The Hindi film industry will demonstrate its love for latrines with an upcoming movie which dwells on the dearth of toilets in rural areas, but a group of film technicians is attempting to highlight a hygiene problem closer to home – the lack of safe and clean women’s washrooms on movie sets.

Ladies First, an open interaction hosted by the Association of Cine & Television Art Directors & Costume Designers at the Film City complex in Mumbai on March 8, brings film and television technicians together to address the paucity of basic hygiene facilities for women on shooting locations.

“My wife used to work as an art director with me until a few years ago, and she had pointed out this problem to me,” said Sukant Panigrahy, acclaimed production designer and ACTADCD president. “I was unable to see the seriousness of the matter then, but now I am just creating a platform so that the voices of female technicians will be heard. This can be a ripple to another revolution.”

Panigrahy revealed that unhygienic bathrooms at locations have caused urinary tract infections and several other health complaints among female technicians. Since they do not have access to clean washrooms, the professionals sometimes refrain from drinking water for as long as 10 hours, he said.

“Everyone thinks that it’s a glamorous industry, but the working conditions are pathetic, especially for women,” said National Award winning costume designer Lovleen Bains. “Safe washrooms are just our basic human right, but it has been swept under the carpet.”

The lack of safe and clean washrooms for women is particularly glaring during shoots at remote locations. “In outdoor locations, there is no provision for toilets in many productions,” Bains revealed. “By and large, these toilets are the exception, not the norm, when it should be the other way around.” Women are forced to rely on the washrooms in the vanity vans of actors.

‘First step of a long journey’

“This has been a problem for decades,” pointed out costume designer Pia Benegal. “We ask the actors if we want to use their toilets, and they are normally generous. But when they are changing, napping, or meeting someone, they don’t allow us in. This does pose a problem if we are in a rush.”

Sometimes, washrooms can be located in inaccessible and potentially unsafe areas. Benegal recounted that when she was shooting in a deep ravine in Rajasthan recently, the washrooms were set up too high to be accessible. “It was a night shoot, and climbing up from the ravine to the toilet was extremely difficult,” she said “I had fallen that night and twisted my ankle so there was no way I could climb up to the toilet, and most people couldn’t climb either.”

Although on-set washrooms are cleaned regularly, they are too few to comfortably cater to the entire unit, Benegal said. Since these toilets are not necessarily gender-segregated, they can cause a variety of other issues.

“When it’s a 10-14 hour shoot, you want to be able to change and wash for as long as you need to, but there are guys outside who are talking and laughing, telling women to hurry up and asking them why they’re taking so long,” Benegal said. The lack of gender-segregated washrooms can be especially irksome for women when they are menstruating. “There is also no facility to dispose used sanitary napkins in these toilets,” she added.

Bains, who has been a part of the film industry for more than two decades, said that the working conditions have actually deteriorated over the past few years. “I think that it’s becoming worse, especially in the television studios. I have been to some of them and they are in such a pathetic condition. The toilets, even if they are there, are not worth entering into,” she said.

“This issue is very easily forgotten because the maximum number of people working television and film continue to be men,” Benegal explained. These inconvenient living and working conditions further deter females from working as film technicians. “But the women are definitely more in number now than they were before, and it is time that they got together to assert their basic human right,” Bains added.

The organisers of Ladies First have chosen to launch their initiative on March 8 because it is celebrated internationally as Women’s Day, but this interaction is simply meant to signal the start of a concentrated and sustained campaign. Eventually, the association plans to make a formal demand to production companies and studios to increase the number of toilets and improve the standards of cleanliness in the ones that exist.

“This is the first step of a long journey. We need to work towards changing an overall mindset, and that will take a while,” Benegal said.