COVID-19 crisis aggravates Indian modelling industry's lapses, with models left to deal with the fallout

Stalled dues, pay cuts, apprehensions about COVID protocol being followed on shoots, lack of regulatory oversight, and a culture of silence that dissuades open discussion of their issues — models in India say the ongoing crisis has dealt the industry a grievous blow.

Jaishree Kumar December 11, 2020 16:14:29 IST
COVID-19 crisis aggravates Indian modelling industry's lapses, with models left to deal with the fallout

The COVID-19 crisis and ensuing lockdown/s have adversely impacted the Indian modelling industry in numerous ways. Image for representation only.

Over late September and early October this year, a public showdown played out between the popular Instagram account DietSabya, Mumbai-based modelling agency TFM/360, and 30 models. Several models reached out to DietSabya with stories of their payments being withheld by TFM, and the fashion biz watchdog posted: “The bitter industry truth is that modelling/talent agencies are notorious for withholding money and TFM has been pulling this stunt since 2018 (shocking!)”.

Amid media reports of the row, 29 models filed a police complaint against TFM in Mumbai. An FIR is yet to be registered. Meanwhile, TFM’s co-owner — the designer Ashish N Soni — has filed a defamation case against some of the models, stating that an issue which “could have been resolved legally, was turned into a social media frenzy”.

At least seven Indian and international models told this correspondent that they were owed sums ranging from Rs 60,000 to Rs 3 lakhs, going back to 2017. One of them, a Netherlands resident, received a partial payment after approaching a Dutch law firm to intercede. Another was told that she would be paid the amount she was owed (Rs 2.6 lakhs) in instalments of Rs 25,000 and Rs 50,000 — if she took down social media posts naming TFM. A model in London said he was given a range of excuses whenever he followed up on the £1,100 he was to be paid for a 2018 project. None of the interviewees were hopeful of recovering their full dues.

Soni attributed the situation to the COVID-19 crisis, saying TFM had been struggling even before the pandemic. He stated that “90 out of 130 models had been paid by TFM” and that these dues were being settled with money the agency was receiving from its sponsors and partners. Apart from clearing these payments, TFM had closed down operations, Soni said.

Model Arlette Grao, among the first to speak publicly about the issue, said that the amount TFM owed its talent in total ran into crores. “It’s sickening that the agency thinks they can get away with this,” Grao said. Meanwhile, the lawyer representing the models, Karan Balraj Mehta, observed that TFM’s wasn’t an isolated case, and that he’d noticed a trend of talent agencies turning exploitative in the post-pandemic scenario. “It’s a dangerous pattern that has affected people in the entertainment industries,” he said.

In the course of reporting on this story, at least two other agencies — Toabh (Mumbai) and Purple Thoughts (Delhi) — were named by interviewees as owing them unpaid dues. (Neither agency has responded to this correspondent’s request for comment so far.)

The COVID-19 crisis and ensuing lockdown/s have adversely impacted the Indian modelling industry in numerous ways. Not the most robust of industries to begin with, the full extent of the damage caused by the pandemic will only become evident after a passage of time. Apart from stalled/long-delayed payments, models that this correspondent spoke with brought up pay cuts, apprehensions about COVID protocol being followed on shoots, lack of regulatory oversight, and a culture of silence that dissuaded open discussion of their concerns. Many expressed doubts about being able to continue in the profession.

“Newcomers have always had it rough in the industry,” said former model and leading choreographer Lubna Adams. But the current crisis has been unprecedented by any measure. “COVID has caused most of the work in the industry to come to a standstill. While runway shoots have moved to digital, I don’t know if it’s sustainable in the long term. Everyone’s jobs have been impacted, from technicians to models,” Adams notes.

Staying on in metropolises like Mumbai or Delhi, where most of their work opportunities are centered, has proven to be unsustainable for many younger models.

Mia Paul relied on her modelling earnings to defray college fees and living expenses in Mumbai. Allegedly owed nearly Rs 3 lakhs in unsettled dues from TFM, Paul had no option but to return to her hometown in Kerala when the pandemic struck. She is keen on coming back to Mumbai and resuming her career, but “I am dependent on this money to go back,” she said. Like Paul, Ruhani Syed — a Kashmiri model/artist — also had to return to her hometown after months in Mumbai without work. “It got tiring. Mumbai is a very expensive city to live in,” said Syed. “There isn’t a lot of room in Kashmir for the kind of work I do. I just want the COVID situation to improve so that I can move back to Mumbai.”

While Paul and Syed have reason to rue the scant work opportunities, even models with projects in hand have found the going tough. Some reported pay cuts of 50-60 percent from pre-lockdown rates. “Clients ask for discounts and cite COVID losses, but we [also] need this money to survive,” said New Delhi-based model Nickita Arora. During shoots, the fear of contracting COVID is ever-present. Stylists, assistants, make-up artists don PPE kits in the studio, but “sometimes there isn’t a lot of sanitisation on set, it makes me feel very unsafe,” said Ashna*, a model. She said that insisting on safety protocol got her labelled “difficult to work with”. Tanvi Samaddar, another Delhi-based model, pointed out that she is usually the only person [on set/in a shoot] without a PPE kit or mask. “It makes me feel naked in some way,” she observed. Protesting does not always feel like an option. “Modelling is a very competitive industry, always has been,” Samaddar added. “The pandemic has made it more competitive.”

Compounding the work conditions is the threat of being cut off if you complain. At least four models brought up instances where they were said they faced punitive pushback for being vocal about problems. A model from Uttar Pradesh speaking on condition of anonymity described it as “a subtle and silent cancel culture”. “I come out with names and details of the agencies and casting directors who’ve harassed me, I’ll stop getting work. My career will be over,” the model said, a sentiment echoed by Suruj Rajkhowa, a model from Assam who is currently based in Mumbai. “I have been dropped from so many shoots and campaigns just for complaining about poor working conditions,” said Rajkhowa. They added that many young, queer models had to settle for low or no pay and the promise of “exposure”.

Europe-based model Angelina*, who has worked in India and is among those whose dues haven’t been settled by TFM, said that a toxic work culture and lack of respect for models makes the industry exploitative. “There are myths — like modelling is easy, models are dumb and slutty. But it’s all wrong,” she said. Angelina also spoke of being dropped from fashion shows after complaining about work conditions under a particular choreographer. “The cancel culture is real,” she added.

More egregiously, Angelina said during her time in India, she was assaulted by another TFM/360 model but was advised against filing a police complaint by the agency’s manager Rishu Bartaria “as it would impact her work visa”. Angelina said she was promised TFM would drop her assaulter from its roster and have him deported to his home country. This didn’t happen and Angelina herself left India shortly after. (Bartaria, who is no longer with TFM, denied having this conversation with Angelina. “The only authority who can impact one’s work visa is the Government of India, not an agency,” she told this correspondent.)

What emerged from these various accounts is the acute lack of an overseeing body or unions that would help models redress their grievances. “Maybe the [fashion] industry thinks of models as disposable,” said lawyer Karan Balraj Mehta, and therefore there are scant safeguards for their rights. Manjima Bhattacharjya — researcher, activist and author of Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry — sees in this scenario “a reminder of the general precarity of work in the neo liberal economy, which has been heightened and come into the spotlight at this moment”. “It’s become more visible now, and it’s also an opportunity for the industry to organise itself and make itself more responsible towards those who work in it, and whose labour they depend on. And I think there have been some positive efforts from designers and FDCI towards this end,” Bhattacharjya said.

Will a call-out, as is being seen in the case of TFM, power a change for the better?

“Something needs to be said firmly about creating and perpetuating the culture of not working with unprofessional agencies and reporting wrongdoing every time it is spotted,” says The Voice of Fashion editor Shefalee Vasudev.

Vasudev lists the many ways in which exploitative arrangements can shortchange models: “Some clauses are deliberately left ambiguous in modelling contracts. Professionals need to be alert while signing contracts so that variables in situations do not completely take away their rights of demanding and receiving payment for services they have rendered. The pandemic is an unprecedented crisis and agencies may get away with the protection of clauses for ‘acts of God’ etc. However, ‘exploitation’ or inequality seeps in where contracts are legally ambiguous yet are ignored in what we call good times. Also, not all agencies/firms that hire models may necessarily work on ethical principles anyway.”

For many models, the outlook feels precarious. Being a social media influencer might be more lucrative than working as a professional model. “Everything is easier in the age of social media,” says Tanvi Samaddar. “If I turn down a project because it pays less, the brand can easily find someone better who’s willing to do it for free.” Vaishnavi Kakade, a Mumbai-based model who said she is awaiting payment from TFM is rethinking her choice of career. “I’m trying to find freelance work right now,” she said. “But even then, the future seems scary.”

*Names changed on request.

— Featured image by Chalo Garcia from Pixabay

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