Coronavirus effect on Tamil film industry’s daily wagers: Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Representative picture: Coronavirus lockdown has complicated the livelihoods of over 25,000 FEFSI union members in Tamil film industry   | Photo Credit: B Velankanni Raj

A text message from a light man to RK Selvamani, president of Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI), was what alerted the Tamil film industry to a crisis brewing in its background.

Even prior to the nationwide lockdown imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, film industries across the country had been advised to stop production in light of the Coronavirus outbreak. The future of several thousand workers (a majority of whom are daily wagers), that the film industry employs, rendered jobless at least until April 15, is now up in the air, and FEFSI, as the umbrella organisation representing the 23 crafts unions these workers belong to, has its task cut out.

A member of the production boys union, M Vallarasu, whose job it is to provide catering support to people working on a film set, says that the 21-day lockdown is “indigestible” for daily wagers like him. “To compensate for the shortfall in wages accrued over this period, I will need to work without a break for the next three or four months, if shooting resumes that is,” he adds.

Representative picture: Coronavirus lockdown has complicated the livelihoods of over 25,000 FEFSI union members in Tamil film industry

Representative picture: Coronavirus lockdown has complicated the livelihoods of over 25,000 FEFSI union members in Tamil film industry   | Photo Credit: R Ravindran

Uncertain future

The question of when a shoot will resume is tricky; the end of the lockdown period does not mean that a film crew will pick up from where they dropped off: logistics, for example, will be a nightmare. And if you happen to work in a film like the Silambarasan-starrer Maanaadu (infamous for its many stop-starts), like Vallarasu was, then the prospect of having to remain out of work for much longer becomes a reality, and it is not a particularly pleasant economic situation to find oneself in.

“I will have to borrow from someone, but the problem is that nobody is willing to lend in this situation. I have asked. They tell me to come back when work has resumed. I’m thinking of pawning my wife’s jewels, but if I step out, I have to be wary of the police seizing my vehicle,” says Vallarasu, who lives in rented accommodation in Ramapuram with his wife and two daughters.

Of immediate concern for K Venugopal, a member of the technicians’ union and a daily wager since 1992, is the internal squabble within FEFSI that has resulted in a bit of ostracism from the umbrella agency.

K Venugopal

K Venugopal   | Photo Credit: B Velankanni Raj

Venugopal, whose job it is to handle the audio recorder on a film set — rewinding and forwarding the tape endlessly as the choreographer demands retakes-upon-retakes — does not want to come clear on the issue that caused the resentment, but is “hopeful” that an extraordinary situation like the Coronavirus pandemic will push people to think of everyone’s welfare.

“The actors have been giving money and rice bags. There is no announcement yet though from FEFSI on when it will be distributed to us. How to pay my rent for the next month is what I’m thinking about,” says Venugopal, who earns about ₹1,350-1,400 per day for his work.

The worst affected, according to a few in the film industry, are the assistant directors.

Actor Soundar

Actor Soundar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Says Soundararajan aka Soundar, a prominent junior artiste, member of the directors’ union and an associate of filmmaker P Vasu, “The supporting artistes also have it cut out. Most of them get paid between ₹300-500 to be part of a scene.” He adds: “Most assistant directors have little in terms of savings to their name. Say, if you are an assistant to Atlee, and he makes a film with Vijay, you would have been paid well, but even then you will run through your earnings when Atlee doesn’t make a film. Now, imagine this situation for the assistants of lower profile filmmakers.”

Numbers matter

Actors like Rajinikanth (₹50 lakh), the Suriya Sivakumar family, Vijay Sethupathi and Sivakarthikeyan (₹10 lakh), producer Kalaipuli S Thanu (250 bags of 25kg rice) and actor Yogi Babu (50 bags of 25kg rice) among others have made a few contributions. A similar situation in Bollywood, reportedly, attracted the intervention of actor Salman Khan, according to BN Tiwari, head of Federation of Western India Cine Employees, the FEFSI equivalent in Mumbai.

If this was the case with the big screen, then small screen technicians, by the looks of it, are in an even more precarious situation. SJ Edward Raj, who prefers to be quoted as Thalapathy, the president of Federation of Small Screen Technicians (FESST), says that the small screen employs “more number of technicians” than the film industry at the moment. His assessment is on the back of the number of active technicians on the field.

SJ Edward Raj, president, Federation of Small Screen Technicians

SJ Edward Raj, president, Federation of Small Screen Technicians   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“At least 50 television serials are shot in various parts of the city on a daily basis. Let’s assume at least 50 technicians are on hand in all of these locations. Most of them are daily wagers,” he says. Thalapathy adds that he has reached out to small screen’s bigwigs and wealthy production houses for support, but his efforts are curtailed by the fact that unionisation of technicians is not as effective as in the film industry. “The upkeep of the union itself is a big struggle for us in the small screen. In FEFSI, the respective crafts union will demand that members give five to 10% of their earnings back to the union. What we do is to mediate in case of payment dispute or help our members’ kids to get a school or college seat. Beyond that, we don’t have the means,” he says.

Whatever funds flows into FEFSI, Selvamani will have a tough time splitting the share. The official member count of FEFSI is around 25,000. Some union members, however, insist that the membership is much higher.

RK Selvamani

RK Selvamani   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Says B Sridhar, a background dancer, whose union has around 850-odd members, that it is because most members are inactive, or have already sought out alternate employment because the film industry cannot be trusted to provide regular employment. “In the case of background dancers, only those with height, personality and glamour will be chosen to dance alongside the hero. Otherwise, the production won’t call. The ones who get no work naturally gravitate towards other employment. I know people who drive Uber cars for a living. The problem is even these alternate forms of livelihood have now been affected,” he says.

Which leads to the distinct possibility of many inactive members turning towards FEFSI for monetary support. Selvamani, for his part, and other FEFSI office-bearers, are dependent on the generosity of the bigger names in Tamil cinema to keep the contribution channels open to help battle the crisis.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 3:16:57 AM |

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