They come long before the directors call action and stay till much after pack-up is announced, but when the coronavirus-induced lockdown brought Hindi film production to a halt this March, these daily-wage artistes who form the backbone of Mumbai’s entertainment productions were the first to be impacted. Whoever could, left for their hometowns, but the ones left behind found it had become a daily struggle to survive, which many say is more worrying than the pandemic itself.
But the plight of those in the lowest rung of the world’s largest film industry moved those at the very top, and soon stars from across small and big screen were doing their bit to help everyone affected, from hairdressers to background dancers, make-up artistes and light men.
One of the first to help the daily-wage earners was superstar Salman Khan. After a call for help from the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE), Khan sought a count of those affected in the association. “We told him there were 25,000 such artistes,” president B N Tiwari had told indianexpress.com.
By April, those in this list had started getting the help promised. “There’s not a single one who hasn’t got the Rs 3,000 in their account,” says background dancer Qurnaliya about her 850-member Cine Dancers Association. Janet Nazareth, who had been struggling with no savings to see her through the lockdown, remembers how the money was deposited in her account directly from Khan’s SK Films.
Ranjeet Thakur, co-owner of Frames Production, which bankrolls shows like Super Dancer, Dance Plus and Dil Hai Hindustani, had the foresight to see this kind of an eventuality based on what was then happening in China and other parts of the world.
“In the first week of March, we sat with the team and discussed the probability of a shutdown. Other countries were already heading for a lockdown and we somewhere knew that India too might have one. While others could survive on monthly remuneration, our focus was on the workers who get paid per day. We decided to arrange ration for 10,000 people, and started distributing the same as and when we managed the goods.”
Thakur said his team preferred ration over cash because it could help the entire family survive. “Money can get spent on something else, but the rations would last longer. Also, one can spend a day without cash but not without food.”
By mid-April, megastar Amitabh Bachchan had distributed food coupons worth Rs 1,500 to daily-wage artistes of the All India Film Employees Confederation. Soon Ajay Devgn and Rohit Shetty had pitched in Rs 51 lakh each to FWICE.
But all this was clearly not enough, as around the same time 25 background dancers and dance coordinator Raj Surani dropped a video on YouTube reminding an industry known for its extravagant dance numbers of their suffering. Responding to the viral video, choreographer Remo D’Souza reached out to them with monetary help. “The video got a positive response from the stars as Shahid Kapoor, Remo D’Souza, Dharma Production, Bosco Martis and Sidharth Malhotra reached out to us with huge help. And now the effort is to not only help our dancers, but also other affected artistes,” said Surani, who earlier worked as a background dancer himself.
Qurnaliya, one of the dancers in the mentioned video and a prominent face in some hit numbers over the years, said the stars have made sure everyone got equal help. “So, like we are 850 in number. So, first 100 got help from Remo, then the next by Bosco and so on, so that the aid reaches everyone. Some helped with money, some with ration,” she said, without divulging the amount.
“It saddens me that we had to make a video to get the attention of our stars because we always thought of Bollywood as a family and believed people would reach out to us on their own. Nevertheless, they have lessened our burden at least in terms of food and groceries.”
Meanwhile, popular television actor Karan Jotwani and friends started a fundraiser to support 500 daily wagers with ration. “Cine & TV Artists Association (CINTAA) reached out to us asking if we could help. We have started work, but we can only assure help when we manage the required amount,” shared Jotwani who thinks they would need at least Rs 5,00,000 to make an impact.
The Aapke Aa Jane Se star has also used up the money he had saved for a house to provide relief to the workers. “I cannot make a house knowing that so many people are sleeping hungry. I can just pray that we find strength and provision to help as many as we can.”
The television industry is worse-off because of its 90-day pay cycle, as per which actors get their fee only after three months of working on a show. This has left even those artistes, who could have otherwise helped the daily-wage workers, vulnerable.
“When it comes to the industry, there is no assurance that we will have work in the coming days. And even when some of us will get shows, the payment will take a few months to be remitted. In an expensive city like Mumbai, one has to give a second thought before they can contribute to others,” Karan Jotwani reasoned.
For those, who are not part of any associations, the help came from stars who read about their ordeal through news reports. Bhojpuri star Ravi Kishan began providing ration in April to hairdresser Hetal Satar, who does hair and make-up for junior artistes in Bollywood and Bhojpuri films, after learning about her struggles from our report. “The day his team reached out to me was like a blessing. He has been taking care of my family and we are getting food to eat. I can’t thank him enough and I can’t wait to get back to work,” Satar said. Kisan has assured he would continue providing ration kits to the artistes in Bhojpuri industry until they get back to their jobs.
Lightman Ghulam Sattar, who previously shared with indianexpress.com his pain of having a Ramzan without enough money to buy groceries for daily sehri, was reached out to by Bollywood producer Sajid Nadiadwala. The Kick director, after reading about his plight, sent him a sum of Rs 10,000. “I can’t thank Sajid bhai enough. He has helped me when I needed it the most,” Sattar said.
The Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra government on May 31 announced the resumption of film and television shoot in non-containment zones with a set of safety guidelines. Even though the decision comes as a relief to the industry, for its daily-wage earners, it does little to clear the cloud of uncertainty as the government has asked the producers to shoot with minimum crew.
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