How an inherently collaborative film industry will adapt to the time

For many, the excitement to resume work is mingled with some concern for how things will take shape, and a bit of longing for the way things were.
Casting director Nandini Shrikent was used to her Bandra office being packed with aspiring actors going over their lines, trying not to sweat as they waited hours at a stretch for their turn. “We would be casting for three films and shows at a time,” she says. “I don’t think we will be going back to that soon.” With people at risk of infecting each other with more than just nervous energy, most screen tests are set to move to web conferencing. 

This is not entirely unfamiliar territory for Shrikent as for some years now the busier stars have been sending in audition clips from their gardens or terraces, punctuated by the sound of traffic and birds. But she reckons the best auditions come out of jamming face to face with an actor. “I hope some semblance of human interaction survives in my work.”

Remote casting is only one of several guidelines issued by the Maharashtra state government last Sunday, when it allowed film, television and OTT (over-the-top) shooting to restart following 10 weeks of shutdown. It also followed an online meeting where various stakeholders in Hindi filmdom shared their statements of purpose with state Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, outlining safe ways they could shoot amid the Covid-19 outbreak. Among the state’s 16-page rulebook — which covers every aspect of filmmaking — is a recommendation that crews be cut to a third of the usual size, and another suggesting that secondary artists do their own makeup. The large numbers of props that workers would set up, the tangle of equipment that crews typically squeezed past, the carefree hugs, the shared lunches and cigarettes are all things of the past. For many, the excitement to resume work is mingled with some concern for how things will take shape, and a bit of longing for the way things were.

The question many insiders have right now is whether stars will risk returning to shooting just yet. So far, actor Akshay Kumar has ventured to shoot an advertisement for the central government within two hours in the Kamalistan studio premises, which had a sanitiser tunnel, and where the team led by director R Balki was kitted out with masks and gloves. The recent go-ahead has brought an end to months of uncertainty, says Taapsee Pannu, who had been shooting for the murder mystery Badla actor who has used most of the enforced break to do chores and spend time with family. Still figuring out logistics — “everything from transport to budgeting has to be reworked from scratch” — her producers have not decided on a date to begin again. In her view, there will be a period of hiccups. “Social distancing won’t come naturally to us in the first go. As human beings, and with the population we have, it will not be so easy or smooth to follow, be it in films, offices, or on the road.” 

It is unlikely that things will pick up immediately. The simultaneous arrival of the monsoon in Mumbai this week has provided time for strategising. Among the ideas being considered is to treat every shoot like an outdoor shoot, so that people don’t return home for substantial periods of time. Some say people could, at least in the near future, seek to film in cities that are less busy, and less impacted by the disease than Mumbai. Films are expected to resume after episodic TV productions go out and test the waters. In southern India, states had already permitted shooting last month, and some TV crews took to sets minus the air conditioning and after rewriting scenes so that not more than three or four actors were required at once. 

Big-banner films have their work cut out for them, as their crews are typically as large as 100 or 120 including talent and technicians. Starting full-fledged films with very limited teams will be enormously challenging. “If I have a star cast of four, their entourages go up to 40,” says T-Series CEO Bhushan Kumar. The new rules allow support staff of one. “We understand the government’s perspective and are just as concerned about the safety of crew members and their families. So we are going to restart in a staggered manner.” 

Of the studio’s many stalled projects, Ajay Devgn-starrer Saga featuring John Abraham are near completion, so that final patchwork can resume. Bhushan Kumar’s company will also shift focus to shooting ads and music videos, which need fewer hours and people, in controlled conditions, before proceeding with largely incomplete films. Raising big money to start new films, when theatres remain closed and perhaps continue to be avoided by people even when they reopen, is not feasible for most studios.

Downsizing may affect various departments — among them art, setting, lights and camera. The number of assistants could be reduced too. Bollywood’s junior artists and stunt artists, numbering about 2,450, are not feeling hopeful just yet. “Producers have been asked to avoid junior artists for now. That means I won’t have work either,” says a supplier of extras who goes simply by the name Guddu. And those are only two out of 32 crafts and 500,000 workers that build the inherently collaborative film industry from the ground up. 

In the lockdown phases, help for the daily wagers of cinema and television has come from various quarters including major stars and crowdfunding. According to Siddharth Roy Kapur, founder of Roy Kapur Films and president of the Producers Guild of India, units will become more efficient. “What used to be done by two-three persons earlier — because we are a market where labour was freely and cheaply available — will come down to one.” His optimism lets him believe that even if individual projects employ fewer people, more jobs will be created between films, TV and OTT to ensure work for everyone.

Directors are also grappling with how to weave in the reality of our new lives into their narratives. Would a public going through immensely painful times respond to escapist cinema, or would they wish for warm, life-affirming storylines, or see their wounds documented? Adding to this, being home and having enforced leisure has allowed the audience to sample and appreciate a wider range of entertainment from everywhere. Some changes in contemporary storytelling are imminent. “We will have to hold off on songs with 100 dancers,” says Shakun Batra, writer and director of Kapoor & Sons, who has kept himself occupied with developing scripts and watching edits over the last few weeks. “And, for instance, if you have a college film with everyone hanging out and it doesn’t touch upon masks and social distancing, will it feel real?” Roy Kapur agrees. “To depict a current story without talking about Covid-19 or at least mentioning it would feel like a period film.”

In what has been compulsory downtime, the filmmaking duo Raj and D K have been overproductive. “There was no clarity at the beginning of the lockdown, and there isn’t any even now. You can either sit around and wait for the ideal situation or try something,” says Raj Nidimoru. Their studio shook off the initial air of gloom and produced a micro-series about lockdown, A Viral Wedding. It was written by and starred Shreya Dhanwanthary with an assortment of actors who shot themselves over two weeks using “sh**ty laptops and sh**ty internet”. That experiment has birthed a fresh vertical, D2R Indies, where Raj and D K plan to encourage first-time talents. To tide over the new restrictions, the two expect to return to an indie style of directing, where they will work in controlled environments with units of only five or six people. 

A touchy debate recently has been about the strides OTT has made in quarantine months and whether it will gain further on the share that traditionally belonged to cinema halls. It began when Amazon Prime Video made a handsome offer to director-producer Shoojit Sircar for his Gulabo Sitabo, starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Amitabh Bachchan. The comedy set in Lucknow, which could not have its scheduled theatrical release in April, will have a worldwide premiere in some 200 countries on June 12. “I have never had this kind of release,” says the filmmaker from his home in Kolkata, where he has been in isolation. 

The other reason for his decision to go straight to digital was impatience. “We don’t make multiple films at a time. This film was ready and to sustain yourself and pay technicians, you have to move on from it.” With the financial crisis accompanying the pandemic, Sircar expects that “film industry wallahs will understand and not spend extravagantly”. This would mean a cost correction in all departments. Further, story-driven, shoestring-budget ventures of the kind he is known for could be attempted more often now.

Anu Menon is busy working on post-production of her Shakuntala Devi biopic, with Vidya Balan in the lead, which too was picked up by Amazon. The global streaming giant’s repertoire of acquisitions that would otherwise have gone to theatres also includes new Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films. 

The multiplexes were disappointed by these moves to debut films online but producers have maintained they need to protect their investments till such time that theatres are closed and overseas releases in markets like the US, UK, and West Asia are off the table. “Cinema halls were the first ones to shut down, even before the lockdown started, and are expected to be amongst the last segments to witness relaxations,” writes Sakshi Suneja, assistant vice-president of rating agency ICRA, in a report giving a negative credit outlook for the film production and exhibition industries.

Multiplexes like Carnival Cinemas, on their part, expect to spend 100 to 150 per cent more to add disinfection, maintenance, and contactless services when they are permitted to reopen. They will likely have 20 per cent lower occupancy and fewer shows each day in the initial months of strict social distancing. “It will be a period of regathering audiences and gaining their trust,” notes CEO Mohan Umrotkar. The chain was hopeful about its large presence in Kerala — where instances of Covid-19 have been relatively low — but so far the state has not discussed reopening. When theatres do open, the first few months will also be affected by producers holding out on big releases to gauge audience attendance. 

Nidimoru, whose studio has bullishly expanded into web series with The Family Man, feels the streaming revolution has been accelerated in India, which was “the only filmmaking country still enjoying both theatres and OTT”. But even he, like Sircar and Menon who have sold films to digital, are certain the collective viewing experience of cinemas will survive. 

Pannu echoes this. “Sooner or later, the audience will get back to how they were. Watching a movie in a dark hall with strangers and friends cannot be 100 per cent replaced by watching it alone at home.” The new normal, she hopes, will eventually make way for the old.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel