Once in a while, Padmini Nandakumar's job involves persuading a reluctant cow to step into a tempo. If she doesn't succeed, there could be lakhs at stake.
Welcome to the life of assistant directors, the invisible hands behind the scenes who describe their job as "disaster management".
32-year-old Padmini moved from Chennai to Mumbai to pursue her dream of working in cinema. Deeply interested in theatre and the performing arts since her college days, Padmini wanted to work in a field that was closely aligned to her passion. She has spent a decade working in Bollywood as well as international films and would like to be in production ultimately.
Image courtesy: Padmini Nandakumar
"My first job was as a lightboy in Kerala," recalls Padmini. "In the last ten years, I've worked as a camera assistant, written scripts, done production."
Padmini is currently working as first assistant director in a Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra production.
Speaking about her move to Mumbai, Padmini says that she felt it would be easier for her to catch a break in Bollywood than in the Tamil film industry.
"As a city, too, I felt Mumbai was easier for me to be in," she says, adding that there were many women behind the camera in Bollywood today.
"I worked on Anurag Kashyap's Bombay Velvet and it was almost a fully female crew," she shares. "I have to say that unlike other industries, there is no pay gap when it comes to my job. Women ADs are paid the same as the men."
Padmini also notes that the Tamil industry has changed over the years and that there are many more women behind the camera than there were ten years ago.
What does an AD do?
Depending on the size of the film and the budget, a production could have anywhere between 3 to over 10 ADs.
Padmini says that as first AD, she is like a project manager who takes care of a number of things from breaking down the script to seeing what is required for the shoot.
"Once, I was working in a film which had to with religion. We had a cow and a pig on the set. We took a lunch break and when I came back, there was no cow. We searched for it and finally called the guy who owns it. He said that the cow had come home. It took us 2-3 hours to get the cow back on the set...it refused to get into the tempo," laughs Padmini.
Though the incident sounds funny to an outsider, such delays could upset schedules and result in loss of money.
The devil is in the details
As 23-year-old Vignesh Kumar, who worked as an assistant director with Shankar in 2.0 puts it, "Shankar sir always says that the devil is in the details."
Working as AD for a director who is known for his meticulousness, comes with several challenges. Vignesh says that the past two years have been a real learning experience for him.
From procuring an authentic "lorry driver" costume to hunting for unique locations for shoots, Vignesh has done it all.
Image courtesy: Vignesh Kumar
"In 2.0, there is a scene in which a lorry driver appears for a few minutes. But it took 10 days for his costume to be approved!" exclaims Vignesh. "When you need to show old, faded clothes, they generally dip it in tea decoction or put grease marks. But Shankar Sir will not accept it."
Vignesh therefore had to find a real lorry driver who'd be willing to give him his clothes in exchange for a new set or money.
"I also had to take a selfie with him to prove that the dress was real," says Vignesh. "And not only this...if the character needs a dupe for a fight scene, we have to get the same dress for the dupe also!"
Vignesh studied engineering at Anna University but his heart was in films. Unlike many filmmakers who hire ADs based on recommendations, Vignesh says that Shankar prefers to choose his assistant directors after an interview.
Vignesh made a short film, a crime thriller titled Thirantha Puthagam which was the runner-up at the Behindwood Gold Medals. Before this, he'd made another short film, Facebook, Neenga Nallavara Kettavara which he had sent to director Shankar's office. It was after watching this film that Shankar called him for an interview.
"There are thousands of people who want to work with him. He watches some of the short films and calls people for interview. When I went, he asked me to write a script for 2.0 without having any influence from the earlier film. I had to do this in just seven days. I wrote 30-40 pages and he liked what I'd done," says Vignesh.
Working as an AD means one has to think ahead and take care of every detail, however small.
"For example, let's say that they're shooting a swimming scene. I have to make sure that the actors have at least four pairs of underwear for them to change, for re-takes and later. Otherwise, we'll have to wait till the underwear dries! You may think is a small thing but it leads to delays and loss of money," he says.
Vignesh wants to make his own film, a thriller, and says that working on 2.0 has given him great exposure - from animatronics to how films like Superman which had him enthralled as a child, are shot.
And of course, he got to work with Rajinikanth, whom he describes as a very humble and professional person. Someone who does rehearsals despite his superstardom!
Underpaid yet happy
For Surrya M Narayanan, who is currently working as Associate Director with R Ajay Gnanamuthu in Imaikka Nodigal, his biggest learning has been people management.
"You have to know that you can't make everyone happy. You have to be a dictator to some and a friend to others," he says. Surrya, like Vignesh, is 23 and has been interested in filmmaking since his school days.
"I used to shoot with a handycam then. My family has been supportive of my decision. I did engineering because I felt I can learn cinema anywhere. I didn't want to do VisComm like my other friends," says Surrya.
Surrya's short film The Affair won around 18 awards in the nation-wide short film festivals. The young AD is looking forward to directing his own film next.
Declaring that his experience of working on the sets of Immaika Nodigal has been "thrilling", Surrya admits, however, that the job of an AD is far from easy.
"Most things don't happen according to what's on paper. There will be a number of goof-ups on the sets and you have to manage it. People working on the sets are often not very professional and you have to make last minute decisions all the time," he says.
Surrya also acknowledges that many young ADs have it tough because of erratic payments.
Image courtesy: Surrya M Narayanan
"ADs are often underpaid. The caravan guy, the production guy...all of them will be paid. But there is a tendency to take ADs for granted because people think they will make enough money when they become directors. But only 1% of ADs will become a big director. I know that some pay ADs only for the first 3-4 months. After that, nothing," shares Surrya.
However, despite the hectic schedules - they have to shoot without holidays or concessions for festivals - Surrya says that many of them don't mind because of their passion for cinema.