The coronavirus crisis has rocked Bollywood. Releases have been delayed. Shooting for films, television shows and web series in Mumbai has been halted until March 31, hurting lakhs of professionals, including daily-wage workers. Cinemas and production companies have been shuttered, and celebrities are pursuing self-isolation. All of which means that the paparazzi have almost nobody to photograph.
“There are hardly any celebrities around,” said Viral Bhayani, who runs one of the most well-known celebrity photography agencies. “While we were putting out 70-odd photographs on a daily basis, we are now sending two or three at best. Barely a couple of my 15 photographers are out in the field, and even that will stop over the next few days.”
In the normal course of things, entertainment photographers would get their images by lingering outside restaurants, studios, five-star hotels and the homes of celebrities. (Their sources include the publicists hired by the stars.) They would also attend movie trailer launches, parties, weddings and birthday celebrations. Part of their work included “airport looks”, photographing famous faces as they returned to Mumbai from their international travels.
These images were sold to newspapers, television channels, fashion magazines, entertainment websites and Instagram accounts. The produce was widely consumed by a Bollywood-addicted public that wanted to know what its idols were doing and wearing at all times.
But work began to be seriously affected around a week ago, when evidence emerged that Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, had infected people on nearly every nation on the planet. Film and television stars in Mumbai have retreated into their homes. They are sharing images and footage of cooking, reading, perfecting make-up skills, and picking up dance moves from the internet directly with their fans through their Instagram accounts.
Among the last of the “airport look” subjects was Anupam Kher, who arrived from New York City on Friday and went into self-quarantine. With international flights between the rest of the world and India suspended for at least a week, the pickings will only get slimmer.
“There is nothing happening now” in terms of celebrity spotting, said Manav Manglani, another photographer who, like Bhiyani, runs an agency. “Celebrities are sitting at home and churning out their own content. We are focusing on throwback photographs, memorable moments from the past.”
Like other members of his tribe, Manglani has severely cut down the number of staffers on the prowl – two out of 15. “This has never happened in the 20-odd years I have been a photographer,” Manglani said. “I used to send out 30-40 pictures a day, and these days, I can manage just about two or three.”
The few photographers who are still out there, braving the pandemic as it moves invisibly and yet inexorably through Mumbai, are being trolled – not for invasion of privacy, as is usually the case, but for endangering their own lives and those of others. Even this limited movement is expected to stop over the next few days.
The photographers will be financially supported by their employers in the short term. But without any idea of how widespread the coronavirus is in India and how long restrictions will be in place, it will be difficult to keep paying salaries, said another veteran of the trade, who did not want to be identified.
“We are not medical professionals, and we are only beginning to understand the risks,” this photographer said. “The city feels like there is a general strike all around. Nobody is moving around, and if somebody does step out for a jog or a visit to the doctor and we photograph them, they get angry with us, saying that it will look they are stepping out of self-isolation. I am paying my staffers anyway, but I am still waiting for payments on some of my previous assignments to be cleared. Who will ensure that we are paid our dues?”
Viral Bhayani is looking closely at how China is handling its situation. “ It’s actually best for all of us to stop work right now – it’s safer that way, for us, the celebrities, and the fans,” Bhayani said. “I feel that celebrities will co-operate even more, and all of us, in fact, will co-operate with each other much more. This isn’t a time to be selfish. Money has no value if all of us are going to be sitting at home.”
Another fallout of the curbs on social contact will be felt on magazine cover shoots, Manglani predicted. It won’t be possible, at least for the next few weeks, for stars, stylists, costume designers, make-up artists, lighting assistants, and reporters to assemble in a studio. “Magazines have archives, or they will have to depend on stock photographs or older pictures,” Manglani said. “I am taking care of my staffers, but I am also keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that everything comes back on track soon.”
It isn’t just photography that has taken a hit. Apart from gaping holes where there once were reports and interviews on upcoming film releases, entertainment journalism has been affected by the drying up of gossip. Millions of Indians like to wallow in the daily dirt, real or imagined, on the private lives of celebrities. With self-isolation, that is set to change. For liaisons to take place, be spied upon, and passed on, there needs to be human contact, something that is missing at the moment.
“I don’t think that there isn’t any gossip at all, but yes, it is harder to get because people aren’t meeting one another,” said Rajeev Masand, who reviews films for News18, has his own YouTube channel, and also writes a popular weekly gossip column for Open magazine. “Stuff is happening, such as parties, but people are keeping it low-key in case they get pulled up. This isn’t a priority right now, with all of us focusing on so many other things.”
Salacious snippets about who is in the dating game and who is exiting it might help pass the endless hours that make up the average work-from-home day. Their absence will not be felt at a time when the country is facing a pandemic, said the editor of a popular Mumbai newspaper, who wanted to remain unidentified.
“Right now, the gossip is about who is in quarantine and how people are coping with being isolated,” the editor added. “I am sure that the self-isolation will lead to divorces and liaisons with other partners if it continues.”