Hetal Dedhia holds a bulky light in her hand. It’s a 2-kg Par Can, commonly used for theatre and concerts. She rotates it effortlessly, as one would a steering wheel. As she twirls it, a beam of white light makes a dramatic arc on the wall opposite her. She does it again, in the reverse direction. This time, the light is red. This is how Hetal tells a story—with her tool of choice—lights. The white lights indicate a car going forward, the red light, a car braking. As she manages the lighting in the middle of a cavernous set in Mumbai, an army of assistants—all men—hover in the background, ready to help the boss.

‘I think lighting is the most important thing for films and commercials,’ says Hetal, Hindi cinema’s first and only female gaffer. ‘Without it, you can’t make anything look good.’ The head electrician on any film or television production unit she’s part of, thirty-two-year-old Hetal is proud of the unique place she holds in Indian cinematic history. ‘I love it!’ she says, her face melting into a wide grin. ‘I don’t think there can be anything better than that.’

Hetal began her career in 2005, following in the footsteps of her father, Mulchand Dedhia, India’s most celebrated gaffer. Among the numerous films she has worked on are the well-known Bollywood hits, Bluffmaster, Karthik Calling Karthik and Road, Movie. She has also assisted her father on multiple international productions shot in India and is particularly proud of her work on Mission Impossible: The Ghost Protocol and Un Plus Une.

Born in Mumbai on 31 March 1985, Hetal is Mulchand and Chandrika’s youngest child. Their firstborn, Keval, was physically and mentally challenged. Two daughters, Jinal and Minal, came before Hetal.

The family never looked at Keval with pity or sadness; they celebrated his courage. ‘We didn’t cry seeing him because we saw him fight so much,’ Hetal says. They derived strength from his attitude and applauded the enthusiasm with which he lived.

The Dedhias are a close-knit bunch and the family bonds are strong. Hetal’s mother, Chandrika, is a homemaker. ‘I saw my mother working all her life to keep the family going,’ Hetal recalls. ‘It is a full-time job and shouldn’t be considered nothing. I think being a housewife should be a highly paid job.’

Her father is a self-made man. ‘Dad has come from rags to riches,’ Hetal says. ‘He has his own story.’ Mulchand, who never got a chance to study, worked as an electrician at weddings and other functions before he became a cable and generator operator. While laying cables on a film set, he would watch the ‘lighting dadas’ working around him—technicians were not called ‘gaffers’ back then. By silently observing them, he learned which light went where, what kind of connection each set-up needed, how much wattage each one required. He took it all in and taught himself how to light up a film set. Gradually, he began getting lighting jobs. His first big break came when Mira Nair hired him for Salaam Bombay! in 1998.

‘We were not rich,’ Hetal says, remembering her childhood. And there was added pressure on her father to support his extended family as well—his parents and sister relied on him. The family could not afford a television so the children never watched films. A visit to the cinema hall was out of the question. But they were drawn to the film world.

Hetal did not expect to follow in her father’s footsteps. But those who know her say they are not surprised by the path she chose. They point to her brother’s death as a turning point. Keval passed away in 1999 after a sudden heart attack. He was twenty-two.

‘Nobody wants to get their hands dirty’

All three Dedhia girls work for the family-owned company, Light and Grips, founded by Mulchand in 1993. Jinal handles the finances while Minal works in management—thought she is currently taking a break to look after her young family. Hetal, now a director at the company, is the only one who took to the physically intense role of gaffing. ‘My sisters would never think of doing what I do!’ she laughs. ‘Nobody wants to get their hands dirty. They are not one of those chicks.’

Ever since she had stepped on to a film set as a little girl, Hetal knew she belonged to one. She couldn’t ignore that pull any longer. Hetal told her parents that she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps. She was going to become a lighting technician.

Mulchand was not sure whether she would be able to hack it as a gaffer. ‘I tried to convince her that this is a man’s job because it involves lifting heavy cables and walking on scaffolding to fix the lights,’ he says.

Hetal understood her parents’ scepticism. They did not know a single woman gaffer. It was an unconventional career choice—not just for an Indian woman but for a woman in any part of the world. ‘Normally, in the culture we come from, girls get married by the time they are my age,’ Hetal says. But she would have none of it. When Mulchand realized she was not going to back down, he simply said, ‘This is your choice.’

He didn’t ease his daughter’s entry into the world of gaffing. Like every other aspiring gaffer who comes to him seeking a job, Hetal worked for the company for six months without pay. Mulchand told everyone on his team not to give her any preferential treatment. ‘He wanted me to find my path,’ Hetal says. The early days were tough. The learning curve was steep. The equipment were heavy and rigging lights meant climbing ladders and scaffolding. Hetal never thought twice about doing any of the grunt work. She would work out regularly to stay strong. She wanted to prove herself as a gaffer.

Often the only woman in a testosterone-packed world, Hetal doesn’t feel the need to downplay her feminine side. At 5’8’’, with her athletic frame and long dark curls, Hetal is often mistaken for a model. She has been offered several roles in front of the camera but has never considered it. ‘I could not build that confidence,’ she says, smiling self-consciously.

Are some men intimidated by Hetal? ‘Yeah, they are, they are,’ Hetal admits with a chuckle. It makes it that much harder to find a compatible partner. Hetal, who is currently single, says a guy she was dating didn’t like the profession she was in. ‘He thought it was not correct for a woman to be in a place like that.’ The romance didn’t last long.

Excerpted with permission from Changemakers Twenty Women Transforming Bollywood Behind the Scenes, Gayatri Rangachari Shah and Mallika Kapur, Penguin Random House.