Reel big fight: Producers vs Union workers

Several conspiracy theories started doing the rounds, as the shoot was underway in the wake of Tamil Nadu Producers’ Council (TFPC) announcement cancelling its three-year MoU with FEFSI and sending a circular allowing producers to use non-FEFSI workers for their projects.
Reel big fight: Producers vs Union workers

CHENNAI: The tiff between Tamil Nadu Film Producers’ Council (TFPC) and Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI) took an ugly turn after the producers’ body cancelled the MoU between them last week and sent a circular that permitted TFPC to use non-FEFSI workers in their shooting schedules.

This move has made producers happy, as many stars prefer to shoot in Hyderabad, which burns a hole in their pocket

Several quarters in Kollywood were in uproar after a few leading stars flew to Hyderabad in Telangana to shoot for their mega-budget films.

Several conspiracy theories started doing the rounds, as the shoot was underway in the wake of Tamil Nadu Producers’ Council (TFPC) announcement cancelling its three-year MoU with FEFSI and sending a circular allowing producers to use non-FEFSI workers for their projects.

A leading producer whose film began in Chennai last week said, “If not for the location, I’d have certainly flown to Hyderabad, as the labourers there are more flexible with timings and on work-related matters. FEFSI workers here do not show up to work, even if we pay them their daily bata or wages. Hence, the shooting gets stalled, and everything goes for a toss. I hope we’ll be able to shoot peacefully for a few schedules, away from Chennai or work with outsiders in the unit.”

What is daily bata or daily wages?

FEFSI is one of the biggest unions in the south Indian film industry with 23,000 members. Unlike actors and other technicians, they’re paid as contract workers – paid when they work. They do not earn a monthly salary from the film industry or FEFSI, neither are they eligible for benefits of any kind. They fall under the category of daily wagers.

“It was Rs 850/day until a few months ago. After three years of requesting, arguing, demanding, and debating, in March 2022, FEFSI members were given a hike of Rs 450 this year. So, for the next 3 years, it’ll be Rs 1,300/day. This is all they get paid even if it is a Rs 150-crore film,” explains RK Selvamani, president, FEFSI. “When a film is made on a budget of Rs 100 crore, Rs 3-3.5 crore would be allocated for FEFSI workers as a part of daily bata. It’s called ‘daily bata’ because payment is made every day.”

‘This industry revolves around trust factor’

There’ve been many complaints levelled at workers, who’ve been accused of not showing up for work while shooting for mid or small-budget films, even when they’re paid in bulk and not every day. But they don’t miss a single day at big production houses, even if they’re not paid for a week.

“Yes, it happens, only because they know that a corporate producer is cash-rich and will settle the crew’s daily bata at the end of the week, whereas it’s uncertain with a producer of a mid-budget film,” clarifies Shiva, FEFSI’s former president.

While FEFSI workers are accused of unprofessional behaviour, producer Kamal Bohra cannot stop gushing about them.

“I do prefer shooting in Hyderabad, but the issue of unreasonable workers is not the reason. I do not agree with the supposed inflexibility of FEFSI workers in Chennai,” counters Bohra, who has worked predominantly in Kannada movie industry.

“I’ve produced back-to-back films and they were nothing but supportive and understanding. For example, I am a Jain and a strict vegetarian. I do not eat food from a mixed kitchen. So, I had to refrain from eating on the sets where meat was served. FEFSI workers understood the situation and volunteered to eat vegetarian food throughout the shooting schedule.”

Shiva is not surprised at this feedback and adds, “The industry revolves around trust and nothing else. One of the reasons FEFSI workers got a hike this year is because I demanded an increase in their pay a few years ago. But a hike is irrelevant when payment is irregular.”

Shiva is not wrong but one of the office-bearers of TFPC points out that challenges plague producers as well, and they do not have it easy either. “Everyone talks about FEFSI members and their challenges. We’ve been accused of unpaid dues to workers. What about 236 films that were halted mid-way due to rising production costs? FEFSI workers were paid for days they worked on these films, irrespective of whether they were released. So far, 450 films have gone to censors and haven’t been released. FEFSI workers were still paid,” he laments.

Murali Ramaswamy, TFPC’s president, admits that such issues were discussed with FEFSI, whose members submitted their grievances as well. “We’re ready to resolve it. And on hiring workers from outside, an official announcement will be made soon,” adds Murali.

But Selvamani makes another point: “It has been 20 days since the MoU was cancelled. No production companies have hired workers from outside.”

Tamil stars shooting in Hyderabad

The FEFSI body expressed its displeasure when a couple of leading stars chose to shoot in Hyderabad for their upcoming films. While some stars and production companies found workers in Hyderabad more ‘flexible’ and ‘easy to work with’ than those in Chennai, others claim lack of privacy and security on sets here.

Selvamani rubbishes this statement and says: “Despite being worshipped like gods in Tamil Nadu, MGR and Sivaji shot their films in Chennai. Are any of these stars bigger than them? to shoot in Hyderabad? Nowadays stars hire bouncers. Even directors cannot go near the stars without the bouncers’ permission. How can fans enter the vicinity? And where are these crowds on the day of their film’s release? When actress Jayamalini was in the peak of her career, fans used to rent a lorry to see her. Even then she shot in Chennai.”

He adds that ego is a big reason for a few producers going to Hyderabad. “On a Sunday, a stunt choreographer in Chennai charges Rs 9,000 as his daily bata while in Hyderabad he’d charge Rs 15,000. Producers are losing money and they don’t understand the math and logic behind this,” he avers. “Out of 23,000 FEFSI members, only 19,000 are active. The rest have gone on to become auto rickshaw drivers or do other petty jobs.”

Actor-producer and office-bearer of TFPC, RK Suresh, explains that workers wouldn’t care about being paid once a week if they know for sure that a production company has enough projects. “It doesn’t mean people in Hyderabad are more flexible. As an actor, I prefer shooting in Tamil Nadu. Actor Vijay mostly shoots in Chennai. However, Ajith has been shooting in Hyderabad of late because of his fan base. We’ve requested him to shoot in Chennai so workers here will benefit.”

Demands by top technicians

Producers say that they’re left with no choice but to hire a certain number of people when a top technician asks them.

“Top directors and cinematographers require more than the usual number of workers for a few days. We cannot refuse them, and so, we pay their wages. This will play a huge role in the film’s budget. Moreover, when it comes to locations, getting permissions in Hyderabad is easier than Chennai. So, a few movie units prefer shooting in Hyderabad,” says Shankar, production manager, Sivakarthikeyan Productions.

A second serving of meat...

Daily wages and food determine the scale of production in Kodambakkam.

A small production house serves vegetarian food for workers (5 days/week) while a big budget film serves non-vegetarian food (6 days/week).

During Rajinikanth’s Padayappa shoot, recalls a FEFSI member, the caterer denied one of the workers a second serving of meat.

“Director KS Ravikumar was furious and ordered the caterer to serve him meat the second time. I remember him saying a worker who lifts heavy equipment all day long cannot be denied good food, especially since it was a Superstar film. He warned the caterer that no worker on the sets of Tamil films should be treated badly. Filmmakers like him are a rare breed,” he said.

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