Tamil Features

Women, Cinema & Sexism: The Life Of A Dance Assistant In The South

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‘Women, Cinema & Sexism’ features stories of women who work in the film industry and documents their experiences on sets – the good, the bad and the ugly 

I haven’t heard of the #MeToo campaign,” Vidya*, a 35-year-old dance assistant tells me when I call her one morning to talk about her experience in the film industry. She has been dancing for a living for 15 years, having been a part of several songs and sets. Currently in Kerala, shooting for a Malayalam film, she speaks in between teaching her troupe a few steps. She doesn’t want to be identified, not even a distant connect that can perhaps be traced to her.

Vidya’s years in the industry have largely been uneventful, “thanks to FEFSI,” she says. “From the moment we enter the production van to go to the location till the time they drop us back home, everything will be taken care of. If there are issues, they will be addressed immediately.”

But, you need a lot of patience to survive here, she adds. Having worked as a background dancer for ten years, before being moved up the rung, it’s been five years since she was promoted as an ‘Assistant Dance Director’. Vidya quit school at 15 to support her family – consisting of a mother and two siblings – and was the sole-breadwinner. Her first pay, Vidya recalls, was Rs 350 for a shoot; she didn’t know dancing, and learnt to match moves to the music on the job. “I had the …veri [passion],” she declares, “to do well, and stay in the industry which was and still is largely male-dominated.” Now married, with a young daughter, Vidya travels quite a bit on the job. “My mother takes care of the child when I am away,” she says.

Her work day, which begins early in the morning – as early as 5 am for a 9 am shooting schedule – would involve helping other dancers gear up for the shoot. “The dance master would explain the movies and then I would teach the girls. We will have our costumes and make-up done and be ready for the shoot by 8.30 am.”

Her team aside, Vidya would teach the heroines, too. “I have to make sure they get their steps right,” she says, “We may be perfect with our moves, but we have to wait until the actors get them right. Some learn quickly, but there are others who take a couple of days or even a week’s time.” There have been many a time when Vidya and her troupe would wait indefinitely with costumes and make-up on till the director gets the shot he wants. “But we always make sure we don’t delay the proceedings,” Vidya adds, “Not once has a shoot been delayed because a background dancer didn’t get her steps right!”

When the shoot is done for the day, Vidya rehearses till 10 pm along with her team. “Later, I’d visit the troupe in their rooms to ensure that they have had their dinner.”

Unsurprisingly, neither Vidya nor her team have a say in the costumes that they wear. A background dancer who doesn’t want to be identified, explains that dancers don’t have that liberty. “Not like the lead actors,” she says. “But when someone is uncomfortable with a certain glamorous outfit, they can opt out of the shoot and will be replaced by other dancers.”

But I have never said ‘no’ to any costume, says Vidya. “Largely because it would be unprofessional to do so. I can’t really say ‘I won’t wear this costume’ after committing to a job.” Dancing is what I love, she smiles, “I have no other ambition, I can dance the whole day if I like.”

*Name withheld to protect identity

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Read Part 1: Harvey Weinstein Has Opened Pandora’s Box & We Need To Deal With It

Read Part 2: When Film Sets Are Designed For Men & Other Struggles As Reported By The Female Crew 

Read Part 3: Speaking Up Is Not A Practical Option In Kollywood, Say Actresses

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