Even as leading choreographers from the industry and an assistant dance director whom we spoke to called their respective domains safe and secure spaces for female and male dancers, a couple of backup dancers who consented to talk to us on condition of anonymity, report a different experience.
According to Ganesh*, an up-and-coming dancer in the Tamil film industry, assistants and choreographers touch backup dancers inappropriately under the guise of teaching them steps.
“Suddenly, the hand holding the waist will move down. Both men and women do this. But, you never know if it’s intentional. All you know is that no one ever talks about it, and it’s something of a private misery. Work is awkward as hell, but there’s nobody to talk to.”
Anitha*, a former backup dancer, says that she entered the industry with a lot of optimism, only to quit when an experience with a Kannada cinematographer left her shattered. The 25-year-old once nurtured dreams of dancing alongside her favourite Kannada star Yash, but is now busy sorting clothes at a Bangalore retail store. “It was a night shoot in a secluded part of the city. All of us had skin suits on, on top of which we wore provocative costumes. While going to the changing area (which is nothing but four sheets strung together to form a sort of partition), I noticed someone following me. But since it was a busy set, I didn’t do much about it. Only after I changed and came out of the area did I see the choreographer standing there. He was holding a cigarette in one hand, and it was clear that he had watched me change.”
FEFSI does its best to tackle issues as and when they’re reported, say Anitha and Ganesh. “But, who wants to go to them in the first place? It’s like complaining about kids talking in class to the teacher. You will be labelled a troublemaker, and soon, no one will want to work with you. Or worse, they will say that it is all in your head. I’m telling you all this now only because you promised not to use my name. Else, my union card might even be revoked,” Ganesh says.
On the other hand, Brindha, a leading cinematographer in the South, says she does everything to ensure that her dancers are comfortable and safe. “I check in on them constantly. They’re my family and my team. There’s no way I’m going to let up on their security.”
Kala Master is of the same opinion. “As far as I know, the producers and directors make it a point to keep the atmosphere safe for the people on set. There are injuries that one gets over the course of complicated dance moves, but no harassment.”
It is clear, however, that Kala Master and Brindha are at the very top of the hierarchy, and as such, not privy to everything that happens with their team. “A second is enough for a man to touch my waist and walk away,” Anitha says.
Both Ganesh and Anitha later insist that while such instances do happen, they are quite rare. “But that doesn’t mean they do not happen as well. The guy who will grope you on a bus is around on the sets, too,” says Anitha, “Just when you think you are safe, something like this would happen and blindside you. Even at my current job, there are people who will take advantage of me if I don’t guard myself well. That is the nature of this world.”
*Names changed to protect identity
Editor’s note: Talking about instances of harassment is not easy for anyone, and is especially fraught with peril for those workers who are dependent on the Union for their needs. Silverscreen is reporting experiences as and when they emerge; the next part will explore a different account.
Read Part 4: The Life Of A Dance Assistant In The South