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The Bengali drama your telly will not screen.

Posted on: September 1, 2018

The queen has arrived on the sets. She is fixing her golden hairband, the tiara, the waistband and running her painted nails on a piece of paper. She murmurs a few lines as she walks towards the floor. The lights focus on her, the camera starts to roll and she takes you into a fantasy world.

Later, once she is done with her day’s work in a Bengali mega-serial, the actor tells The Telegraph, “Don’t believe what you see here, our world outside the sets is very different and…”, she pauses and then adds, “dark”.

Last month, the seamy side of Calcutta’s studio para, or Tollygunge area, where most mega serials are shot, its innards as it were, came spilling out for all to see. Agitated actors demanded delayed payments, producers refused to give in, and all shooting came to a halt. And that’s the way it remained for six whole days, allegations flying, acrimony swirling, dissension upon dissension, a temporary death of entertainment and in its place, an ugly reality show.

On screen, the actors apologised for this unwanted first such disruption in Bengali television industry. Off-screen, though, they hailed their protest as “revolutionary”.  Alleges an actor, who played a king in a period drama, “The producers think they are emperors and we are their slaves. They think, they are doing us a favour by giving us roles.”

The list of complaints is long — irregular pay, long working hours, no overtime, no defined breaks and poor working conditions.

The television industry in Bengal is a most viable one with an annual turnover of over Rs 800 crore. “The regional market has seen phenomenal growth.  In fact, some of our serials are dubbed and remade in other languages. In fact, some of our serials are dubbed and remade in other languages for prime time viewing. All this doesn’t happen without blood and sweat of people involved in it,” says Mahendra Soni, co-founder of SVF Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. Mega grossers such as Jai Kali Kalkattawali and Gopal Bhar on Star Jalsha are from the SVF stable.

Bengali television has come a long way since the 80s and early 90s when serials such as Tero Parbon, Uranchandi,  Shei Somoy and  Bibaha Abhijan engaged audiences deeply. In the mid 90s, and early 2000, melodrama crept in with daily soaps such as Janani,  Ek Akasher Niche, Sonar Harin and Ei Ghar Ei Sansar.  Now, it is a mix of both melodrama and mediocrity. Some of the popular daily soaps are Krishna Koli, Rani Rasmoni, Jai Baba Loknath, Bakul Katha and Phagun Bou.

The lead actors of these serials enjoy huge stardom but they live a life full of uncertainties, as it turns out.

Let’s begin with the pay issue. Mostly, stars, lead actors and senior actors, sign contracts with channels or individual producers for anything between Rs 1.5 lakh and 8 lakh. A contract is usually for the life of the show and the monthly payment follows a 23-day schedule.

Producers invest Rs 2 -3 crore for the first 60 episodes and the channels pay them after they submit the CDs of the 19-minute episodes shot over 60 days, backed with requisite bills. When the producers start delivering the episodes, the channels release the money on the 7th and 22nd of every month. Actors, however, allege that producers — generally those in the middle and lower brackets — hold back the money. Payments are delayed, sometimes by months. “Producers already enjoy a leeway of 15 days. They are allowed to pay us the last month’s remuneration on the 15th of the new month. Why do they then delay further,” asks an actor.

Technicians for their part complain about poor pay. There is no overtime for senior technicians. Junior colleagues get the same sum of money for putting half the number of hours during overtime but they receive a meagre sum of Rs 500-1000 for 10 hours. In fact, they went on protest in July, refused to work beyond 14 hours a day including four hours of overtime and raised the demand for a 30 per cent pay hike, which was eventually met.

The other big issue, interminable work hours.

When a serial takes off, it takes three to four days to can one episode. But once it picks up, one and a half-episode is shot within a day or 10-14 hours. There are allegations that producers tend to stretch the available resources. One actor says, “A 19-minute episode is shot in 10-12 hours but often producers shoot for 18-20 hours for a final product of 40 minutes.” He adds, “These extra 21 minutes are done using the same pool of resources and is the profit.”

Veteran actor Sabitri Chatterjee, who currently plays the outspoken Sabu in Star Jalsha’s Kusum Dola, says:  “After long hours of shoot, art and creativity get compromised.” At 81, Chatterjee who was among the leading ladies of the Bengali film industry in the 1960s and an actress par excellence, now shoots 10 hours a day for TV serials.

In their defence, producers say the work gets stretched to 14 to 16 hours in a mythological serial, where make-up is time consuming. Delay also happens because they need approval from the channels for literally everything, from promos to sets, from dialogues to hair-styling, and that too on a daily basis.

When one has to deliver at a stretch for seven days on a day to day basis, there will be problems, says Soni.

Other actors allege that production units inform them about the next day’s call time — scheduled appearance — not before 1.30 am and even then it doesn’t mean the shoot will start on time. Says a senior actor, “My call time could be 12 noon but I may be called on the floor only at 8:30 pm. There have been times when I waited for hours only to learn that I don’t have a single scene to enact that day.”

The working conditions also come up time and again. Studio floors turned air-conditioned five years ago, but a common complaint is the poor condition of the restrooms. Junior artistes suffer the most. During outdoor shoots, they are the last to be served food, there aren’t seating arrangements for them and they get the worst possible accommodation during an overnight outdoor stay. Likewise for junior technicians.

In all this chaos, aesthetics and creativity take a beating. This time producers point channelwards. If a channel has purchased the copyright of one or more songs, it would want producers to incorporate them, even if it means tweaking the storyline. Then again, if a channel wants weddings and festivals to be incorporated, one has to comply.

“At the last moment, if there is a call for change of storyline or character, we have to do it. Certainly, what you see on the screen is a product of hard labour of so many people behind the scenes. We  make numerous creative calls as the channel wants it from us,” Soni adds.

Director and actor Chandan Sen says, “Scriptwriters write the episodes for at least four serials, all on the floor, perhaps, 30 minutes before the shoot. When I used to direct ‘Ek Akasher Niche’ [in the early 2000s] we used to have the script for at least 50 episodes ready in advance.”

Producers have their own list of counter cribs. They allege that stars never arrive at call time, take multiple assignments, and quit serials midway. There is no point in suing as litigation takes years, says one exasperated producer. They also complain about the high-handedness of technicians. Some say this has to do with political backing.

The Federation of Cine Technicians & Workers of Eastern India, the umbrella body of technicians headed by Trinamool leader Swarup Biswashas been flexing its muscles much too often, claim producers. Says one such person who has close links with chief minister Mamata Banerjee, “The Federation decides how many technicians are to be hired.  If we offer Rs 1.5 lakh per month to an experienced cameraperson, it forces us to offer the same to an inept technician. Some technicians are Trinamool workers who just sit around and smoke on the sets but you cannot say anything.”

Technicians and actors allege that producers run ‘syndicates’ with the backing of political leaders. Indranil Sen, minister of state for information and cultural affairs, denies any such support.

“There is no extra support given to producers by the government,” he says.

Actor Chandan Sen says he doesn’t know about syndicates but he narrates how he came to be out of work for two years. He seems to think that it had to do with him being forthright about his political views.  He says, “While I was shooting for Ishti Kutum near Bantala, on the outskirts of Calcutta, some men came over and asked me to quit the serial. I didn’t, but soon after, the production unit stopped informing me about the ‘call time’. I realized I had been dropped. In Bengal, you will not be allowed to work if you don’t make your contribution to the political party. That’s how the system works here.”

Who knows it better than Minister Sen? He tells The Telegraph, “It is Bengal, Madam, nothing and nobody is apolitical. Everybody is political, politically conscious.”

The six-day strike was resolved on August 23 when the CM intervened. She formed a joint conciliation committee with members from the industry and ordered actors to resume shooting. The West Bengal Motion Picture Artists’ Forum has stated that no actor will work beyond 10 hours and they have to be paid for every extra hour on a pro-rata basis.

But the CM’s interference has irked many. As one producer puts it, “The real problem is the CM’s excessive interest in this industry.” He pointed out how the industry is forced to shut shop every July 21, when actors have to mark their presence with Banerjee on the occasion of Shahid Diwas.

Indranil Sen denies that there is any such diktat. He says, “The government gets involved [in industry matters] only when there is a requirement to streamline things.”

But this act of streamlining is impacting art adversely. “When art and culture is politicised, they will get compromised,” says a producer, known to be Banerjee’s close aide.

In the meantime, on the floor, the queen has transformed into a demoness. Says the actor playing the role, “Eitai or ashol roop… That is her real image.”

BOX

Box: Telly Tales

Annual turnover — Rs 800 crore

Cost of shooting a

Period-drama — Rs 2.5 lakh per episode

Family drama — Rs 2.4 lakh per episode

Mythology — Rs 3.4 lakh per episode

Pay packages for

Lead actors — Rs 1.5 lakh to 8 lakh a month

Other actors — Rs 70,000 to 5 lakh a month

Senior technicians – Rs 80,000- 1.5 lakh

Junior technicians — Rs 500 to 1000 per day (10 hours)

(From industry sources)

ENDs

(A shorter version of the story has appeared in The Telegraph, September 2, 2018. Link –https://www.telegraphindia.com/entertainment/the-drama-your-telly-will-not-screen-256215?ref=entertainment-new-stry)

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