Tragedy scripted with own lives
For Atoar Rahman, life has played out like a tragic movie since the Covid-19 pandemic brought the country's already-struggling film industry to a grinding halt more than a year ago.
A projector operator at Ananda Cinema Hall at Farmgate, he has not been getting any wages for more than a year and a half. Yet, he clings on to the industry that has been his life and livelihood for over three decades.
With cinemas shut, the 50-year-old had no option but to start working as a labourer to make ends meet.
However, renewed shutdowns and the recent lockdown cut off this option too, forcing him to send his wife and son back to his village home in Pabna.
"You have no idea how we are living with almost no income -- sometimes I eat just once a day.
"But that has also become tough. Now I have no other way but to sell blood to survive," said Atoar in a choked voice inside the empty, dark cinema hall.
An estimated 1,500 people work in various capacities at 140 cinema halls across the country, according to leaders of the Film Exhibitors' Association.
A majority of them are facing tragic life situations of the sort that get audiences tearing up when they see these on the big screen.
Someone has helplessly watched his wife die without treatment, another was desperate enough to try to sell his kidney -- the stories go on and on.
While cinema hall owners, who saw their business crash, wait for the audience to turn up, cinema hall staff are busy figuring out how to earn their living. They toil to keep films running at theatres year-round but are overlooked during this cruel time.
Closed for seven months since March last year, cinema halls were allowed to reopen with conditions. These were once again closed down after the strict lockdown was enforced from July 1 and now have a narrow window till after Eid when the lockdown is set to resume.
Hall owners have long been struggling to operate amidst a falling number of films and dwindling numbers of cinemagoers, especially with the rise of OTT platforms, but the pandemic put the last nail in the coffin of the film industry.
Industry people said the government helped cinema hall workers during the shutdown last year with cash assistance of Tk 2,500 each. But this time no such initiative has been taken, leaving the workers in a tight spot once again.
"We have no one to look after us. Even the actors and actresses do not care about us," said Atoar, who began his career in 1990 with a token salary of Tk 10 a month.
Atoar became a skilled projector operator, working in 25 cinema halls mostly in the northern districts of the country.
Now, he has no clue when the din of a busy cinema hall will resume. "If such a situation continues, neither I nor the film industry will survive."
Rubel Mia, too, is worried about his prospects amid a family tragedy.
A cleaner who worked at Chhanda Cinema Hall at Farmgate, the 35-year-old did not receive any salary this last year and a half.
Due to his financial situation, he said, he could not afford treatment for his ailing wife. She died on June 23.
"I could do nothing to save my wife. She died in front of my eyes. My youngest son is only three months old," said Rubel, his eyes welling up with tears.
His three children, including the newborn, are now staying with his mother in Noakhali while he remains in Dhaka to earn a living.
As the cinema halls remained closed on and off, he started pulling a rickshaw sometimes and even worked as a day labourer.
"Believe me, I have no money to buy milk for my newborn baby. My mother often calls me but I don't pick up. What should I say to her?"
Rubel has also fallen behind in several months' house rent in Dhaka. "That's why I do not go to my house either," he added.
He said he had hoped that artists, directors, producers, and cinema hall owners would come forward to save industry workers, but that was not to be.
This lack of support from better-off industry workers and associations was emphasised by all these workers.
Md Wasim Khan, another projector operator of Ananda Cinema Hall, has been doing this job for the last 15 years.
With no money coming in, he said whenever he went to the manager and general manager of the cinema hall for his salary, they replied that they could not pay him any more since the hall was closed.
"My wife and son starved along with me most of the time," he said.
He said the government gave cash incentives to the people of many strata of life, but cinema hall workers were left out. "Even artists and producers did not come forward to help us."
"We don't want relief. If cinema halls are kept open, we can get by with our own money," Wasim said.
Awlad Hossain Uzzal, general secretary of the Film Exhibitors' Association, said the cinema hall industry was "in the ICU".
"We did not get any good movies in the last two years to run in the cinema halls. If we cannot run shows, how will we survive?"
Uzzal said many cinema halls have closed recently and others are destined for the same.
While acknowledging that cinema hall workers are passing trying times, Uzzal said, "If cinema halls are open and run shows, we can give salaries to the staff. But how long can we give them salaries without any income?"
He said during the lockdown last year the government provided cash assistance to the workers -- Tk 2,500 each -- but not all of them received it.
There is no such initiative this time around, he added.
Zayed Khan, general secretary of Bangladesh Film Artists' Association, said the organisation will extend support to the workers if the organisation that represents them communicates with the association.
"We are sympathetic to them but our organisation has limitations. We would be happy to stand beside them if the Film Exhibitors' Association seeks help," he said.