COVID-19 exposes the reality of junior Kollywood artists in Chennai

Thousands of Kollywood artists are finding it difficult to even manage regular meals as COVID-19 has brought the entertainment sector to a standstill. But why don't they have the support of the industry?

“Why is there no vegetable, Amma?” asks the teenage daughter of K Senbagam. Searching in her mind for a plausible answer, Senbagam says that the grocery shops are closed and promises her children a good meal at the earliest. Senbagam is a 38-year-old junior artist in Chennai who has worked in Tamil soaps such as Maya and Nayaki

Remember all those scenes on-screen which have crowds in the background or the incidental passer-by with a singular line of dialogue, perhaps?  Senbagam has acted in many such scenes of big-budget movies for a meagre Rs 300 a day.  But now, as Kollywood has closed its gates owing to the nationwide lockdown to combat COVID-19 and film shootings are not expected to resume in the foreseeable future, Senbagam is devastated. 

The thought of feeding her children just rice and rasam, like she has over the past one week, shatters her. “How can I tell them I cannot afford vegetables? I did not have even Rs 50 to make a simple sweet for my son’s birthday a few weeks ago (April 10th),” says Senbagam, a teacher-turned-junior artist. 

Unlike Senbagam, Kalaiselvi, a 35-year-old background artist, has been honest with her children about their poverty. With no income, her family of five is solely dependent on an Amma canteen and meagre donations from local philanthropists. “We eat only two meals a day. On many days, we depend on Amma canteen for lunch. I encourage my children to wake up late, so breakfast can be skipped,” says Kalaiselvi, who acted in the Tamil soap Uyire

Some days are better than others, when locals distribute essentials, but otherwise it is a miserable time for them, she says. “Some days, rich people in the neighbourhood donate a few kilos of rice and dal that help us see through a few days,” Kalaiselvi said. 

Split wide open

It is a general notion that people connected with the world of cinema invariably lead a comfortable life, but the reality is different. The absence of daily income and onscreen visibility not only hits present sustenance,  but also takes away the possibility of getting more offers.

 A common factor binding Kalaiselvi and Senbagam, besides the fact that they are both small-time artists, is that they are not members of any registered association such as Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI) or Nadigar Sangam. FEFSI is an association of 24 unions for people working in different crafts of the cinema industry. Artists have to be part of the respective unions to come under FEFSI.

Those who are not are called ‘non-members’ by Kollywood, and unlike members, do not receive any compensation for travel or food. And it is this that is making their lives more difficult amid the pandemic. 

There are non-members in all the 24 crafts of the cinema industry ranging from makeup, dance, costume design to photography. “There is no documented list of non-members, but I know more than 1000 people,” says Rich Kumar, a junior artist and an agent who liaises between many such artists and the production department.

“Ours is a hand-to-mouth existence. The limited income we earn is spent on commuting to the shooting spots and other needs, while members are compensated,” Kumaravelu (name changed), a light man, reveals. Junior actors even need to buy costumes with their own money at times.

What stops artists from becoming members? 

The exorbitant fees. While the fees vary for employees belonging to different crafts, the amount goes up to one lakh. “The producer will bear the expense if you are lucky enough to grab a decent role and are in the good books of the producer,” says Bhavani A (22), a character artist we have seen in Raatchasi, who earns less than Rs 8000 a month and cannot even dream of becoming a member. If Bhavani had been a member, she could have availed of at least some monetary benefit now from FEFSI, that would have come in handy as she takes care of her 6-month-old son. 

R K Selvamani, President of FEFSI however defends the fees, saying “Members enjoy benefits such as retirement fund, medical insurance, educational benefits for their children etc. The fees the artists pay to become members is worth it, considering the subsequent benefits.” 

The fact, however, is that though they form the backbone of the cinema industry, these professionals get the least attention from the industry at large as well as from the general public. “Every day, there is news of reputed artists donating money for people like us. However, it has not reached us. In fact, it will never reach us as the priority of FEFSI is to take care of its 25,000 odd members,” says Maria (name changed), a background dancer. 

Scant hope for future 

It is a fact that reputed artists have been generously donating money, but it doesn’t cover even the first rung of junior workers. “These artists, who cannot survive even a 10-day strike period, are in dire need of help. The longer-than-a-month shutdown might chase many artists away from cinema,” says comedian Bonda Mani, adding that FEFSI has received more help from Bollywood and Tollywood, compared to Kollywood. The lives of these artists can be made easy only by the generosity of rich actors, says Rich Kumar, whose desperate calls to the who’s who of Kollywood has met with no response. 

Character Artist Richi Kumar with actor – director R Parthiban. Credits: Richi Kumar

The reaction of the junior artists, who are staring at a bleak future, is now of regret and dejection. “I was planning to become a member once I started earning enough to pay the fees,” says Senbagam. “Had I known we would be ignored during a global crisis such as this, I would have somehow enrolled myself as a member,” says Kalaiselvi.

“It is the responsibility of FEFSI or Nadigar Sangam to collect the data of non-members and spread awareness about the benefits of being a member. The least they can do is provide insurance to all that would help junior artists during the tough times,” said M Bharat Kumar, a senior journalist and an industry tracker. 

Despite all the odds and the pain of being ignored, these artists do not speak ill of the industry. They just wish they would get more support. “If non-members are allowed to work in and contribute to the industry, why not help them during a crisis?” asks Kumaravelu, fighting back tears.

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