Selva RK: Editing Karnan’s climax was emotionally exhausting
The editor speaks about his latest film, Karnan, which has received widespread acclaim for, among other aspects, imbibing visual metaphors into its storytelling
Unlike cinematography and music, editing is a near-imperceptible craft for the common viewer. An editor being praised, especially for their work on a mainstream film, has always been a rare sight to catch. Editor Selva RK (@EditorSelva), who is basking in the critical and commercial success of his latest project, Karnan, is grateful for the appreciation that has been coming his way for this film. Karnan, which marks the editor’s second collaboration with filmmaker Mari Selvaraj after Pariyerum Perumal, allows for metaphors and layers in its storytelling, bestowing Selva with many visual ideas to toy with. Going by the reception to this film, it is safe to say that Selva, who has films like Mookutthi Amman and Irandam Ulagaporin Kadaisi Gundu to his credit, has leveraged this opportunity to the fullest.
Here’s Selva RK in this conversation, discussing the often-overlooked role of an editor in filmmaking and the ‘cuts’ that shaped Karnan.
(excerpts from the conversation)
Orson Welles once quoted that direction is a critic’s invention and that it’s editing that sets the standards of a film. Would you agree?
I would say that editing is as important as writing and shooting. The editing table becomes the guide to all the departments involved in the post-production phase like colour correction, sound design, background music, and dubbing. The collective decisions made by the director and editor shape the final project. From deciding the length of a music piece or dialogue to choosing whose perspective a scene has to be narrated from, many decisions are made at the editing table. We create a film from scratch. In editing terminology, we see an empty timeline gradually metamorphose from a shot to a scene to a narrative to a feature-length film.
Many reviewers can be found mentioning words like ‘lag’ and ‘crisp’ while describing a film’s editing. How do you deal with such commentary?
The common audience and many reviewers often associate the length of the film with an editor’s efficiency. If the film’s narration is fast-paced and tight, they feel the editor has done a good job. On the other hand, if they feel the film narrates the story without hurrying, they say that the editor should have put the scissors to better use. What the majority of them tend to overlook is the fact that keeping a tab on the runtime is only one of the numerous responsibilities of an editor. An editor’s contribution to the final film goes beyond sharpening runtime. It’s about allowing the narrative to flow without disruption; it is about sustaining mood and atmosphere. I feel my primary responsibility is to create a connection between the viewers and the screen.
Having worked on Pariyerum Perumal and Karnan with Mari Selvaraj, which was the easier film to pull off?
Both were equally challenging. We were filled with a sense of doubt while working on Pariyerum Perumal. We broke conventions with the film, and honestly, we weren’t confident whether our experiment would reward us, and hence, I was cautious at every step. But Mari gave me complete creative liberty and encouraged me to explore various styles of editing with this film. For instance, when the identity of Pariyan’s father is revealed in the song, ‘Engum Pugazh’, we tried to emphasize the son’s emotion. So, we refrained from making it a celebratory number and instead used intercuts to Paraiyan’s memories with his father. When Mari shot those scenes, he knew he would find a way to insert them into the final film and they perfectly fit in.
Thanks to the success of Pariyerum Perumal, we were confident about Karnan from the word go. The challenge, however, was to seamlessly transmute the multiple layers in the story. Reading the script gave me an idea about the film’s momentum, and I was careful about not hindering it. The film has several characters, both humans and animals, and we had to balance the ‘coexistence’ layer with the surface-level story. Let it be the shots of a butterfly in the police station or the donkey trudging around, we decided where to place these shots on the editing table.
How did you approach the edit pattern of Karnan as opposed to Pariyerum Perumal?
Pariyerum Perumal was the story of an individual and the conflict he has to overcome, whereas Karnan is about an entire village. The sheer scale of the story widened the editing perspective. The number of characters and shots increased exponentially. The symbolism is rich. Especially in the final 30 minutes, there is a great deal of visual narration to comprehend. The police beat people, ruin their homes, and tear their certificates. But Mari and I were clear that we would differentiate this riot from other films that have portrayed such violence so far. To achieve the intended emotional impact, we overlaid the police riot sequence with the wailing of a pregnant woman undergoing labour. There is not a single audible dialogue in the 20-minute war stretch. The woman’s wailing reflects the unfathomable pain this entire village is subjected to.
What’s your favourite moment in Karnan?
The celebration towards the end. Editing the war sequence was emotionally draining. I couldn’t handle it after a point. It was agonizing to watch the elderly woman urinate in terror and Lal’s character sacrificing himself. After this harrowing stretch, we get to see people of the village gather for a celebration. I felt the celebration was essential for both viewers and myself. I initially planned on keeping the runtime of the dance sequence for about one minute. But after witnessing these people suffer unthinkable violence, I decided to emphasize the film’s happy ending and extend Dhanush sir’s dance to two and a half minutes. I wanted the audience to walk out of theatres with the festive sounds of thavil and nadaswaram reverberating in their ears. It was only after seeing the villagers smile and dance that I was relieved.