Last year, at the funeral of Balaji Yadav, a beloved Tamil TV serial director who committed suicide, film technicians with dwindling patience expressed what was once silent fury by wearing black shirts.
Three years ago, the Tamil silver screen was at its peak. Almost 90 percent of the TV slots were devoted to original Tamil serials. Everyone was paid their due on time, and content was tailor-made.
Currently, many of the small screen technicians are out of work, and the last few are paid a pittance. Among the 80-odd slots for TV serials in Tamil channels, about 40 are occupied by Tamil serials while the rest include dubbed Hindi serials and also a Korean one.
“We are now in danger of being edged out by big-budget Hindi serials that we find are impossible to match up to,” said director Samuthirakani, announcing a protest by the Federation of Small Screen Technicians last week.
Veteran TV actor Radikaa Sarathkumar, a name to reckon with, and a person who took Tamil TV content to its zenith with ‘Chitthi’, says that they can’t win. “Channels talk numbers – they push us to compete with Hindi content, which we obviously can’t. The investment is obviously a lot more,” she says.
Quality serials don’t come cheap - production costs for one episode of a Tamil TV serial ranges between Rs.60,000 and 2 lakhs. Hindi serials, however, are shot at rates upwards of 50 lakh, with lavish sets, costumes and dolled up actors.
How much does it cost for Hindi serials to be dubbed? Rs.10,000 an episode.
“The same happened in Sri Lanka, where it began feeding into people’s livelihoods,” Radhika says. There’s also a cultural disconnect. “The storylines of the Hindi serials are extremely controversial and barely relatable. In one scene, an actor is clothed skimpily, we need to compete with that? And a producer said it was okay for her to wear it but not Tamil actors,” she says, explaining the double standards that harm the jobs of many silver screen actors.
Who wins? Just the 200 dubbing technicians and the artists. “This has put a lot of people out of jobs. Some of the technicians do it without consulting the union and in small dingy rooms,” Radhika says.
Considering producers aren’t very supportive, is sponsorship a way out? “Sponsorship depends on what people want to see. We are very content driven and don’t believe in grandeur, but tastes have changed,” admits Radhika. The more the viewers, the more the money and this is making Tamil TV serials replaceable.
Actor Khushbu Sundar says it all comes down to one thing. "We need more producers, and the dubbing union must also support us. Producers are hardly ever there, and the channel almost always take a call just to cut costs and never to invest in content," she points out. Polimer and Raj TV air only dubbed serials to lower their costs.
According to the Federation of Small Screen Technicians, regulatory methods may also hold promise.
Andhra Pradesh only allows 30% slots for dubbing serials, while Karnataka has banned dubbing serials. "Karnataka has a separate body, while we don't. We face a conflict with Film Employees Federation of South India. Issues come up in terms of labour agreements and producers suffer at the end of the day," says Khushbu, adding, "It's not the way out to save a 2,600-strong industry."
Petrified of bearing the burden of debt and unemployment, Yadav came to the decision to end his life. Many fear they will meet the same fate. But they're hopeful that it's still not too late to change the system.