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.

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.

The Dog Lady of Malad

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MIRA DEVI SHETH

I have always marvelled at some people’s ability to devote themselves whole-heartedly to the caring of animals, especially those who take strays under their wing. Naturally, when I heard 85-year-old Mira Devi’s story, I immediately wanted to write about her, document her work so that her efforts are recognised. I began filming her and realised that if there is one firebrand in Malad who is willing to take on anyone who challenges her, it’s definitely Mira Devi Sheth.

Mira Devi Sheth on her evening round.

The first time I saw Mira Devi was during my exploration of Malad when I had just moved here. She was nestled comfortably in an auto-rickshaw, surrounded by buckets of food, supervising the feeding of Evershine Nagar’s stray dogs. The dogs, needless to say, excitedly flocked around her awaiting their evening meal. In her words, she has been doing ‘dog seva’ for 50 years.

Born in 1935, Mira Devi lived with her parents and two sisters at Grant Road. She was an extremely accomplished young girl with a business acumen, trained at the Nashik Bhonsle Military School in swimming, horse riding, shooting and lathi daav (stick fighting). While in college, she enrolled in stitching, typing and telephone operator classes to widen her horizons and secure her future in case of any problems. And, problems she faced.

She was hurriedly married off at the age of 22 through a family arrangement and sent to Orissa. Within 15 days of being wed, her mother-in-law began harassing her for a larger dowry which persisted for two full years. In 1957, when Mira gave birth to a son, the harassment got so bad that she left her husband, took her son and returned to Bombay for good. But, things didn’t get any easier. As a single-mother, she knew she had to work really hard and bring up her son in the best way possible.

Between the years 1963-64, she worked discreetly for two rival cloth mills in Mumbai, without either of them ever finding out. Always on the move, she used her travel time on the local trains to study various subjects, including journalism and business. Apart from taking care of her son and paying for his schooling, MiraDevi spent a lot of her free time taking care of the strays around Grant Road, but with limited medical knowledge and contacts. She also started her own stationary supply and printing business on the side, saving enough money to buy herself a small apartment in Malad.

Mira Devi and her students at the primary school. 

She moved to Malad in 1977 to escape everyone constantly nagging her about her failed marriage and the fact that she was raising her son single-handedly. She and a friend started a private primary school for poor children in her living room which ran for 12 years till her son got married and they had to accommodate his family. It was only when her son gifted her a book about caring for dogs that she began her ritual with the strays of Malad full-swing. Now, 50 years later, if her son disagrees with her activities, she is quick to remind him that it’s all his fault. Her association with the National Association for the Blind for 20 years and the primary school are proof enough of Sheth’s spirit of kindness and love.

An old photograph. 

What began with 5 stray dogs has now grown into a family of 500. Mira Devi has developed an intricate network within the sprawling suburb and is always on call, especially when it comes to abandoned and homeless dogs. She is associated with SPCA Mumbai as well as the neighbouring veterinary hospitals and has admitted a number of sick and injured dogs using her own finances. Over the years, as her commitment to the animals became more serious, she sold all her gold jewellery her mother and sister gifted her to pay for the increasing amounts of food she had to buy.

There has, however, been opposition on all fronts. Be it the local dada of Malad who (according to MiraDevi) went around murdering dogs in order to rob houses minus the ruckus they create with their barking or the BMC who, in 2008, put a fine of Rs.500 on the feeding of stray dogs and birds in public places. But, Mira Devi found a way around all these challenges, continuing to feed the animals to this day. She is afraid of no one and is still, despite her age, willing to fight anyone who tells her she’s wrong. In her case, at the end of the day, the heart wants what the heart wants.

There is a certain spirituality connected with Mira Devi’s dedication to her animals. An ardent follower of Sathya Sai Baba, she bestows a great deal of faith in the love she receives from these animals – an emotion most humans find difficult to express. What others see as a hindrance, she sees as God’s work and this is exactly what motivates her to step out every evening and feed every single stray in the locality.

And, she is not alone. She is accompanied by Raj, her current auto-rickshaw driver who owns 40 cats in the neighbouring slum and whose mother cooks the meat that Mira Devi buys specially for the dogs. Due to religious constrictions, Mira only prepares the vegetarian portions and outsources the meat preparations. Suresh, Raj’s younger brother is a kung-fu trainee and animal lover who joins him in the evenings to help the old lady. There are several little boys and girls from Raj’s slum who join her whenever they can, their fondness for the dogs blatantly apparent. But, as beautiful as this simple act of kindness is, one is acutely aware of the money that goes into this elaborate plan. “It totals up to 60 thousand rupees a month, with the food and auto expenses and the boy’s salaries.” Mira, however, doesn’t believe in hiding away her savings, donating it all to the cause.

Mira Devi with Raj, Suresh and the kids. 

MiraDevi has faced every obstacle with the obstinacy of a determined child. Her only fear at this stage in her life is the fate of her dogs when she passes and this gives her sleepless nights. She is extremely aware of her mortality and doesn’t shy away from it, which is probably why her heart soars when she sees some of the society folk follow in her footsteps. “In my life, I regret nothing,”she says, mirroring a fact I’m absolutely certain of from all the time I’ve spent with her.