After a three-month hiatus, shooting for films, TV soaps and web series is set to resume with the Maharashtra government issuing guidelines to the effect. As producers, crew and actors take nervous steps to the studios, what practical issues are likely to plague them? What are the financial implications? Above all, will the pandemic give birth to a new era of storytelling?
“We’re going to have to go back to the days of Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee,” says Ashoke Pandit wistfully, referring to the light-hearted stories of middle-class families depicted in films such as Baton Baton Mein (1979), Chitchor (1976) and Chupke Chupke (1975).
Pandit, an Indian filmmaker and TV director best known for the hit comedy series Filmi Chakkar and Tere Mere Sapne, currently serves as the President of the Indian Film and Television Director's Association (IFTDA), and is the Chief Advisor of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE), a film workers’ union in Mumbai.
Pandit’s comments reflect the new reality of the Indian entertainment industry. In a world ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, a new way of life is set to emerge, both on-screen and off-screen.
Shooting sets, once milling with actors and crew engaging in easy revelry will wear a more sombre look as social distancing is maintained. Grandeur is said to make way for austerity – right from the storyline to production sets to cast and crew. Actors and technical crew, already reeling under the impact of stalled shoots and payments, are gearing up to take pay cuts as budgets are slashed.
Under the ‘Mission Begin Again’ initiative, despite the rising cases of coronavirus in the state, the Maharashtra government gave its conditional nod to allow film, TV and OTT shoots to resume. The 16-page Government Resolution (GR) issued in May by the Cultural Affairs Ministry lays down the rules to be followed which includes training employees, minimising crew strength by a third, shooting only in a locked-down environment, maintaining social distancing, regular temperature screening, round-the-clock disinfection and fumigation and providing accommodation among others. Any violation of these stringent rules will see permissions being revoked.
While the move to unlock the industry has been applauded by members lobbying for its resumption, how challenging this will prove is anybody’s guess.
“The government’s guidelines are welcome but the difficulty level in terms of execution can only be assessed once shooting resumes,” says actor-producer Asit Modi, known for producing the hit comic serial Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah.
Managing practical challenges; Producers in a tight spot
The producer community has been clamouring for the entertainment industry’s restart as huge monies have been committed to stalled projects, viewership is severely hit, and thousands of small-time crew members and daily wage workers depend on the industry for their survival. Navigating the risks of operating, however, will prove to be quite daunting for most.
“Whoever is restarting is doing so at a huge risk,” says Pandit. “It starts with ensuring the mental health of employees is preserved. We work in the creative industry; this isn’t a factory-operated business. Unless our minds are at ease, it’s impossible to work,” he adds.
To address this, producers are organising training workshops and masterclasses conducted by technical experts and healthcare professionals. “We must psychologically train our people to work while adhering to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOPs) at all times. We also need to mentally prepare them that anything can happen on the sets and this should not break their confidence,” said Pandit.
Discipline around hygiene, sanitation and social distancing, which hitherto has been a weak point for the entertainment industry, is now "uncompromisable" say producers. According to the guidelines, washrooms have to be cleaned at regular intervals, technical equipment such as cameras and printers have to be wiped down during breaks, lunch has to be staggered and actors should consider doing their own hair and make-up.
Despite these guidelines, many are unsure how the transmission of the virus on sets can be contained.
Low-paid crew members often live in slums and travel long hours on public transport to reach sets, dressmen bring costumes from their homes where they are kept stocked in less than sanitary conditions, cameras need to be passed between different crew members while shooting. There are other practical constraints too. Allowing crew to bring their own food is a difficult proposition given the long shooting hours, a minimum of 12-13 hours a day. Accommodating crew members at the site of the shoot for the period of the shoot can be expensive.
The fraternity has already raised its voice against two contentious clauses: to restrict actors above 65 years on sets and to have a doctor, nurse and ambulance stationed at every set.
In a letter addressed to the CM, TP Aggarwal, president of the Indian Motion Pictures Producers’ Association (IMPPA), said it is impossible to have medical staff at sets at a time when hospitals were reeling under shortages of doctors. They have also requested the guideline to remove the restriction for senior actors as a lot of shows rely on aged characters.
Producers say they are confident the government will accede to their demands.
Impact on technical aspects of filming
Health and safety considerations aside, shooting with a reduced crew size is a significant challenge. “Under normal circumstances, even when we shot with a full crew, it was a tough job. Now with a reduced crew, it will be extraordinarily rough,” says actor-director-producer JD Majethia who has produced hit family sitcoms such as Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, Khichdi and Baa Bahoon Aur Baby.
Given GECs have suffered a huge blow during the lockdown, with viewership declining as much as 65 percent, producers are under immense pressure to ensure output does not suffer even with these restrictions. “The TV industry is output-driven. We may be in the midst of a pandemic but the volume demand will stay the same. We are mentally preparing to stretch ourselves,” adds Majethia.
With restrictions on how many people can be called to the sets, shooting only in a single location, maintaining social distancing between characters, a ban on shooting big-scale scenes such as fight scenes or marriages and – quite obviously – intimate scenes, producers and writers will have to deeply deliberate on how scripts are written, actor combinations are made and scenes are choreographed.
While the use of technological aids such as graphics, green curtains and special effects will assume more importance across genres, producers say these interventions are costly and time-consuming. The risk of the show being technically rejected by the broadcaster is also higher.
Bringing producers and broadcasters to a common table
Given the bottlenecks, producers are factoring a slower pace of shooting and the eventuality of shoots halting as corona positive cases emerge on sets. If not managed, this could cause shows to go off-air and impair their continuity, a situation that producers and broadcasters want to avert. Discussions are underway to mutually address the issue.
“It is our unequivocal demand to broadcasters to not rush with telecasts. Instead, broadcasters should mutually decide a date when all channels will resume telecasts of fresh shows. This will allow producers time to get a bank of episodes ready. The general consensus is to allow banking of 20 episodes for Hindi shows (Mon-Fri telecast) and 26 episodes for Marathi shows (Mon-Sat) over a period of three weeks before resuming telecasts,” says writer-producer Nitin Vaidya, who has produced Marathi TV series such as Garja Maharashtra and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.
“While the suggestion is good, I doubt broadcasters will agree. Broadcasters are fighting for survival and every business is trying to get back into the game,” said a senior executive from a leading network on the condition of anonymity.
Efforts to reach NP Singh, President, Indian Broadcasting Federation (IBF), did not materialise. An email sent to IBF remained unanswered at the time of this article being published.
Unsure about the great kick-off
Considering the significant difficulty in on-ground execution, stakeholders across the TV, films and OTT industry believe shoots are unlikely to resume in full capacity until much later.
“There are miles to go between a conditional nod and actual execution. It’s akin to going to war accepting there will be collateral damage,” says big-screen, TV and web-series actor Ronit Roy. Roy, who is playing the antagonist in the Ranbir Kapoor–Sanjay Dutt starrer Shamshera says it’s hard to say when the film will be completed. “I’ve also shot 30 percent of my second film, Fighter. We’re not even talking about resuming its shoot,” he adds.
Director Vivek Agnihotri was due to begin shooting for his film The Kashmir Files on March 17 but cancelled the shoot as Section 144 was imposed in Maharashtra. With significant money riding on the film, the 46-year-old director was prompted to rescript his story to keep it relevant.
“I’m sensitive to the fact that the story I wanted to tell four months ago may not hold good today. Humanity has gone through so much. This prompted me to rewrite my script partly and retouch other parts to make it a simple human story,” he says. Agnihotri is keen to start shooting in August but is waiting for approval to shoot in either Hyderabad, Uttarakhand or Himachal Pradesh.
Crime-series writer Priyanka Ghatak who has penned shows such as Crime Patrol and Saavdhan India says: “A close-up medium like TV may still be able to operate with these restrictions but I have my serious doubts about films and OTTs. OTTs have made us accustomed to good content and to imagine it being shot in a single location, with compromises in production, is unimaginable. I think most filmmakers will wait it out,” she says.
Budgets go chop, chop, chop
With the entertainment industry precariously positioned and advertising revenues drying up, the industry is staring at budget cuts. The general consensus is that budgets have been chopped down 15-30 percent by advertisers and the effects will ripple across the rest of the value chain - from broadcasters to producers to writers to cast and crew.
Sandwiched between budgetary constraints and increased costs on account of following stringent protocols, producers will be forced to be rather judicious with resources.“Smaller ensembles, stronger storylines – that’s the mantra. All extras will cost money so paraphernalia will have to be monitored,” says Pandit.
“Fees of highly-paid cast will have to be rationalised by 20-30 percent to take care of the bottom rung of workers and overall increased cost on account of sanitation and hygiene,” says Vaidya.
Not all are convinced though.
Majethia believes that talks of budget cuts are a myth. “Producers operate on a margin of 10 percent, adjusted for finance costs and other overheads, this is barely 4-5 percent. There is little room to cut rates further,” he said.
Actor Ronit Roy says: “I have repeatedly said this pandemic cannot be an excuse for bringing prices down. Everybody has a fixed rate. Is it fair that senior cast members should be asked to take a cut? Is the producer taking a rate cut? Are the channels taking a cut? Who is bringing their prices down? Nobody.”
A writers’ dilemma
For screenwriters, the pandemic is forcing an altered sense of reality. After years of writing to a particular style and being in charge of the storyline, writers are now waking up to the fact that scriptwriting will now be a collaborative process between the writer, producer and other production teams.
Writers now have to write keeping in mind the practical considerations of on-ground execution – actors will be available only on a rotational basis, there can be no physical intimacy between characters, no crowd or action sequences can be shot.
“There are two big challenges writers face now. One, how can we tell the same drama with limited actors. Second, concepts will need to evolve. Most TV dramas essentially rely on a female lead protagonist who was victimised at the hands of her family. This kind of formulaic storytelling will need to pave way for newer, feel-good concepts,” says Faizal Akhtar, writer of some of the biggest mythological TV series including Chandragupta Maurya, Peshwa Bajirao and Veer Shivaji.
With the possibility of the pandemic stalling shoots, Akhtar says TV writers will need to quickly rewrite storylines to accommodate changes to the cast.
Purnendu Shekhar, writer of the critically acclaimed show Balika Vadhu says writers will have to learn to “live with guards placed on our thinking and approach.”
Shekhar, who is currently scripting for the upcoming Zee TV series Kyun Rishton Main Katti Batti explains the key challenges. “This is a story about two siblings trying to bring together their parents who are growing apart. This is such a sensitive subject. With restrictions on shooting with children, how does one write? Until children hug their parents how does one convey affection? How does one create an impact?” he says.
Majethia acknowledges this is difficult. “There is a difference between a kiss and a flying kiss,” he says. “But it is in the hands of the writers to be flexible and adapt.”
For OTT platforms, which thrive on gritty and often sexually explicit storytelling, the depiction of intimacy is a moot point of discussion in brainstorming sessions. “While we don’t have an answer yet, we are assessing creative ways of portraying intimacy in our shows,” says Aparna Acharekar – Head Programing, ZEE5 India.
Shekhar says writers like him are now rewiring themselves to think and write differently. “We are thinking of alternatives. Perhaps the writing will have to be more suggestive to compensate for the lack of intimacy and physical affection,” he says.
Creative challenges apart, writers concede they will need to take a hit of at least 30 percent as budgets are slashed.
“In order to stay relevant, we will have to compromise,” says Akhtar.
“Forget money for new projects, if the committed money comes in, that alone would be a big relief,” says Ghatak.
A new era for storytelling?
The dark clouds may overhang the entertainment industry for a while, but there is a silver lining as far as content goes. For the TV industry, which has become a victim to formula-driven storytelling, this is an opportunity to move to newer, breezier concepts. Films and OTT content will also see stories inspired by the crisis and the lockdown.
“Comedies, romcoms, family drama and slice-of-life, feel-good human stories will find takers,” says Akhtar.
“After World War II, given the role women doctors and nurses played, stories of women empowerment came to the fore. Similarly, stories of humanity – people from different backgrounds and ethnicities coming together – will emerge. The world has been through so much and people will look forward to stories of joy, hope and insulation,” says Archrekar of Zee5.
“I expect all kinds of lockdown-inspired love stories to blossom– stories about the physical distance between lovers, about fantasy relationships, relationships blossoming on zoom chats! Hospital dramas and thrillers based on the theme of lockdowns will be another genre that’ll work well,” says Ghatak.
With the pandemic forcing the spotlight on our impaired ecological balance, filmmakers believe the industry should serve as the vehicle to mend the relationship between humans and nature. “We have never shown any existing relationship between characters and the ecology. Instead of showing people eating in the background, we need to show people watering plants. In a very subtle manner, through symbolisms and imagery used in our films, one has to establish that humans are part of the ecology, not the other way round,” says Agnihotri.
Not all are sure how this new content play will be received though.
“Content will take a big turn. There will be a new stir but it’s hard to say if the stir will be accepted, appreciated or will fail to resonate with viewers,” says actor-entrepreneur Aashka Goradia.
“At the moment, the fittest will survive. The appetite to take new risks, test new properties is low. Properties that have already established their audience connect such as Kaun Banega Crorepati , IPL and other strong content shows will win,” says Asit Modi.
Eventually though, everyone is hopeful that the entertainment industry, known for its resilience, will emerge stronger from this crisis.“There are five essentials of life today – roti, kapda, makaan, data aur entertainment. People cannot survive without their daily dose,” signs off Modi.