TV actors are reeling under the impact of the two-month lockdown, many combating financial stress and mental health issues, including depression and suicidal thoughts, as the wait for dues now continues beyond the 90-day industry norm and shootings are suspended or cancelled.
"I am so scared for all of us," TV actor Zaan Khan told PTI, his fears for himself and his colleagues exposing the grim reality of what many perceive as a glamour industry. Many actors, who work 12-15 hours a day to keep the daily soaps running, echoed his anxiety.
The 90-day pay window was always tough but the lockdown, which came into effect two months ago on March 25, has made it impossible for many to stay on in an expensive city like Mumbai with EMIs, rents, food, and other expenses to take care of.
On May 15, their worries deepened when Aadat Se Majboor actor Manmeet Grewal hanged himself at his Mumbai home. The 32-year-old actor was going through a major financial crisis and was also in depression, said his friend and producer Manjit Singh Rajput. "The added pressure of not being able to repay loans amid this (no work phase) got to him. His wife is completely shocked and devastated," Rajput told PTI.
Zaan said a fellow actor from his show, Humari Bahu Silk, also contemplated suicide because of non-payment of dues. The cast and crew of the Zee TV show said they have been struggling to get their dues cleared for the show for almost a year.
Zaan alleged that they were paid for only 15 days for working for seven months on the show, which went off air in November. Repeated requests to the makers to clear their dues have fallen on deaf ears, he claimed, adding that a co-star attempted to end her life. "She had called me, called her mother because she felt so helpless. She was under depression. The entire team is going through hell. We feel helpless. It's such a sad situation. I am so scared for all of us," Zaan told PTI.
Actor Kirti Chaudhary, also part of the cast, said she had to leave Mumbai and return to Indore as she didn't have money to pay the rent, and the lockdown only made matters worse. "By the time the show got over in November, I had drained all my savings on travelling, rent, basic expenses. I was then offered other shows, but again there was the same problem: 90-day cycle."
"I switched to anchoring and did that right till March. That gave me instant money to survive. Then the lockdown was announced and I knew that now even this window will dry up. I had no option but to go back," she said.
Amit Behl of the Cine and TV Artistes' Association (CINTAA) said industry associations, including the Indian Film and Television Producers Council (IFTPC) and Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE), have instructed producers and members to release payments and not follow the 90-day cycle in view of the COVID-19 crisis. "We have taken up the issue of 'Humari Bahu Silk' with Zee TV and they've promised that they'll be clearing the dues of the artistes and the technicians."
With concern mounting after Manmeet's suicide, they have also started counselling sessions. "We have activated our zonal structures so that they start connecting with members in their geographical area and no one takes any extreme step out of anxiety, depression or stress," Behl added.
Explaining how the payment structure works, IFTPC chairperson J D Majethia said there is a 60-90 day cycle for payments from advertisers to broadcasters to producers to artistes and technicians.
"There is a minimum gap of two-three months from when we start shooting and when our shows go on air. Plus, there is GST that producers pay in advance and shoot expenses plus monthly salaries, which makes the cost of production high when the show goes on air."
"The 90-day cycle is decided keeping in mind all these variables, including the fact that it takes months to sometimes break even. But not paying after 90 days is not acceptable. If there is an unforeseen circumstance, talk to your unit but don't hold on to payments, especially during these times," Majethia told PTI.
Many in the small screen industry echoed him. Actor Nia Sharma, from the popular show Jamai Raja, recently took to Instagram to highlight the plight of small screen actors following Manmeet's suicide. "I know many of my actor friends who haven't been paid since last year or more. With rents and EMIs mounting, work this year clearly being halted indefinitely, everyone's losing patience somewhere."
"I'd just like to make a humble request on behalf of my fellow actors/friends and others that their dues be paid ASAP so that we're not waking up to more such suicide stories a few days or a month later," she posted.
Aishwarya Sakhuja, who was seen in Saas Bina Sasural, said many stars have raised concerns about the 90-day period of payment in the industry. "We have always had this 90-day period of credit, that's how the TV industry has been functioning. Savings are essential. It's important that every actor does this because it's an unstable profession. We go from one project to another," Aishwarya said.
According to actor Sara Khan, it's extremely important for aspiring actors and even existing stars to not solely depend on their television careers and find other sources of income.
Her colleague Sayantani Ghosh said these are tough times and it can be "difficult to survive without work" in a city like Mumbai but one must stay strong. "I would urge everyone to please hang on tight, please don't not give into substance abuse or hurting yourself. Please be positive, take help from friends and family if need be, but hang in there."
The COVID-19 situation has led to the termination of many shows. Sony, for instance, terminated Isharon Isharon Mein, Beyhadh 2 and Patiala Babes, saying these shows could not shoot their logical end as work remains suspended for the foreseeable future. Similarly, Star Plus ended Nazar 2 and Dil Jaise Dhadke Dhadakane Do.
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