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The Crew Behind Leo: A warm tribute or an exploitative promotion?- Cinema express

The Crew Behind Leo: A warm tribute or an exploitative promotion?

A promo video of Vijay’s upcoming film, Leo, has stirred a debate on whether it’s well-meaning or insensitive

Published: 25th March 2023
The Crew Behind Leo: A warm tribute or an exploitative promotion?

On Thursday, the makers of Lokesh Kanagaraj's upcoming much-anticipated film, Leo, released a video titled 'The Crew Behind Leo'. The seven-odd-minutes video is a compilation of short bytes from spot workers like cooks, lightmen, electricians, costumers, among others, who speak about the harrowing weather conditions in Kashmir and how difficult it makes their jobs. The first schedule of the film reportedly lasted for close to two months, and throughout this period, the temperatures were brutally low, sometimes touching minus 20 degrees.

The workers in this video speak of toiling tirelessly and being estranged from their family. While one woman speaks of how numb her hands get when washing utensils, another talks about nosebleeds being a common occurrence. The video also shows visuals from the sets, the harsh weather, and many shots of the crew toiling hard, with strange, melancholic music in the background adding to the sordidity of it all.

While a section of the audience has called the gesture thoughtful, many others have condemned the move, questioning the motive of the video, and how the suffering of these workers seems used to give some extra mileage towards the film.
Jagadish Palanisamy, the co-producer of Leo, shares with us that the core idea of the video is to make the workers and their families proud. "The workers stayed away from home for 52 days. Our intention was to show their families the kind of work they did amidst such challenges. We wanted the video to reach their families before the crew returns home from Kashmir." The question, however, remains whether the families of these workers would be able to derive any warmth or happiness out of seeing their loved ones speak of isolation and suffering.

With some workers talking about how it’s important that the show go on, no matter what, there’s also the question of whether the video glorifies such seemingly impossible toil. For example, it makes for uncomfortable viewing when a worker is shown washing utensils with her bare hands, without any gloves. She speaks of how numb her hands get in such cold weather. Another crew member talks of setting up the camera, and how even with gloves, the cold easily seeps in.

SS Lalit Kumar, the producer of Leo and the owner of 7 Screen Studio, clarifies that the workers were provided with all the required winter wear outfits and safety aids. "From jackets and sweaters to socks and gloves, we ensured the crew was clothed appropriately for the weather." Further, he claims to have made arrangements to keep them warm. "We also made arrangements for campfires in all shooting spots. They would take breaks and then return back to work."

RK Selvamani, President of the Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI), has already had conversations with select members of the crew. "They assure me that they were provided with winter wear. Those who don’t use it do so because they are not used to working with gloves and find their jobs getting more difficult."

There is also the perennial question of whether these workers are paid enough for all the distress they undergo. Lalit shares that the production house pays even more than is stipulated by the payscale guidelines set by FEFSI. Selvamani adds that workers who fell sick during the shooting were also given full payment. "From what I learnt from the workers, they were not forced to stay against their will. The 12 crew members, who were unable to bear the weather conditions, were sent back to their hometowns with full salary." He adds that those who chose to stay back, did so to show their workmanship and perseverance.

On the idea of potentially creating sympathy with these anecdotes and furthermore, utilising it to promote the film, Lalit insists that the sole intention was to provide the workers with a tribute, and not to create promotional material out of their hard work. "If people think that we used it for promoting our film, it is their individual opinion," he says.

And yet, it’s to be noted that for a video that is supposed to be a tribute, at the end, we know no names, we know not their identities. They are still anonymous servants, toiling away in the background in conditions many of us dare not set foot in, even for money. The tribute video might be a misstep, but it has ended up creating a conversation around the conditions in which spot workers often function—a dialogue that will hopefully result in safer, more rewarding working spaces. 

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