Nearly one lakh people work for daily wages in Mumbai’s glitzy entertainment industry. When the pandemic shuttered it early last year, they were overnight thrown out of work. It was only after the lockdown to contain the pandemic was lifted in June that the industry sputtered back to life, barely. The Maharashtra government allowed film and TV shoots to resume, but with just . TV and web series shoots picked up pace but films are still not being shot as frequently. For the daily wagers, whose lives and livelihoods exist in the shadows of glamour, it meant work remained scarce. Now, with Mumbai in the grip of a fresh wave of infections, their situation is set to get worse.
The city has recorded over 63,000 new coronavirus infections in the past week, compelling the Maharashtra government to theatres, shopping malls and restaurants, and order and . Rumours are circulating of an impending extended lockdown and that worries Vijay Batham no end. “If another lockdown happens, I’ll stay in Mumbai no matter what,” he said. “It’s very difficult to keep uprooting my family.”
Vijay has been a spot boy for nearly 20 years. He was working on the set of Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 when the film’s shooting was halted after lead actor Kartik Aryan tested positive for the virus. Vijay, along with fellow spot boys, technicians and lightmen – all hired on daily wages – were left scrambling to look for other projects. He found work on a Dharma Productions film but that shoot was abruptly halted as well when actor Vicky Kaushal tested for coronavirus. So, Vijay is without work, again.
Not least because work in the film industry has winded down after several dozen and tested positive over the past week. Actor Akshay Kumar was confirmed to have the virus on April 4, leading to the shooting of his film Ram Setu being stopped. A day later, 45 junior artists working on the film’s set positive as well.
A little over a year ago, Vijay was working on an out-of-station shoot when news that a lockdown may be imposed hit the set. The shoot was cancelled and he returned to Mumbai, which was soon locked down. In June, when special trains were run for migrants, he left for his village near Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.
“The whole year was useless,” he complained, “there was no work.”
He may be looking at another extended period without work. The team he works with has informed Vijay that there are no upcoming projects for at least another 10 days.
The situation is so precarious that the Federation of Western India Cine Employees, a worker union with 5,00,000 members, last week to the chief minister pleading with him to not declare a fresh lockdown.
“One whole year has passed with no work and no income, distressed lives and no food, hunger stricken families and deprived children. It was a very dreadful and sorry state of people who were left alone to fight their own battles of hunger and poverty with absolutely no aid from any government body,” the union said in their letter.
Recently, filmmaker Hansal Mehta voiced concern for artists and workers in the industry who are dependent on daily wages.
Please do not force us to cancel even night shootings @mybmc if precautions and SOPs are in place. We will be severely affected particularly those who are on daily wages and depend solely on shoots for survival. Seek urgent intervention @OfficeofUT @AUThackeray— Hansal Mehta (@mehtahansal) March 30, 2021
The set of a daily soap opera being shot inside a bungalow in Mumbai’s Madh Island buzzed with activity as crew members shouted instructions, technicians carried production equipment around and huge white vanity vans for actors lined the entrance.
At the back, away from the activity, Sattar Shaikh, 53, stood by a stove in a makeshift open-air kitchen. Having worked on the sets of TV shows and films for over two decades, Shaikh said his work didn’t have a strict definition, explaining that a spot boy, colloquially referred to as “spot dada”, was expected to perform any odd task for Rs 700-1000 a day.
“When work came to a standstill last year life felt like a car that had run out of fuel, but I still held onto hope,” he said. “But if it happens again, the car will break down beyond repair.”
Did he get any help from the industry people who employ him? “No one remembers a spot boy,” he said, letting out a chuckle, “they call you dada all day, but as soon the shoot is over they roll up the windows of their shiny cars and leave like strangers.”
However, BN Tiwari, president of the cine employees union, said film and TV celebrities helped them collect about Rs 45 crore for the daily wage workers during the lockdown. “Their situation was dire. Some people returned to their villages and many of them haven’t come back yet,” he added.
He rued that the government, state or central, didn’t provide monetary help to the workers, despite the union asking for it several times.
Sattar Shaikh has worked on film and TV show sets for two decades.
Samsher Khan, 44, has been a spot boy since 1988. And in all these years, he said, he has never seen a harder time than the lockdown months. “There were so many troubles. Thinking of those days the mind doesn’t work sometimes,” he added.
Samsher had left the city in June, taking a bus to Uttar Pradesh, travelling to Jharkhand from there and onto his village in Bihar, before returning in January. It took a while for him to start getting work again. Now when he had started working regularly – he is currently employed on the same set as Sattar – the entertainment industry is facing uncertainty again.
Salman Khan, 19, who works as a vanity van helper, did not go home to Delhi during last year’s lockdown. He decided to stay put in a rented room in Film City, Goregaon. It would prove a costly decision: he exhausted all his savings, about Rs 90,000.
So, he’s in no condition to endure another lockdown. “Everything will be over,” he said.
The situation is harder for workers who are new to the industry, workers like Chand.
Chand, 32, sat in a pool of white fabric used to create a lighting setup on the set of a TV advertisement shoot, numbering each piece of cloth according to its dimension. He recounted finding his way to the industry after losing his job as a school van driver in the city during the lockdown.
“From June through October, I would get work for two days out of 10,” he said.
In the past few months, he had started working at least 15 days a month. “But now I cannot sleep at night again,” he added, worried that the city would be locked down, and with it the entertainment industry.
Lightmen at work on a set.
Cut the ‘extras’
When the Maharashtra government allowed shoots to resume last June, it required that producers cut their crew sizes to the bare minimum. It was a big blow to junior artists, or “extras” as they are commonly called.
“Because of the new rules writers are writing scripts in such a way that the requirement of junior artists is cut to minimum,” said Raees Kazi, 52, who runs a team of 15 junior artists.
He estimated that at least 500 of the nearly 1,400 members of the Mumbai’s Junior Artists Association left the industry for good over the past year, transferring their union cards to whoever would pay the initial amount they had given for membership.
For female junior artists, said Laxmi Goswami, member of the Mahila Kalakar Sangh, their struggles are multifold. “Some of these women are widows, some are single mothers. They have finished their savings. They have faced lots of problems in the past year and have no backup,” she added.
Those who still have work are also having a hard time, in their own way. Hair and makeup artists, for one, must wear PPE kits all the time. Since actors can’t wear masks during shoots, the hair and makeup artists have to take double the precautions.
“It’s like I am melting inside this thing,” a makeup artist who asked not to be named said, pointing to his PPE kit. “The face shield fogs up from perspiration and the makeup brush keeps slipping from my hand because we wear protective gloves.”
He’s been doing this work for nearly 10 years, he said but is still adapting to the changes forced by the pandemic.
Another hair stylist, Gulfam Ali, 22, complained, “Because of the lockdown I feel I have gone backwards five years in this industry. We end up spending more than what we are earning.”
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