Kumar loops a bunch of cables and with a practised arm, tosses them upwards to the floor above, where his colleague catches them. Inside a mansion in Kamalistan (or Kamal Amrohi Studios for the uninitiated), in Mumbai’s Andheri East, a small army of men are at work — carrying props, connecting wires, dabbing makeup, flipping pages of a script — all very quickly and all at once. There is no time to waste, except to reach out for yet another cup of tea that magically appears by their side, on a tray carried by a team member, several times a day.
Kumar begins to put the boom microphone together; it’s a bushy microphone attached to a long rod, and a cable. It looks like a mascara wand, but he doesn’t know what that is. A feather duster, then? “Yes, that’s close. Except those you can buy from the market or at the red light for less than 100 bucks, and this one is Rs 4,000,” says Kumar, who asks for his full name to not be revealed. “No photographs either,” he says.
“Boom, come upstairs,” bellows a voice from the floor above. There’s no natural light inside the set, and Kumar climbs the creaky stairs in the dark without stumbling. He has been working on a television show set in Bihar, and inside the lot where it is being filmed, Bihar looks like Uttar Pradesh or Punjab or Haryana — north Indian households have been the stars of national television for so long that the aesthetic has stayed same for the past 20 years.
The rich live in havelis that boast of antique furniture, the less fortunate in modest red brick homes. Shops in the bazaar are generic and stereotypical: the darzi is Muslim, the daal seller is Hindu; their establishments are side by side; and Ganpati in a calendar looks benevolently at their customers. Somebody has streaked an adjacent wall with crimson paan spit, possibly, to add a realistic touch.
Inside the haveli, a short scene with a single actor is readying for its first take, and it helps that the 27-year-old boom operator is petite and wiry, and able to slide into the smallest of corners and position the boom mic accordingly. About 10 men have packed themselves into the room and after several rounds of shouting for silence, the director yells “Action”.
The scene is quickly wrapped up and wires are pulled out of machines, lights dismantled, and cables looped again — the next scene is an office one, just down the road from the haveli.
“I’ve been working on this television show for the past few months. I come here by 9 am and leave at 9 pm. The show is aired six days a week, so it’s a lot of work. But I don’t mind. In this line of work, if the production house that employs you is not hired by a studio, you’re out of work. Last year, I went home for three months because there was no work for me,” he says. Home is a village in Jaunpur district in Uttar Pradesh, where his wife and two young children get to see him once in a while for a few days.
“I studied there till my early 20s, did my Intermediate, but there is nothing for young men there. I looked for work, did a few odd jobs, but I knew I had to leave if I wanted a future for myself,” says Kumar, who boarded a train to Mumbai five years ago. In the beginning, he didn’t think of working in the “film line”; he was looking for an office job. “I worked in a textile unit and in two offices, but I disliked the drudgery. An uncle’s son worked as a sound engineer’s assistant, so he helped me get work as a boom man,” says Kumar, who shares a rented room with another uncle, in Goregaon West.
It’s hard work to continuously raise your arms above your head and lower the mic at an angle that is not too close to the actor, is out of the camera frame and not an inch further than necessary. “My arms ached so much during the first week, but I got used to it. When I started, I was paid Rs 15,000 a month — now, I make Rs 25,000. Everybody here works for nearly 12 hours on certain days, and you can’t tell when light turns to dark. Last year, there was a strike so sometimes, timings are regulated, somewhat,” says Kumar.
Last August, the Mazdoor Union of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE) had called an indefinite strike, demanding an increment in workers’ salaries and an eight-hour shift. That is where he met Gopi Verma, the boom operator who lost his life in the fire that ravaged Cinevista Studios in the Kanjurmarg suburb.
“He was a nice guy; good to talk to. We weren’t friends but we did the same job, so there was some kind of kinship there,” says Kumar. Was he surprised that nobody noticed that Verma was missing till the morning after the fire? Kumar is silent and looks away; he doesn’t want to answer.
Since he joined the film and television industry five years ago, Kumar has worked on 20 serials and two-three small-budget films. “Boom became a staple on the sets only in the past three years. Previously we used a cordless mic, in addition to the mic that’s attached to the actor’s body, with a lapel near their throat. But what happens in serials is that you’ll always need a boom mic with female characters,” he says. Why is that? “Because they wear so much jewellery on their necks and ears, the sound isn’t clear. We ask their make-up ladies to attach the lapel mics and we capture their voices on the boom.”
Even on a woman-centric show like the one he’s working on, there are very few women on the set. All the labour engaged in building the set is male, so are the technicians, and only one or two make-up artists, including a mehndi artist, are women. “There are probably two women sound engineers in the industry but they work in films. But there’s not a single woman boom operator. I don’t think women can do that kind of work — stand for hours holding the mic at all these angles,” says Kumar.
He hopes to become a sound engineer some day. “That’s what most boom men aspire for. It’s better pay, more respect. Apart from upper-class men who go to film school and learn the system, the rest of us learn on the job. And it’s possible, to go from boom and work your way up to the console, so I hope to get there,” says Kumar.