Set Stories #1: Let’s Talk!

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(TW: Suicide, Mental Health)

A young and talented Indian actor died by suicide two days ago. His unfortunate death has triggered a lot of us and opened the floor to conversations ranging from mental health to nepotism in the film industry, making us all question the idea of “success” we’re all striving for. I, for one, have spent the last two days seething in anger, because, let’s not kid ourselves, mental health on film sets is a joke.

Please note: I am speaking only from my own experiences as an Assistant Director (AD). Some of you may resonate with this and some of you may not. This is not to say that I’ve only had terrible experiences. Like any other job, being on set is exhilarating; it is where you make friends for life, witness a range of myriad emotions on full display and learn to wade through muck to make something worthwhile with every ounce of love you have in your heart. But, it can also be extremely traumatising and someone needs to address this. Also, “You may say that I’m bitter… but I’m not the only one…”

Earlier today, I read a tweet by actor / comedian Vir Das that struck me instantly. Upon sharing it on my social media feed, I got messages from a lot of film crew members who mentioned how much they related to it and moments that triggered their own anxiety in the middle of a production. Film crews are made up of a very unequal hierarchy of people, some of whom have a lot of power and some who don’t. Most often, it is the powerless, who aren’t considered worthy of accolades and aren’t in the spotlight, who continue to go unnoticed when shit hits the fan. So, if we are seriously considering talking about the mental health of members of the industry, then it is these people – the lower rung, the silent workers – who need to be spoken about first. If “tearing your hair out” had a visual translation, it would be the workings of a film set in India.

I respect hierarchy based on experience. I have no qualms in learning from those who have been around longer than me, especially those who are willing to teach from experience. But, that’s not always the case. More times than not, you find yourself caught in a crossfire of egos, wanting to scream but having to swallow it all and move on. Stuck between warring HOD’s, you will find assistants sobbing silently in corners or staring into the dark void that is their future because they know that the blame (for mostly everything) will eventually fall on them. The spilling of anger on set is a domino effect that doesn’t end with the ADs, but unleashes itself even on the most unsuspecting spot dada who happened to walk into the room with “Baby ka juice” at the wrong time. It’s not his fault that Baby refused to do the scene if she didn’t get her juice right away!

I apologise for digressing.

To be honest, the mental health of crew members is rarely a priority on set. Yes, you could get yourself a therapist to deal with your trauma, but only if you can afford it. And while it’s always a good thing to emerge from your experiences stronger, having to constantly question your self-worth can be extremely taxing. Couple that with the recurring thought that all of it is just your imagination and that you’re the only one unhappy, so maybe you’re the problem. If you have a good enough team, you can all cry on each other’s shoulders or drink copious amounts of alcohol to wish away the bad. If not, you face the abuse hurled at you and go cry into your stained hotel pillow every night.

But if we’re really going to start a conversation about mental health, let’s talk about the divisive politics that industry folk indulge in; about the sexual harassment of crew members; about holding in your pee for 12-13 hours at a stretch because segregated toilets are unheard of (more on this in my next post); about the huge pay gap between employees and the lack of opportunities based on their gender; about the pressure on actors, yes, but the pressure on everyone to make a film / series happen. These are just a few examples of topics that can be immensely triggering for crew members that have gone under the scanner long enough. It may be a good idea to tackle these issues before even attempting to combat the invincibility of nepotism. We all need to take responsibility for our actions and we ALL need to do better.

TRAVEL, MAGAR DHYAAN SE (TRAVEL , BUT WITH CARE)

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Last month, my partner and I decided to beat the heat and “head to the hills!!!”, a very unoriginal idea, given that everyone plans hill-station holidays during the summer, but our excitement to bike from Delhi-Chitkul was unmatched! We carefully planned our days, booked our stay, serviced the bike, packed and unpacked our things and set off at 4 A.M. from Delhi to avoid traffic. While I was sure we wouldn’t be the only ones heading towards mountain respite, by the time we had crossed Zirakpur I understood how bad the situation really was.

In the age of #Wanderlust, travelling to off-beat (or not) places has become an urgent necessity. We all (including me) want to upload the perfect picture, write beautiful posts, look at mountains, look at oceans, pose with monks and locals, post pictures of food and our feet in cold rivers, #sunkissed #blessed #nomad #hashtag etc. etc., the list is endless! And since affordable accommodation has become a reality, there is really nothing stopping us anymore from ticking places we’ve visited on a map.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: there is nothing wrong with travelling. It’s one of the best ways to meet people from various backgrounds, learn their ways, experience their cultures and feast your eyes on natures marvels. However, the whole concept of travel has been turned on its head because anywhere that is NOT our house and surroundings belong to someone else and therefore, can be damaged or polluted because it’s not our problem, it’s THEIR problem. The number of private vehicles on the road to Shimla, including our bike, created such a fume fest, our faces were caked in black soot by the time we reached our destination. It didn’t take me long to realize we should’ve just travelled the old-school way: by bus.

I’d visited Sangla and passed through Chitkul on a college trip in 2010. The villages were relatively small, the locals self-dependent and the only luxury accommodation belonged to Banjara or Kinner camps which were set up along the Baspa river, away from the town. The number of “homestays” that have come up since then is unimaginable.

Ajay Bhandari (27) and his family have always lived on the outskirts of Sangla village in their old-style, Kinnauri wooden cottage surrounded by a sprawling apple orchard. Usha, his mother, tended the farm and orchard every day when the children were small while his father, Amar Singh worked at the Himachal Road Transport Corporation. With his sister married and his younger brother working in the city, Ajay wakes at the crack of dawn and begins his long list of chores for the day, initiatives he takes on his own. Seeing their neighbors sell their farm lands for a hefty price over the years, they decided to put their own cottage on Airbnb and partake in the tourism wave that had begun to hit Sangla around 2004.

Ajay, Usha and Amar Singh Bhandari in front of their cottage.

The growth of tourism has, however, been a double-edged sword for the locals from Sangla and Chitkul. While the money coming in has been good, the increased number of people visiting the valley has led to an increase in littering and pollution, markedly visible changes in climate, the effects of which can be seen on their apple produce and local crop. Excess snowfall this year ruined Ajay’s apple harvest, forcing him to depend on secondary sources, like tourism, to earn a living.

For Om Prakash Negi, the idea to set up ‘Hindustan ka Aakhri Dhaba’ or ‘The Last Dhaba of India’ in Chitkul was a God send. In 1999, when the last inhabited village on the Indo-Tibet border was slowly gaining recognition, Negi set up a little stall, catering to the few foreigners who visited. Unfortunately, Negi’s last dhaba isn’t the last dhaba any longer, beaten by a couple more along the river, going as far as they were permitted to, to set up. His desperation is apparent, relentlessly seeking investors to expand his business by building a few rooms. By the time his dream is realized, there may not be any space for rooms left.

While the need to construct so many hotels, to keep up with the number of tourists flocking to the hills every summer, is still conceivable, what really made me furious was the way some tourists behaved. The river, lined with cars carrying vacationers from Delhi and Rajasthan, has become a dumping ground. Some recklessly throw their soft-drink bottles into the flowing water, while some blare loud music parked next to a school still in session. Garbage disposal, which was never a big problem because the locals dealt with their own waste individually, is now a travesty. Raveena, a young woman who cooks and provides home-made meals, says her father was approached for the purchase of their small farm, but he refused because the Goddess forbade it. Only the Goddess knows how long they’ll resist selling their land in the face of poverty. The increasing number of tourists in the valley is forcing the state government to blast the mountains with explosives and widen the roads, which in turn, increases the number of landslides, one of which we were stuck in. The fear I felt in that moment, when I saw the rocks above me shudder under the impact, still gives me sleepless nights.

The point of this rant, at the end of the day, is to request everyone who plans on travelling anywhere in India or internationally to travel carefully. Firstly, respect the locals and their space. You may be on vacation, but they still have to wake up early and get to work; it is their home after all. Engage with them and seek permission before barging into their houses and temples, clicking their pictures or playing loud music through the night.

Secondly, it really, REALLY isn’t that much of an effort to avoid littering. I mean, do we eat chips and drink beer and throw the wrappers and cans on our floors at home? Why is it so easy to pollute places we don’t call our own? This blatant recklessness on our part really needs to stop because the snowy peaks and blue oceans we flock to in big groups to see may not stay snowy or blue for very long. I’ll take this opportunity to quote a very popular phrase doing the rounds these days: “CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL, B#T@H!”

Lastly, because I know I’m beginning to sound very preachy but the trip scared the living daylights out of me, please use public transport! The state buses run efficiently and on-time, except when a natural disaster occurs, like the landslide I was witness to. The recent traffic jam in Shimla was yet another example of the chaos that ensues when we all decide to ‘drive’ or ‘ride’ to the mountains in the name of adventure. Maybe, we’ll learn from it, maybe we won’t.

And maybe, when we’re posting our incredible #travelgram pictures and posts, we can remind ourselves to be honest and show the stark reality of the places we visit and the impact travelling has had on them, especially hill-stations, rather than post glossy, photoshopped images. Witnessing what we’ve done to nature could force us to be more responsible.

(I urge you to follow the page: https://himachalwatcher.com/ for daily, realistic updates).

The Elephant in the Room

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For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with weight. I have had nicknames like moti (fatso), elephant, saand (bull), hippo hurled at me under the guise of humour. I have been excluded from dance competitions, plays and sports in school because I didn’t ‘look’ like I was up to the task. I was always the girl boys called ‘sister’ because I was ‘SO cute and roly-poly’. And even the year I worked out like a crazy person and lost 30 kilos was a crappy year because it was good, but it wasn’t enough.

If I had a rupee for every time someone came to me with health advice out of ‘concern’, I’d be a f**king millionaire. And, mind you, I don’t doubt your concern. I don’t doubt it at all. I just don’t understand how anyone can gauge anyone’s health (or lack of it) by merely glancing at them. It baffles me how, whenever I’m at my very best in life – living a clean and healthy life, have the full support of my family, a loving relationship, an upward moving career graph – one random, thoughtless and sudden comment about my weight can make all of it come crashing down around me. I am, as I have realised, very sensitive to sticks and stones and words apparently.

However, this is not just my story. There are tons (oops!) of overweight people in the world who are made to feel like monsters in their own body by everyone and everything around them, including their own families! In fact, Julie Murphy’s bestselling book Dumplin’ is a treat to read because it explores the trials and tribulations of Willowdean Dickson, the main protagonist and narrator who, despite being big bodied, decides to participate in the local beauty pageant, run by her own demeaning mother, just to spite her. The book in no way paints Willowdean as a saint. She builds walls around her to defend herself from rejection, brutally jeopardises her first relationship because she genuinely believes that Bo, a boy she likes, deserves better and is a complete shit to her attractive best friend Ellen because the pageant begins to mean something to her and Ellen has the potential to win. Her reactions, though, are way too normal and REAL to sideline.

I remember my first foreign trip as an adult to Vietnam. The country was amazing and the friends I travelled with were the best! But, all of this paled in the face of the complete and utter discomfort I felt at not looking as good as them. Not in a dress and definitely not in my beach shorts. I still regret every minute I spent dwelling on my fat body than on enjoying the trip.

It is common knowledge that everywhere in the world right now, girls (and boys), women (and men) who aren’t conventionally thin are slowly and steadily made to feel like imposters in their own bodies. The first assault comes in the form of glossy magazines, detox teas, diet fads, fashion, films and television series. I mean, as amazing as the sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S. was, the representation of ‘Fat Monica’ is just so horribly cringe-worthy! And that’s just one example.

The second assault comes from friends and family who tend only to focus on your weight, no matter what your achievements may be. When you meet a friend after a really long time, you are always first subject to an analysis of your physical form which may or may not gradually gravitate towards enquiries about the rest of your life and work. I have also often come across a group of very thin people who complain excessively about being fat which is just a really shitty thing to do, by the way.

And finally, the third assault comes from the self. Us. Ourselves. Allow me to explain.

A person struggling with weight is always aware of it. We don’t need reminders because we see ourselves in the mirror every single day. I know how hard I have tried to shed the weight till I reached the lowest point of zero f**ks to give. Some bodies miraculously transform from the effort and when I see these transformations, I genuinely feel really happy for the person. I know a lot of my friends and family members who pushed against the tide, day in and day out and emerged victorious. However, there are also people I know, myself included, who have pushed themselves and seen small results and are okay with those results because they make us feel good. Yes, we aren’t stick thin, but the glow on our cheeks makes us happy. But, somehow, people can never believe that we can be happy with ourselves the way we are. Society is conditioned to believe that flab on the body equals an extremely unhealthy person with high cholesterol and high BP and a very sedentary lifestyle. If you argue that you suffer from NONE of the above, they are quick to warn you that it will happen sooner or later. And while this may be true, I personally don’t think it pertains only to people with weight. It is exactly this perception that forced me to look for a quicker, easier option a few years ago. I admit I was attracted to the idea of weight loss pills for a really long time and have even stayed up nights thinking about liposuction. If exercising wasn’t cutting it, surely these options would give me the body I longed for, right?

WRONG! Thank GOD I got over that phase. A lot of people don’t.

British actor, model, activist and founder of the ‘I Weigh’ movement, Jameela Jamil recently released her interview with Sam Smith where they discussed their gruelling experiences with body shaming, especially being in the public eye. The interview was heart-breaking to say the least, but made me realise that even celebrities can be victims of body shaming. Jameela has, in the past year, faced a LOT of flak for calling out celebrities who promote detox teas and weight loss products that are responsible for setting unattainable beauty standards for young people around the world. She has even filed a petition to ban the airbrushing of celebrity photos in magazines, a task no one ever took on before. She has no qualms about flaunting her marks and flabby bits in magazine cover shoots. However, she is just ONE celebrity voice fighting against a system that pushed her to starve herself as a teenager and almost killed her in the process.

But, things are slowly changing. Women are speaking out against all forms of discrimination. Body positivity, as a movement, is gaining momentum and more and more people are fighting to be accepted the way they are. ‘The Mindy Project’, a show produced by and centred around Mindy Kaling (another favourite), was a breath of fresh air when it released because it gave people like me hope. Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’ was another on my list because it represented her, the chubby friend, as just another normal person with normal people problems. Recently, actors like Amy Schumer and Rebel Wilson are slowly making their way from being the fat, funny side-kick to lead roles in movies. This is, in no way, a small feat even though it’s still restricted to Hollywood. I hope Bollywood sheds its bias against weight someday, too.

Ultimately, it’s about how you can change things individually. As a person who doesn’t have weight problems, you can start by asking about your overweight friends work or relationship instead of commenting on how they look. You can stop giving health tips or advice without fully understanding what their issues are. You can listen to them crib about their weight but tell them they look good anyway. Basically, the next time you see the elephant in the room, as much as you may want to, suppress the urge to address it.

Source: Tomassi

NO MORE SHOTS, PLEASE!

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The occurrence of the ‘tension not, have a shot’ syndrome on screens these days.

My memory of the first time I got very, very drunk at some ‘cool person’s party’ in college is hazy after the last shot of the night because I basically blacked out. Thankfully, I was surrounded by friends who, not only witnessed my apparently hilarious antics before I puked on myself, but also got me home intact. The experience, that night, I have to admit was NOTHING like the fun-ness they show on American sitcoms and it was a very long time before I went ahead and partied again. But, even after this sickening first occurrence, watching my favourite TV characters drink on screen further fuelled in my head the idea that at some point in my life, drinking was going to become fun. Which it did, but only for a short while.

I finished binge watching Four More Shots Please! on Amazon Prime two days ago. The show, as the title suggests, loosely deals with four women who face life’s challenges every day and drown their sorrows in alcohol every evening at Truck Bar. I’m not entirely sure why I decided to watch it in the first place, but midway through the pilot episode, I felt like I’d need a bottle of vodka and a pack of cigarettes just to get through the show.

So, before I go any further, I take this opportunity to ask: what came first? The drinking habits in shows that influence the audience or the audiences drinking habits that make for fun viewing? I do not have the answer to this, but with the addition of Four More Shots Please to the range of web series hitting the Indian market like TVF Pitchers and Baked, to name a few, that glorify inebriation, I’m sure it’s about to get more confusing. I, for one, have transitioned from regularly spouting the famous catchphrase, Tu beer hai! (You are beer!) from Pitchers to pretending I don’t know where it came from. Because, the world we live in now, follows the simple principle, ‘tension not, have a shot’. If your life is messed up, don’t fret. Hit the bar and watch your troubles dissipate in the cigarette smoke that curls around your head like a halo.

(R-L) Robin, Barney, Ted, Marshal and Lily at McLaren’s.
(Source: Internet)

I never really watched Sex and the City religiously, but it was How I Met Your Mother that led me to believe how much fun hanging out at bars would be and marked the beginning of my very scandalous vocabulary. Even the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy had wild, alcohol fuelled parties, sometimes because of work, sometimes because of bad relationships, bad sex encounters or when they killed a patient. Watching the protagonists settle at the bar every evening (or indulge in day-drinking!) after work to discuss their sad, sad lives seemed like the most uplifting activity to me, someone who had seen how alcoholism had ruined my family as a child. These guys were never really inebriated and continued to go to work, were absolutely successful and had a pretty rad life despite all the drinking. To me then, it seemed that alcohol, if consumed with friends could have a life altering impact on your soul. I too, like them, could be a star at work, the funny girl, the independent one and being a horrible person sometimes wouldn’t matter because all my friendships would last! This is, I have learned now, absolutely untrue, though the glamour of it tempts me on and off every now and then.

But, here’s the thing. This drowning of sorrows post work is something I did for two whole years at my favourite adda in Versova and I almost emptied my non-existent bank account doing that, let alone the blinding hangovers that weren’t a pretty picture the next morning. I occasionally went with my friends, but mostly with my colleagues and a major part of drowning our sorrows entailed long, abuse-filled conversations about love or the lack of it, work, cockroaches in the sink etc., but we actually spent most of our time answering emails and phone calls from our bosses, blurry eyed and speech slurred, trying to arrange meetings with loud music blaring in the background because 9 baje office se nikle par the kaam must go on! (You leave office at 9 P.M., but the work must go on!) A lot of the conversation also centred around bitching about said bosses. By midnight, every drunk person was on the dance floor, gyrating against other drunk complete strangers from lack of space and not once did we ever look as dazzling as those on screen, with our rum infused auras and clothes stained with patches of sweat. I have, since then, given up those daily shenanigans, opting instead for controlled house parties every other month because I realised that daily trips to the bar are injurious to not only your health (obviously), but also your pocket (which you won’t realise when you’re busy screaming, “Drinks on me!”).

With the flush of web-series hitting the Indian market over that last three years, there is constant pressure to generate content that the youth would relate to. Yeah, we all rolled over laughing over films like The Hangover which hyped the need for alcohol and made hangovers funny (ugh!), but is it really necessary to show relationships between lovers, friends, colleagues progress over alcohol? Because, as far as I know, I’ve always forgotten the next morning whatever meaningful stuff I may have said or heard while drinking and frankly, sometimes you’re just hanging out with some people because of the alcohol. You could always question whether the characters you model yourselves around would actually be friends if they didn’t have their bar to settle at and drinks to consume. After all, even Prateik Babbar’s, Jeh in the first episode of Four More Shots Please reminds the women that they are together because of the bar when they’ve vandalised the sign outside (to Fuck Bar *eye roll*), after a night of copious drinking. And although, you may sincerely believe that drinking makes you a better, wiser, more talkative person, with the progression of time, I’m not sure if what we think is solid conversation over drinks is actually that or just crap that sounds really intense.  

The point I’m trying to make here is: drinking isn’t as charming as it is shown on TV and in films. It screws with your head and your health over time and opposite to what these shows portray, your friends will distance themselves from you if you think you can drink every day and keep your wits about you. And, to top it all off, you won’t even realise when and how drinking becomes a crutch. At the end of it all, if you have a problem and think alcohol is the solution, I’d suggest you kick the bottle and have a conversation with someone close instead. It costs nothing. Trust me.