“We haven’t been paid any of our dues. What are we supposed to do at this time of crisis?" the elderly gentleman who referred to himself as Ajamlis said. The three producing partners on the TV show he was employed in were refusing to take his calls, he added.
“We have no choice. How do we sustain right now?" the man spoke into the camera with tears in his eyes. Sanon attached a plea along with the post, asking the Cine and TV Artists Association (CINTAA) to clear the dues of all daily and marginal workers.
All film, television and web series production halted around the middle of March. In an industry where the gulf between top-line stars and others is wide, waiting it out is easier for some more than others. But what’s in store in the months ahead is an even bigger worry for those at the margins of the movie and entertainment industry.
Mumbai may soon cease to be the hub for all shooting activities, at least for the short term. Green zones and small towns in, say, Kerala, Goa or Assam will be the new destinations for Bollywood’s dream factories. Some efforts have already begun to recruit locals in such places, instead of ferrying a large film crew from Mumbai. Masks are in, at least off-camera, and hugs are out. There is even talk of strict limits on the size and age profile of film crews (since the elderly are more vulnerable to covid-19).
Even the social experience of watching a movie is set to change dramatically. Theatres and multiplexes, which are in panic mode after several films got released directly on digital platforms, are ready to greatly limit seating capacity. All of this is set to unfold as the movie business is expected to contract from ₹23,600 crore to ₹12,700 crore this fiscal year, according to a projection by the rating agency Crisil.
Bottom of the pyramid
Many of the migrants who are an intrinsic part of the labour force on film and TV sets come from India’s small towns in search of both skilled and unskilled jobs. Apart from the core team in a production house, which include accountants and senior marketing executives, most people on a set tend to be recruited for individual projects and for a limited shooting period of 70-80 days.
These include professionals such as directors, writers, actors and camera personnel, who are obviously highly paid, but also other workers like spot boys, light men, make-up artists, painters, carpenters and art department staff. The second category are paid on a monthly basis. Most of them do not make over ₹30,000 a month.
But their jobs are critical and often involves handling costly equipment such as lights, which require skill that has to be acquired after months of training under a supervisor. Those who rely on short-term work may also include junior artistes or small-time actors, who are often required only for a couple of days on a project.
Recognizing the dire straits many of them might be in, the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE) had said that it has been working toward offering some relief to its members. FWICE is the umbrella organization for 32 film craft departments and has more than 500,000 members. The Producers Guild of India had also announced its intent to set up a relief fund to help support those most affected by the shutdown. Meanwhile, actor Salman Khan had volunteered to personally transfer money to the bank accounts of 25,000 daily wagers sometime in March.
The actual execution of these initiatives, however, remains hazy on the ground.
Hari Kishan Das, a spot boy, whose job on television sets is serving food and drinks to the cast and crew, admits he has received Khan’s transfers and also some money from the workers union. He was paid for March by his employer, but hasn’t received remuneration for the month of April until now.
“We have been promised, so let’s see. We thought this (the lockdown) would last for some 10 days, so there was no point going home," said 36-year old Das, who belongs to Sitamarhi in Bihar and stays in the Malad West area of Mumbai with his wife and three children.
“It’s okay for someone who is single to go back home. Travelling with family is a problem," said Tufail Ahmed, who is referred to as a dress dada on the TV serial sets he works in. “We don’t know when things will start rolling, or how long we will be paid. Even for these money transfers, sharing bank details (with everyone) is an issue."
The new movie set
The survival of daily wagers, like those employed in other sectors of the economy, may be a pressing problem but the Indian entertainment industry is also dealing with a range of other issues that threaten to change its very nature in the months and years to come as it attempts to get back on its feet after the pandemic.
The production sector is suffering huge losses on a daily basis, with expensive sets having been taken down and the studio rentals and cancellation charges being entirely borne by producers without any support from insurers; interest costs are also mounting on loans already raised to fund films. Meanwhile, reopening of cinemas post the lockdown is likely to be staggered, with each state making its own decision. On top of it, there is no clarity on the opening of the overseas markets, which are crucial for business. At least for several months, lower occupancies are expected in theatres and the backlog of releases that are in the pipeline will particularly affect smaller and medium-scale films.
Filmmakers are keenly aware that things will not be able to go back to the way they were. For one, the way they make their content will not be the same. Producers and studio heads say helping the cast and crew tide over the fear psychosis about working in large teams is their single-biggest concern right now. Based on internal projections, ensuring disinfected, sanitary spaces will hike film budgets by around 10-12%. Anticipated costs include masks, gloves, sanitizers and personal water bottles which can be used to repeatedly wash hands.
“Our film sets are extremely democratic in the sense that they employ everyone from top-rung actors to daily wagers. Our biggest concern is to convince all of them to congregate and create work," said Siddharth Anand Kumar, vice-president, films and television, Saregama India. Kumar added that a lot of lower-rung workers such as painters, light men and stuntmen have returned to their native places and finding new trained workers will be a challenge.
Most shoots may not even happen in Mumbai or the other favourite destination for Bollywood—Delhi, which has spun hundreds of north India-centric tales, ranging from Band Baaja Baraat to Tamasha and Hindi Medium.
Given that filmmakers see the gathering of units in both cities as unfeasible for at least the next few months, the action will shift to green zones. Further, companies will avoid hiring crew members who are over 60 years of age or have family members with compromised health conditions. Scenes that require large crowds or outdoor public settings may either be tweaked or may even be supported with visual effects. Finally, salary cuts, even for A-list stars, could be around the corner.
“Everyone is aware and conscious of current realities and of the fact that every single item (in the production budget) will have to be questioned," said Ajit Andhare, chief operating officer at Viacom18 Studios. “We cannot have different rules for different people and everyone, including stars and technicians, will have to contribute."
“I expect the number of projects to come down and productions to become smaller or reduce budgets. Big budget films will definitely be the biggest hit," said Shobu Yarlagadda, co-founder and CEO of Arka Mediaworks, the company behind the blockbuster Baahubali franchise. “I think smaller budget films in a contained environment will be more feasible and production houses will gravitate to high-concept, content-driven scripts that can be filmed in minimal settings or environments."
The new movie theatre
But the most visible and immediate fallout might be in the neighbourhood theatre. As the fear of watching a film in closed auditoriums with strangers looms large, theatre owners are putting together safety measures that will help them regain the trust of people. Each week that theatres remain shut, the film business in India loses ₹80-90 crore.
These losses will be hard to recoup given that people, at least families or non-film buffs, are unlikely to return to the theatres soon even if they manage to reopen. Plus, chains like Carnival Cinemas, PVR Cinemas and INOX Leisure are planning to reduce seating capacity in standard auditoriums by around 30%.
According to a notification sent out by the Multiplex Association of India (MAI), global cinema standards dictate that while families and couples can sit together, one adjacent seat on both their sides would be left empty to account for social distancing.
Further, MAI rules mandate body checks with infrared scanners, masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) kit counters where viewers can buy them, hand sanitizers at all strategic locations, contactless ticketing and online ordering of food and beverages (made with single-use disposable packaging).
But even if all these measures take effect, will Indians continue to watch movies in theatres? After all, the spike in viewership of video streaming platforms probably suggests that they have emerged as an apt alternative to the big screen (a study by broadcast agency Broadcast Audience Research Council India, or BARC, and data measurement firm The Nielsen Co. reports a 96% increase in user base and 10% rise in time spent).
Murmurs about an impending wave of direct-to-digital movie releases are rife. Amazon Prime Video is set to premiere at least seven new films, which were earlier meant for theatrical release. But production budgets will determine such shifts.
“Tent poles such as Sooryavanshi and 83 are anyway out of reach for streaming platforms (because digital sales will not help recoup their ₹100 crore plus budgets) and they will push people to theatres whenever they reopen," a producer, negotiating for his own film, said on condition of anonymity. “However, there is an upper-mid range of films, which would anyway have been second to the biggies, that these platforms are picking up now."
Clearly, all manner of things are fluid. But the fluidity could also spawn new kinds of films, or new imaginations of intimacy, at a safe social distance. And while the road ahead does seem tough, producers are hopeful. Conversations within the industry indicate a possibility of theatres reopening by July and production resuming before that.
“Every business has good and bad years," said Kanupriya, chief executive officer at producer Aanand L. Rai’s Colour Yellow Productions that has films like Zero and the Tanu Weds Manu franchise to its credit. “In my mind, though, there is no doubt that the theatrical experience will bounce back, simply because it gives us all so much more as social beings."