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     Volume 8 Issue 53 | January 16, 2009 |

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The Ugly Side of Bollywood

Commi Kapoor

You do not see them. You do not hear much about them. Yet, no film can ever be made without them. Yes, they are the real people who slog behind the cameras to make stars of folks as ordinary as they themselves are.

In the popular parlance, they are called “extras”. Treated like dirt by most producers and directors, and paid below-subsistence level wages, if at all, they went on strike recently. And, predictably, shut down the film-making factory that is Bollywood. With them on strike, the Shah Rukh Khans and Akshay Kumars of the big screen had to necessarily cool their heels at home.

The strike by tens of thousands of light boys, dancers, carpenters, set designers, make-up artistes, dummy effect creators, technicians, spot boys, etc, in early October may have lasted but only two days. But during those two days, the bigwigs in the industry were obliged to acknowledge the worth of the lowly extras. Film producers buckled under the collective pressure and signed an agreement with the Cine workers' union. Higher wages and an eight-hour shift were among the major concessions.

Equally importantly, non-unionised extras could no longer be employed to break the unity of the film workers. Direct action by the Bollywood workers, as against actors, stemmed from their exploitation and terrible working conditions.

These poorly paid and largely unskilled extras last stopped work some four decades ago. Promises of better emoluments and working conditions had mostly remained unimplemented. Neither legally enforceable minimum wage nor any social security benefits such as provident fund, gratuity, medical allowance, etc, were made available to them, though a vast majority of them worked without a break in the same industry and very often in the same studio.

Of course, most of them gravitated to the industry in the first place for want of work elsewhere. But a sizable proportion of extras were lured by the glamour and glitz of Bollywood. And a number of them had aspired to make it big on the screen.

The rare but nonetheless real chance of getting that all-important break never happened in their case. Remember that from Naseeruddin Shah to the late Rajinder Kumar and Raaj Kumar, a number of successful actors had in the initial days of their struggle appeared as extras in crowd scenes on the big screen.

Even the famous movie producer-director Mahesh Bhatt had done a stint as a glorified extra with the well-known movie maker, the late Raj Khosla. Indeed, Bhatt was quoted recently as saying that the lot of film workers had remained unchanged since he entered the industry back in the early 70s.

“Drinking water is scarce, starvation looms and working conditions are appalling ... the problem is that most people confuse Bollywood with a club of some 50-odd people who are always in the media focus, while the real people who slog are grossly neglected.” Extras, or all-purpose factotums to the stars and producers, directors, etc, have no security of service, finding work for some 10 to 15 days a month.

A Bollywood shift pays a little more than a television shift. But working conditions are poor in both branches of the film industry, with little care taken of safety and the social and economic security of lowly extras. It is not uncommon for light boys to suffer injuries while on work, holding heavy lights from a window ledge or the top of a high-rise building.

Meagre compensation is paid, if at all, to anyone injured or fatally wounded on the sets. But things may already be changing. It is because the Cine workers' unions are now conscious of their rights--and exerting themselves to enforce them, too.

A case in point is the threat by the Cine Dancers' Association to prevent film producers from hiring “outsiders” as dancers for their films. Following the recent success of the Akshay Kumar-starrer, Singh is Kinng, producers are keen to hire amateur Sikh dancers from Punjab. But the union barred them, arguing that they could work only if they enrolled themselves as members by paying a hefty fee. Thanks to the overnight popularity of genuine turbaned Sikhs who can perform the typical Punjabi “Bhangra” dance, a couple of producers had contracted dance troupes from Punjab but found themselves barred by the Cine workers unions.

The amateur dancers pleaded that they could not be expected to pay a hefty fee to the union for occasional work in the film industry, but to no avail.

In fact, there is considerable tension in the industry already over the increasing use by film producers of foreign dancers, especially female. Next time you see a Bollywood movie, notice that in the dance sequences there are a number of Caucasians. Ordinary Indians are colour-conscious, equating beauty with one's pigment colour. Indeed, you could sum up Indians' attitude to beauty in three words: white is beautiful.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, a lot of girls from the recently independent republics have moved to India, with film producers tapping them for that extra glamour quotient.

This is a big bone of contention between the extras' unions and the film makers. Bollywood producers exploit the fact that these girls have few hang-ups about baring skin or doing suggestive dance movements to titillate the front stalls which, despite the coming of the multiplex theatres, still determine the success or failure of a mainstream (as against art) film.

However the last word should go to an extra. Bollywood is the largest film industry in the world. Major Hollywood studios have entered Bollywood recently. Anil Ambani has stitched up a US$1.2 billion deal with Hollywood biggie Steven Spielberg. “Yet, we extras are paid below subsistence level wages, though we often risk our jobs, perform hazardous stunts for stars and generally do all the drudge work behind the cameras.” In short, behind the glitz and glamour, the underbelly of India's film industry stinks--and stinks rather horribly.

.Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2009