Thursday, April 10, 2008

Eyes that never sleep

Production controller Shaji John has to ensure that everything is in place on a film set, so that shooting can proceed smoothly

By Shevlin Sebastian

Production controller Shaji K. John, 42, had gone for the shooting for Yodha, which starred Mohan Lal and Madhoo, at the Pashupathinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. “At 10.30 p.m., shooting was taking place for a song sequence,” says Shaji. “Suddenly, a fight broke out between our technicians and the locals, who turned out to be Maoists.”

Allegedly, one of the Malayali technicians had eve-teased a woman. “Everybody was hitting everybody else,” he says. “People were running helter-skelter. There was a power cut in the area and we could not see in the darkness.”

Led by Shaji, unit members rushed to the local police station, but the officers pleaded helplessness. Things were fast going out of control. “Through a high-level contact, we were able to get in touch with the police headquarters at Kathmandu, Nepal,” he says. “Soon, reinforcements were sent.”

But, by the time the police arrived, more than two hours had elapsed. “It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life,” he says. “We were in a new country and, unfortunately, someone had angered the Maoists. Thankfully, nobody died.”

On the top floor of Mohanlal’s recording studio, Vismaya, at Panampilly Nagar, Shaji gives a rueful grin, as editing goes on for the Suresh Gopi film, Bullet. “This is part and parcel of the daily life of a production controller.”

So what is the job all about? “You have to coordinate with artistes and technicians, fix their remuneration and get agreements signed,” he says. “You have to sit with the director and producer and work out a budget. Then, it is my duty to finish the film on budget and on schedule.”

To do that, Shaji is the one who deals with the outdoor unit: light assistants, electricians, sound technicians, the camera crew, the crane team which handles the camera, the production and mess assistants, and the members of the costume and make-up departments. “I am in overall charge, although I delegate responsibility,” he says.

This is a job that involves a high degree of stress. “Sometimes, on a set, everything is ready, but at the last minute, a costume is not found,” says Shaji. “The director will ask me what has happened. If a train is late, and there are some technicians travelling on it or some equipment is being brought from Chennai, the blame will also fall on me.”

He says it is a 24-hour job when shooting is going on. Plans can change at the last moment. For example, if an artiste is unable to come on time, then the director will want to shoot a different scene, in another location.

So, Shaji and his crew will have to work through the night to take the equipment and the props to the new place. “I have to ensure there is no delay in shooting,” he says. “It is a stressful job. People get angry with me, but I have learnt not to react.”

This has helped him to earn a good reputation. On the film, Bullet, in which Shaji is working as controller, producer Naseem Vellila, 36, says, “If I get a good production controller, then I am safe, in terms of expenses. It is a highly responsible job and the controller’s efficiency leads to time-saving during shooting. In this aspect, Shaji is very good.”

Director V.M. Vinu says that a controller has to coordinate with artistes, so that they arrive on the set on time. “You need to have a good relationship with them,” says Vinu. “Shaji has this knack.”

However, the unusual thing for technicians, like Shaji, is that, unlike other jobs, when the shooting is over, most of the crew move into months of idleness before they get another assignment. “There have been times when I have remained jobless for a year,” he says.

A movie takes a while to get started. Sometimes, he says, the artistes are unable to give confirmation dates. Or, if the artistes are ready, the set is not ready or the money is not available. So, everything is held up. Hence, there are many elements, which have to fall into place, before shooting can commence.

Still, it is a job he loves and has been doing it for the past 15 years, working on hit films like Devasuram, Mrigaya and Lal Salaam. Asked whether he can forecast whether a film will be a hit or a flop, Shaji laughs out aloud and says, “It is completely unpredictable. You will only know the fate of the film at the first show on Friday afternoon. It is a mystery to all of us how some films turn out to be hits, while others become flops.”

But for Shaji, it does not matter. Hits or flops, he continues to toil away…

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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