Covid-19 halts Bollywood filming, puts spotlight on casual workers


  • Movies
  • Wednesday, 25 Mar 2020

More than 500,000 Bollywood workers on daily wages now face an uncertain future with the country's prolific film and television industry shuttered from last Thursday to next Tuesday. – AFP

Thousands of casual workers who build sets for India's Bollywood film industry, or fight and dance behind established stars, have been left jobless after all shoots were suspended in a bid to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

There are more than 500,000 Bollywood workers on daily wages, according to employee unions, and most now face an uncertain future with the country's prolific film and television industry shuttered from last Thursday to next Tuesday.

The closure led to the Producers Guild of India announcing a relief fund for those on daily wages - which includes extras - shining a rare spotlight on Bollywood's invisible or under-appreciated workforce.

"This is the first time producers have shown interest," said Ashok Dubey, general secretary of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees.

"A production house gave us 4,000 packets of food provisions to distribute among workers," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The federation, whose members include 30 film trade unions, has long demanded timely payment of wages and better working conditions for those hired on a day-to-day basis, he added.

Nine people have died and more than 490 have tested positive for the coronavirus in India, according to the country's health ministry, with more than 500 districts placed under lockdown.

Daily workers are at the sharp end of the health crises, with some states announcing relief packages for them.

"We rarely even ever get counted among daily wagers when the government announces help for them," said Hema Dave, 59, a junior artist who has been an extra in several Bollywood films.

"This is not a fixed job. There should be some help that provides at least some pocket money," she said on Sunday.

Actors and technicians hired and paid by the day in India's US$24bil (RM106bil) media and entertainment industry – which comprises film, television and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime - earn about 1,000 Indian rupees (RM57) for an eight-hour shift.

But wages are linked to the number of days worked and actors who "look good" receive more work and money, said Mr Pappu Lekhraj, who supplies junior artists.

"Good-looking actors get 20 days of work in a month, but the normal-looking ones get about eight days of work. The industry works on looks," he said.

Misery and poverty are rarely associated with Bollywood, as the industry is usually viewed through the luxurious lives of its rich and famous actors.

"We are so focused on actors and stars that we don't look beyond them," said Anupama Chopra, the founder and editor of Film Companion, a film news website that began a series of reports on workers on daily wages last week.

"If there is a silver lining (to the coronavirus pandemic), it could be this – that systems are put in place and there is some recourse (for daily earners)," she said.

Long-term solutions for the timely payment of wages, or for providing benefits such as medical insurance, are not on the agenda for now, film industry chiefs said.

"We are looking at addressing the problem on hand and that is a big problem," Kulmeet Makkar, head of the Producers Guild of India, said about the pause in production and its impact on casual workers. – Reuters

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