The art of editing a movie – making meaning out of images and sound – is as vital as it is invisible. Editors are among cinema’s background magicians, working away from the spotlight to realise a film’s maximum potential.

But editors in India are often overworked and undervalued, subjected to inadequate pay, unfair contracts and unsatisfactory workplace conditions. The upsurge in shows for streaming platforms, while initially seen as an economic opportunity, might have only exacerbated existing discriminatory practices. The recently formed Film Editors United hopes to correct the situation.

Film Editors United comprises 250 members and counting. They range from seasoned professionals to assistants who work mainly in films and streaming shows across India’s many language industries. The body recently met representatives of the Association of Film and Video Editors, one of the member unions of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees, to discuss how their interests could be aligned.

The call for action comes even as writers and actors in Hollywood went on a months-long strike over demands ranging from better payment structures to the threat of artificial intelligence. While there are existing labour unions in India, such as FWICE, the skewed power dynamic in favour of producers, directors and streaming platforms has forced writers and cinematographers to create separate organisations to better represent their concerns.

Scroll spoke to two FEU members to understand the reasons for the group’s formation as well as the hurdles facing their fraternity. Jabeen Merchant’s lengthy career spans documentaries, movies and series. A Film and Television Institute of India graduate, Merchant’s most recent credits include the films Shoebox, Zwigato and the upcoming Laapaata Ladies and the web series The Jengaburu Curse.

Manas Mittal, a Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute alumnus, began his career with Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! in 2015. His credits include the films A Death in the Gunj and Qala and the web series Mai.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the idea behind Film Editors United?
Jabeen: We came together during the pandemic when the lockdowns were being partly lifted. We realised that many editors, especially junior editors, were being pushed to resume work. Safety protocols were not exactly in place. Things being done for shoots were not being done for post-production.

This is usually the case with editors. Whether it’s the facilities extended to shooting crews or payments, editors are treated differently. We generally work alone, in air-conditioned, soundproof padded cells.

Manas: The maximum number of introverts is in post-production. We spend so much time alone. We also spend more time with our directors than our spouses.

Covid opened a can of worms. When we connected with each other, we realised that we shared a collective dukh [sadness]. It was so common that we became other’s therapists.

Manas Mittal and Jabeen Merchant. Photo by Scroll staff.

There is a perception that editors have more opportunities than before, especially with the streaming boom. What is the reality?
Jabeen: I will give you the example of a text editor. Suppose you want to publish a 500-word piece and a writer gives you 20,000 words in no particular order, with a brief about what the story is supposed to be. You edit the 500-word piece that will be published under the writer’s byline. But you’re actually doing that work.

Editing has become extremely complicated. With changes in technology, people shoot with two cameras running simultaneously. It’s easy for directors to not be careful while shooting, because they know that they can somehow make it happen in the edit. So your 20,000 words just became 40,000 words. You can still publish only the 500-word article.

One has had the privilege of working with really good people who don’t muck about, who write detailed scripts and shoot according to what has been planned. If an editor is fortunate to work with directors who understand what the process involves, you can have a healthy relationship.

Manas: The beauty of the creative process is that everything can be measured and spontaneous at the same time. Filmmaking is such a hardcore technical exercise that it requires planning and preparation. All good or capable editors enable their directors to have fun on the set because that’s when we get to have fun on the edit.

Nine-and-a-half out of 10 times, that fun doesn’t happen. The privileged group of directors is a minority within a minority.

The issue is more with shows than films. An average 120-minute film has been edited out of a lot of material. With shows, we are watching an average of 50 edited minutes per episode. We are removing at least half an hour from each episode to arrive at what the audience ends up watching.

The volume of work has tripled or quadrupled. But the framework, the budgets, the time frame given to the editor – none of that has changed.

Are there editors who are complicit in these exploitative practices?
Jabeen: A repeated pattern is that a big-budget feature film with an experienced star director will deliberately hire a rank inexperienced editor. That person will work for six-eight months. At the end of that time, the project will be taken away from that person saying the edit needs fixing. Then you will call in your friend, the senior editor, who will come in at a different level.

This is one of the things our collective is talking about. A producer or director has the right to work with a crew of their choice. We cannot dictate that, why should anyone? But you have to pay people as well as acknowledge the time and effort that has been put in.

A junior editor with zero experience is still putting in months of very hard work. Maybe the creativity is of a different kind, but that person is pushing the film along. You need to be respectful of that. But the industry isn’t wired to do that.

Manas: It circles back to attitude. I have two analogies. One is that we are treated like office staff. People from other departments come and go, but after the accountant, the editor is the one who is always there.

The other analogy is that we are the exact replica of an ideal Indian housewife. We are expected to be obedient. We are expected to take care of everything. An actor will be bad, there will be mistakes during the shoot, the music isn’t working – it doesn’t matter because everything will be fixed on the edit. My senior editors have seen so many directors who’ve changed spouses over the years, but not their editors.

Like housewives, we are also non-confrontational. Editors succumb or surrender after a point.

How are editors paid for their work?
Jabeen: At least in Bombay, it’s always a package deal for the entire film. You’re not paid depending on the time for which you are engaged.

Shows have smaller budgets. You are paid per episode. You have to work harder and faster to meet deadlines.

Producers are supposed to pay your assistants. They get paid per month, like a salary, which secures them. One way to crunch costs is to include the assistant’s payment in the editor’s package.

Say a producer has agreed to pay me a certain amount. I may calculate that the project is going to last for six months, so I will set a figure for the assistant’s salary. If the project is extended, the producer is not liable. I have to either keep paying the assistant by eating into my earnings or dismiss the assistant, in which case I will have to do the assistant’s work.

This isn’t right. Even the unions don’t allow it. You are creating bad incentives all around.

If I am being paid less, I might decide to do two projects at the same time because I have to pay my bills. If I have a team who is beholden to me, I can allocate them like troops wherever I wish. Whereas if the assistant is being paid by the producer, the assistant is dedicated to that one project.

Some editors do up to four projects at a time. They are good at juggling. They don’t mind this system.

Manas: According to me, films get made on three tables – writing, music and editing. In every other place, you are executing what you have already thought of. In these three places, you have to reimagine, evolve, figure it out.

Editing is heavily underestimated and undervalued. When it comes to payment parameters, it’s warped. Until OTTs [streaming services], all of us were being underpaid in films compared to the budgets. When shows took off, the volume of work increased but the pay didn’t.

I have signed contracts for two-three months where the makers figure out ways to stretch the edit to eight months. I end up being committed to a project that is eventually paying peanuts. A lot of us feel it’s safer to turn down a show and go back to a film because it’s less of a headache in the same amount of time.

Jabeen, you started working in 1995. Manas, you started off in 2010. How has the situation changed since then?
Jabeen: When I was looking for my first job, there was much less work to be had. Now, because there is an explosion of content – and they call it content, they don’t even call it films or shows – that has to be produced and consumed at a frenetic rate, there is work for everyone on the face of it. But what are the working conditions?

Manas: The more senior you become, the more agency you get to speak your mind. You still don’t get what you deserve. What I would like to assert is that the job profile of a film editor or a series editor is the same.

When you are young, nobody listens to you. You are still doing the same amount of work as a senior editor. Young editors are hired because filmmakers can’t afford senior editors.

Jabeen: If you’re editing a TV talk show or a web series, you are bringing very different kinds of skills to bear. Somebody with five years of experience will have different results from somebody with 20 years. But you can get a person right out of film school because that person wants a break, will agree to harder terms and negotiate less.

Could each of you talk me through a film that explains what you do?
Jabeen: Faraz Ali’s Shoebox has my touch, but also the director’s touch to a very large extent. He was one guy who absolutely refused to let go, even though he had zero resources.

Shoebox (2021).

The team started shooting in Allahabad in winter. They asked me, do you think it can be finished by March? I said sure, we’ll do our best!

The first cut was according to script. Then Faraz said that people are talking too much, I want the city too. But the city wasn’t there in the shooting. He said, let’s cut the dialogue, I will rewrite the scenes.

Meanwhile, he had run out of money. I don’t know where he begged, borrowed and stole from. He went back and shot what was missing – the streets, the Kumbh Mela – with cinematographer Mahesh Aney.

Things may look great and feel perfect on the set, but when you are sitting in a quiet room, what you thought isn’t necessarily happening anymore. However, the intention is still there. The script still needs to be brought home. The process of editing is fulfilling that intention. It’s the process of tweaking and teasing, making meaning. That’s why you need time.

Manas: [For most people] editing means cutting down the length, crisp like a papad, piecing together things that have already been written and shot. But editing actually involves structuring and playing with ideas to increase the impact of what has been written.

When you watch a movie, you laugh, you cry, you feel something. Whatever you feel at whatever point is what the editor decides. When there are open, healthy collaborations with directors, we are able to surprise even them.

One of the most challenging films for me was Konkona Sensharma’s A Death in the Gunj. I wasn’t the original editor. What the world has seen is two weeks of my work.

A Death in the Gunj (2016).

We worked at an insane pace –14-16 hours a day, chiselling, sculpting, understanding. Structurally, the film didn’t change. It’s a story of seven days. What you can play around with is making people understand why a character is functioning in a certain way.

The challenge was that there was a gap in terms of what Konkona was trying to put forth. For example, because of the ensemble cast, there was a tendency to lose track of who you were supposed to follow or feel for. The main character, Shutu [Vikrant Massey], was getting lost in the family. But the film was about his negotiations with the world. It was about being with Shutu, navigating each scene with him.

Will the first shot of a scene be of Shutu or somebody else? Who will you see more of? For instance, there is a scene where they go to Brian’s house [played by Jim Sarbh] for lunch. There’s a gun mounted on the wall. The camera tracks back from it. In the first cut, the shot was lingering on the gun for a long time.

Konkona said the scene is about how everybody is getting ready to leave while Shutu is looking at Kalki [Koechlin, who plays Mimi] and developing feelings for her. But the scene had become about the gun. Shutu came in the tenth shot. So I brought in Shutu much earlier.

Another example was Kalki. Her character was the toughest to handle. The lingo among the other characters was that she is an easy girl. I wasn’t enjoying her positioning. Knowing Konkona, I felt, surely she has thought of something else? When Konkona told me about her real intention for the character, that’s when we started relooking at Kalki.

What about editing long-format shows?
Jabeen: I’ll talk about a series that is being streamed: The Jengaburu Curse on Sony LIV, directed by Nila Madhab Panda. I had worked with Madhab before. I read the scripts beforehand, we shared a lot of back and forth.

The Jengaburu Curse (20213).

The entire seven-episode series was shot on location in Orissa. Sony spent a lot of money on the show. Once you start shooting in difficult locations, things always spin out of control.

I got the material and lined it up according to the script. Then you realise that some things are not there or working out as scripted. In series, there is the pressure that audiences have to be hooked within the first minute, no matter what the script is about. So the first thing was, let’s change the beginning.

The last two episodes were full of action and this gorgeous location, a mine in the forest in Orissa. I did what we do with documentary films, where there’s usually no script. You make these sticky notes – so and so is in the forest talking to so and so. Meanwhile in the city, this is happening.

I juggled the scenes to make the episodes flow. It was a jigsaw puzzle. I was lucky because my director was fully appreciative.

It was a lot of work. The deadlines were crazy. I edited seven episodes in about eight months. I would have liked more time per episode.

Manas: Atul Mongia’s Mai with Sakshi Tanwar on Netflix was my first solo show. I edited all six episodes. It took me 11 months, mainly because of the lockdown. The sheer volume was a challenge.

Mai (2022).

For Atul and me, the core was Sheel [played by Tanwar] and her battles. The crime world was an excuse to bring in personal conversations. The writers had conceived of the show that way too. The constant struggle was to keep that as the core.

Who is the person most responsible for responding to your concerns? Is it the producer or the director?
Jabeen: In the current scenario, it’s the producer, since a lot of our work is directly commissioned by web platforms or is sold to web platforms after being made.

Indian web platforms are being run by the same people who used to earlier be at TV channels – in fact, many platforms are former channels. So they bring the same patterns of exploitative payments and work conditions with them.

It’s not just about the money. Multinational web platforms have also brought in a certain amount of legalese, because they don’t want to be sued or get into trouble. They have dedicated legal teams who indemnify their employers against any possible harm. So they will flag every detail.

One aspect of this is included in the contract: you can’t promise your editor credit as the editor. Because if tomorrow, for any reason, you are unable to do so, the person will sue you.

So the contract will say, we can’t promise you any credit, we will just promise you money. We will decide what credit to give you and where to place it. And if we inadvertently fail to do so, that doesn’t mean we have breached the contract.

If I stand up for my assistant’s rights, I’ve had people tell me, why are you so concerned? It’s a question of refusing to plug into the system. Whoever plugs into this system of exploitation is complicit.

Manas: Everybody who has a stake in decision-making is responsible – not just the producer but also the director or showrunner, the executive producer, even the platform. My engagement is essentially with the directors and the production house. I hold both of them responsible for my wellbeing and efficient functioning.

I have had experiences where producers or executive producers have been very co-operative, but the directors have been exploitative. I have had the reverse experience too.

How does the Film Editors United hope to tackle the problems that you have flagged?
Jabeen: Under the Federation of Western India Cine Employees, there is the Association of Film & Video Editors union. Although run by very nice people who are willing to listen, the union is a little outdated in what it think needs doing. The rules are from the time when technology, working conditions and the film industry itself was different.

A lot of us weren’t members or didn’t even know that the union existed. First of all, we would like to work with FWICE and encourage more young editors to join the union.

Along with that, we would like to start certain negotiations. For instance, clauses in contracts forbid us from availing of any benefit as union members. If there is a dispute, you can’t go to a union.

You could be negotiating a contract where there is no platform involved, but the producer has already declared the intention of eventually selling to a platform. So in the contract, there will be clauses that have been added in the anticipation that a platform will be involved.

What we would eventually like is to possibly negotiate a model contract. It has to be something that’s fair on all sides, where producers and platforms have agreed to certain things in advance. If the change begins from there, attitudes down the line will change too.

Manas: Contract negotiations can be going even after the shoot has started. Meanwhile, the team will already be working on the show. The editor will be told, this is what the platform wants. But the contract is with the production house, not the platform.

Being in a union brings a sense of structure. There is a lot of anarchy in post-production. Because post-production starts with editing, it’s about time that editors come together.