Khamoshi: How is the politics of silence hurting showbiz?

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In pre-Corona times, a touch of glamour was enough to make people believe that all that glitters is gold. Permanent residents of Bengal’s tinsel town had mastered the craft of thriving on appearances all complete with their exotic vacation photos on Instagram, flashy cars and the little black dress that can never be repeated at two parties. But no work for over two months is threatening to change this narrative in more ways than one.

Friday’s suicide of 32-year-old Manmeet Grewal of ‘Aadat Se Majboor’ and ‘Kuldeepak’ fame on the shores of the Arabian Sea has laid bare their vulnerability. The fear is that many in our own backyard are also battling the stress of unpaid dues, outstanding rent and no work. What’s worse is that the glamour, which was once their forte, is now robbing them of the empathy that they so truly deserve.

Ask any fan and see how he refuses to grant that like him, even his idol, can have problems keeping the kitchen fire burning during lockdown. He will insist that entertainers must be having deep pockets. Memories of the vignettes from the glamour world make it hard to believe that behind those happy faces lie many sad stories of agony in times of corona.

Recently, I came across a post of an actor from Tollywood. His poignant lines about hunger pains started with: ‘Haat tulchhi/Chitkar korchhi/Lojjar matha kheye bolchhi khide peyechhe… (I raise my hand/I cry out loud/I feel no shame in admitting that I am hungry’. His post tugged at my heart. How compelled must he have felt to make such a confession on social media!

But the unfortunate part was that, few heard his cry. The post got only four shares. That it was a cry for help got lost in the cacophony. I fear that artistes like him have come to terms with their unheard cries and surviving on bread and bananas for dinner.

Why exactly does society fail to hear these desperate cries of help? Are the cries too soft? Or is to do with their image? Fact is, even during lockdown, fans want their idols to mostly narrate entertaining tales to lift their spirts. So, our artistes end up doing exactly that. They doll up to shoot stay-at-home videos and request their fans to wear masks if they step out.

Unmasking their woes is a risk too few can afford. Most fear that sharing it will mean partially deleting the image that has been carefully crafted over the years. Nobody wants to remove the peals of makeup and reveal the scars and boils underneath. Concealers had effectively hidden them for long.

With two months of no work, the insignificant cluster of boils have turned into painful carbuncles that are threatening to show up. An established Tollywood actor revealed that many, who need financial help from him, prefer to make the call on whatsapp. It’s a tried-and-tested strategy to avoid leaving behind any digital footprints of distress. Even if they are in deepest trouble, they disguise it behind their smiles.

But, for how long? Unpaid rents, piling EMIs and maintaining a lifestyle are like those irritating warts and moles that have started to fester. Since the nature of the profession avoids boil-talk, viewers have no clue about what’s happening within the four walls of their favourite idol’s house. Shut-down serials, no films and macha shows are making them dig into their savings for daily sustenance. And that too is only depleting by the day.

The other day, I heard about a struggler in Tollywood calling up an established actor and asking him for a loan of Rs 10,000. Not one to have ever asked for any favours, this distress call was made because of a lack of any other option to pay the outstanding rent for two months. Her landlord would throw her out of the house otherwise. The landlord, who himself depended on rents to run his house, had threatened in desperation. That she herself survived on puffed rice and water for days on end wasn’t that much of a problem. But the fear of people seeing her being thrown out of the house certainly was. In the absence of any transport during lockdown, she was even ready to walk for over an hour and reach the actor’s house to collect the money!

She knew that no one in the respectable neighbourhood she lived would understand her trials and tribulations of being an aspiring actor in Tollywood. Just the house rent, food, the travel expense needed a monthly income of Rs 15,000. Add to that, the beauty parlour cost that’s often even more indispensable in this glam world than having two square meals a day.

The established actor had helped her out that month. But, it’s not that he as well as other stars in Tollywood, are without their own set of problems. Their lifestyle maintenance cost is huge. Many of them have a litany of staff to support. Few have properties worth crores that were bought with the understanding that monthly EMIs worth more than lakhs would be easily paid with the kind of work they have in hand. In pre-Corona times, when giving dates for shows, films and serials was a problem, paying bills wasn’t an issue. But in a small industry like Tollywood, where only two per cent would fall under the lucky bracket, even stars might not have hundreds of crores as savings to fall back on. Therefore, the frustration builds. More so, since everything has to be hush-hush. They are the first to do charity shows for others. But today, many of them cut a lonely figure. They fear that no one will buy if they say that after paying all their bills, they couldn’t have saved enough for unending rainy days when there was sun shining on their shoulders.

Foot soldiers don’t have it easy either. No work, no pay might mean going with just one basic meal a day and puffed rice at night. Some might find it difficult to even source that. Being lowest in the pecking order has only one advantage. There is someone above to reach out to for help.

It is perhaps those sandwiched in between who are in a crisis that few can fathom. Many of them have a long history of playing supporting roles in serials. Entertainers have an acquired sense of detachment by which they know how to shoot a funny scene with ease even on a day when they have had a nasty fight at home. Corona seems to be relying more on this core-competence area now. So, they enact, mime, recite, sing, dance as if being cast in a never-ending do-as-you-like show even when in their head they don’t want to do any of these. Unlike their professional assignments, they don’t even get paid for it!

To keep their branding alive for sunnier times, many are expected to shoot videos on demand about how happily they are enjoying their lockdown breaks by reading, writing and singing. When foot soldiers reach out to them with their tales of agony, they can’t turn away either.

But who is helping them to deal with their depression?

No one is announcing a comprehensive solution for them to cope up with the changed circumstances. Imagine the huge number of strugglers from Kolkata who left their careers in Tollywood to migrate to Mumbai in search of work, didn’t get any and still decided to audition regularly with the hope of getting that one big role someday. No money. No work. No promise of work either. Yet, have you ever seen them returning home in a train?

Of late, some established actors like Rudranil Ghosh and Manali Manisha Dey are openly talking about the plight of the fraternity. But they are too few in number. With so many others in genuine need and pictures of their agonizing journey back home in circulation, these stories are perpetually pushed to the heldover list. All that one hears is a deafening ring of silence. As one actor was saying the other day: “Even if I ask my relative for money, I fear he might not even believe me!”

If the virus wasn’t a body blow enough, being in denial of their plight is sprinkling salt to their injury. Perhaps, nobody ever thought that decades of creating a make-believe world for others would one day come to hit them hard.

The choice now is difficult indeed. Do they grin and bear for a few more months? Or bare their heart out and show how tired they are of smiling with an aching heart? If empathy is the balm they need, there is no option but to show the scars. They silence is unfairly circulating the all-is-well narrative. If they themselves don’t talk about their real stories, the world will fail to understand that all that glitters might just be iron wrapped in a golden foil. It’s time to show that this golden foil too is getting torn on the sides and expose their rusted and weathered core inside.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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