Small roles, big dreams: The invisible artistes of the Tamil film industry

Have you ever wondered what life's like for the people who dance behind the hero or appear in scores of films as part of a crowd scene?
Small roles, big dreams: The invisible artistes of the Tamil film industry
Small roles, big dreams: The invisible artistes of the Tamil film industry
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He has acted in Sketch, Kaala and a number of blockbusters over the last several years. But chances are, if you meet him, you'll never recognise him.

29-year-old Ashok is a junior artiste like scores of others in the Tamil film industry. These are the people who appear in the background or may do small roles that go unnoticed in films.

"I've mostly acted in crowd scenes or as part of the background," says Ashok. "I've acted as the house-help in Siddharth's upcoming film Shaitan Ka Bachcha."

Ashok, who has been in Kollywood for the past five years, continues to work as a junior artiste but has also become a "kind of" agent for them. It is the agents who work as the bridge between the artistes and the filmmakers.

"If someone needs junior artistes for a film, they contact the agent and the agent gets them the people they need," he says. "I'm not exactly an agent. I have friends who've studied but don't have a job. I coordinate among them and organise them for shoots. I have agents above me in the hierarchy."

The agent takes home a sizable chunk as commission from the meagre pay - a few hundreds - that junior artistes get.

Of dreams and abuse

Ashok sounds disillusioned with the film industry. He came from Madurai to Chennai in search of a job and ended up in Kollywood.

"You can never hope to become a star by doing these roles," he says. "People treat us so badly. There are some directors like Shankar who are reasonably good to work with but others shout at us and abuse us."

Naming a prominent young director who has made blockbuster films, Ashok says that he is very short-tempered and uses abusive language with junior artistes like him.

He also recounts an instance when a junior artiste was slapped on the sets, but the director of a big banner film didn't react when he heard about it.

"I don't know if he'll remember the incident now. It became an issue then but when we went to complain to him, he didn't even have the time to listen to us," says Ashok.

"They discriminate even in the food. The light manager will get one kind of food, we'll get another. It's sometimes insufficient. When we have to travel for shoots, we are put up in wedding halls and have to sleep there," he adds.

20-year-old Kishore, another junior artiste who has worked in a handful of films, agrees with Ashok. He's a second year B.Com college student who came into the field only to see stars in real life.

"They don't even give us the respect that they give to people who've come for auditions," he says. "It's worse for the women."

Kishore has tried his hand at auditions for small roles in Endhiran and 2.O. But he has bigger dreams of playing the hero's friend, or doing a comedy role in future.

'Adjustment' culture

CP Ranisri has been working in the Tamil film industry for the past two years. She has done small roles in many films, including Magalir Mattum and Aramm.

"I'm not a junior artiste. I've done small roles and have even had dialogues," she said. "In Magalir Mattum, I'd acted as a 'terror' warden – they made me look dark for that role – and I even had dialogues for which I did dubbing, but they cut all that from the film. It's okay, they can only keep what they needed, right?"

Ranisri is 37 and came into Kollywood with the idea that she could raise money for social work through the contacts she makes. She works with a charitable trust for women but says she does not make any money through it.

"I get paid Rs 2,500 for indoor (shoots) per call sheet. For outdoor, I get as much as Rs 4,000," she says.

A call sheet is a schedule which has the details of where and when artistes should report for a day of filming. 

Asked about how the smaller artistes are treated on sets, Ranisri says, "I've never got a scolding. If we do our job properly, why will they shout at us? If we're on the phone all the time or if we don't do what they ask us to do, it can happen. They want to get the job done and if we do it, there's no problem."

Ranisri acknowledges that there is an "adjustment" culture in the Tamil film industry, where women artistes are asked to provide sexual favours in exchange for work.

"People on the outside think poorly of the film industry. I've acted in ten films but only two have released so far. All these are big banner films with big artistes. In all these films, nobody has misbehaved with me. I've been to outdoor shoots for Magalir Mattum and Aramm but faced no problems," she says.

However, Rani goes on to add: "There are many who think they can earn money quickly and do character roles if they 'adjust'. This is a wrong idea, but it has unfortunately become common. In the smaller companies I've been to, people have asked me also, but I'd rather stay at home and do nothing."

Ranisri looks forward to playing bigger roles in future; "Who doesn't dream?" she asks.

Dancing their way to the hero

27-year-old Humai, who currently works as an assistant choreographer, has worked as a dancer for the past 10 years. He has worked in films like Mersal and a number of other big budget flicks over the years.

"You have to become a member of the Tamil Nadu Film, Television Dancers and Dance Directors Union. The price of the card is Rs 3 lakh. They select around 20 members a year based on your dance audition. We then work with different dance masters and are called to work in films through them," he says.

Humai says that the competition among dancers is to keep moving ahead in the lines for the group dance and finally make it to the coveted positions – to the right or left of the hero in the song.

He points out that since the dancers go as a team, they don't face too many problems.

"For smaller films, yes, there have been times when the food is not good and we've made it into an issue, but for the bigger banners, it's usually smooth," he says.

The biggest problem confronting dancers in the Tamil film industry is that unlike earlier times when they could also work in other industries, they're now restricted to Kollywood.

"It is difficult to make back the 3 lakhs you spend on the card. It was possible earlier but it's difficult now. We used to work in Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and even Hindi but now we're doing only Tamil. Because dance choreographers have come up in all these industries and they're barring people from outside," he says.

A background dancer – man or woman – makes around Rs 2,400-2,600 per call sheet.

Other than the restrictions on working in other industries, the kind of films the Tamil industry makes has changed.

"They don't make films with dance songs that much now. This has affected our work. The crew working in other departments remain unaffected but in our homes, if there has to be food on the table, there should be dance in the film. Earlier, there will be at least three dance songs in a film but now it's only one song," he says.

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