Kuldeep Vishwakarma, a spot boy with a reputed film production company in Mumbai, has been forced into a vacation he neither wants nor can afford – and he is fretting.

The web series that employed him halted work a few days ago, as did every other streaming show, movie and television series after public safety measures to combat the novel coronavirus were put into place in Mumbai. Instead of buzzing around a movie set and making sure the crew’s every little need is taken care of, Vishwakarma is cooped up in his home. With production suspended by film industry bodies until March 31, Vishwakarma’s savings are slowly vanishing.

“I am surviving on whatever I have earned so far, but I can’t manage for much longer,” Vishwakarma told Scroll.in. “If I don’t get work by the end of the month, I will be in deep trouble.” A freelancer who hops from one project to another and gets paid when the day’s work is done, Vishwakarma supports six family members.

“I have been working as a spot boy for 10 years, and it’s the only job I have,” he said. “I have never experienced anything like this in all the years I have been working.”

No precedent, and no end in sight

This has never happened before. That is the sentiment that is echoing across the Hindi film industry, which has kept calm and carried on through natural disasters, communal riots, terrorist attacks and workers’ strikes. Even when theatrical releases were suspended for two months in 2009 following a stand-off between multiplex chains and producers over revenue-sharing terms, film shootings continued in studios across Mumbai. Not any more: shooting has stopped, releases have been indefinitely delayed, and cinemas have been shuttered, putting lakhs of people on what one professional described as “life without pay”.

Sachin Sagawekar, a lighting assistant, was on the sets when he first heard that shooting would be halted until the end of March. He was working on a sequel to a 2005 blockbuster and a web series.

“I don’t know how to deal with this situation, and I am feeling terrible on the inside,” Sagawekar said. “I am going to have to take a small loan to manage. My livelihood depends on the film industry’s functioning, and there are others dependent on me in turn – my family, the shop keeper from whom I buy groceries. But there is no money all around.”

A closed movie theatre in Thane. Credit: PTI

Sagawekar was paid Rs 1,500 per day for putting in gruelling hours. Though shooting shifts were meant to last between eight and 10 hours, they would drag on for much longer. “We would have to turn up early to set up the shoot and then spend a couple of hours packing away the equipment,” Sagawekar said.

He might have been underpaid, but at least he was employed. “Now, I am sitting at home, helping my wife and managing the children,” he said. “I don’t even have enough money to go to my village in Ratnagiri if I am forced to leave Mumbai.”

Slumber mode

The financial nerve centre of India, famed as the city that never sleeps, is similarly moving into slumber mode. This means that people who earn daily wages, in particular, have few jobs to seek to keep themselves going. “I have been in this city for 44 years, and I have never been in such a situation,” said BN Tiwari, who heads the Federation of Western India Cine Employees. The Federation has 32 member associations, each of which represent the various roles that filmmaking requires, such as spot boys, make-up artists, lighting assistants, background dancers, extras, carpenters, drivers, vanity van suppliers, tailors and caterers. Despair is rife across the five lakh-strong membership, Tiwari said, and at least 10,000 members are facing an immediate financial crunch.

“How will these people manage?” he asked. “They will die of hunger, forget the coronavirus.” The federation has started providing 15 kilos of rations to these 10,000-odd members. “But how long will this last? We don’t know whether the situation will be resolved by March 31,” Tiwari pointed out. “We would see this situation in films, where a storm would shut down a whole city, and we are now seeing this happening in our lives.”

A-listers step up

Some help is on its way from the Producers Guild of India, whose 130 members include Bollywood’s leading studios, broadcasters and streaming platforms. The Federation has announced a relief fund to keep daily wage earners afloat. “We would encourage the entire fraternity to contribute to the Fund, to ensure that we can do all we can to minimise the disruption in the lives of our valued colleagues and associates in this difficult time,” Siddharth Roy Kapur, the Guild’s president, said in a press statement.

Kulmeet Makkar, the Guild’s Chief Executive Officer, added that the elite body will be setting up a committee to calculate the loss of shooting days and then work towards compensating producers. “For instance, if there is a 60-day production schedule, and only 15 days have been completed, the fund will pay for the 45 days that the daily wage workers have not been paid for,” Makkar added. “This is an extraordinary situation, and we have to support each other.”

The Guild will work closely with the employees’ federation to make sure that their concerns about technicians lower down the salary scale are addressed.

Will Bollywood change its ways?

With the outbreak slowly gathering ground in India – 147 positive cases and three deaths – and no foreseeable end in sight, it’s too early to predict the long-term impact on Bollywood practices. Will production budgets be crimped? Will there be salary cuts? Will payments be delayed? Will movie stars take lower fees? Will Bollywood go back to its usual profligate ways or will there be a rethink on how movies are made and marketed?

Given the volatility of the situation, it’s simply too early to place any bets, said the Guild’s Kulmeet Makkar. “We are all in shock, and we don’t know where this coronavirus will take us in the next few weeks,” he said. “It is an unknown scenario, and we have to wait and watch at least until March 31.”

Industry professionals with war chests who can afford to ride out the crisis, at least for the next few weeks, are hunkering down in their homes. Among the productions to have been stopped in its tracks was the Shahid Kapoor-starrer Jersey, which was being filmed in Chandigarh. The cinematographer on the project, Anil Mehta, is back in Mumbai, and will use the downtime to “re-assess what is happening and what can be done”.

Mehta added, “The nature of the beast is unprecedented, and I am hoping that there is some kind of restoration with precautions at the end of March. Work and life have to go on, as long as you are sensible about it.”

Publicist Parag Desai, who has a host of important clients, including Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi and the Disney releases Black Widow and Mulan – all of which have been delayed – is also working from home, as are his team members. “Since the dates have been pushed, we are working on general strategies, rather than sticking to the release calendar,” Desai said. The situation is abnormal but cannot be taken lightly, he added: “People are scared, for themselves, their families and their loved ones.”

If there is an opportunity in the crisis, it is to examine long-standing industry practices, especially towards those who are the most economically vulnerable, pointed out sound designer Subhash Sahoo. “I have been in this industry for 26 years, and I now have more time to spend with my family, but it is still scary,” Sahoo added. “If there is any good that will come out of this, it is that producers and technicians are united and everybody is concerned. This unity should endure. It should always be like this, every single day, and not only when there is a coronavirus.”

Also read:

Coronavirus: They cannot work from home. Or follow social distancing. Here is why

Coronavirus: As some demand role for private sector, concerns emerge about safeguards, payments

13 demands: What the government must do to tackle coronavirus in India