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Life of an assistant director: From spending time with Bachchan to slogging daily

Ashish Desai shares some interesting aspects of his career so far as an assistant director.

Keyur Seta

When we see a film, we see a number of actors on the screen. But a film involves painstaking efforts by more than 200 people. Among these, assistant directors are the unsung heroes. They end up slogging rigorously for little or no credit. Cinestaan.com got talking to assistant director (AD) Ashish Desai to find out more about the life of an AD and his experience with biggies like Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Kapoor. Excerpts:

When did you decide to venture into films?

Firstly, I would like to thank Cinestaan for interviewing me. I have seen people like film directors, actors, producers, music directors, art directors, costume designers etc getting interviewed. But to get interviewed as an assistant director, I feel humbled and privileged.

Right from my childhood, I have been inclined to watching films; all types of films. One film that I must have seen more than 100 times is Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992). I still watch it whenever it is played on TV. The interest was kept alive in later years. I used to share opinions with friends after watching films. These discussions made me realise where I want to be. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do in films.

How did your entry into the film world happen?

After completing my graduation in 2008, through a family friend Pradeep Patkar, who is no longer with us, I got to assist Vinay Shukla on Mirch (2010). He had made the National award-winning Godmother (1999). I was given the task of being the clapper boy. By giving claps you get an idea how a film set functions. You get ground knowledge as to how far you should be from the actor and camera so that nobody is distracted.

I found some actors very patient and calm. There were others who got hassled and became hyper. Quite rightly, as they needed to be in their zone. Shreyas Talpade, Konkona Sensharma, Shahana Goswami, Boman Irani and Rajpal Yadav were very patient, calm and understanding. Boman Irani sir would crack jokes with me between takes so that even I would feel relaxed and comfortable. Prem Chopra sir would get irritated slightly. But you learn that there can be actors with different temperaments and you need to be alert, systematic, and on your toes. And you can’t afford to make mistakes.

The director also involved me in the dubbing. I feel fortunate to have done a film in an era when dubbing was used. Nowadays mostly only sync sound is used.

What did you do after your first film?

I did a film called Zokkomon (2011) by Satyajit Bhatkal. He had directed the Lagaan (2001) documentary, Chale Chalo (2003), and later made the TV show Satyamev Jayate. There was one person who made me learn various things. Tinnu Anand was playing Shantaram. One day when I went to call him for the shot, he asked which shot it was. I told him, 'I’ll ask my senior and let you know'. He said, 'This is not the answer you should give. Whether you are a senior or junior, an assistant director needs to know everything'. He said one should know the dialogue that starts the scene and also ends it and I should call him the next time only after knowing everything. I then came to know that an AD should know everything. 

Then I started getting inclined towards filmmaking. Till that time I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to become an actor, director or production guy. But Tinnuji made me realize I wanted to become a director. Those were testing times for me. To get bullied is also part and parcel of the job. There were a lot of positives also. But whatever I learnt then, I owe it to Tinnuji.

Which project came your way after Zokkomon?

I went into advertisement films as I wanted to earn money soon. I assisted Roy Barretto for a mobile ad with Ranbir Kapoor. He is a disciplined actor. If the shot is at 7 am, he would reach at 6:50 am. It was a five-day campaign.

After this, I got a film with a very talented director, whom I won’t name. His debut film was very successful. My confidence started dipping in that phase. He was perfect and expected others to be the same. He was absolutely strict. He would flare up at the smallest of issues. I felt I was not qualified to be in the industry. So I left the film after five days. I was at home for two weeks. Today, I would be okay working in such an environment. But if you are a newcomer, you should start off working with people like Rensil D’Silva, who are calm and gentle.

How did your career get back on track?

Just when I was planning to leave the industry, I got a call from Rajshri Productions. I had sent my CV to a few places earlier, including them. It was for Isi Life Mein (2010). It was directed by debutante Vidhi Kasliwal and had new actors. I thought it was a good chance to get my confidence back by working with newcomers.

I was fortunate to meet people like Sooraj Barjatya and Rajkumar Barjatya. Raj-ji made me realize that if an AD wishes to be a director, he or she should start writing his or her own scripts. He told me that if you know the start and end of your story, you will be able to write the script because you will find the elements in the middle automatically.

What is the daily schedule of an assistant director like? What are the things he or she does?

During Mirch, our schedule was from 7 am to 7 pm. The assistant directors are expected to be there at 6 am. Technicians come in from 7 am onwards and actors from 7:15 am. After having breakfast, we start rolling from 8:30 or 9 am. We pack up by 7:30 or 8 pm.

For Zokkomon, there were many actors and we had to provide them with scenes a day before. We used to leave at 4 am, as it was an exterior shoot at Mahabaleshwar, and return by 5-6 pm. Then we used to discuss the next day’s scenes and answer actors’ queries and plan the next day. By this time it would be around 12:30 am. I would then eat and sleep for a couple of hours. That was very intense and hectic. That is why I said those were testing times.

But nowadays, the union has decided that shifts can’t exceed 12 hours. Because apart from assistant directors, there are technicians, light men, spot boys, camera attendants and others who work for much longer durations. 

What about the pay? I have heard ADs don’t get paid for the first couple of projects.

This is a very good question. After my first project, I was given a cheque of Rs20,000. This was most unexpected but a good feeling because I wasn’t expecting a single penny. I just wanted an entry into the industry.

Normally you don’t get paid for the first project, right?

Normally, you don’t, but things are different now. As educated people are entering the industry, even the assistant directors and producers are educated. So, there is a basic understanding and decency that everyone should get a decent pay. I can tell you the exact salary. It is around Rs15,000-20,000 a month currently.

Shoots can be stressful. We have heard stories of tempers running high on sets. Do you often get scolded or abused by directors?

There are directors of different temperaments. My first director, Vinay Shuklaji, was very calm and jovial. The script was also such. Satyajit Bhatkal used to become somewhat vulnerable as Zokkomon was his first film. But he had his temper in check. Vidhi Kasliwal is so hard-working that she gets oblivious to the things around her. So she doesn't realize if someone around her is not well. 

You did Anurag Kashyap’s TV series Yuddh, which had Amitabh Bachchan in the lead. 

It was a testing time for me in 2013. It was Amitabh Bachchan’s first fiction TV show. It was jointly directed by Anurag Kashyap and Ribhu Dasgupta. Dasgupta shot the maximum number of days as Kashyap was busy with Bombay Velvet (2015). Ribhuda is very secure. He will even give the authority to his directors to give inputs to the actors. And like everyone else, working with Mr Bachchan proved to be a great learning experience. I got to learn how to be disciplined, focused and surrender yourself to the character. He is a very good listener. 

I had the good fortune of giving cues to Mr Bachchan during telephonic conversation scenes for this shoot. I asked my director if I could. He said if Mr Bachchan has no problem, I could. When I asked Mr Bachchan, he said, 'Aap mujhe cues doge?' He could have said no. But he asked me to recite a dialogue from different directions. He then told me, 'I made you do this because when the camera is in different angles, you will have to give cues from different places, so I wanted to see if there is power in your voice.'

I ended up giving cues to him for 14 months! Fortunately, there were many phone cuts in the serial. It was fun to give cues hiding in a car whenever a scene was taking place in a car. 

I got to learn interesting things from him. For example, if a scene involves eating samosas and if the actor is allergic to samosas and tells you about it just before the scene, you will be in a mess. Therefore, he said you should ask the actors beforehand, 'Kal khaane ka scene hai. Aap kya khaoge?' He is ready to do a number of rehearsals if his co-actor wants. Not even once did he abuse anyone. 

Did he ever get angry?

He did, but for the right reasons. His anger is to make you learn something. It is not like throwing your weight around. 

How was your experience working with Anil Kapoor on the TV serial 24?

I was involved in the second season. I got the chance because of Yuddh. It was fun and intense because there were many action sequences.

Interestingly, there were four directors — Abhinay Deo, Rensil D’Silva, GG Philip and Karan Boolani.

Anil sir is very intense as an actor. He is super involved. He used to come to the sets at 8:30 am and shoot till 9-10 pm. He then used to prepare for the next day and would sleep at around 1:30 am. He did this for 200 days. Hats off to him! His approach is very middle class. Maybe because of the Chembur background. He used to stay in a chawl there. Just like Amitabhji, Anilji will never waste time once he is on the sets.

He gives a lot of importance to the assistant directors. Once when he wasn’t able to get through to the director, he called me and said, 'Ashish, main Anil Kapoor bol raha hoon.' He asked me the plan. The phone calls continued from thereon. This shows there is no ego, which shows why they are still successful.

But there is a difference in temperament between Mr Bachchan and Anilji. Mr Bachchan is more on the quieter side, reserved. Anil sir mixes around more. 

You did an advertisement with Akshay Kumar recently.

Akshayji is too too too disciplined. He is in a hurry to finish his work because he believes in doing a lot in one day. He has other commitments too. There was a sequence where he was holding a file. When the shot was cut, I went to take the file from him. He asked, 'What happened?' Actually it is the job of the AD to take the props from the actors. But he said, 'You have other tasks as well. You carry on. Let this be with me.' 

Can you recall any bad incidents from your career?

After doing the film with Rajshri, I got a call from someone who used to work with the same banner as a freelance. He asked me to do a film with a cinematographer who would be making a film soon with a big banner. I was happy to have got a film with a big banner. He said I would need to work with him on an ad as a test, to which I agreed. But I was told one thing repeatedly – a person shouldn’t think about money. I started in 2008. This was in 2011. I wondered, should I still not think of money?

After working with him for five months, I was given a cheque for Rs15,000, which comes to Rs3,000 a month. I was shocked. I would like to tell aspiring directors to not get convinced listening to others, like I did, and be firm when it comes to money. 

Unfortunately, the one thing that has remained in our industry is insecurity. People try pulling others down unnecessarily. They will get their work done from others but take the credit for it. But I believe a sensible person would know who is working and who isn’t.

In my initial years, I used to feel bad and would often react. I would get into a foul mood. Slowly my situation started becoming better. I would just advise aspiring filmmakers, ADs or technicians to just keep doing your work. When you actually take the field, you will get to know whether you can survive. You will keep getting bouncers. You can duck, but when you get a chance to play a shot, go ahead. Just don’t lose your wicket. 

Who are the filmmakers you admire the most?

Unfortunately, when I joined the industry, some very good filmmakers were no longer active — Mahesh Bhatt, Mansoor Khan and Shekhar Kapur. From the current directors, I admire Farhan Akhtar, Neeraj Pandey, Shriram Raghavan, Rajkumar Hirani, Aanand L Rai and Gauri Shinde.