National Award-winning editor Anadi Athaley talks about his experience of editing ‘Borderlands’

The 65-minute documentary, which won the National Awards 2022 for Best Editing in the Non-Feature Films Category, was made out of 120 hours of footage

Prattusa Mallik Published :  07th August 2022 11:17 PM   |   Published :   |  07th August 2022 11:17 PM
Anadi Athaley

Anadi Athaley

Directed by Samarth Mahajan and edited by Anadi Athaley, the documentary Borderlands (2021) recently won the National Awards for Best Editing in the Non-Feature Films Category. The film dives into the story of six ordinary people whose lives have been uprooted by the border. These include Deepa (a Pakistani Hindu refugee studying to become a doctor while battling socio-economic constraints), Rekha (the director’s mother, who had to give up her teaching aspirations to be a homemaker), Noor (a Bangladeshi girl, who was trafficked into India and has been living in a shelter-home for years), Dhauli (a Bangladeshi woman, who had migrated to India after marriage and gets to meet her family across the border only once a year), Kavita (an interceptor working in the Nepal border, who rescues girls from being crossed over and trafficked), and Surjakanta (a filmmaker from Imphal, who wants to preserve the history of Manipur’s complex political relationship with the Indian union).

Several documentaries in the past have tried to capture such narratives. But what sets Borderlands apart is its treatment. Instead of hinging on melodrama or pretending to be intellectual, the film quietly listens, as the six people tell their stories, replete with a gnawing pain of separation and the distant hope of homecoming. Deeply observational and participatory, the film never gets didactic or polemical. Instead, it just listens in.

Trusting the audience’s intelligence and allowing them to absorb the story by themselves seem to be the signature style of editor Anadi Athaley. In the past, he has worked with Mahajan in his earlier documentaries like The Unreserved, Kazwa: A Million Lanterns and edited celebrated short films like Detour (starring Sayani Gupta and Vikrant Massey). Following his win in the National Awards, we talked to him about the making of Borderlands, his personal style of editing, the state of documentaries in India, and more.

First of all, congratulations on your win. How does it feel to win a national award?
It’s a little unreal. Firstly, I wasn’t expecting one. So, it was a surprise that the film was recognised on a national level. But the award holds a special place in my heart because when I was studying in FTII, my father used to keep asking me, ‘Has your film gone somewhere, is it going to win a national award?’ Now, he is no more. But it just feels like if he would have been here, this would have been a great moment for him as well.

How did you get interested in film editing?
When I was a kid, my father had a camera and he used to keep experimenting with it. I used to play around with it as well. I’d do some videography… try to edit it on the camera itself. That’s how I got interested in films. But, I never thought I’d do something professionally with it. Then around 2006, Mumbai-based filmmaker and editor Sankalp Meshram came to film in Chhattisgarh, where I was living. That was the first time I saw how a film is made. I was there on the shoot for a few days and really got interested in the process. Somehow, after my graduation in Mass Communication, I got an opportunity to work with the same person — Sankalp Meshram. That was the time I discovered that editing is something I really enjoy doing. Then someone told me there’s a film institute in Pune that teaches how to do all these. It became an aspiration for me to go there. I started preparing for it and got in. That’s where it all started.

Let’s talk about your work in Borderlands. What made you decide to edit the film and at what stage did you get brought on?
Around a couple of years ago, Samarth came up with the idea that he wants to visit different borders in the country and just see how people lived there, what their problems are and what kind of stories they have to tell. This was really his genre — he likes to go to places where no one else goes and talk to the people living there. It got me excited and I was on board before the shoot even started. I was part of the film right from when it was conceptualised.

What inputs did you give before the shoot started?
Samarth wanted to have as many people as possible speak, but it was a challenge to tell such multifaceted stories. So, before the shoot itself, we were trying to figure out how all of these would come together. How would someone watching the film remember the story of each person? Then, if there’s something sensitive, how do you protect the storyteller’s identity yet keep the audience interested in them? We tried to discuss these issues and also, how these stories would come together.

Border stories often tend to become melodramatic. But Borderlands never gets didactic or polemical, it just quietly listens. What role does editing play in such a narrative?
For a documentary, it plays a huge role. Majorly, documentaries take shape on the editing table. Because while going on a shoot, no matter how much you plan, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You are talking to real people who will tell their stories and you don’t know how it will be, before the shoot. So, on the table, you get a feeling of what the footage is and then you try to piece it together. In the case of Borderlands, Samarth and I began by formulating some rules. One of the first was that we will try to not exotify the concept of borders and make it as human as possible. Also, we tried not to focus on the geography beyond whatever was needed for context. Instead, we decided to focus on their stories as much as possible. This discussion took place during the shooting as well. But during the editing, we almost spelt it out.

Borderlands (2021)


The film was not intellectualised with historians or sociologists. Rather, it’s observational and participatory. What are the challenges in editing such a documentary?
There are a lot of challenges. Some stories had a difficult context to understand and convey, but we had to make sure the film didn’t become information-heavy. It was a struggle to balance the context yet not lose the person who had the context. For example, it’s very difficult for someone not well-versed with the India-Pakistan relation to understand Deepa’s situation. Sometimes, we took chances that the audience would get it, sometimes we tried to carefully contextualise the story a little bit through the person telling it. The challenge was to get the balance right.

Borderlands is a 65-minute documentary featuring five languages that has been made out of 120 hours of footage. How much time did you take to edit the film?
We took around five months to edit it. But the process became easier, because I don’t speak any of these languages! (Smiles) Volunteers across the country sat through the footage and transcribed it. It was a concentrated effort by a lot of people coming together to translate it for us, so that we can understand what is actually happening. That way, it was a special project.

In the case of documentaries, how do you decide the right length or pace for a film, since you do not have a screenplay to base it on?
It’s a difficult question (laughs). While you edit, you usually know when what you wanted to convey has been conveyed. You stop at the point where you think that this is exactly what I want to say and then you leave the rest for the audience. This is one of the factors which decides the duration of the film. Also, when you are watching it, you start to understand which points we have harped on for too long. Ultimately, all of these factors come into play. We generally talk about durations when we are almost reaching a final cut stage .

Different editors have different approaches to endings in case of documentaries. Do you have a specific approach?
Not really, it depends on what has been shot. But personally, I tend to like films which leave me with a lot of thoughts and emotions at the same time. For the ending of Borderlands, that was what we were aiming for. That is why we revealed the names of the people telling their stories, at the end. So, when you leave the screening you know their names. But you know their names with context. That was our approach to the ending.

Be it documentaries like Borderlands, The Unreserved, Kazwa, or the short film Detour, the films you edit really listen-in. Is that your style or is that by chance?
I think it is by chance. But, I also like watching films where, as an audience, I am left to what I want to feel. It’s empowering — it makes you feel that the filmmaker trusts your intelligence and ability to manoeuvre through the emotions you feel. Maybe deep down, because I like films which have this observational quality, it subconsciously trickles into my work.

Lastly, what do you feel about the culture of watching documentaries in India? Do you think the documentary market is growing?
It is growing but quite slowly. Ideally, a lot more documentaries should be made and more platforms should be available for people to watch them. A lot of documentaries go to festivals but very few become available for anyone to watch. So, the majority of times, the issue is about access. Because generally, filmmakers or the people who are in documentaries are not well-known, it becomes difficult for them to reach people. Also, in order to release a documentary in theatre or OTT, the amount of money that gets put in, increases. So, it’s one of those Catch-22 situations where you need money to release the film yet you are not sure it will make money. But, if you don’t take that risk, the market won’t grow. Of course, with the advent of OTT, things have improved a lot. A lot of OTT platforms are now trying to push a lot of non-fiction content. So, I think it’s improving that way.