Photos: The livelihoods of cine workers in Mumbai

behind the camera

A camera in the foreground and the focus puller in the background, checking his lens markings
It takes a village to create a picture perfect world for the screen. Pic: Sabah Virani

With life returning back to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic in Mumbai, reel life is not far behind, as production sets are opening. Apart from ensuring a steady stream of entertainment options, this has come as a relief for the 5 lakh+ cine workers in Mumbai. Their livelihoods, already marked by the instability of daily wage labour, were sent for a lurch multiple times during the pandemic years.

Garbage cans being spray painted silver by the art department on a film set
At an ad shoot in April, the art team is the first to arrive on the set, armed with the task of building it up according to the brief. Guddu Gupta (pictured here) is painting garbage cans silver, and is paid Rs 1,000 for a day. Pic: Sabah Virani
A scene on a film set created with smoke machines, grafiti and lighting
Smoke machines, graffiti, lighting (from the outside, creating highlights) have set the scene here. Pic: Sabah Virani
The customer department corner on a film set, with an ironing board, a sewing machine and a clothes rack.
The costume, hair and make-up departments are also early to arrive. Their days are similarly long, anywhere between 12 to 18 hours. Maggie, who is in-charge of hair, found the second year without work very difficult and is glad shooting is more or less back to normal. She is paid a base rate of Rs 2,000 per day. Pic: Sabah Virani
The costume department on a film set
Raju and Jay are a part of the costume team, led by the stylist. Their work includes ironing, taking care of the clothes and any last-minute alterations. Employed 20-22 days of the month, they’re paid Rs 1,000-1,200 a day. Pic: Sabah Virani
The light department ensuring the lights are in the proper position on a film set
There are many parts to the team in-charge of lighting. At the bottom are the light boys. They shift and arrange the lights to create the desired effect for which they are paid Rs 1,200-1,500 a day. There’s enough work to keep busy for all the days of the month, says one worker, but it is too strenuous on the body to do anymore than 24.

Above them are the more skilled light electricians, paid Rs 1,800-2,500 per day. Over them are those in-charge of the light team, and they are paid Rs 3,000 a day. Pic: Sabah Virani
The light department configuring the lights to be used on a film set
Slightly distinct from them is the light operator, who goes by the name Radhe Radhe. He is one of the few workers that are paid a salary by his company. His job is to control the lights from afar through a switchboard, tweaking the brightness and colour as required. Pic: Sabah Virani

Read more: ‘Mumbai taught me to dream big and be relentless at it’


The backlit silhouette of a DOP on a film set
A film camera is no kid’s toy, and it is why Ajay (not pictured) is present on the film set. He is one of the camera technicians, responsible for setting up the camera, ensuring it’s working well, and fixing it if not. 

“The past two years have been difficult, and I survived on my savings and some help from unions. But shooting has started now,” says Ajay. The trend has been towards longer days, stretching to 18-20 hours from the previous 8-12. He is paid Rs 2,000-3,000. A few of his payments have been delayed, but there isn’t much he can do about it for fear of losing out on future jobs. Pic: Sabah Virani
The focus puller on a film set, fine tuning the camera focus
Wasim is incharge of making sure the right thing is in focus in every shot, whether that is the background, foreground or subject. His work, however, begins before the actual shooting, as he has to make the markings of each lens expected to be of use on white rings that resemble tapes. This he appends to a remote, and on which he turns the dial accordingly.

He’s a freelancer who gets work from his connections with DOPs (director of photography) and production houses. “This is the most important job. If this isn’t done, nothing you do on the shoot matters,” he says, and he is paid accordingly, at Rs 15,000 per shift. The inclination to bargain, he mentions, has increased. Pic: Sabah Virani
A scene being filmed with a group of junior artists in the centre
Junior artists, otherwise called extras, play the background non-speaking roles on a film set. Pic: Sabah Virani
Three junior artists taking a selfie in between takes
Saloni and Swalina are two junior artists, in it for the fun of it. They respond to casting calls if they meet its specifications and it meets their convenience, as this is only a side gig for both. Saloni is an engineering student and Swalina, a YouTuber.

A learning opportunity and “timepass,” it pays them Rs 500-600 a day. Pre-pandemic, Swalina says she was paid Rs 300, but only because she was new and did not know any better. Pic: Sabah Virani
The spot boy, in charge of helping and beverages
After a gap of 15 days, Ashish Kumar is back on set. He is a spot boy, a blanket term for the helper on the set. He takes care of everyone’s beverage needs, whether that be chai, nimbu pani, or, as he emphasises, cold coffee. He is paid Rs 1,200-1,500 for a day and hasn’t been having much luck finding jobs through his connections. Connections are everything in this. Pic: Sabah Virani

“Informality exists in Mumbai’s contemporary cine-ecology right next to corporatisation,” writes Debashree Mukherjee in Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City, her book following the talkie transition in Bombay’s film industry. “Just walk through Andheri West and you will see that multimillion-dollar corporate studios can exist cheek-by-jowl with numerous one- room production companies and editing studios, while a surplus of freelance and wage labour drives all forms of media production.”

These circumstances mean a lack of job stability and employment benefits, leading to many of the workers leaving the city due to the lockdown. With things supposedly back to normal, a boost in daily income lies ahead.

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About Sabah Virani 61 Articles
Sabah Virani is a reporter for the Mumbai chapter of Citizen Matters, interested in matters of labour, policy and history. She is fascinated by the gradual swell of change in institutions and ideology over time. Sabah holds a Bachelor's degree in Journalism and has previously worked at All Things Small and Fifty Two. In the interludes, she can be caught reading, watching movies or driving, rather fast.