Most importantly, Renu Saluja broke into a male-dominated field of work and carved out a strong image for herself, paving the way for female film editors of times to come. (Filmmaker Aruna Raje was the only other woman to do prominent work as an editor at the time). Saluja mentored some upcoming editors in her heyday like Shirish Kunder and Sanjib Dutta – but perhaps it was her legacy at FTII among the next generation that inspired a legion of female filmmakers to pursue this field that was once seen as an all-male domain in the Hindi film industry. (unlike Hollywood which has always had a strong and significant culture of female editors working on the bulk of their films). Today, some of the best Hindi film editors of recent times are women – be it Aarti Bajaj (Rockstar, Black Friday), Deepa Bhatia (My Name Is Khan, Kai Po Che) or Namrata Rao (Love Sex aur Dhokha, Kahaani). The last two decades have also seen many other top female editors leave their mark – like Shweta Venkat (Gangs of Wasseypur, Newton), Antara Lahiri, Dipika Kalra (Udaan, Lootera), Prerna Saigal (Bombay Velvet, Pagglait) , Meghna Manchanda Sen (Omkara, Udta Punjab).
Most of Saluja’s colleagues remember her for her warmth and openness to new ideas that weren’t necessarily her own. But more importantly, Saluja also remained empathetic in her personal space, kind and compassionate in her demeanor while remaining stubborn in her opinions. As Naseeruddin Shah noted of her in “Remembering Renu”, her disapproval of his work never meant she disapproved of them as a human being. She was also always enthusiastic about encouraging new talent and their ideas. When a budding independent filmmaker like Nagesh Kukunoor decided to make Hyderabad Blues in the late 90s he looked for a veteran like Renu Saluja, who also edited his next two projects (Call of Rockford and Bollywood), just shortly before his disappearance.
Renu Saluja died in August 2000, a few months after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. In 2006, GraFTII, the FTII alumni association published a book about her titled “Invisible – The Art of Renu Saluja”. When Sudhir Mishra did Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi (2005), he dedicated it to Renu Saluja. In November 2021, FTII appropriately renamed one of its screening auditoriums to “Renu Saluja Auditorium” in his honor.
And yet, Renu Saluja remains one of the truly unsung geniuses of Hindi films, one who deserves far more recognition for the value she brought to our cinema.
BH Harsh is a film critic who spends most of his time watching films and taking notes, hoping to create, as Peggy Olsen said, something of lasting value.
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