Looking at Indian cinema through Pudovkin’s five editing techniques

Pure cinema, according to Alfred Hitchcock was the use of the Kuleshov Effect: an effect demonstrated by Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov to show how viewers can derive meaning from a sequential order of shots and the interaction between them. The effect created by the juxtaposition of shots is often used to define the art of cinema itself.

Russian film theorist and filmmaker, Vselovod Pudovkin — who is argued as one of the founders of the Kuleshov Effect and as a key figure in establishing its derivative, the Soviet montage theory — wrote about five editing techniques under the chapter ‘Editing As An Instrument Of Impression’ in his 1929 book Film Technique and Film Acting. These techniques, once again, use the Kuleshov Effect and speak about how film editing can be used as a “method that controls the ‘psychological guidance’ of the spectator.” These five techniques are contrast, simultaneity, parallelism, symbolism, and leit motif.

Theories and formulas, once established, tend to be used mechanically after a point. While the evolution of editing as a narrative tool, in Indian cinema or otherwise, cannot be entirely attributed to Soviet film theorists, it becomes relevant to see how Pudovkin’s film techniques are implemented today, even in popular Indian cinema.

Simultaneity, a tool of suspense

Simultaneity is the easiest technique to find in films all over the world. Pick any Indian suspense drama that was influenced by American films, and there is a chance you will find a section in which two scenes with two distinct actions are rapidly knitted to create tension. As Pudovkin puts it, “the outcome of one depends on the outcome of the other,” and this elicits a sense of urgency or excitement.

In Ghajini (2005/2008), the scene that has Kalpana hiding inside her pooja room from the killers is intercut with that of Sanjay searching for her. The imminent danger and the suspense of if and how Kalpana will learn Sanjay’s identity are accentuated here.

In Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Vikram (2022), the scene with the unconscious baby at a battlefield is intercut with Amar and the team on their way to save the day. Several Indian films have used simultaneity as a method to replace ‘shock’ with ‘tension’. In Don (1978) and its Tamil remake Billa (1980), it is only after the end of ‘Are Diwano’ or ‘My Name is Billa’ do we see the police entering the party hall to arrest the gang.

Contrast gets a criminal twist

Speaking of gangster films, thanks to the popularity of the infamous baptism scene in The Godfather (1972), Indian cinema has also used Pudovkin’s contrast technique over and over in gangster films.; here two scenes happening simultaneously are cross-cut but the emphasis is more on the extreme differences in the subject handled. In The Godfather, while Michael Corleone stood as a godfather to his niece at the church, the scene is cross-cut to the Corleone gang’s killing spree. Here, the contrast is between a holy ceremony such as baptism — which is meant to purify the soul — and the act of killing.

In many versions of The Godfather in India, like Nayakan (1987) and Malik (2021), the act of baptism is replaced with funeral rituals that are performed by Hindus and Muslims. The contrast is shown between a ritual meant to offer peace to the deceased and the act of killing.

In Bheeshma Parvam (2022), the patriarch gets almost killed and is shown to exact revenge from the hospital.

The infamous intermission scene in KGF: Chapter 2 (2022) where Rocky meets Inayath Khaleel also has similar sequencing of shots although it isn’t meant to compare contrasting ideas. But Rocky does give an offer that Inayath cannot refuse — one that closes soon.

In Pudhupettai (2006), too, the contrast is lost but a similar section exists.

Parallelism to evoke emotion

The infamous police station scene in Drishyam is a perfect example of parallelism, a technique where two similar scenes are intercut to show the differences or evoke a certain emotion. In the film, as the lead character walks out of the police station, there is a transitional cut to him walking out of the same station at a different time. Parallelism is often used to shift between different periods. In Lunchbox (2013), when Ila reads Saajan’s letter about eating a banana, parallelism is used to bring them both closer. Rorschach (2022) uses the technique when two instances of home invasion from two different periods are intercut.

Leit Motif for divinity and heroism

Indian cinema can’t get enough of Leit Motif, a technique in which a musical theme attached to a character or place or emotion is made to recur to elicit an emotional response. Sounds familiar? The Soviet filmmaker explains the technique through a scene in his 1927 film The End of St. Petersburg in which the motif of a church bell is used to convey the atrocities of the church during the Tsarist regime. In Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960), another film with a controversial politico-religious commentary, the ringing of the bells at the pooja room is recurred to reflect the fear in the mind of the husband (Soumitra Chatterjee). A more recent example is Ratsasan (2018), where jingle-like music is played whenever the cop sees signs that point toward the psychopath. In most devotional films like Jai Kaali (1992) or Rajakali Amman (2000) or Kantara (2022), a specific folk percussion music is used as the motif to show the possession of the goddess or the demi-god. Most modern-day horror films have to thank western titles like Star Wars or Predator for using such motifs.

Symbolism, dead or alive?

Symbolism, however, has had its own evolution in popular Indian cinema. From the age of silent films to Agneepath (1990) and to 2022’s RRR, literal and visual symbolisms continue to be used. Elements of nature are attributed to a character or an emotion and are used in the frame when they recur. But Pudovkin’s technique is about how symbolically a scene cuts to another or how two scenes are symbolically intercut.

Pudovkin uses a scene from fellow Soviet montage theorist Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Strike, in which “the shooting down of workmen is punctuated by shots of the slaughter of a bull in a stockyard.” The scene seems so familiar that you might find similar instances in Indian films. However, filmmakers have also found other fascinating methods to use symbolism. In countless films, the crashing of surging waves on the seashore is used to symbolise the surge of emotions. But the most popular usage of symbolism is the ‘sanskari display of intimacy’ in the cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s, where a shot of a couple coming close to kiss will cut to two flowers touching each other. Finding a symbolic cut in modern cinema, however, seems to be a bit difficult. In OK Kanmani (2015), when a steamy conversation builds between Tara and Adi on the train, there is a sudden change in the camera angle to show a speeding express train passing by, symbolising the rush of emotions. But, technically this isn’t a cut to another scene.

It’s fascinating to see how filmmakers adapt a pre-existing idea and give it their own unique twist. There are examples where some sections seem to abide by two or many of these techniques. In the infamous Donkey and Bus scene in Karnan (2021), simultaneity marries symbolism. The tragic climax of Ennu Ninte Moideen (2015) is both simultaneity and contrast (one depicts hope, and the other, hopelessness).

Pudovkin’s theories were derived at a time when cinema was fundamentally the stitching of shots. Back-tracking the evolution of cinema to see how these techniques still make sense 100 years after Pudovkin started his career is a fun exercise by itself.

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