Set Stories #2: To Pee or Not To Pee

Featured

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.

NO CAA. NO NRC.

Featured
To a former friend, 
The proud ‘Sanghi’,
We always knew,
We wouldn’t agree,
You enjoyed the divide,
I favoured the free
Your rabid hate,
Now a reality,
But, we’ll learn to exist,
You and me.
(No CAA. No NRC)

To my former friend, 
The closet ‘Sanghi’,
You came as a surprise,
A jolt, actually,
You called me out,
On my stupidity,
I call you out,
On your bigotry,
Can we ever be friends? 
You and me?
(No CAA. No NRC)

To my former friend,
The star of the show,
Whose voice is now missing,
Who succumbed to the blow,
But, it’s never too late,
Dear friend, you know,
You will lose a lot, 
But, you’ll gain so much more! 
We can still be friends,
You and I, for sure.

To all my new friends,
Born out of this fight,
I salute your ability,
To chose what is right.
Please don’t lose hope
And don’t lose your might,
It may all seem dismal,
With no end in sight,
‘We won’t go gently,
Into the night’
This is a call to humanity, 
A call to unite! 

The Elephant in the Room

Featured

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

The Dog Lady of Malad

Featured

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.

MA

Featured

I still remember the day my professor asked the entire class to write a 5000-word essay on our mothers. The memory is etched in my brain, not because of the fantastic piece I wrote on Ma, but because of the massive blank I drew, not being able to put a single word down on paper. The only thing I did manage to do was type the word MOTHER on a word document and save it on my desktop under the same title. The document glared at me every time I was on my computer, but I was at a loss. This was the BIG assignment and after struggling for a week, I finally gave up.

The reason I couldn’t write was not because of some big fall out with my mother or because we were never close. No. Ma is my best friend, always has been. At the risk of sounding like a fool, I’m still one of those kids (adults) who goes crying to my mother when things are tough, even if it means being mocked by my little brother. I couldn’t write 5000 words on her because I didn’t know where to start. I still don’t. How can you write about someone’s personal life, even if you’ve been a part of it?

The first time I ever stopped talking to Ma was in the 9th grade. The rules were simple. Communicating with your parents was considered extremely uncool at school. Teenagers were supposed to rebel. If your mother and father tried to do anything for your own good, you had to roll your eyes and complain about how misunderstood you were. And if you had a crush on a boy, you had to hide it from your folks. If I were ever to go back and meet my younger self, I’d slap myself. I really would. When I read journal entries from that time, I have no clue who that person is.

Now, my parents, themselves belonged to the cool, rock & roll generation, who believed that parents were parents, but also had to be friends with their children. The house was an open field as far as communication was concerned and my brother and I knew we didn’t have to face any of life’s challenges alone. With dad posted in Kashmir most of the time, however, the task then fell on my mother to tackle all our problems single-handedly.

Therefore, when I chose to rebel and stopped talking to Ma, I was shocked to see her fight to make things normal again. She just wouldn’t accept her teenage daughter keeping things from her and frankly, that was the most miserable time of my life too. When I got over that phase, and thank God I did, she became my chief confidant, a post she holds even today.  

Ma is a fighter. She hasn’t had the easiest life and everyone who knows us, knows how tumultuous it’s been. The more shit she faced, the stronger her resolve to fight it. It irked me, her decision to put family first, even if it meant burying a part of herself and her own happiness. Papa had a massive temper, which my brother and I inherited and she was always at the receiving end of our wrath, whether or not she was the cause of it. But, no matter how big the fight, she still wakes us up with a cup of chai and a smile on her face. According to her, there is nothing a good chat (or screaming match) and tea can’t solve and honestly, even with our enormous egos, it’s difficult to hold a grudge against someone who refuses to take no for an answer.

I have, over the years, come to realise the nature of her sacrifices, mostly hidden in plain sight. There were the big ones, like when she put away her big college degree to bring us up because Papa said that one parent had to always be around. We obviously didn’t think it was a big deal then, but I now realise how difficult it can be, having to give up something you’ve earned. And there are the smaller sacrifices, like when she claimed to LOVE the bony pieces of chicken, just to save the chunky pieces for us. Ask her about all this and she says, what all mothers say, “You will only understand when you have your own kids”.

Being our friend meant being a friend to all our friends. I still don’t understand her ability to draw people to her, especially our friends who would rather confide in her than us. There is so much love and awe for her and it just shows what a wonderful person she is. She even brought in her birthday last night with our friends because my brother and I aren’t around!  

So, Happy Birthday Ma. Thank you for being you. Life doesn’t have the guts to knock you down and never will. I’m sorry this is still not 5000 words, but I’ll get there someday. Love.