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Did the lockdown shut down our arts and entertainment industries?

  • Published at 05:57 pm May 3rd, 2020
Amitabh Reza, Bappa Mazumder
Amitabh Reza Chowdhury and Bappa Mazumder are among the artistes featured in this two-part series Facebook

This piece looks at how the pandemic has impacted the film, TV, music and theatre artistes and professionals of Bangladesh

When one of the modern legends Irrfan Khan unceremoniously passed away last Wednesday, the entire world wept and grieved at his passing. Gut-wrenchingly one of the old guards of Indian cinema Rishi Kapoor passed away the very next day. 

My Facebook and Instagram feeds were full to the brim with the outpouring of grief and tributes paid to these legends, whose “living” we had become accustomed to. 

Our collective grief proves two simple facts. One is that undoubtedly we held both these actors and their creativity very dear in our hearts. And two is that, it is equally undeniable that we are absolutely engrossed and obsessed even with the craft and lives of the artistes and entertainers of the modern age. We live and breathe with them. Their achievements make us happy. Their grievances make us sad. Their new work either excites us, or creates controversy or draws comparisons. Their old work induces tears and nostalgia.

Now, due to the rapid outbreak of the pandemic coronavirus Covid-19, almost every government on the planet has adapted social distancing measures. Some enforced complete lockdown. This pandemic has impacted every industry. 

However, amidst all of this there is another set of industries that are continuously trying to lift our spirits up. And that is the glitzy entertainment world. This is a world whose occupants are scrutinized the most; they are loved and hated in equal measure. If you think that celebrity life is not hard, just ask the likes of Shakib Khan, Raba Khan, and any number of the Khans or other celebs of every “Wood” – Bollywood, Hollywood, Dhallywood, Tollywood, etc. - to find out how much hatred they face on a regular basis. 

How have the entertainers of the modern world tried to lift our spirits up, you ask? Just scroll through the timelines of any celebrity you follow. They have been sharing stories, live sessions, TikTok videos and motivational videos to keep our minds occupied, while we are all isolated at our homes. They are following the latest social media trends to connect with us in making these videos, but they also are never failing in reminding us of the situation at hand. They make humble requests of following the guidelines of WHO to stop the spread of the pandemic. And they are doing all of this completely free of cost.

Not all celebrities have been fed with a golden spoon since birth. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a face you see in every new crime drama of Bollywood, early in his career had to work as a cook in order to live in the same apartment as his co-actors in theatre. Irrfan Khan wanted to be a cricketer at first, and was even selected to play for a cricket tournament that could have led to another first-class career. However, he could not go as he could not afford the travelling expenses.

The point is many celebrities we see today started at the grassroots of the entertainment world. And since their craft requires them to be in constant contact with many people in settings such as shooting sets, concerts, theatres, etc., these people are also being harshly impacted by the pandemic. We have to realize that the artistes who have not yet reached the gilded halls of fame - those would-be celebrities of the future - are also suffering a great deal because of the new lifestyle that the pandemic has enforced upon us. Social distancing measures have stopped all their work and meeting new people – one of the primary ways these entertainers and artistes network to earn their bread and butter – has also stopped.

This piece will look at how the pandemic has impacted the film, TV, music and theatre artistes and professionals of Bangladesh. It is a two part series - the first part focuses on film-makers and film, TV and voice actors. The second part, which is coming soon, will focus on theatre professionals and musicians.

Before going further, a disclaimer is in order. This written piece is not an opinion piece. I will not provide crunched numbers, statistics, graphs, pie-charts, and other similar things that are usually found on opinion pieces and research papers to prove my points. This is a reflective piece that I hope will make the readers reflect just as I have on the repercussions of this pandemic on the arts and entertainment industries. I will provide personal statements from a few individuals, whose work we follow both knowingly and unknowingly, just so that the readers can empathize with them just as I have. These people do not need sympathy or charity. They are all self-made. I am merely lifting the curtain a little bit to give you a peek into their lives, so that you may give them the minimum courtesy – which is reflecting on their troubles and sorrows, and giving them empathy. 

Impact on the makers

One of the first people I interviewed in the entertainment industry for writing this piece was popular film-maker Amitabh Reza Chowdhury.

When I asked if any of his current work is stalled due to the pandemic, he said: “Basically, almost everything is stalled. But we are still regularly working. Rickshaw Girl (his current film) was at a stage where, for it to be ready for the festivals, we had to do some final corrections; maybe work of 10-12 days. Those corrections are completely stalled currently. It was in the post production phase, and all the relevant work at that stage such advertising or promotional contents have all been delayed.”

Amitabh Reza on the set of Rickshaw Girl Courtesy

In response to how his team at Half Stop Down – his production house - were coping in the midst of this lockdown, Amitabh said: “We are not just communicating intermittently. We are all regularly working from home through Zoom. Our core team is regularly having meetings on Zoom from 12pm to 2pm, and is working very hard. We are developing scripts, we are discussing ideas, and we are doing pre-production for new projects. We have already developed a production, which will be announced soon. We worked on this production while being at home. So, we are working, and everyone involved has been very helpful. We are not letting this pandemic stop our work. We are working every day.

“Obviously, I cannot speak for everyone’s mental state, but I feel that so far by keeping ourselves engaged in work, we have all managed to keep the mental frustrations of this situation at bay. Even through cheerful chats we are ideating new scripts and a workshop that we may organize after all of this is over. We are making use of our time,” Amitabh added.

I next told him that there are some in the entertainment industry, who are complaining about not receiving their due payments ever since the lockdown has started. In response to what is being done for them he replied: “During such a lockdown daily payments do get stalled. Producers like me have an association called Bangladesh Advertising Association of Production (BAAP). Some of the producers have complained about the late payment to this organization. So, BAAP is currently taking some initiatives to mitigate this issue. We are trying to develop solutions for this. We are trying to identify all the payments that have been stalled. 

“We have a lot of stages of disbursing payments. Clients first pay the agencies, and then the agencies pay the production houses. Then we pay our crews. So BAAP is trying their best to smoothen and expedite this process. Aside from this, every production house keeps a disaster fund to help those on the margins. Almost 50 people have been given pay for one month in advance. We will try to do this in the next month as well. We are trying everything we can.

“You are thinking about people such as cinematographers or editors. However, people who supply food at FDC, think about them. These people are little more than day labourers, as in whatever they earn in a day gets spent within the same day. These people are the first victims of this pandemic disaster. But a cinematographer could earn from Tk50,000 to Tk1,20,000 per day. The cinematographers usually work for 15 to 20 days in a month. But that food supplier works every day for a living. Payment for everyone is stalled. There is no doubt about that. And to solve this it will take time.

“Right now there is just one solution, and that is keeping the impact of this sudden disaster as minimum as possible, and that is what everyone is trying,” Amitabh added.

Syed Himu Courtesy

An independent cinematographer Sayed Himu, who aspires to be a full time film-maker someday, said: “I do cinematography for TV commercials, music videos, online advertisements and audio-visuals for NGOs. I pay for all my family expenses and my Masters degree with whatever I earn from these gigs. Due to the lockdown I am not working at all, as I cannot do cinematography from home. Since, everybody is following the lockdown laws; no one is organizing shoots and looking for cinematographers. I am not working because there is no work to do.

“Furthermore, before any work, I have to do physical meetings with clients. In Bangladesh, small time technically skilled workers like me, who are waiting to get their big break, must create an impression through physical meetings with any new clients to realize new work. We have to present our portfolio, and impress with our professionalism. Just online meetings and phone conversations do not lead to work. Due to the lockdown no meetings are happening now obviously. So I will have to survive the lockdown, then work for getting new clients, and then do their work, and then finally get paid from those new projects.

 “And obviously, the due payments from my completed works from before the lockdown are being delayed constantly. I still have not been paid for my last gig, and the lockdown has lasted for well over a month. Neither does the client receive my phone calls, nor does he respond to my text messages. It is frankly quite frustrating,” Himu added.  

Impact on actors

Next, I interviewed some actors I have met in the course of my work for the Dhaka Tribune. First I talked with Novera Rahman, who stars in Rickshaw Girl. She is a multifaceted talent who does every kind of acting, be it on stage or in front of a camera or for a mic. 

Novera also echoed what Himu said. She said: “The effect is threefold. Firstly, I am not getting paid for the work that I had completed before the lockdown, and that is very frustrating. Secondly, my ongoing work has been postponed indefinitely. This is the time of the year, when I am usually very busy with acting gigs, and yet I am not working at all.

Novera Rahman in a still from Rickshaw Girl Courtesy

“Finally, I am not being able to do any networking to get new work. Networking is almost half of the work an actor does in his/her career. For new acting works, I need to meet new people, and there is no alternative to that. First we hold meetings, and then we can have in person auditions, or send audition tapes through email or social media. So, because of the lockdown, the biggest impact is that I am not getting the chance to network,” Novera added.

I asked her if voice-actors may continue doing their work at a time like this. Novera responded: “You would think in the age of iPhones and advanced phone recorders, recording voice has become easy. But, recording at home is different from recording at a padded studio. And not everyone has a studio like that in their homes. Frankly speaking, the voice-actors of Bangladesh neither have the specialized equipment, nor the technical skills required, to record from home,” Novera said.

Prominent TV and voice actor A K Azad Shetu, who also works on stage and commercials from time to time, said: “To be honest, nobody is currently thinking about the professionals in the creative industries. We pretty much earn on a day to day basis, as in I get paid for the number days I work in a month. Since, all entertainment work is currently off, I have not worked for the last one month. Now Eid is upon us, and it is a shame because Eid seasons are one of the busiest seasons for actors. All of us are locked at home. So I am getting a little concerned about what might happen, if this lockdown continues for one more month. No one in the government or private sectors is thinking about us. Artistes are the only ones who are thinking about each other. 

“Among the creative industries, TV industry is the largest, with the most number of professionals working in it. I think maximum people in that industry are slowly getting insecure.”

Television actor AK Azad Shetu Courtesy

In regards to whether he received all his due payments, Shetu said: “Luckily for me, I have received payments for all the work I did before lockdown. However, I have heard from others that they are yet to get paid. In some cases the director is not receiving their calls.”

Regarding voice-acting works Shetu said: “I work on 10 voice acting gigs on an average every month. In the last month of lockdown I did two by recording at home. Studio environment is definitely necessary to give a clear voice. This cannot be just done in open air or at home. I might lock the doors and windows in a room to record my voice, but some noise might emanate from the kitchen or the next apartment. So, ever since the lockdown, voice acting work has also dried up, as there is also sound mixing involved, which cannot be done without a studio. I regularly give voice for dubbing in TV shows, but the stations are just rebroadcasting older episodes. They cannot arrange for recording of voice actors to dub new episodes due to the lockdown.”

In regards to what initiative the government can take to help professionals in these fields, Shetu said: “I want to clarify something. I am not blaming the government. The problem is that acting and performing arts are not recognized as professions in Bangladesh. Only those actors who receive national awards, or some kind of recognition on a national scale are considered as professionals. Therefore, no initiative is being taken for us either by the government or by the private sector. For sure, we artistes are known among each other, but we are not known by people outside of the industry. People think acting and performing is just a hobby for us. People often ask me ‘I know that you act, but what do you really do?’

“In such a country, how can we expect the government to think about us or give us priority? Singers, dancers, and musicians get prioritized whenever there are cultural programs. They actually get jobs in places like Shilpakala, where they enlist a set number of dancers, singers, and musicians. But there is no record of such jobs for actors. Only BTV and radio stations sometimes enlist actors, but even then they are paid honorarium on a per project basis. Sometimes if the project takes more than one day to complete, then the artists are paid based on the days they have worked on the project.

“As there is no professional recognition, an artiste is not able to apply for any loan from any bank or receive any support from other financial organizations. So, if I need an amount for any emergency, I have no way to even apply for a loan,” Shetu added.

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