(August 16, 2021) A group of trailblazing French directors exploded onto the film scene in the 1950s seeking to revolutionize cinematic conventions with artistic liberty and creative control. Steering away from the linear tropes of storytelling, these filmmakers were keen to create a new language, and this revolution gave birth to French New Wave Cinema. With pioneers like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut at the center of the movement, it became a defining moment for world cinema. And amidst this path-breaking current was an Indian editor — Lila Lakshmanan.
The India-born and Sorbonne-educated Lakshmanan found herself cutting her way through the French New Wave in the 60s by working with stalwarts like Godard and Truffaut. She was among the first Indian women to find a place in world cinema.
Here’s the story of this Global Indian who made her way from Bombay to Paris.
From Bombay to film school in Paris
It was in 1935 that her story began when she was born in Jabalpur to a French mother Lila and Indian father Lakshmanan who was the director of All India Radio. Due to her dad’s moving job, Lakshmanan shifted base from Lucknow to Delhi to (then) Bombay for the initial years of her life. It was in Bombay that she lived for a considerate amount of time. But after her parents’ separation, a 12-year-old Lakshmanan packed her bags and left for a boarding school in England. With Indian-French roots, Lakshmanan had a hard time adjusting to her new life at the boarding school that was too strict in its discipline. However, in her own words, it was this strictness that forced her to evaluate life from many corners.
Two years later, Lakshmanan found herself at a student’s ball in Paris where she met a 24-year-old actor who wrote and made films. The meeting sparked a connection, however, things soon fizzled out after an exchange of a handful of letters. But this brush with someone from the world of cinema piqued her interest in films, and she vowed to either marry a filmmaker or become one herself.
At 17, she enrolled herself in the Sorbonne to study English Literature. But her English way of thinking didn’t find a perfect landing in the French world, and she had to unlearn and learn a lot to graduate from the University of Paris.
In a conversation with Mumbai Mirror, Lakshmanan said,
“But I failed with bad marks (two on 20). My teacher said, ‘poor thing she doesn’t know how to think’. I was not dismayed. I managed to learn how to think. The French way of thinking is based on logic and construction and the thought must be synthesized. The English prefer you to know your subject well and then allow you to present your thoughts in your own rendition coherently.”
Lakshmanan still had the desire of being a part of cinema, and this dream led her to a French film school ID’HEC (Institut des hautes etudes cinematographiques) where she studied editing as opposed to filmmaking because she didn’t consider herself creative enough. It was here that she met Jean Vautrin, a French writer and filmmaker. The two got married in 1953 and after the birth of their first child in 1955, the couple moved to Bombay.
While Vautrin found a job as a French Literature professor at the Wilson College, Lakshmanan taught French at the Alliance Francaise. It was around the same time that Vautrin assisted Italian director Roberto Rossellini on his documentary on India titled Inde, Terre Mere.
The beginning of French New Wave
While Rossellini was working his magic with Italian neo-realist cinema, in France, French New Wave cinema had started to spread its wings. Steering away from the traditional filmmaking style, the avant-garde French filmmakers were exploring new narratives and visual styles. And this new art movement found Godard and Truffaut at the center of its rising. Lakshmanan ended up working with two of the biggest French filmmakers of all time as an editor.
It all began when she moved to France by the end of the 50s with her husband. And one balmy afternoon while walking down the Champs Elysees, she met Godard.
“My husband asked him if he could employ me as an intern and Godard agreed, that’s how it started and I became his assistant editor. I first film I worked with him was Breathless. It was a weird experience because he didn’t know what he was doing. He sort of imposed me onto editor Cecile Decugis, who was in the Algerian Resistance,” she added.
Learning the ropes from Godard
Working with a legend like Godard wasn’t an easy experience for Lakshmanan. For someone who was keen to revolutionize cinema, he came across as a complex person.
“Godard was a sadist really, and he liked to see how far he could go with somebody and that didn’t show immediately. He would test and see if you yielded,” said Lakshmanan.
But Lakshaman found her footing in the world of Godard and the new wave cinema as she went on to edit A Woman Is A Woman. The 1961 film was a musical comedy starring Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo that went on to win big at the 11th Berlin International Film Festival.
The next film that came on Lakshmanan’s table to edit was Virve Sa Vie. Deeply influenced by Bertolt Brecht‘s theory of epic theatre, Godard borrowed a new aesthetic for the film. The jump cuts that disrupted the flow of editing made Virve Sa Vie a masterpiece in itself. The film turned out to be the fourth most popular film at the French box office in 1962 and also won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice Film Festival.
Lakshmanan was working with a taskmaster like Godard, but every time she surprised him with the efficacy of her work.
“Godard never took anyone’s advice; he had always made up his mind. We used to scratch the films and stick them together. If you missed a frame, it was considered bad luck. Godard used to stand over the editor to see if she did not make a mistake. I wasn’t intimidated by him because he tested me and he knew I could step over his toes,” added Lakshmanan.
In 1963, she worked with Godard on two films – Les Carabiniers and Contempt. While the former enjoyed a good reception at box office, it was the latter that has been a point of influence in cinema till now. Touted to be the greatest work of art produced in postwar Europe, Contempt is ranked 60th on the BBC’s list of 100 greatest foreign-language films.
Lakshmanan’s skill of editing was also explored by another maverick director of the French Wave cinema, Francois Truffaut. The editor collaborated with Truffaut on his 1962 romantic drama Jules and Jim. Set against the backdrop of World War I, the film is a tragic love triangle that has made it to Empire magazine‘s The 100 Best Films of World Cinema.
“Truffaut was independent-minded like Godard. He often put his mind to work and was more organized than Godard. He had a clear plan; he wrote his own scripts. There were men that would control directorship, editing and scripting of the film,” she added.
It was during this time that Lakshmanan separated from Jean Vautrin, and married Atilla Biro, a Hungarian architect-turned-surrealist painter. After working with the French filmmakers for a few years, Lakshmanan bid adieu to her career as an editor and focused on her married life.
Though Lakshmanan’s stint was short-lived but she was among the first Indian women to cut her way through French Wave Cinema in the 60s. Working with stalwarts like Godard and Truffaut is an achievement in itself, and she stood like a pro editing film after film and contributing to these masterpieces of work. At a time when not many women thought of crossing over to other continent for work, Lakshmanan was brushing shoulders with the bigwigs of French Wave Cinema, making her presence count in the sphere of world cinema.