CHENNAI: It is 7 a.m. Lugging a seven-foot high stand Ramesh moves briskly towards the set. After placing the stand near the panning camera, he mounts a four-kilowatt light, weighing a good 50 kg, over it. When the cameraman gives the cue, he swiftly climbs over the ropes to the ceiling and pulls the lights above.
After a 14-hour work of fastening and unfastening lights, creating makeshift platforms on the ceiling, putting up sun-shields for the directors and artists, these workers, popularly called ‘lightmen,' leave for their homes, fatigued and worn-out.
“We start from our homes by 5 a.m. and get back around midnight. If the shooting is held on outskirts, even the four-hour sleep is lost,” says Rajendran, president of Lightmen Union, affliated to the Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI).
Behind the bright-looking landscapes in the films are the nerve-wracking efforts of the lightmen, who slog amid the high-wattage lights and bulky equipment.
A few of them had lost their lives either by tripping over from 30-feet-high roofs or suffering an electric shock while moving the lights from one place to another. “There are a whole lot of people who have been left paralysed by such accidents. The electricity for the lights, as per rules, should be cut off while shifting them. But since the filament takes at least 10 minutes to heat up after the light is switched on, we are asked to carry the lights with live wires,” says Ramesh.
Apart from climbing over frail ropes and balancing on one-foot-wide wooden planks close to the ceiling, the lightmen have to combat the blazing heat emitted by the high-energy lights.
G. Sekar says, “We have been asked to fit lights over slippery rocks and on tall tree-tops. Every equipment weighs around 50 to 90 kgs. We had even carried it and trekked for long distances inside forests.”
When the unit packs up after a day's shooting, the lightmen get their daily wages of Rs.350. An extra amount of Rs.20 extra is paid for working at outdoor spots. For many of them, however, getting work 10 days in a row is a cause for celebration as competition is intense. Compounding their woes, there have been quite a number of instances where the production unit refused to pay them their wages citing various reasons.
Mr.Rajendran, who has worked in over 20 movies of M.G.Ramachandran, turns nostalgic when he talks about the change in the nature of their career post M.G.R.-era. “His time was a golden period when we were respected. Now, we are non-existent entities for the artists and other high-level technicians,” he laments.
There are nearly 1,500 lightmen in the Tamil film industry. They have made several appeals to various bodies for an increase in their wages and improved working conditions. “None has even acknowledged our work,” says Pandiarajan, who has been a lightman for 20 years. “But the least we expect is to get our wages at the end of the day.”