When dreams turn to dust: How Kollywood exploits labour

Speak to the supporting artistes, the one-film directors, and the unsung heroes of the sets, and a picture of exploitation emerges from all the glitz.
When dreams turn to dust: How Kollywood exploits labour
When dreams turn to dust: How Kollywood exploits labour
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A few days ago, director Barath Neelakantan, who made his debut with the Tamil thriller K-13, alleged on his Facebook page that the producers had not paid him his dues. Moreover, he added that the story of "payment pending" was routine across the industry. From the outside, the film industry appears to be remote and glamorous and one would be forgiven for thinking that those who inhabit it are rolling in riches. While this may be true for the top actors, directors, and technicians, the vast majority are struggling to pay their bills even as they stubbornly stick to their passion.

Speak to the supporting artistes, the one-film directors, and the unsung heroes of the sets, and a picture of exploitation emerges from all the glitz. Of big production companies who issue contracts but don't sign them; famed directors who believe they're doing the actors a favour by casting them and have no intention of offering payment; an endless maze of chasing one person after the other for payment promises that are never fulfilled. Dreams turning to dust in the face of harsh reality.

While those who work in the film industry say they discuss these issues among themselves frequently, there has been no concerted effort to change this culture. The reason: fear. Those who raise their voice run the risk of losing opportunities, and considering there's a constant supply of people who want to enter the field, the ones who complain can be easily replaced by more "cooperative" individuals.

The contract circus

In Barath's case, the production company SP Cinemas signed a contract with him, offering Rs 2 lakh as remuneration if the production costs exceeded Rs 75 lakh, and Rs 5 lakh if it did not. Though the director was unhappy with the clause, he claims he was assured that he would be paid Rs 5 lakh by the production company.

"The agreement I signed is for Rs 5 lakh. There was negotiation. They started from Rs 1 lakh for trilingual; Rs 1 lakh for one language, Rs 2 lakh and so on. I said no, and that Rs 5 lakh is what I will work for. They told me that I've not worked with big directors or projects, and that to be on the safer side, they'd do a 'flexi-agreement' which states that if I finish the film under Rs 75 lakh (not inclusive of hero's remuneration), they'd pay me Rs 5 lakh. If the costs exceed this, then my salary would be Rs 2 lakh. I said I wouldn't sign this because production cost is under their control. How can I take the responsibility? But they told me that this was only for safety and that agreements are nothing. They told me to take their word," he says.

Barath signed the contract because he wanted to do the film and trusted his producers.

"The film released on May 3, and I waited for the theatrical run to finish, the satellite stuff to get over. For the last one month, I've been following up. Shankar, the main producer from SP Cinemas with whom I was in touch, didn't answer my calls. For two years you meet someone daily and talk for 24 hours, and suddenly they don't pick your calls," says Barath.

Finally, the director was allegedly told that the producers would only pay up if the film made profits (though his contract was for remuneration and not profit/loss). Barath claims that he finished the shoot in less than the number of days scheduled, but that the decisions on the film's expenses on which his salary was dependent (for instance, replacing a technician with a more expensive one), were not made by him.

After Barath wrote about his experience on Facebook, several people from the industry called him – some to commend him for speaking out, and most others worried that he would lose work for doing so. SP Cinemas did not respond to TNM's attempts to contact them.

While the big stars and chief technicians get their payment without delays in most cases, the smaller fish are left to their own devices.

Work for ‘punyam’

Sandhya (name changed), a woman actor from the Tamil industry, shares that despite being around for eight years, she still has to fight to get a proper contract.

“Most upcoming actors are not told what they’ll be paid or if they’ll be paid at all,” says Sandhya, “These people also don’t ask because they want the role desperately.”

Sandhya recalls a time when a famous director’s office called her for a role. When she met the people concerned and her role was finalised, she asked the manager about payment.

“He was shocked that I was asking for money. He told me that to act in this director’s film, people do penance. People should have done so much punyam to appear in even one frame in his film! I told him I don’t want punyam, I want payment,” she laughs.

Sandhya was finally paid over a period of 30-40 days.

Anusha (name changed), another supporting actor who works in the Tamil and Malayalam industries, says she has been working on a film since April, but hasn’t received a single rupee so far.

“Unless you bring up the topic of money, they never mention it,” she says, “For the longest time, I didn’t know how to go about it, who you have to speak to…I’ve been in this space for 3-4 years and it’s only now that I’m figuring it out.”

Anusha adds that production houses always try to undersell the actor and pay them as little money as possible. “I’ve now come to a place where I’ve decided I don’t want to work for free. But I must say that I know even established actors who are doing work for free. It’s really tricky,” she says.

Sandhya insists on contracts because when she travels abroad, showing legitimate sources of income is necessary to process the visa.

“I have insisted on a contract most of the time though that is not the norm. Big production companies will have contracts but what happens is that you’ll sign the contract and give it to them, but the Managing Director or whoever it is on their end, will not sign and give you a copy. It has happened with me on most occasions,” Sandhya says.

Harish (name changed), who made his directorial debut with a small budget, critically acclaimed film, and is working on his second one, notes that directors and artistes never have a say in their first film.

“The reason I want to be anonymous even now is because I’m fighting about payment so much for my second film. And it’s not just me. They act like they’re doing you a favour by paying you. In my case, I haven’t taken anything yet – I’m fighting for my technicians to be paid. I find it to be such a draining process. How can I get work done from people who are not getting paid? I find it difficult to even face them,” he confesses.

Harish says that he knows several talented writers and assistant directors who’ve quit cinema because of this treatment; even if there are contracts in place, taking the case up with the unions may result in the director losing out on work. 

Anandhi (name changed), a costume designer who worked on her first film in 2013, says, “Once the director has okayed you, the production manager will meet you. They will ask how much you want and then offer us half of what we asked for. They will cite reasons like you don’t have experience, your film didn’t do well etc.”

Sometimes, they are told to work for free to build contacts, but Anandhi has had no success following this advice. Mentioning a big production house for which she worked recently, Anandhi says that the film is in post-production but that she has been paid only half of what she was promised.

“It’s been over one and a half years since the shoot finished,” she sighs, “Being a single woman living in Chennai, I really need the money. I cannot ask my family because I know their economic status. But the production manager has now moved on to other films and they just say oh they will start the film again once the financial issues are resolved.”

Chasing after payments

For her last film, Sandhya still has to get over Rs 1 lakh from the makers.

“They fix a certain salary for the number of days you’re required to work in a film. But they will never finish work in that time and there will be at least 6-7 days extra. For this film, I worked 8-9 days extra and they didn’t say anything about paying me more. I made my manager speak to the production manager and they kept saying they’d make the payment,” she says.

During the press show, Sandhya was told by several people that she had got a plum role in the film – a hint that she should not be asking for more money. Sandhya, however, made her displeasure known at the unprofessionalism and it was only after this that she got the initial salary, several days after the film’s release.

For Anusha, it’s a constant struggle between doing a film she really wants to be a part of, and asking for payment: “If you want to say you won’t turn up for shoot unless you get paid, you have to be okay with the film not working out for you. The minute you talk about money, people start saying you have too many demands." 

Anusha had a job earlier which she quit to work in the film industry. For her first film, she was told she would be reimbursed for her travel and expenses but she had to follow up relentlessly on the bills several days after the film released.

No legal recourse

Thanks to the fear of being blacklisted, and the non-existence of proper contracts, there is little legal recourse available to those who have been cheated of their payment.

Sandhya says that usually, actors’ disputes over money are taken up with the Nadigar Sangam. The organisation then does a “panchayat” with the Producers’ Council and tries to get the payment for the actor.

“People have gotten paid like that. But many have also lost money. From the direction department, they will pressure the actor to finish the dubbing. But once you’ve finished the dubbing, you have no hold on the payment. Production managers will magically disappear after this. They will block you, act busy, make excuses,” says Sandhya.

However, Anusha points out that the Nadigar Sangam membership fee of over Rs 1 lakh is not something everyone can afford, especially when they are new to the field and barely have any money.

“Most actors in my space can’t even afford the membership. And even after you become a member, it’s not like they resolve these issues. If it’s still a question mark, I might as well take a chance without paying up so much money,” she says.

Anandhi is part of the Costume Designers’ union – the membership fee is now Rs 3 lakh, she says – and had brought up her unpaid dues with them.

“But I was advised that if I complain, then it will be a blackmark against my name and I may not get other projects. So nothing much has happened,” she says. The production house in question did not issue Anandhi or others of her standing in the hierarchy any contracts.

“We all worked because we liked the project. We wanted to work with that director. And now we don’t have agreements for anything,” she says.

Image credit: Picxy/Image for representation only

As for directors, they’re pushed to a heart-breaking situation where they have to stall their own film to insist on the payment.

“Firstly, it’s awkward that you have to keep asking for money. And secondly, you are putting your own film at stake. What should be an organic situation is made into such a struggle – it’s as difficult to make a film as it is to be paid for it,” says Harish.

Normalising exploitation

But why is such a culture of exploitation the norm in the Tamil film industry? Are finances so tight or is it that there is no coordinated opposition?

“There is corruption at various levels. I know one production manager who bought a house and car just with the money he made from two films. They get a commission on everything – from drivers to touch-up assistants and even those who provide the food! If someone is getting paid Rs 1,000, the production manager will take a cut of Rs 200 from that,” says Sandhya.

Anusha and Anandhi too have had similar experiences as Sandhya when it comes to production managers.

“The production managers often run a scam. They offer you a certain payment and the direction side has no idea how much you’ve been paid. The production side doesn’t care how much a director values an actor. They quote much lesser than what the director thinks you must be paid. There have been instances when I’ve met the director after the film has been released, and they’ve been shocked by how little I was paid,” reveals Anusha, adding that a manager may claim they’ve paid the actor Rs 3,00,000 on paper but actually pay them only Rs 50,000.

“For a film which required elaborate costumes, I had asked for Rs 2.5 lakh to the line producer. He brought the rate down to Rs 75,000. I was the only designer for the project and I was not at all happy. The line producer told me not to speak to the director about it, but I ended up speaking to him and he was surprised. I think the line producer had told him he was paying me Rs 1 lakh and was planning to take Rs 25,000 as commission,” says Anandhi.

Another time, she was promised Rs 35,000 for a song but paid only Rs 15,000 because she was told they had not agreed to her quote. This, after she had completed the work.

But the people who’re exploited the most tend to be the assistant directors. They’re expected to slog for free because they’re being “trained” at the craft. Harish says that he’s been told by people not to “spoil” ADs by paying them. For both his films, he’s paid ADs out of his own pocket.

“From producers to managers, people ask me why I’m paying them. I don’t even know how to answer such people. I used to get angry before but now I realise that everyone here is like that,” he says.

There’s no dearth of people who want to become assistant directors, for the passion of cinema, and Harish believes that their helplessness is exploited by the bigwigs of the industry. He adds that since the industry revolves around the stars, nobody cares about the others as long as the top heroes and heroines are happy.

“The situation is very unfair. When these people (like ADs) are not paid anything, I know some support staff of top stars are paid even Rs 30,000 a day! Many of them do nothing but play cards on the sets or hold an umbrella,” he says with a resigned laugh, “I wish this industry treated people with basic humanity.”

Producer Dhananjayan acknowledges the rampant “payment pending” problem in the industry: “There are a lot of people who run the business professionally and they don’t have any such issues. We (BOFTA) have agreements for all our artistes and technicians and make sure that they are paid the money as per the contractual terms before a film’s release. But what happens in the industry is that 80% of the people run it at a personal level. They agree on something orally and when it finally comes to payment, they start dilly-dallying because there’s nothing in writing.”

Dhananjayan says that he would always urge everyone to get agreements in place because the enthusiasm with which a project begins may not sustain if there is a delay and the production team moves on to other projects. And when that happens, the “payment pending” status may never become “payment completed”.

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