Surekha Sikri has been out of work since March. Hers isn’t an unusual story — in the wake of the Coronavirus threat, Bollywood halted all shoots from March 16, rendering thousands jobless. What’s particularly frustrating for the 75-year-old actress now is that productions are gradually resuming but she has little hope of being part of one. State guidelines prevent the hiring of actors older than 65 as the elderly are particularly susceptible to the virus. “It’s a rotten rule, a very unfair rule because it violates my right to work to the best of my ability and earn a living for my family,” she says.
Sikri has been acting since 1978, and had only recently resumed full-time work after an illness. A month after her 2018 film Badhaai Ho released, she suffered a brain stroke that left her partially paralysed. A slow recovery meant that she lost out on roles. She last appeared in Zoya Akhtar’s Ghost Stories segment, a part that was more accommodating of her condition. Sikri played a bedridden woman awaiting her son’s return home. Since the lockdown began, Sikri says she hasn’t been able to meet with producers and finalize projects she was in talks for. They’ve stopped calling.
“I think the producers don’t want to get into a situation. But I never had the opportunity to confirm the date, time or place of shoots with them,” she says.
For other veteran actors too, the loss of work has come as a shock. “Are they trying to say that 65 year olds are at risk but not 64 year olds? What kind of logic is this? Actually, everyone older than 50 should be worried,” says Kanwaljit Singh. The 70-year-old actor was rehearsing for the series Sandwich, and had even rented a flat close to the show’s sets at Mira Road when he heard the news. He says the producers held out for as long as they could, but ultimately replaced him with a younger actor.
Actor Pramod Pandey says he was dropped from the show Ek Mahanayak: Dr B R Ambedkar under similar circumstances. “They asked me to send a copy of my Aadhaar card over for insurance purposes. When they saw my age, they said: Sorry, we can’t hire you.” The 69-year-old quit LLB to pursue acting from 1973, and has used his knowledge of the law to file a petition in the Bombay high court challenging the guideline.“I earn around Rs 35,000 to Rs 40,000 a month. That’s down to zero now. I don’t have a lot of savings so I can’t sit idle,” he says.
The actors acknowledge the risks associated with shooting but are confident of reducing them by social distancing and wearing protective gear on set. What’s less certain, they say, is whether a vaccine will be developed or things will go back to normal any time soon.
With a third hearing scheduled this week, Pandey is hopeful of a favourable verdict. Sikri is less optimistic. She says she’s tired of waiting as the bills pile up. Unable to afford her medical expenses of 2 lakh a month, she’s asked friends to loan her money. “I would like to break this rule. I want to know what the penalty is,” she says. She mulls over an offer of help for a whole day before calling back. “I’m not asking for charity, all I want to do is work, work, work.”