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Verve People
December 14, 2016

Meet Hetal Dedhia, The First Female Gaffer In Bollywood

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photograph by Prateek Patel

“As soon as people realised that I knew what I was doing, their reaction changed from scepticism to acceptance.”

Clad in a top and jeans, the slim Hetal Dedhia strides into her studio with a natural confidence, completely at home amid all the lights, wires, grips, cartons of nuts and bolts and the miscellaneous equipment of her trade. Born to the business — her father Mulchand Dedhia is perhaps Bollywood’s best-known gaffer (head of lighting and electrical) — she has earned the honour of being the first female gaffer in the Hindi film industry. Her appearance in the family-owned workshop triggers an instant alertness in the staff, who exchange greetings with their boss, before continuing with their tasks. Later, while interacting with them, her voice is soft but authoritative — she commands respect, after years of experience.

The 31-year-old Dedhia — who has worked on projects like Luck By Chance and Karthik Calling Karthik and international productions like Eat Pray Love, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and Un Plus Une — can still recall her first impression on the sets. Although young at that time, she states, “I was around 11 and the film was Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. Even at that age I knew that I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a gaffer. I was lucky that he helped me fulfil my dreams.” Interestingly, her two elder sisters, Minal and Jinal, run the office of their family business, Light & Grips Equipment Hirers (India) Pvt. Ltd.

Growing up on a diet of movies, the film buff moved from watching them for entertainment to keeping an eye out for visual subtleties. “As I grew older, I became more aware of my father’s role in film-making. That sparked my interest in lighting. I am lucky that over the years my father has passed on his vast knowledge to me.”

So, the girl who used to play professional snooker gave that up, as well as academics, to train to become a gaffer. No regrets is her mantra, for she says, “Obviously education is important, but I knew my destiny was in film-making. I was fascinated by it, especially lighting — maybe it’s genetic.” As a newbie, it was challenging primarily because there were no other women in the field when she started out. Dedhia states, “There was some resistance, but as soon as people realised that I knew what I was doing, their reaction changed from scepticism to acceptance.”

Her gender did not cut her any slack and she started off in the lighting warehouse, learning how to use and maintain the various lights and fixtures. She emphasises, “It’s important to know this, as on the sets things often need maintenance. After training as a technician, I was able to work under other gaffers and see how directors of photography (DOPs) operate. This led to an appreciation for the aesthetics of lighting which along with the technical aspects are necessary to understand how to achieve different moods and textures.”

The challenges of being a gaffer, she opines, are both physical and mental. She points out, “I don’t have any problems except when the equipment is very heavy, but men also require assistance at times. I get treated the same as everybody else and wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The fact that she is her father’s daughter did help her initially, but she maintains, “I’ve gone out of my way to prove myself. I try to live up to his legacy. After six years of training, I started accepting projects. I could soon take decisions myself, achieving the DOP’s wishes. My confidence grew and I haven’t looked back since.”

Currently a first assistant cameraman for cinematographer Jason West, Dedhia’s jump to camerawork has been an exciting transition and she aspires to become a DOP. And to others keen on manning lights, she says, “Be sure that this is what you really want to do, as it’s not easy”.

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