The Package | 11 Stories

Missing new Tamil movies? These daily wagers miss their livelihoods

Caught in the crossfire between Tamil producers and theatre owners are several daily-wage workers who depend solely on the industry

April 05, 2018 04:07 pm | Updated April 06, 2018 12:53 pm IST

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 03/07/2017: Theatres all over Tamil Nadu remain shut in protest against the newly imposed 30 per cent local tax. A scene outside Sathyam Cinemas in Chennai on Monday. 
Photo: R. Ragu

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 03/07/2017: Theatres all over Tamil Nadu remain shut in protest against the newly imposed 30 per cent local tax. A scene outside Sathyam Cinemas in Chennai on Monday. Photo: R. Ragu

‘I don’t even have Rs 100’

Balamurugan is careful not to crumple the piece of paper he is holding as he makes his way up to the office of the Lightmen’s Union in Kodambakkam. Written neatly, the paper is a request for a loan of ₹20,000, a sum he hopes the union will help him out with. As he hands it over to union secretary J Sampath Kumar, his eyes fall. The request is filed along with hundreds of similar requests to a thick folder. “It’s been 22 days sir, not 20,” Balamurugan corrects, when asked how daily-wage earners coped with the shutdown. The strike, which began on March 1 , quickly grew to include all production work in the State. The worst affected, naturally, are the ones at the bottom of the pyramid.


“Strikes are called in March because it’s exam month and a lean period for film business,” says Balamurugan. “But for us, there cannot be a worse time. It’s invariably the time to pay school fees. My daughter is entering 10th grade and I need to pay her fees by end of today. Promiseaa solren, ₹100 koode illa en kitta (I swear, I don’t even have ₹100 with me).”

He says he needs to work at least 20 days a month, at the going rate of ₹850 a day, to run his household of five members. But with the strike going on for so long, he’s exhausted his savings. “No lightman can afford a month without work. I’ve been working thirty years and I still don’t own a house,” says Sampath Kumar, the secretary. Even finding a house on rent is difficult for “film people”, adds Balamurugan. “Everyone knows the unpredictable nature of our job. How will anyone trust us with a loan when we ourselves are unsure of our next day’s work?”

Balamurugan's letter which pleads for a loan to help with his daughter's studies

Balamurugan's letter which pleads for a loan to help with his daughter's studies


And that’s why they struggle to find a job elsewhere when there’s a strike. “Employers want people who stick on. But with us, they know we will leave once the strike gets over, so they don’t hire us.”

The Union is not looking for their members to be paid for without doing work but they do want some form of reassurance, says Sampath. “Every star thanks lightmen during awards speeches. Couldn’t a few of them have sent us a two kilos of rice or a few litres of oil?”

They remember a time when things were far better, when all four southern industries worked out of Chennai. “We worked 24 hours and on all days. If not a Tamil film, then some other project. But now, even Tamil cameramen choose not to take us along when they’re shooting in other states,” he adds.

Hoping that the strike will end soon in favour of his employer, the producers, Balamurugan returns home a disappointed man. “No one comes to Kodambakkam dreaming to become a lightman. It is cinema that brought us here. With what we get paid, no lightman can dream of taking his family to a movie they themselves have worked on.”

‘What do I do with my vehicle?’

Sivanesan is about to take a big decision. He is mulling moving his two children from the private school they’re studying in to a government school.

That’s because he may not be able afford to pay their current school fees...if the strike in the film industry continues for a while. “I have dues to pay, rent and tuition fees. I feel proud that my vehicle ferries some of the biggest stars of the film industry, but the timing of this strike is terrible,” he says, seated in an open parking space in Kumaran Colony, Vadapalani.


When there’s a big shooting happening, Sivanesan is among the happiest. Not only will he earn about ₹1,500 that day, he’d also get an opportunity to meet the stars of tinseltown.

“For a Rajinikanth or Kamal Haasan film, or a Vijay or Ajith film, we will get an order for 20 big vehicles, along with cars. That will help employ 50 drivers, thus benefitting many families.”


Sivanesan has been driving since 1993, the year in which he came from Madurai to Chennai, with dreams of entering the film industry. He wanted to be a director back then, but had no clue how to go about it. A relative offered to help him. “He asked me to sleep in his vehicle, which, back then, was used for film productions. I started by cleaning the vehicle and slowly started driving it too.” Today, he owns a vehicle – which primarily ferries shooting equipment to sets and back.

“As drivers, we are the first people to reach a set and the last ones who get off it,” he says, “But our monies haven’t increased greatly in a last few years, and on top of that, we have taxes to pay and strikes like this to face.” Working on driving for television serial units helps him a bit, but that isn’t enough, says Sivanesan, who is a member of the South India Cine & TV Drivers Association.

March has been a tough time for Sivanesan, and the first half of April isn’t looking too good either. Despite owning a vehicle, Sivanesan cannot take it out for other trips. “My vehicle is designed specially for film shoots. There are no seats in it, for people to sit and relax, and used for transporting equipment and props. So I’ll have to wait this strike out,” he says, dissatisfaction evident in his voice.

‘Our business is largely dependent on packed houses’

He is busy giving small change to a customer at Safa Snacks, located opposite Albert Theatre, but Soundar Rajan isn’t too busy these days. “My business has come down by 25%,” he says, “When the theatre is full, atleast 20 people come to my shop after the show. But now, with old films being played, I doubt if there are that many people in the theatre itself.”


But Safa Snacks has seen much better times. “You should have seen the crowd here during the release of Mersal ,” says Soundar. Like everyone in in the film industry, he too is hoping for the ongoing strike to end soon.

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