Casual workers hit as Bollywood comes to a standstill amid Covid-19 pandemic

A mural in Mumbai depicting Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan in the 1983 movie Coolie. The coronavirus pandemic has brought India's prolific Hindi film industry to a standstill. It has been shut since March 19, following a unanimous decision from sev
A mural in Mumbai depicting Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan in the 1983 movie Coolie. The coronavirus pandemic has brought India's prolific Hindi film industry to a standstill. It has been shut since March 19, following a unanimous decision from several industry associations. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In her career spanning 15 years in Bollywood, the spotlight has never been on Ms Sunita Rajbir Dulgach.

She always had ephemeral roles as a junior artist - a passer-by in a market, someone skittering from a scene of an attack or a dancer accompanying the leading star.

But, in a cruel twist, she now faces the same plight as that of other daily-wage workers in Bollywood, estimated to be around 650,000, whose livelihoods have been thrown into a downward spiral amid the coronavirus pandemic that has brought India's prolific Hindi film industry to a standstill.

Film shootings were cancelled even before the nationwide lockdown began on March 25, snatching away these workers' source of sustenance. Ms Dulgach was paid around 1,400 rupees (S$26) for a day's work in a film, averaging around 35,000 rupees every month.

The last time she worked and got paid, however, was on March 9.

Her husband Rajbir Dulgach, who works as an assistant to a supplier of casual workers in Bollywood, has also been unable to work - a double whammy for the family in Mumbai which failed to meet their monthly home loan repayment this month.

"When your life that had been chugging along suddenly comes to a standstill, you obviously worry," 52-year-old Ms Dulgach told The Sunday Times.

"We can perhaps pull along for another month. If work doesn't resume after that, we will have to rethink our lives."

The industry has been shut since March 19, following a unanimous decision from several industry associations.

"It is the daily-wage earners who have been hit the hardest," Mr Ashok Dubey told The Sunday Times. He is the general secretary of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (Fwice), Bollywood's leading workers' union that represents as many as 500,000 casual workers spanning 32 different disciplines, including spot boys, dancers and make-up artists.

The ongoing phase of the lockdown is scheduled to be lifted after May 3, but there is little hope of cameras rolling any time soon in Bollywood.

Latest available data shows that Mumbai, where the industry is based, is one of the worst-hit cities in the country with 4,447 cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Moreover, the film industry's working style requires several people to gather at one place, which means it may have to wait even longer for relief as both the federal and state governments opt for a cautious and gradual lifting of the lockdown.

Fortunately, some help has come in for these workers from leading personalities in the industry.

Ms Dulgach received 3,000 rupees this month, part of actor Salman Khan's effort to help 22,000 "active" workers listed with Fwice for two months.

Others who have pitched in to help these workers with financial donations include Yash Raj Films, a leading production house, the Producers Guild of India, actors Ajay Devgn and Amitabh Bachchan and director Rohit Shetty.

Many other Bollywood personalities, such as Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar, have supported the wider national campaign against the pandemic, including by donating money to the government's fund, PM Cares, and other initiatives like donating personal protective equipment, offering buildings to be used as quarantine centres and helping feed the poor.

There has also been a slew of social media videos urging Indians to practise social distancing as well as those showing stars trying their hand at household chores.

The prolonged lockdown has, meanwhile, forced Bollywood to rethink its working model, which includes producers now figuring out the best strategy to release several films that have been held back so far because of the lockdown.

Speaking in a video on his official YouTube channel, Mr Komal Nahta, a film trade analyst, said some producers were exploring the possibility of releasing their films directly on over-the-top services like Netflix, bypassing conventional cinema releases.

Cinemas in India were among the first places to be shut, even before the lockdown began, and will possibly be the last to throw open their doors.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 26, 2020, with the headline Casual workers hit as Bollywood comes to a standstill. Subscribe