For years, the sun guns and pepper lights have been rolling out of Mulchand Dhedia’s Charkop warehouse in Mumbai’s northern suburbs to film sets across the world, including Bollywood.
Dhedia, who had started out as a 12-year-old helping with lights at weddings, is also witness to what goes on behind his powerful lamps.
In the shadows behind the camera, Bollywood is changing. In the footsteps of the Indian economy, globalisation has come crashing through the old and creaky gates of the Mumbai’s film industry.
One of the major fronts in this battle between the old and the new involves people who hire Dhedia’s equipment: Indian cinematographers alleging that foreigners are working here without work permits and union memberships, taking away their coveted assignments.
“Technical hands should not worry about foreigners working here if they are good at their jobs,” said the 52-year-old gaffer, who has arranged lights for films ranging from Heat and Dust and Slumdog Millionaire to Lagaan, Don and Taare Zameen Par. “Indian cinematographers are far more talented. But many of them are just not professional. To compete, they have to get their systems in place.”
The turf war has gone to a point where the Western India Cinematographers’ Association (WICA) is preparing a legal draft with details of foreign directors of photography who are working in India without a work permit, to be sent in about two weeks to the Ministry of External Affairs, the state home department, and the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office at Fort, south Mumbai.
“More or less every foreign director of photography works without a proper work permit here. Most of them are mediocre, but they go door-to-door, aggressively market their showreels,” said a WICA spokesperson who refused to be named. “When our association objects, they pay a fine of Rs 3,000 per day and carry on with their work.”
Of the 20-30 foreign directors of photography who work in Mumbai now, Jason West from the UK stood out as the man behind the camera in the sleek new flick Rock On.
WICA officials say he is one of the rare cinematographers who have arrived with a working visa, although with one that allows him to shoot only one film. They also confirm that he has applied for an association membership.
When you ask his age, West declares with a sagely irony: “Old enough to better.”
He is 42, and has traveled Ladakh, Goa, Kerala and the foothills of the Himalayas.
“I'm not sure why somebody would choose me. More European look and feel for a film, may be,” he said.
When roots hurt
“It hurts when producers pander to a foreign director of photography offering higher fees, business-class travel, larger crew. Most of them are inexperienced and mediocre, and are working without a proper permit. But I can’t work in their countries,” said Hemant Chaturvedi, director of photography of films like Company and Maqbool. “It is simply our colonial hangover, our obsession with skin colour.”
The WICA spokesperson said it was nearly impossible for Indian photographers to work in Western movies because of their strong unions.
“You can call people over, but then make it easy to work abroad,” said Sudeep Chatterjee, cinematographer of Chak De, Road and Iqbal.
Director of Aamir Rajkumar Gupta, says: “Our producers do believe in foreign locations, foreign babes, foreign directors of photography.”