The Romance of Television

Y called and asked if we’d like to see a shooting, for a Tamil TV serial. We drove to his house around noon. It’s in a big compound -- a large house, probably built in the fifties; a much older house, now crumbling, with columns all around, and a jumble of smaller buildings. In the centre of a circular driveway was a silver-painted metal assemblage of lightly-clad reclining ladies, decorated with rust – a dry fountain.

We walked in past cameras, lights, reflectors, wires looped on the floor, a man sitting cross-legged on a red plush sofa: Y rents out part of the house for shootings.

The shooting we planned to see was in T. Nagar. At the location, two houses had been converted into several sets and an editing studio. But it was deserted, except for a few staff people. It transpired that the shooting we had planned to watch had moved on, to a house in Kodambakkam.

We went around one of the buildings. There was a drawing room -- a suite of red furniture in the centre, with very cheap-looking pictures around the walls; a large kitchen, a bedroom with a rather creepy, gaudy round bed. Upstairs was a ‘hospital’ – several small, white-painted rooms, with a red cross on the door, and posters of naked babies on the walls. There was an ‘office,’ and a ‘jail’ – which we couldn’t see because the key was with someone who wasn’t there. Everything was very dirty. There were several small garden areas, one of them containing two swings, side by side.

During lunch I asked questions: Y said that his crew consists of about 50 people, including actors and crew – cameramen, lighting men, dress and make-up people, caterers. Everyone eats the same food unless there’s a star, who can demand special food. The actors – except for the bigger stars, whose wardrobes may be sponsored by a local clothing store -- provide their own clothes. A continuity assistant tells them what scenes will be shot, and reminds them of what clothes they have to bring. And so on. I asked what the rate would be, if we wanted to give our house for shooting, and he said the standard rate is Rs. 5,000 a day.

We returned to watch the only shooting readily available, the one we had walked through earlier. There were three small rooms, one leading into the other from front to back, on the ground floor; and rooms off to the side that we didn’t see – except for one where crew members sat around a table playing cards. Camera equipment and lights and light-boards were scattered through the rooms, along with some heavy, carved Victorian-style furniture. The back door was open to a small verandah, where a number of actors sat waiting to be called. Beyond that was a formal area of lawn and some small bits of statuary; and beyond that a view of the sea.

In the middle room, technicians were setting the lights and cameras, getting ready to shoot a scene. An actor was dressed as a rich man from the countryside (I know this because I saw the movie Thevar Magan): oiled hair combed back, a red tikka on his forehead, a (fake) handlebar moustache and sideburns, a big diamond in each ear, white kurta, angavastram (a cotton towel worn on the shoulder), floor-length veshti. He read a newspaper, sitting on one of the Victorian sofas. He had to stand up and sit down several times, so that the lights and such could be adjusted properly. Cameras and lights were crowded around him; electric cords snaked around the floor. There was a small curved set of tracks with a platform for a camera and cameraman. I tried to stand somewhere out of the way, but every inch was in use, and people continually walked back and forth.

An actress appeared and the scene was rehearsed. She told him something, he jumped up and shouted something, they both exited. They had to do it three or four times, because the actress kept forgetting her lines. Then the scene was shot. The coming and going stopped, but nobody bothered to stop talking, because the sound would be dubbed in later. The scene was over in a minute, and the background activity resumed. Time to go.

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