In the age of crony capitalism, any mention of Karl Marx is anathema. That is why I was not surprised by the deafening silence the world over on the 201st birthday of the legendary economic and political philosopher on 5 May 2019. But if a myopic mind can make a pontificating Narendra Modi refute the enormous socio-economic achievements of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, is it any wonder that political thinkers, financial czars and trade unions too ignored the revolutionary thinker who gave his life for workers’ rights?
Karl Marx’s heart lay in the welfare and progress of the labour class. Fighting numerous battles against European regimes for the dignity and prosperity of the proletariat, Marx suffered enormous hardships, insults and penury for his ideals. His rousing life story moved millions and it isn’t amazing that Karl Marx exerted a colossal influence on Hindi film makers like Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Kedar Sharma, Mehboob Khan, Ramesh Saigal and Chetan Anand.
Inspired by the contribution of the working masses to India’s prosperity, their films emphasised Marx’s maxims that capitalism always sapped “the original sources of all wealth: the soil and the labourer” and “the rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs”.
Irrespective of their grasp of Marx’s theories, conscientious commercial filmmakers like Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and BR Chopra too unfolded stories of toiling peasants and workers as powerful catalysts of progress and development in a rapidly changing society.
Though umpteen films and serials have been motivated by Marx’s empathy for the labour class, the entertainment industry has remained indifferent to improving the conditions of its work force. They may stream tales of equality yet the reality behind the silver screens is of abysmal darkness. Producers have done little to spread cheer in terms of pay packages, reimbursements or other benefits to the largely unorganised work force.
Rather than being harbingers of safety, security, shelter and happiness that are essentials of a welfare state, producers have usually denied junior workers of major social and economic benefits like pension, provident fund, life insurance as well as medical and other incidental facilities.
In his treatise “The Missing 3 in Bollywood”, author Opender Chanana states the “spotlight of media has always been on stars without realising that their success is all due to the enormous contribution of the large labour force working behind the camera”.
Though the situation is changing, what galls him is that the “workers are not partners in the exponential growth” of the industry and “the lowest rungs of the profession are being short changed repeatedly”.
The condition of work places in Bollywood is appalling. Visit any set or studio in Mumbai and you would witness artistes and technicians slogging in wretched conditions that are light years away from health, hygiene as well as safety and security standards of entertainment industries in US and Europe.
I doubt if a studio owner or a filmmaker has ever been fined or punished for dingy, ill lit, dilapidated surroundings where even basic amenities like pure drinking water, clean toilets as well fire and other safety measures are usually absent.
Obviously, poverty coupled with easy availability of huge manpower allows studio owners and producers to get away despite visible lacunae that would otherwise earn the severest of penalties under the Factories Act 1948.
It is precisely because of the pitiable facilities in studios that film stars have adopted the use of the expensive, luxurious, air conditioned vanity vans for their comfort while junior workers still have no decent place for rest and in many places, not even proper toilet facilities, thus necessitating many to ease themselves in the open!
Unlike Hollywood, where elaborate safety precautions are taken while shooting, in Bollywood little attention is paid to providing proper medical services or protective gears to the junior workers. Even for the most dangerous of action scenes, the safety measures are nothing compared to international standards of safety and when mishaps do occur, producers placate the sufferers with a few donations and glib talk in the media rather than putting a working system of safety network and services in place.
Of course, there are several associations like Cine Artistes Association (CINTAA), Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE), All Indian Cine Workers Association (AICWA), IMPPA (Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association) and Producers’ Guild of India, which oversee film and television production but, till date, their contribution to planning or improving the working conditions of cine workers is woefully inadequate.
Like most businesses, cinema and television industries too are brazenly driven by the lust for profits. Indian government has recognised film production as an industry and has allowed banks to sanction loans and other credit facilities; yet little has been done to set right the disparities of the system.
Several uprisings by film labourers against low wages, non-payments or untimely payments of dues as well as pathetic infrastructure and dreadful conditions at work have not led to any solution. Successive governments have assured legislative and financial regulations to improve the working conditions of film and television industry but the exploitation of film workers continues unabated with unregulated work hours inside grotesquely filthy and unhealthy environments.
The Cine Workers and Cinema Theatre Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act, 1981 granted film workers the same rights as regular industrial workers but it has never been followed in spirit nor has it saved cine artistes from maltreatment by producers and contractors.
The situation prevails due to lack of clarity within the various arms of the government as to who should legislate and supervise the entertainment industry.
I am perennially haunted by Karl Marx’s profound observation that “the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.” Alas, “Achche Din” (Good Days) remains a distant dream for film workers too!
Author's Note: An unabashed admirer of Karl Marx's life and writings, the author has been enacting a solo, one act stage play entitled "Karl Marx Hindoostan Mein" for last several years. Taking a satirical look at modern India, the drama reveals the exceptional personal life of the great philosopher and his devoted wife Jenny.
(Deepak Mahaan is a well-known Documentary Film Maker, Writer and Commentator)