Last week, actor Alec Baldwin unwittingly fired a loaded gun on the sets of Western movie Rust, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza. According to a search warrant filed in a Santa Fe court, the film’s assistant director was unaware that the weapon contained live rounds and declared it ‘cold’ before handing it to Baldwin, which led to the accident. What is the likelihood of such a mishap happening on film sets? And how safe is Bollywood? Cinematographer Priya Seth, who shot Airlift (2016) and Chef (2017), talks about what working conditions are like in the Hindi film industry and what contributes to on-set accidents:
“The way any film industry functions — whether Bollywood or Hollywood — is that the producers have to have the will and intent to ensure safety on set, to have safety officers on set and to make sure that protocol is being followed. It is technically a crew position that needs to be filled. You have to hire a safety officer, you need to have the budget for a safety officer and you need to follow the officer’s implementations, which obviously costs more.
I was supposed to do a show for a major OTT platform earlier this year. I said no to because there was a huge clause of indemnity built into the contract. The platform indemnified itself from anything happening on the set — including damages and accidents. It would not take any responsibility for those. Big OTT platforms are indemnifying themselves, which is why these kinds of accidents happen. This is not a crew-level problem. It’s not like the crew or the action team isn’t following safety measures. It’s the producer’s responsibility, solely and wholly, to make sure there is safety protocol followed. That’s exactly what happened on the Alec Baldwin film — the camera crew walked off the night before because they said that neither safety measures nor Covid protocols were being followed. There were no safety marshals on set, there was ammunition on set. So they all left and the only people who stayed back were the camera operator and the DoP. The producers didn’t want to spend money on safety protocols. It’s the same thing in India because safety costs money and the crew’s life is dispensable.
A friend of mine who’s a lawyer read my contract and told me that she couldn’t, in any good conscience, tell me to sign it because they were putting the onus on me. That’s why I walked away. I was not okay with this. These are the people who promise equal wages, and they are the ones putting these clauses in.
When Covid happened, it affected the industry and the producers directly, because of which they had to implement these Covid safety protocols. Why can’t this happen all the time? Why can’t they ensure safer working conditions for the crew, the electric department, the light department? Everything is rushed and so safety is compromised. I handle a lot of underwater cinematography as well, so it’s a very risky job. Plus, at the end of the day, the onus is on us to ensure safety.
My team is a fairly senior team now. We can take a stand and say, ‘We are not doing this’ or ‘We require this,’ but it shouldn’t come from us. We cannot enforce anything because the money comes from the producers. Unless they’re willing, nothing will happen.
If the producers cannot have equitable working conditions for their crew, then they are budgeting incorrectly. It’s not that they don’t have money to do this, it’s that they’re choosing to put that money elsewhere. The working conditions are appalling in India. Everybody works 17 or 18-hour days, with no regards for rest or recuperation, and this goes on for months on end. The producers ensure that the optics are correct, that the things look good. As an HoD, I might get treated very well, but I’m well aware and cognizant of the fact that this privilege is not extended down the line at all.
I’ve heard about an incident with a light boy who was killed during a monsoon shoot. I knew of him, but it wasn’t on my set. They were in a rush that day. He climbed up the rostrum, got electrocuted and died. The reason why the Hollywood incident is in the news is because Alec Baldwin is involved. Here, it was a poor light man, it didn’t make any difference to anyone.”
As told to Debdatta Sengupta