Extras, technicians demand better pay in India

Production in Bollywood ground to a halt Wednesday as below-the-line workers went on strike.

About 147,000 workers belonging to a federation of 22 unions — representing workers ranging from extras and dancing girls to lighting technicians and camera operators — didn’t show up for work, calling it a “noncooperation movement,” evoking Mahatma Gandhi’s words during India’s fight for independence.

About 40 shoots were reportedly affected, with TV shows particularly hard hit. Studios such as Filmistan, Mehboob and Filmcity looked like ghost towns.

While Hollywood’s guilds have been fighting for heftier residuals and a bigger slice of the growing new-media pie, the aim of Bollywood’s unions is relatively modest: on-time pay, a 12-hour maximum workday and improved safety considerations on the job.

Dinesh Chaturvedi, general secretary of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees, said the workers, who earn between 500 rupees for TV ($10.45) and $12.50 a day on films, have to wait for 90 days after a shoot to be paid.

“The least producers can do is pay them on time,” Chaturvedi said. “We hope they do so; if they don’t, this noncooperation movement will continue.”

He said those who complain are replaced with non-union workers.

After protesting for a couple of months to producers, the unions decided to take this step, he said.

Top Bollywood stars such as Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan are said to support the strike, although some of them were not scheduled on sets Wednesday while many others are shooting abroad.

Fall is a particularly busy period for Indian film releases with the Hindu holiday of Diwali at the end of October, a prime moviegoing time. Abhishek Bachchan starrer “Dostana,” Aamir Khan’s “Ghajini” and Shah Rukh Khan’s “Rab ne bana di jodi” are scheduled for release Oct. 26.

Yash Raj Films’ “Rab ne bana di jodi” is reportedly under production in Mumbai now. A Yash Raj rep in the U.S. referred all calls on the status of the company’s pics to the Indian office.

Ratan Jain, prexy of the Assn. of Motion Picture and TV Program Directors, said he would call for a meeting with producers Wednesday evening.

“The walkout was not in the interests of the industry as a whole. Many shoots have come to a halt, and ultimately, it will lead to losses for everyone. We can always sit down and talk to find a solution,” Jain said. “We are entering the festive season, and workers cannot afford to go on without earnings at this time.”

Sushma Shiromanee of the Indian Motion Pictures Producers Assn. took a more militant attitude.

“There is no shooting, but there is no panic here,” she told the BBC. “We can wait for six months if necessary.”

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