Set Stories #2: To Pee or Not To Pee

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Imagine this. You’ve been shooting for a month. Your body clock has succumbed to the unpredictability of time but you struggle with your washroom routine. You feel the panic rising in you as you try to convince yourself that you will get your chance on set, because of course, no one expects you to shoot all day without a washroom break, right? So, you get ready in a rush and head to set. You feel the discomfort rising – pressure and hunger, a double whammy – and you force it out of your mind to focus, instead, on shot breakdowns, last minute set adjustments, script changes, costume adjustments etc. Someone informs you that breakfast is finally ready and you glance at your watch. You have 20 mins before the first shot. You race to the breakfast stall, shovel a few mouthfuls, dunk your plate in the washing crate and begin your hunt for a washroom. You go to one production assistant who directs you to the next and again, till you’re 5 mins away from the first shot and close to tears, only to be told that the washrooms are occupied by actors and the heads of department and to “please adjust”.

In all the years I’ve worked on set, not once has my quest for a ‘women-only’ washroom been successful. In the midst of Covid-19, as the film industry gears up to resume production in India, it’s safe to say that the lack of segregated washrooms on sets still remains an issue. And the ones who bear the brunt of it are women. “The biggest problem is during outdoor shoots,” says Trupti Kataria, a Producer at Rolling Can Productions, “Women automatically choose to drink less water to avoid using washrooms, which can be very unhealthy”. Trupti, who freelanced as an associate producer before setting up her own production house, now tries to provide separate washrooms on her projects. “When you’re working with a women-led production house, you can tell the difference, because the needs that are usually overlooked on sets, are taken care of.” She goes on to state that it is the female members of the art department who suffer the most on shoots.

During set up days, it isn’t uncommon to find only a single dedicated washroom to be used by the entire department. Production Designer, Sarada Ramaseshan says, “Even big studios like Kamalistaan, Filmalaya and Film City have very poor washroom facilities. It becomes impossible on longer shoots because even asking for access to a green-room toilet is denied citing budget constraints.” Sarada also points to the unspoken hierarchy on sets during shoot. “The director, producer and cinematographer are assigned rooms or vanity vans with clean washrooms; costume and make-up use those assigned to the actors. Only the art department is shunned.” She often has to head home or to a nearby café to wash up mid work. “It’s humanness that’s missing. Why does one have to throw their weight around for what is a basic right. Clean washrooms and proper meals aren’t things you should even have to demand.”

Female assistants are often forced to hold in their pee for hours at a stretch which lead to further complications. What’s startling is how these hazards are normalized on every shoot. “Thanks to the stellar condition of toilets for women in India, I have acquired the ability to temporarily forget I even have a bladder” says, Filmmaker Mithila Hegde. “It is a constant preoccupation on my mind, as it is for most filmmakers, often interfering with the process of filming.” On one shoot, Mithila contracted a Urinary Tract Infection from going without a washroom-break for 12 hours at a stretch. Upon confronting the production team, they expressed concern but nothing more than lip service was offered. Assistant Director, Shloka Patwardhan says, “Not one of the sets I have worked on, so far, have had a dedicated women’s washroom. We are expected to use the Direction / Production toilets which we all know are also used by male crew members. By the time you get to one, it is in no condition to be used.” On shoots, Shloka has even gone to the extent of pasting ‘WOMEN ONLY’ signs on vanity doors, but in vain.

This, however, isn’t just a problem in India. An article featured in the Los Angeles Times highlights a similar problem in Hollywood. Deborah Jones, a set decorator mentions her struggles on film and television sets with “abysmal toilet facilities”, “insufficient bathrooms, places to wash hands” and being “told to drive down the street and use the one at Ralph’s supermarket.” In India too, women often have to leave set in search of a restaurant or café nearby just to use the washroom, provided you’re shooting in the city. I remember once, during a night shoot, having to leave a shot mid-way and walk through a village in Gujarat, in pitch darkness to a washroom 20 minutes away. Needless to say, this special treatment was meted out only to female crew members. God help you if you’re on your period. “Women on sets seek morbid comfort in the fact that they’re not alone,” says Mithila, “With my constant battle against the patriarchy while negotiating with my own internalized patriarchy and the need for gender neutrality, I often feel guilty about expecting a separate washroom on sets.”

The lack of gender representation on Indian film sets has long gone under the scanner. Women technicians and assistants are often relegated to the art, costume and make-up departments and have to fight to earn a prominent place on film crews. This is predominantly based on the idea that they may not be able to “handle” shoots as efficiently as their male counterparts. In recent times, however, there has been a slight shift; gender roles on set are slowly changing and making way for more female and LGBTQ+ representation. Yuva Dancing Queen fame, Ganga, an actor and trans-woman, who was recently seen in Atanu Mukherjee’s Wig, encouraged this changing mindset within the industry and the fact that filmmakers and casting directors are finally looking to cast actors from within the community. “I am treated with respect on set, something that is not afforded to me in the ‘real’ world,” she says, “Being a known face across Maharashtra hasn’t helped in how people perceive me and my community.” Ganga’s stories from public washrooms are chilling and highlight the deep-rootedness of gender discrimination in India. “More often than not, it is women who create a big scene when they find me using the women’s section of public toilets. Men’s washrooms are scarier because they either lock you in, harass you or touch you inappropriately. In comparison, being on set is much better.”

In 2017, filmmaker Sukant Panigrahy started an initiative called ‘Ladies First’ in collaboration with the Association of Cine and Television Art Directors and Costume Designers. According to an article in Scroll.in, Panigrahy, along with a group of film technicians, was attempting to highlight “the lack of safe and clean women’s washrooms on movie sets”. National Award-winning costume designer, Lovleen Bains who was quoted in the article said, “Everyone thinks that it’s a glamourous industry, but the working conditions are pathetic, especially for women.” Costume designer, Pia Benegal said, “We ask the actors if we want to use their toilets, and they are normally generous. But when they are changing, napping, or meeting someone, they don’t allow us in.”

It’s been three years since the initiative and the problem persists. Being vocal about systemic issues within the industry comes with its own share of problems. You go without work for longer periods of time than usual, are deemed either “too angry” or “too problematic” and if you get past that, there is a chance you will be the victim of gaslighting by those you stand up to. However, there has never been a better time to demand and enable change, especially in the film industry that thousands dream of being a part of. If funds can be allotted for masks, sanitizers, packaged food, safety placards and the like, a few washrooms extra shouldn’t be a big deal at all!

Written originally for The Grit News.

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.

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.