Since the coronavirus epidemic became a pandemic in the spring of 2020, few waves have been as deadly as the one India experienced in April and May this year. At the time of writing, confirmed infections have been steadily dropping since reaching a peak of more than 400,000 per day in early May, and, while nobody is expecting miracles at this stage, there’s hope that an improving vaccination drive may mean the worst is now behind them.
Naturally, film and TV production was put firmly on hold as the government locked down the country in a bid to stem infections, with shoots paused across the country. The industry instead turned its energies to backing the recovery bid, and some of the stories that have emerged since have been inspiring: Army of the Dead star Huma Qureshi has mobilized her sizable following in both India and abroad to fundraise the construction of a purpose-built 100-bed facility to treat Covid patients, with backers including Zack Snyder; Priyanka Chopra Jonas and husband Nick Jonas set up a fundraiser to buy much-needed oxygen supplies for Covid patients; the actress Bhumi Pednekar established online social media initiative Covid Warrior to coordinate efforts to secure vital resources; while megastar Amitabh Bachchan, who had his own battle with Covid last summer, said in a recent blog post that he had donated some 25 crore (north of $3 million) to relief efforts to date.
These are just a few examples of the positive headlines that have emerged in India during this tricky period. One company that has been spearheading initiatives to provide tangible benefit to both Covid patients and industry workers affected by the shutdowns is Yash Raj Films, the Mumbai-based company that has been operating since 1970 and which works across fields including production, distribution and talent management.
As Yash Raj’s Senior Vice President Akshaye Widhani explains, the company’s charitable ethos is inspired by its late founder Yash Chopra, who worked in Hindi film for 60 years. “For his son, our current chairman Aditya Chopra, there was no better way of honoring his father than giving back to the same people who helped the company achieve all that it has,” comments Widhani.
To do this, Yash Raj has instigated the Yash Chopra Saathi Initiative (“saathi”, in Hindi, can mean “comrade” or, more informally, “mate”), through which it is organizing vaccinations for film workers, teaming with the Youth Feed India movement to provide ration kits to low-paid workers and marginalized communities, and giving direct financial aid to those who have worked on its productions and are currently laid off due to the hiatus.
Since the initiative began, Widhani says the company has provided rations to “thousands” of families of four, as well as giving 5000 rupees (close to $70) directly to more than a thousand people affected by this period. That’s in addition to a similar initiative last year, when Yash Raj handed out 5,000 rupees to more than 3,000 workers during the initial Covid surge. “These are people who don’t have the luxury of taking time off, or working from home,” explains the exec. “They work 12 hours a day, every day, just to be able to provide their family with the basic necessities to survive.”
The vaccination initiative is aiming to provide inoculations for 30,000 registered members of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees, which covers the full spectrum of crew from construction workers to dancers, many of whom earn their money on a day-to-day basis. At the time of writing, the company had made a request to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra to allow it to purchase those vaccines from the government so that it can speed up the vaccination drive and get the industry back on its feet as soon as possible; the company says it will cover all costs related to the immunization program. “This section of our industry has been hit the hardest, and our hearts go out to them and their families,” comments Widhani, who notes that many of those involved in the various initiatives have struggled to pay rent or afford healthcare while the lockdown rolls on.
There is hope that shooting could resume by July, but, at the time of writing, no firm date has been set and the situation remains fluid. Alongside production, the reopening of cinemas will also be key, with Yash Raj still primarily drawing its revenues from the big screen releases of its titles, many of which have been shelved while venues remain shuttered. “YRF makes films that are big-screen experiences for audiences,” says Widhani, “and holding such titles back—so that our audiences can enjoy these films in cinemas post-pandemic—has been challenging to say the least. The movie theatre is a medium we strongly believe in as a company, and hopefully our audiences will too once the pandemic is [under] control.”
Looking forward, the Yash Raj exec says he remains optimistic for the future of the country’s screen industries. “From what we know historically, this industry will be one of the first to bounce back, because community experiences will come to the centre-stage in a post-pandemic era.”
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