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No shoot at site, please – How safe are Indian film sets?

The shocking death of Halyna Hutchins, a 42-year-old director of photography, and injury of film director Joel Souza in a shooting accident on the film set of Hollywood movie ‘Rust’ last month, once again highlighted the occupational safety aspects on film sets. Hutchins was killed when Alec Baldwin, the lead actor of ‘Rust’, fired a gun that was supposed to have only blanks had a live round. The gun was a prop.

According to an affidavit signed by detective Joel Cano of the Santa Fe County sheriff’s office, one of the assistants from the sets provided a prop gun to Alec Baldwin. Nobody knew that there were live rounds in the gun.

“Every film/ TV set that uses guns, fake or otherwise, should have a police officer on set, hired by the production, to specifically monitor weapons safety,” Alec Baldwin wrote on Instagram.

The safety guidelines for television and movie sets prohibit the use of live ammunition. Production will typically have rules for keeping a safe distance from the muzzle of a gun, which is usually 20 feet.

Following this incident popular Hollywood star Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson said that his production will no longer use real guns in film shoots. The ‘Rust’ also brought into focus occupational safety in film/ TV sets. The safety debate also permeated to film and TV sets in India. So, how safe are our sets in India? Are there enough safety protocols in place?

Recently, two Kannada actors, Anil Varma and Raghav Uday, drowned in a lake after a helicopter stunt for a film went wrong in Bengaluru. This has triggered an outrage on the film industry’s adherence to safety regulations. A case of criminal negligence against the production unit of the film was registered as no precautionary and safety measures were taken for the shoot.

Some of the past incidents where actors and crew members were injured during stunts include:

  • Actor Rajinikanth sustained a minor leg injury while shooting for the film ‘2.0’.
  • Kamal Haasan is one actor who prefers to perform all his stunts by himself. His film ‘Indian 2’ faced a major issue when three crew members died during an accident on the movie set.
  • Shah Rukh Khan was injured while doing some heavy-duty action sequences for his hit film ‘Chennai Express’, due to which he had to wear a shoulder strap.
  • Who can forget the near-fatal injury that Amitabh Bachchan had on the sets of the film ‘Coolie’?
  • Akshay Kumar, another major action star, also suffered a major accident on the sets of ‘Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi’, when he had to lift WWE wrestler Undertaker.

Akshay Kumar wrote an open letter campaigning for an award category for stunt persons, in which he stated, “It pains me because I know the one expert that an actor/actress can’t live without, during their shoot, is their stunt buddy... Had it not been for your unbelievable hard work and talent, we’d be mourning the death of so many actors and actresses. Instead, the stunt community is quietly mourning the ones they’ve lost, be it by accident, injury or fatality on the sets of award-winning films over the years.”

  • During the filming of ‘Shootout at Wadala’, John Abraham suffered a bruise due to an error by the team handling the shot.

We reached out to some industry experts on the safety aspects while shooting on the sets. In an interaction with Adgully, director-producer JD Majethia said, “It is a very tragic thing to happen on set and world over such things should not happen. Everywhere people do take precaution and something like this is called a pure accident, which is really sad. In India, we really must always focus on the safety of every person on the set, not just artists, but technicians as well. Moreover, never ever should one compromise on anybody’s safety while doing any kind of scenes. At times, they're not major action scenes and due to the provision by the director the actor has to jump from say 4-5 feet, and he or she thinks it can be achieved easily. But I personally believe they must take extraordinary precautions.”

Majethia recalled a similar incident, which happened in the Gujarati film industry. Actor Narayan Rajgor died on the spot from a gunshot, which had, what is called, an ‘empty bullet’. “He died on the spot when the gun with the supposed empty bullet was fired. It is the prime responsibility of every person who is working on that set. When something is compromised, everybody should raise an objection. Nobody should fear that if I raise an objection tomorrow, they might not call me for work, because it is about somebody's life. And any responsible creative person will never compromise,” he affirmed.

According to Bodhi Tree Multimedia director and co-founder Mautik Tolia, the lesson that the Indian film industry can learn is to have a lot more checks in place in terms of safety and precautions before an action sequence or something that seems to be dangerous needs to be shot.

“Shooting sets involving action sequences are safe. It’s a generalised statement because there are all kinds of production that happen. But usually, if it is a properly trained action director who is very experienced and is recognised by the union, he will make sure that all the precautions and safety measures are taken before the shoot starts and make sure that the shooting happens safely,” Tolia added.

Though there are safety measures in place, there is always room for improvement – such as including a third party, additional observers, making sure that everything is in order and having more checks and balances in the system, he suggested. “In addition, people should be more vigilant, which they are not sometimes, and make sure that everything is followed as per plan on the set,” Tolia further said.

Actor-TV-producer-director Dheeraj Kumar, the man behind several hit films and TV series, maintained that safety measures are always observed during shooting of films. “First of all, it is a sad incident that has happened accidentally; it is not intentional at all. I can only say that safety is always the best measure which will be practiced everywhere. Also, the Indian film industry adheres to safety measures. You can count on it like in my films also. Horse riding is there and all the safety measures and precautions are there,” he stressed.

Recalling an incident, Kumar said, “I still remember a small incident which happened in my very first film that introduced Raton Ka Raja. There was a prop gun. We were shooting in the studio and there was a lot of mud on the floor and it was all wet. We were using the prop gun, which was connected with the electronic system where we used to fire from. Suddenly, due to a short circuit, electric current passed not only on the floor but in my body also. I threw the gun and screamed. What I’m trying to say is not that we had not taken precautions. They were taken, but this taught how to be more prepared in the future while handling such kinds of things,” Kumar said.

“We need to be more careful because life is more important for everybody. For humanity actually, my answer is simple and specific. We can be much more cautious, but the frequent incidents which happen sometimes are out of control for the director as well as the crew,” he added.

Kumar further pointed that, “The action sequences are shot mostly outdoors and not on indoor sets. Today, the studios have rainwater control, where rain and water connectivity are there. Suppose a small fire happens in one corner, those circuits automatically turn on and douse the fire immediately. We also have a complete fire fighting system.”

“I went to Ramdev Studio, which has all the circuit breakers separately installed on the huge pillars inside the studios, which control and diffuse the fire within no time. I am sure our modern studios are equally well equipped. As far as the outdoor sequences are concerned, we have not just Indian stunt masters, but overseas experts as well. They always take a lot of precautions. Thus, a lot of changes have occurred in the industry in terms of action sequences,” Kumar said, adding that the film sets also have a doctor on call and a medical van is kept on stand-by. “The COVID-19 situation has taught us a lesson. We are keeping all medical-related stuff on the sets so that should some unfortunate incident happen, immediate action can be taken,” he concluded.

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