Coronavirus halts Bollywood filming, puts spotlight on casual workers

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Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan speaks during an interview with Reuters in Mumbai, January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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 outbreak.

There are more than 500,000 Bollywood workers on daily wages, according to employee unions, and most now face an uncertain future after the country’s prolific film and television industry shuttered from March 19 to March 31.

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,” Dubey 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.

Seven people have died and more than 400 have tested positive for COVID-19 in India, according to the health ministry, with 75 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,” Dave said on Sunday.

STAR-STRUCK

Actors and technicians hired and paid by the day in India‘s $24 billion media and entertainment industry – that comprises films, television and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime – earn about 1000 Indian rupees ($13) 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 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,” Lekhraj said.

But 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 focussed on actors and stars that we don’t look beyond them,” said Anupama Chopra, founder-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 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.

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