Article Hindi

Coronavirus lockdown: Daily-wagers hit the hardest in this hour of uncertainty

The faceless technicians who keep the wheels of the glamour industry turning are also the ones who are left truly stranded when the brakes are applied, as they have been now.

Photo for representational purpose only

Keyur Seta

The coronavirus pandemic has seen the country being almost shut down. The booming film and television industries have suspended all work since 19 March and this suspension will continue till mid-April at least. With theatres and malls shut, all film releases, including those of big-budget multi-starrers like Sooryavanshi and 83, have been postponed and producers and exhibitors are likely to incur huge losses as a result.

But the film industry is not just those faces we see on the big screen or the names we read in the end credits. There are countless technicians who work hard behind the scenes to give us that paisa-vasool experience. They are the ones likely to be hit the hardest by the lockdown, since many of them are daily-wage employees and won't be paid if they don't get to work.

Joaquin Joseph Rebello, joint secretary of the Movie Action Dummy Effects Association (MADEA), said, “We were about to get work, but it got cancelled. We are daily-wagers. We are paid only when there is work. Employees of production houses will get paid, but we are not employees on the payroll. We have to dig a well daily [to slake our thirst].” Members of the MADEA supply dummy weapons to film crews and help in staging scenes involving the use of firearms and explosives.

Apex film bodies like the Indian Film and Television Directors' Association (IFTDA), the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE) and the Producers' Guild of India have announced monetary compensation and relief for all workers from the film industry during the lockdown period.

But Rebello, who is chairman of the core committee of the FWICE, said he had no information about any relief schemes. “We haven’t received any such message,” he said.

Make-up artist Umesh Kanojiya expressed similar sentiments. Kanojiya is actor Ashish Vidyarthi’s personal make-up man and has worked recently on films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) and Batti Gul Meter Chalu (2018). “We don’t get a monthly salary," Kanojiya said. "We are either paid per day or per project. As shootings have been halted, there is no payment. We are drawing on our savings. Designers' assistants get monthly packages. But if there is no shooting, the production won’t pay them too. Same is true of camera assistants and hairstylists. Even after 31 March, there is no guarantee.” (Kanojiya spoke to before the countrywide lockdown was announced on 24 March.)

Kanojiya was also part of the crew for the upcoming project Helmet (2020) and the web-series, Criminal Justice 2, for which the unit could shoot for just a day. “We shot for a day and then got a message that there is a lockdown,” he said. 

An assistant director (AD) working on a project for an OTT platform said, on condition of anonymity, that few production houses are ready to pay people like him during the lockdown. He is lucky to be working with one such considerate production house.

“There are some who are ready to pay the salary for the full month, which is very rare in our industry. Most of them won’t pay for the full month,” he said, adding that for those working in a creative field, the break might be a good time to write out some concepts they had been mulling over.

The AD said even big names from the industry are getting affected in one way or the other. “For example, the release of Sooryavanshi has been delayed," he pointed out. "Now they don’t know when it can be released. And then it might clash with another big film.”

But he agreed that daily-wage workers will be hit the hardest. “They definitely get affected as they are dependent on each day's shooting. The lockdown was earlier till 31 March. Now it has been extended till mid-April. And even then we don’t know if shooting will commence. We don’t know if the situation will get better or worse,” he said.

Addressing the country on 19 March, when state governments were urging offices to operate with less than 50% staff and allow people to work from home, prime minister Narendra Modi had urged employers to continue to pay their employees in this trying period.

“In these testing times, I would urge businesses to keep in mind, if possible, the economic rights of those from whom you get your work done," he said. "There is a possibility that they might not be able to turn up for work. In such a situation, don’t impose a pay cut. Take decisions keeping humanity and sensitivity in mind. Remember, they too need to run their families and save their family members from illness.”

Whether the film industry pays heed to this appeal remains to be seen. Those whose very survival is on the line hope they will.

Ashoke Pandit, chief adviser of the FWICE, said meetings and discussions had been going on for the past few days on how to provide relief to the daily-wage workers. He said the countrywide shutdown was proving an obstacle. "There is a curfew in place and offices are closed," he said. "We were supposed to do this last Sunday [22 March] but that day, too, a curfew was announced."

Pandit said the biggest problem is that people from the film industry are spread across the city. "So how do we reach them?" he said. "We have been breaking our heads for the past two or three days. We can't open a centre anywhere as people are not allowed to gather because of the coronavirus. A lot of producers came forward to help. The entire industry stood by us."

In this context, he welcomed Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman's announcement of a relief package worth Rs1.7 lakh crore for the poor whose lives have been affected by the coronavirus shutdown. Pandit said even the daily-wage workers and technicians of the film industry will be benefited by this.

“It’s a great move by the finance minister,” he said. “Now that it is coming through the government, it becomes easy for us and the federation to reach the people. They can go to the ration shops and collect their provisions. You don’t have to distribute from person to person, which is very difficult.” Besides, the provisions are being provided free.

"Such things are possible only if the government takes the initiative," Pandit said. Apart from the ration, he said industry associations will look to provide monetary compensation as well to the daily-wage employees. “We will have a meeting after things come under control where producers and technicians will sit together and we will fix monetary compensation for a year. For example, if we give them X amount of money every month, their loss will be recovered in around six to eight months,” he said.