NEW DELHI: The return of millions of migrants to their native places across India during the covid-19 induced lockdown will spell doom for the film business in the coming months. Besides, forming a crucial part of the workforce on film and TV sets, migrant labourers also make up a big part of audiences for Hindi movies across states as they move in search of job.
According to an earlier report by Mint, about 20-25 million migrants have returned to their villages in trains, buses and on foot over the past two months. According to the national census, migrant workers comprised 48% of residents in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru in 2011. Most of them came from the Hindi speaking states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
Given the huge influx of migrant labour from Tamil Nadu to states like Maharashtra as household help, cab drivers and delivery personnel, Tamil films have enjoyed huge draw in theatres the western state, with stars such as Rajinikanth bringing in massive opening weekends.
“Parts of Mumbai like Dharavi have housed huge sections of Tamil audiences who may not be there anymore. Similarly, states like Kerala had a lot of north Indian migrants that would flock to theatres to watch Hindi films," said Mukesh Mehta of Malayalam film production and distribution company E4 Entertainment.
When released in 2018, Rajinikanth’s blockbuster science fiction film 2.0 had earned Rs. 6.5 crore out of its total Rs. 80 crore first day domestic collections from Mumbai alone. Last Diwali, even though film business is relatively dull in the weeks leading up to the festival, shows of Vijay’s sports drama Bigil were sold out across Mumbai, helping its final glorious run. Though their numbers are steadily declining, Mumbai is still home to around 70 single screen theatres where migrants and small-time workers can watch films for less than Rs. 50. Further, the metropolis has been the backdrop of several Tamil language films over the years, right from Rajinikanth's Baasha, Kamal Haasan's Nayakan, Ajith's Mankatha, Vijay's Thuppakki, down to Mani Ratnam’s Bombay and O Kadhal Kanmani, enhancing appeal for the Tamil population.
The same is true for Bollywood in states like Kerala which is home to more than 1,000 single screen cinema halls. In 2016, Aamir Khan’s Dangal became the first Hindi film to cross the Rs. 10 crore mark at the Kerala box office, unseating Khan’s own PK that had earned Rs. 9.50 crore in 2014.
The loss of a migrant, diasporic population will also be a loss for the Indian film industry in overseas territories like the UAE, US and UK where Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films have set the cash registers ringing in the past.
To be sure, the absence of migrant labour is also a cause of concern for filmmakers prepping to resume shooting with government guidelines soon.
“A lot of the skilled labour that we would employ on sets has gone back to their native places, and they would comprise nearly 50% of the people on job. We don’t have a solution to that and we’re trying to work with unions to get them back," said Siddharth Anand Kumar, vice-president, films and television, Saregama India. Like many producers, Saregama plans to provide private transport for its labour to commute to sets once production resumes, and have the entire crew quarantined in a close unit, such as a hotel or resort for the duration of the shoot.
As India went into lockdown more than two months ago and production of all film, TV and web productions halted, marginal workers employed in the art, costume and light departments of sets were the worst hit. Late last month, the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association had requested all members to clear dues of employees, workers and technicians to help them ‘survive with dignity in these difficult times.’