Tamil Nadu

Safety in the dream factory: ‘Indian 2’ shoot tragedy gives a wake-up call to Tamil film industry

Clarion call: Following the accident that occurred on the sets of Indian 2, actor Kamal Haasan called for production houses to pay greater attention to safety and ensure adequate compensation for professionals who sustain injuries during shoots.

Clarion call: Following the accident that occurred on the sets of Indian 2, actor Kamal Haasan called for production houses to pay greater attention to safety and ensure adequate compensation for professionals who sustain injuries during shoots.   | Photo Credit: PTI

The recent deaths of three persons during a shoot may have come as a wake-up call to the Tamil film industry, bringing to the fore the need to put in place a real safety net for professionals working to create magic on screen

The accident that left three dead and several injured on the sets of Indian 2, starring actor Kamal Haasan and directed by Shankar, at EVP Film City just outside Chennai, has forced the film industry into taking a fresh look at the adherence to safety norms on sets — an introspection that should’ve been done a long time ago, according to industry experts.

While accidents during shoots – at least two on the sets of actor Vijay’s 2019 release Bigil and actor Rajinikanth’s Kaala, which released in 2017 – are not uncommon, many in the industry hope that the deaths on the sets of Indian 2 result in concrete changes, not merely cosmetic ones.

 

Mr. Haasan and Lyca Productions appeared to criticise each other after the mishap: the former demanded that the production house adhere to safety norms, ensure compensation and medical help for the injured, the latter said that they had given importance to safety norms and reiterated that the filming happened under the supervision of Mr. Shankar and Mr. Haasan.

Beyond the verbal volleys, there could, however, be a silver lining. There are two types of risks – to the film itself and those working in it.

While safeguarding of the investment by insuring the film, evolving best practices to protect the hard disks and expensive equipment have improved matters, the safety of those working on the film set – light men, stunt men, the cinematographer’s team, heavy equipment operators and others – is still a cause for concern.

Companies such as Qube Cinema Technologies have evolved protocols to ensure that the producer’s property does not get misused whilst still in post-production. The same cannot be said for safety on the set.

Film Employees Federation of South India or FEFSI, an influential umbrella union of workers of all 24 film crafts (stuns, lightmen, assistant directors, etc.) is working on bringing out a ‘safety protocol’, which will soon be released. R.K. Selvamani, president, FEFSI, said he is currently involved in several internal discussions with other unions to come up with a safety protocol — a manual that would lay down rules for everyone to follow.

Also read | Insurance for shoots the exception, not norm

“We have not had a manual so far and we are working on one. We are also working with the State government to make it into a law by getting it passed in the Assembly. We are consulting all the 24 film crafts and are also in discussion with actors such as Kamal Haasan. It will soon be released and we are also talking with Kadambur Raju, Minister for Information and Publicity, to make that into a law,” said Mr. Selvamani.

Industry insiders say that there are potential risks to those working in the art department, camera department, light men or those who operate big industrial cranes and heavy equipment. A production executive recalled how a cinematographer fell down from a crane while filming and injured his spinal cord. “He was on rest for 6 months. The Art Department folks also work in a high-risk environment, especially when they build heavy structures,” said the production executive.

Need for audit

Who could do the audit? As happens usually in India, it takes a major accident and fatalities to push the industry into thinking seriously about safety. But, does the industry have competent personnel to do this safety audit on film sets?

Industry insiders say those working in the art and camera departments, light men and those who operate big industrial cranes and heavy equipment are at risk. Photo: File

Industry insiders say those working in the art and camera departments, light men and those who operate big industrial cranes and heavy equipment are at risk. Photo: File   | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

 

Yes, says ‘Supreme’ Sundar, president of the South Indian Cine Stunt Directors and Stunt Artistes Union. He said that the stunt union has evolved reasonably better standards of safety on sets mostly due to the nature of the work involved. “When I had initially started working in the Tamil film industry nearly 15 years ago, there were hardly any safety norms or regulations in place for filming stunt sequences. We used vaikkol (grass) for protection and then nets and now we are using ropes and harnesses,” he said, adding that since the stunt directors and stunt department were already experienced in running a safety audit, they could help the industry come up with a robust ‘to-do’ list.

“There should be an ambulance, doctors and fire safety on standby. Right now there are norms but since some companies might not have funds for this, they might avoid following them,” he said. Mr. Sundar agrees that there should be a robust safety audit since workers who belong to other crafts often don’t take safety precautions. “Light men, for instance, just use a rope to climb up, when they need to be wearing a safety harness. If we were to ensure sets are safe, there should be a separate department to do so. Why should we think of all this after someone dies,” he asks.

Also read | The ‘Indian 2’ tragedy: How safe is it to work on the sets of Kollywood films?

“As the stunt union, we are ready to do these checks since we have experience. We want to suggest this,” he adds. Mr. Sundar underlined that the lack of insurance for stunt men was continuing to be an issue for which there seemed to be no real solution in sight. “Actors Suriya and Vijay Sethupathi have been extremely helpful in providing us with funds to ensure all our union members are covered under insurance. However, we need a permanent solution,” he said. While at present, they take about 5% from the wages of their members as union funds, they have appealed to the government to help them as well.

Recently, before the commencement of the shoot of actor Silmbarasan’s Maanadu, an announcement was made about how producer Suresh Kamatchi had insured the entire film’s team, including all actors and technicians. With more Tamil films recruiting foreign professionals, especially stunt directors, the stunt department is also best placed to learn best practices from around the world.

A view of EVP Film City where an accident took place during the shoot of Kamal Haasan-starrer Indian 2.

A view of EVP Film City where an accident took place during the shoot of Kamal Haasan-starrer Indian 2.   | Photo Credit: PTI

 

Penny pinching

A first-time film-maker, whose low-budget film has stunts involving an animal, said, on condition of anonymity, that his stunt director chose to not to make use of equipment to be in the producer’s good books. “In my film, I had given a list of things to my producer – industrial cranes, ropes, bed etc. – to film a stunt sequence, but my stunt director refused to take the bed. He wanted to get into the good books of the producer and as a result, there was an instance where a stunt man could have suffered serious head injury. Thankfully, he was okay and it was not serious,” he narrated.

Also read: Kamal Haasan condoles death of three killed on sets of ‘Indian 2’, announces compensation

Mr. Sundar underlined that the lack of insurance for stunt men continued to be an issue for which there seemed to be no solution in sight. The situation is dire for production assistants, who are the backbone of any film set. For Manohar*, a production assistant who has been working in the Tamil film industry, a safety audit for production assistants has not been a topic of discussion for long. Production assistants are among several people who work round-the-clock to ensure that the shooting goes off smoothly.

While smaller films can have up to eight assistants like him, larger films can have up to 25 assistants. "The topic of our safety or security is something that hasn't been discussed with us before," he admits. While Mr. Haasan had called for a safety audit to be conducted on the sets of Indian 2 following the accident, Mr. Manohar says this isn't a norm on most of the film sets he's worked in. "At least in the case of a big film made on a large scale, we might be given compensation if we get injured on sets. The same doesn't happen in the case of small budget films," he adds.

A creative producer of a small budget film said that his producer once asked the cinematographer of the film to set up lights on top of an artiste’s caravan instead of properly setting it up. “There are potential risks to those working in the art department, cinematographer’s team – when they operate cameras sitting on top of big cranes and those who operate heavy equipments. Art department workers are at risk when they build big structures. I remember my producer wanted to save Rs.5,000 and asked me to set up lights on a caravan instead of on top of a proper structure. In small-budget films, there are always cases like these,” he said.

Producer G. Dhananjayan said that the big budget movies that build big sets and use expensive equipment should be more careful. “Smaller films don’t build such big sets. They go to a real location and shoot without big equipment. Nevertheless, nobody should go to shoot without production insurance. Almost 80% of the films are insured these days against various kinds of accidents,” he said.

What is ultimately needed is a means to set in place and enforce safety as a discipline on the sets of any film being shot in the State, irrespective of the budget. The life of every worker on the sets of a film is valuable, and utmost care must be taken to protect them from harm.

(*Name has been changed)

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 3:38:03 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/safety-in-the-dream-factory/article31012504.ece

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