The Tamil and Telugu industries are among the largest film industries in the country. With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting work, several daily wage workers who were dependent on the industries for their survival, have been left in the lurch. Early this March, Eshwara Babu, a dance choreographer and the Joint Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Film Dance Directors Association, was looking forward to choreographing a dance number for actors Vijay Sethupathi and Shruti Haasan for their upcoming film Laabam. â€śIt was scheduled for March 19 but that was exactly when the Film Employeesâ€™ Federation of South India (FEFSI), via a circular, announced that it would be suspending all shoots owing to the novel coronavirus pandemic,â€ť Eshwara says. Since then, it has been a difficult time for him.
About two months ago, Eshwara packed his bags and along with his family and children, left from his house in Saligramam in Chennai to his native town in Coimbatore. â€śAs soon as we heard that Koyambedu market has emerged as a hotspot, we decided to move out. I could not continue being locked in with my family in that small house. To overcome my depression, I decided to move back to my native town,â€ť he tells TNM.
Eshwara adds that over the past couple of months, several others too have moved out from their homes in Chennai. â€śMany I know have shifted entirely to their native place. They could no longer manage paying rent, electricity and maintenance charges with no income,â€ť he says.
52-year-old Sampath, who has been a light man in the Tamil cinema industry for close to 30 years, says that the future looks very bleak for the daily wage labourers. â€śWe donâ€™t know any other means to earn a livelihood either. People are moving out because they are unable to pay rent,â€ť he says.
For the past 30 years, Sampath would walk into his outdoor unit office and take up daily assignments based on the dayâ€™s plan. â€śThe managers would have signed up with camerapersons and weâ€™d go with them for shoots and be paid at the end of the day. In a regular good month, weâ€™d be able to work for 15 days. Now even that is gone,â€ť he says.
Daily wage dependent junior artists and people who used to work in film units are struggling hard to meet ends and the situation is the same across industries.
Nageswara Rao, who has been working as a daily wage worker in the production unit of the Telugu industry for the last 25 years, laments, â€ťIn the last three months, I haven't had a single working day, so there was no source of income and we have received essentials and groceries only once from the Corona Crisis Charity. But, how can a family of four survive with that, for three months?â€ť
The Corona Crisis Charity was started by some Tollywood actors to help out daily wage workers, especially in the film industry, and the initiative is being led by senior actor Chiranjeevi.
However, Nageswara adds that his family has accumulated debts close to Rs. 50,000.
"Though there is no work for us, our expenses haven't stopped. We've had to pay house rent, school fee for two children, house maintenance...all these require at least Rs 20,000 per month. Now we are surviving on credit taken from others,â€ť he says.
Some of the junior artists and other crew who lost work have also turned into Ola drivers and food delivery agents in order to meet their basic requirements in Hyderabad, says an agent for junior artists.
Help not enough
Despite associations and actors trying to help out daily wagers in Tollywood, there are several people who have not received any aid so far.
Speaking to TNM, Rajeswar Reddy of the Telugu Film Industry Employees Federation says, â€śItâ€™s true that there are several workers who are still struggling without work. We utilised all the union funds and supplied groceries initially, but even we don't have enough funds to maintain them for three months."
There are close to 20,000 people who are dependent on daily wages in Tollywood, according to sources.
Given the increasing number of coronavirus cases, though the Telangana government has given permission for shootings with certain restrictions, not many actors are willing to resume work. Even in a regular month, most of the daily wage workers have work only for 15 to 20 days. Now, with limited crew in place for the shoot, the number of working days for the daily wagers are expected to reduce even further.
The situation is similar in the Tamil industry. RK Selvamani, President of FEFSI, says that Tamil Nadu has about 20,000 daily wage labourers and about 4,000 contractual labourers. Over the past few months, theyâ€™ve been able to raise Rs 3.5 crore from fundraisers but this amount is bound to come down.
â€śHow much will be enough for 24,000 members? With the lockdown extending indefinitely, we donâ€™t know for how long weâ€™ll be able to manage,â€ť he says.
While the Telugu film industry has managed to start operations somewhat, Selvamani points out that as long as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Chennai, and as long as the capital continues to be a hotspot, the chances of resuming shoots remain bleak.