India’s COVID-19 lockdown made little difference to Bollywood superstars, but for the industry’s vast army of low-paid, unskilled workers it meant unemployment, hunger and homelessness — with no end in sight even as filming gradually resumes.
Fahim Shaikh used to earn 800 rupees (US$11) a day as a “spot boy” on sets, doing odd jobs such as making tea. When Bollywood hit pause in March, the 23-year-old could no longer pay his rent.
“I just wandered up and down, asking strangers for help and sleeping outside cafes,” Shaikh said.
Like many starry-eyed newcomers, he traveled to Mumbai in pursuit of an acting career, before his dreams gave way to the pressures of the daily grind in India’s most expensive city.
The hugely successful Hindi movie industry is tentatively coming back to life, but with strict rules including curbs on the number of people allowed on set.
Jobs for people such as Shaikh are now few and far between.
“I am ready to do anything, I desperately need work,” he said.
The lockdown cast a spotlight on India’s extreme inequality, with well-heeled citizens able to hibernate safely at home while watching shocking scenes of a huge exodus of migrant workers play out on their TV and smartphone screens.
That chasm between the haves and have-nots is perhaps even more pronounced in Bollywood, where jet-setting megastars rub shoulders with tens of thousands of extras, spot boys and other junior crew members, who exist on the margins of the glamorous industry.
“The spot boys are considered the littlest players, till food arrives late on a set,” actress Richa Chadha wrote on a blog highlighting the “disastrous” effects of the lockdown.
During her half-century stint as an extra, Sayeda Mumani has worked alongside virtually every major actor, from 1970s matinee idol Rajesh Khanna to superstar Shah Rukh Khan.
In a good month, the 68-year-old scraped together about 14,000 rupees, but her income dried up after filming came to a standstill.
Unlike the younger Shaikh — who has few industry contacts — Mumani’s long association with leading studios meant that she could count on at least a little help, with top actors such as Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan sending her grocery vouchers and cash, but relying on the piecemeal generosity of individuals has severe limitations, as Mumani found out, when mounting medical and household expenses left her with a debt of 100,000 rupees.
“I feel so useless and helpless,” she said.
Despite generating billions of US dollars in revenue, the world’s most prolific movie industry has no established scheme to protect its most vulnerable members.
The vast majority of the industry’s workers lack access to medical insurance or pension plans.
Director Anubhav Sinha, who paid salaries to his production staff and offered financial aid to other crew members during the lockdown, said the absence of a safety net was because the industry’s workforce is largely freelance.
“My employees ... comprise about 10 percent of the entire size of my film unit. Ninety percent are freelancers, who work on the production and then move on,” Sinha said.
While the industry is home to multiple unions, they lack the deep pockets to look after their members, Cine & TV Artists Association senior joint secretary Amit Behl said.
The association, which has more than 9,000 members, including top stars, had to request donations to support actors who “are virtually living hand to mouth,” Behl said.
“We produce twice the content of other filmmaking countries, but we are not structured,” he said.
Furthermore, he warned that fresh restrictions, which include a ban on filming crowd scenes, hiring large crews or actors older than 65, meant that the crisis was set to worsen, leaving workers such as Mumani fearing for their future.
“We can’t carry on like this,” she said, bursting into tears. “I feel like I am dying already.”
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