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Lights, camera, caution: Back on the set

TV and film production has received the go-ahead to resume. However, the practicalities of shooting in a covid-19 world have many anxious

Akshay Kumar in a government ad encouraging people to return to work.
Akshay Kumar in a government ad encouraging people to return to work.

For Bandana Tiwari, a story writer on the TV series Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, the biggest shadow on the horizon a few months ago was the Indian Premier League (IPL). Like every year, the writers were planning to escalate the drama on the Star Plus series to prevent the cricket league from taking away too many eyeballs. As it turned out, another sort of drama would soon unfold, scuttling the IPL, TV production and normal life in the country.

Covid-19 has brought the TV and film industries to a halt. Since mid-March, studio sets have been shuttered and there have been no shoots. Films that were supposed to release in theatres—the biggest of which is Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo—are instead premiering online. TV channels ran out of new episodes and were forced to show reruns; they have been losing ground to streaming platforms. The industry is hurting, which is why the decision by the Maharashtra government to allow shooting to resume has come as a relief. After 15 June, TV shows will be shooting again, and films may soon follow. Yet, understandably, there are many questions and anxieties.

“We had to change the flow of the story we were proposing before lockdown," Tiwari says over the phone. She and her co-writers brainstormed over Zoom and rejigged the storyline to represent the new reality. Yeh Rishta unfolds in the present day, so they could place their characters in a corona world, with masks and distancing built into the plots. Still, several adjustments had to be made. Scenes were written to avoid many people in a room. Children and older characters had to be written out, in order to adhere to new guidelines.

Shooting will be another challenge. Tiwari says the actors will probably maintain distance while shooting scenes. To my mind, this sounded infeasible, but when I mentioned it to actor and Cine & TV Artistes’ Association (Cintaa) general secretary Sushant Singh, he reminded me that Indian TV has historically worked around all kinds of restrictions. “Often they will take close-ups of the main actors and in the wide shots they will use dupes." It won’t be pretty but it will get the shows back on screen, which seems to be the priority right now.

Director R. Balki.
Director R. Balki.

A signal of sorts came in the form of an R. Balki-directed PSA for the Press Information Bureau, starring Akshay Kumar. Balki shot it in the last week of May, with a skeleton crew of 20 (there would normally be around 80 people). “It was fabulous to say camera, action, to be on set," the director says over the phone. “It’s odd for about 5 minutes, when you can’t go hug an old friend, but you get used to it." The set was sanitized, everyone maintained distance, instructions were issued not to share water or cigarettes. When they left, they passed through a sanitization tunnel.

In the ad, a mask-wearing Akshay Kumar tells a village sarpanch why it’s fine to return to work. “When the medical professionals of the nation are fighting so hard, it’s our responsibility to also go to work." He adds: “Thousands have caught and defeated this disease. And even if you do get sick, the government has made arrangements." The message is echoed by Balki during our conversation. “We have to learn to be practical and move on. We cannot live in paranoia."

This isn’t an outlook shared by writer-director Vikramaditya Motwane, who described the PSA as a “dangerous message" given the continued spread of the virus in the country, and Maharashtra in particular. He also raised doubts over the guidelines issued by the Producers Guild of India—a 37-page document with instructions about everything from the hiring of housekeeping staff to the wearing of ankle socks instead of regular ones by actors—and the likelihood of them being adhered to. “Health becomes a secondary concern when you get wrapped up in shooting," he says.

Like many of his peers, Motwane has been finding ways to keep working during the lockdown. The shoot for his feature AK Vs AK, starring Anil Kapoor, was completed before lockdown, and post-production could go ahead. Still, it’s a challenge. He can’t be in the same room as his editor, composer, sound mixer; can’t point to things on screen and say “change that". The same conversations now happen over video calls. Progress is steady but slow—“It’s taking its own sweet time," he tells me. The uncertainty is the toughest thing to deal with. “I have a company. I have to take care of our people. But I don’t know how long this can continue."

Sushant Singh reiterates several of these concerns but says, “We have to get back, there’s no choice." Not all the industry people were working steadily up to the moment of lockdown, he points out; freelancers may have been out of work for six months now. He admits there’s a lot that’s still up in the air. A TV actor was told that he would have to work an 18-hour schedule at a reduced salary. “We are speaking to the unions, trying to set limits," he says. “It’s an unprecedented situation for all of us."

Even as he works on AK Vs AK and figures out what can be done with a period series he is working on with Amazon, Motwane is heading into uncharted territory. He is going to direct, sitting in Mumbai, an ad film that will be shot in Bengaluru. Over the next few weeks, he will audition actors remotely, possibly do a virtual recce, speak to the director of photography and other department heads over video calls. “I was telling Anurag (Kashyap), if this is the new normal, might as well jump in."

One thing’s for sure: Bollywood will be watching the TV industry’s experiences over the next month with nervous interest. Meanwhile, there are reports that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s next, Gangubai Kathiawadi, starring Alia Bhatt, will begin shooting sometime later this month. Balki says he expects the film world will adjust to the new conditions quickly. “We have in this country a strange way of easing into normalcy."

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