The day begins as early as 3 am for junior artists who have to arrive at the union office, looking for work for the day.

A movie set were cast and crew doing different works
Flix Tollywood Wednesday, April 14, 2021 - 11:40

Sowbhagyam* wakes up at 3 am, cooks for her three children, freshens up, puts on makeup, takes an extra costume and heads to the Telugu Cine & TV Junior Artists Union office by 4:30 am. There, she meets dozens of other members, men and women, who are also waiting like her. All of them have come in the wee hours of the morning, in the hope that they will get some work for the day.

The Union office located in Krishna Nagar of Hyderabad gets information about all the shootings happening in the city, and the number of junior artists required for each of them. The artists go to the concerned locations based on this information, be it Film Nagar in the city or Ramoji Film City in the outskirts.

"We come to the Union office in the early hours because we should have time to go to the sets before the shoot starts. If we have to go to Ramoji Film City, we have to leave early since it's two hours from here," says Varalamma, who is a member of the Union, and has been in the field for about 36 years now. 

Be it a crowded market scene, jatara scene or procession, Varalamma is there with her co-actors in many Telugu films, invisible to the audience but necessary to give the scene its atmosphere. 

Varalamma came into the field as a young woman due to pressing financial reasons. She had to earn for the family, and saw cinema as a livelihood opportunity.

Varalamma at the union office

While some enter the field because they have no other option, there are several who do so out of their passion for cinema.

However, being on the sets is not always an easy task for junior artists. Sometimes, they have to juggle between costumes at least four times a day, and participate in never-ending retakes. This involves them being on their feet without a break for nearly five to six hours at a stretch. But many do not complain because of their love for the field.

Mohan Rao, another junior artist, is changing from a Telangana police uniform costume to a Maharashtra police uniform one. He was on the sets of a bilingual film and is moving to another shortly. He says, "This is not a very stable profession but this is the work that I know."

He is in his 30s presently and has acted in almost 20 films as a junior artist. He will soon be seen in Ravi Teja's upcoming film Khiladi. Many junior artists are underpaid, earning between Rs 350 to Rs 1,100 (if it's a Bollywood film) per day. On average, it is Rs 500 per day. They are afraid that if they ask for more, they may lose the next day's work. There is no guarantee that they will find work every day, and they believe it is a matter of luck. While most of them try to find work for at least 15 out of 30 days a month, they can only manage to be hired for about 10 days.

“We might get Rs.5,000 to Rs.10,000 depending on the number of days of work. What do we do with that money? We have rent to pay, a family to look after, children to be educated, hospital bills to be paid. And we have to be presentable if we have to be on the sets. We should have decent clothes and our own makeup kits,” laments Mukund Rao, another junior artist.

Since they cannot afford to pay high rent, junior artists usually settle in small colonies that offer cheap housing. Many of them live in crowded colonies in the narrow lanes of Krishna Nagar, Bora Banda, Chandrayanagutta and others. Some artists cannot afford to pay any rent and are staying in makeshift homes. 
A colony in Krishna Nagar, where most of the juniour artists live

Mahesh Naidu has been in the industry for over 35 years now, and lives alone in a small makeshift house on the road attached to Annapurna Studios, 7 Acres, near Krishna Nagar. He fondly recalls his first movie with veteran actors NTR and Jayalalithaa. He was a child artist in the film, Kathanayakudu.

Mahesh Naidu's makeshift house

“I was very interested in movies, so I came to this profession as early as I could. But in this profession, we can hardly make money to lead a decent life. However, I have sustained because of my passion. I never seek financial help without doing work, this is what the late ANR garu also advised me on the set,” Mahesh recalls, showing a tattoo on his hand labelled ANR, referring to the late Dadasaheb Phalke award winner, Akkineni Nageshwara Rao.

When there is no work in the industry, Mahesh sells stickers in the market, placing them on an inverted umbrella. Mahesh has appeared in movies like Sye Ra Narasimha Reddy and serials like Karthika Deepam. He has played a beggar, a member of the crowd and many more such roles.

Mahesh Naidu's sticker business

Swamy Goud, the President of the Union, says, "The government only needs the votes of these artists. When we submit petitions asking for housing or land for them, no government heeds the request." Notably, many of these artists are taken for political rallies by all parties.

He further adds, "Maybe not for everyone, but at least for senior artists who have given many years of their life for the industry, something should be done. In this field, finding work for 10 to 20 days is itself a difficult task. How can they run a family and pay rent? If they are given houses, at least they won't have the burden of rent."

Junior Artists Union president, Swamy Goud

To be a member of the union, one has to pay a lifetime membership fee of Rs 12,000.

Apart from the unions for junior artists, there are also many agents who network and coordinate work for junior artists. Many newbies to the field go through such agents but this also means that they have to pay a hefty commission.

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