Vivek called early in the morning, from Rudrapur. He doesn’t do that usually, knowing we may be sleeping in late. He was planning to abandon the shoot and come back home. Since he’s never taken such an extreme measure in the 12 years of his professional career, and is generally, an easy-going chap, I know he must have been pushed against the wall pretty bad.
His director has been displaying her film-making skills by being rude to all and sundry. Throwing temper tantrums on the set is not an uncommon stress-buster for directors. Of course, it comes at the cost of giving everyone else stress and often, humiliation.
Vivek dared to tell her not to talk to the camera attendants “like that”. Which displeased her. Which led to an exchange of bitter words. Etc, etc.
The light-boys and camera attendants work the hardest on a set, where actually everyone, even actors usually, work very hard. A shoot is physically grueling for all of us, but I cringe with shame when I watch the hardships we put our light-boys and camera attendants to. Their work is as arduous as the construction worker’s. And of course, here, in India, they do it all without adequate safety measures, no safety or health insurance, no extra hardship allowances. The only saving grace is they do have strong unions which at least ensure that they get paid on a daily basis, even if they don’t always get paid the official minimum rate.
They also begin work 2-3 hours earlier than the rest of the crew, loading and unloading equipment, and similarly pack up 2-3 hours later than everyone else. Since, in India, there’s no concept of a minimum 12 hour break between call times on a shooting schedule, they are often blessed with only 3-4 hours of sleep. On location, they have a slightly better time, because at least they don’t have to travel huge Mumbai-scale distances, to and from home. But then they are usually, accommodated like cattle in a room, sometimes even 15 people sharing one toilet and sleeping on the floor. And they are flogged to death.
Usually, on a set, a cinematographer is the only person with the power who can stand up for these guys. Assistant directors’ hearts may bleed, with sympathy, because they are dogs-bodies as well, but who on earth is going to listen to that pitiable breed?
A lot of my cinematographer friends from the Film & Television Institute, India have got into trouble on set, with directors, producers and production people about ill-treatment of workers. Needless to say, they are not liked, and certainly, not called back for other jobs.
On international documentary shoots in India, usually the camera man and the sound recordist lug their own equipment. The director, and researcher/fixer will pitch in to help. I always try and get a driver who’ll be happy to join in. Of course, the crew will never shoot day in and day out. Call times are at 12 hour intervals. There is a break after 5 days of shoot. No one expects them to shoot the day they fly into the country. (Vivek and the camera attendants travelled to Delhi on a 4a.m. flight, which meant they’d been awake the whole night, and were shooting by 8 a.m., through the day. After which they travelled for another 6-7 hours to the next location, to begin again the next morning).
And even to come to glorious India, foreign crew gets paid a hardship allowance for the heat and diarrhea they may have to suffer. And there’s no way they will take unnecessary risks with their safety. The executive producer will keep them away from even innocuous dangers like the edge of the road, for fear of heavy lawsuits, in case of an accident.
But even foreign-funded projects made now, with a mix of Indian and international crew, get by with treating the Indian crew differently. Since we set examples in rudeness and exploitation, we do get treated accordingly. Of course, with the desperation born out of the need to just survive in this madly competitive world, it’s easier to ignore injustice, to not even notice in fact, the people milling around at the back. They are after all, only menial labour. If one of them falls off the catwalk, or gets killed doing a stunt without a safety net, or does not sleep for two days, or wears unwashed clothes because no one’s thought of his laundry on a 15 day schedule, what does it matter? There’ll always be several other nameless, faceless guys hanging around, waiting for the job.