Article Hindi

The year Indian cinema refused to die – Special

Filmmakers and artistes open up about the challenges they faced while working on projects in 2020, how they overcame them, and the tricks they used to lend their films an air of normalcy.

Shriram Iyengar

It is no overstatement that 2020 marked a point of no-return for human civilization. The microscopic menace that is COVID-19, which cast a long shadow, brought life to a screeching halt for millions, restricting everyone to the four walls of their homes and sparking mass migration from urban centres. Masking, physical distancing, the ubiquitous hand sanitizers, online classes and working from home became the order of the day while a valiant few, such as medical professionals, went about their daily duty, fighting on the 'frontlines'.

The pandemic caught the Indian film industry, like everyone else, unawares. And it was essentially in limbo between 24 March, when the countrywide lockdown was announced by the prime minister, and the end of June, when restrictions began to be lifted slowly. Though standard operating procedures had been put in place with the collaboration of film guilds and the state government of Maharashtra, there was uncertainty around their execution. Naturally, these measures brought a fresh set of challenges for filmmakers. But they refused to let circumstances get the better of them and continued to do what they do best.

When spoke to a few filmmakers and artistes in December 2020, they opened up about the challenges they faced while working on projects after the lockdown was lifted, how they overcame them and the tricks they used to lend their projects an air of normalcy.

Director Aditya Sarpotdar set out to film his zombie adventure, Zombivli (2022), in July that year. After a break of four months due to the pandemic, Sarpotdar had a very different shooting experience. "We were among the few who were shooting back then," he recalled. "There were a lot of TV shoots happening, but I don't think there were a lot of feature films on the floors. We were figuring things out as we went along."

The things included managing a large cast of extras while ensuring proper medical check-ups were done before every schedule. Sarpotdar said the crew would prepare for medical check-ups every 15 days, and only begin the shoot when everyone in the unit had tested negative.

On the set of Zombivli (Courtesy: Aditya Sarpotdar)

He said, "People who did not have personal transportation had to be stationed on the set, even though they were from out of Mumbai. This is because on the set we could control how they interact and who comes and goes. Outside the set, we cannot ensure this."

A key challenge, though, stemmed from the restriction on the number of people allowed on the set. Zombie films cannot be shot with three or four people. "We had 250 or 300 zombies in the film," the director said. "We had to spend a week training them about how zombies would act, behave. It requires time to train them. We could not train them directly. We would train them in batches of 15 or 20, for rehearsal. It was quite a task. In a normal scenario, I would have hired a big hall and trained them in one go. All these things were problematic, and permissions were a big problem."

Nachiket Samant, director of the Zee5 show Comedy Couple, managed to hide the lack of crowds with clever camerawork but found the isolation and distancing norms cumbersome. The filmmaker said, "Every day, some extra systems were put in place. Everyone visiting the set would have their temperature checked. I got myself tested four times in one schedule. That didn't really affect the shooting process. It would happen before and after the shoot. What affected it was the emotion of watching all these people in masks, and the fear of what we were dealing with at that point."

Nachiket Samant and producer Siddharth Anand Kumar (right) on the sets of Comedy Couple

Several scenes in Samant's romantic drama featuring Saqib Saleem and Shweta Basu Prasad are set in comedy clubs. The trouble was that most of them had sparse crowds at the time. Samant said, "We were allowed to get only so many people in the club. They were allowed to shoot only with Saqib and Shweta. When I came on board and read the script, I knew we were going to be shooting in the lockdown. We had to limit ourselves to close-ups and mid-shots so as not to expose the emptiness of the bar and comedy clubs. We shot the crowds mostly separately. We adapted as per the need of the hour."

Saqib Saleem and Shweta Basu Prasad in Comedy Couple

Asked whether these emergency measures affected his storyline, Sarpotdar said, "We wanted to shoot in housing societies and residential areas. But people were unwilling to let an entire shooting unit come into their zone, understandably. Also, we were dealing with rain in July-August. That's how we landed up in Latur (in the interiors of Maharashtra). It does not rain as much in the city, and the number of cases there were few. So we travelled with the entire unit to Latur."

He continued, "We tried not to [let the regulations] impact the story. When you show the film to the audience, we cannot put a disclaimer saying, 'We shot this film in the pandemic and therefore there are certain issues.' People are not going to give us any leeway because we shot in the pandemic,"

Trying to cope with the unusual situation meant that in a day the unit would only achieve 70% of what it would have completed in normal circumstances. "The other 30% was devoted to check-ups and sanitization," the filmmaker said.

Director Krishna Bhatt recalled, "It was tough to have minimal crew, as we are used to big sets and casts. The speed goes down when there are fewer people. It is something we had to get used to. You have to go with the flow."

The restrictions could not, however, stop the filmmaking process. Though the industry suffered major losses with projects being postponed, things did not come to a grinding halt. Gulshan Devaiah was among the actors who appeared in Amazon Prime Video's unique take on the lockdown experience, Unpaused (2020), which came out on 10 December 2020.

Speaking of the experience on set, Gulshan Devaiah said, "Once you enter the shooting environment, it may be a little weird in the beginning. Things look odd, you can't recognize faces; but once the work starts, things are pretty much the same as they were before. Perhaps, even a bit more efficient."

Awkwardness was a given, considering that two of the SOPs called for minimal crews to maintain physical distancing and the use of masks on the set. Samant said, "It was not like a routine set. When we went to Delhi, we were put in a bio-bubble. Staying in the same hotel, travelling together, it helped us connect and gave us an opportunity to get out and work. We started having fun with it eventually. Initially, it started out cold and weird. With masks on, you can't really judge the expressions of people."

Bhatt added, "Shoots started with a lot of fear of COVID, PPE [personal protective equipment] kits, and SOPs. But as you started shoot and get used to the set atmosphere, you start feeling a little relief and enjoying your work. Then the mask just becomes something you wear, and you are able to shoot normally. We came to a place where we came to an understanding that this is the situation, and this is how we conquer it."

Gulshan Devaiah said that all of the script readings and prep work for Unpaused happened over video calls. "I had to just step out once to do the fittings and costume trials," the actor said. "It was in a very sterile environment. I like it when there are fewer people around. It is more comfortable for me. We hardly came in contact with people. Most of it was done remotely. The only time we got together was on set filming. It was also the first time I actually met Saiyami [Kher]. We had to develop chemistry towards the end. That was a challenge, as we were familiar with each other's work but unfamiliar with each other."

Another Unpaused cast member, Richa Chadha, said, "The lockdown was very hard. On artistes especially. I felt grateful that we were able to go and shoot anything at all. It is a source of livelihood for many people."

Yet, considering the specialized nature of filmmaking, how was it possible for filmmakers to operate with minimal crews? Sarpotdar said, "It [using a small crew] is logically not possible for every film. If the film is smaller, and the story suits it, it works. Otherwise, it is impossible to shoot a film like that."

The filmmaker added, "We had to cut down our unit size and ask people to multi-task. But after a certain point in time, we had to limit that, because people can only do so much. That is difficult. These are also specialized jobs. Technicians, production designers need those numbers."

Bhatt, however, felt that the reduction in crews brought in a greater sense of responsibility. "You also have to make sure everybody is okay," she said. "If someone is not okay, you have to ensure they are distancing. Everybody on set is more responsible. Not just as a producer or director, but even as technicians, everyone gained a responsibility towards their fellow crew members."

Director Aditya Sarpotdar (R) shooting Zombivli

Things did not always go according to plan. Sarpotdar described a scary moment on the sets of Zombivli, when a cast member seemed to have lost the sense of smell. Panic-stricken, the team cancelled the shoot. Everyone isolated themselves and got tested, only to learn later that the actress had had a stuffy nose due to the common cold. "This is something you don't have command over," the director said. "We had to cancel her scenes. Luckily her test came negative. These things, we never had a problem with earlier. You are now concerned with each and every individual and have to know what's going on, beyond your work and issues. I hope it is not something that I get to experience again."

At the time, none of the filmmakers believed these measures would last long. As it turned out, they were wrong. Devaiah was emphatic when he said, "I don't like using this term 'new normal'. These are special circumstances the whole world is going through. I am sure there are a lot of other industries where testing is more stringent, where people are far more susceptible to infections than us. This is a temporary normal. We as a human race, and as a society, will overcome this."

As director, Sarpotdar had other worries. "More than the process of making cinema, people are concerned with what is going to happen to the end product," he said. "People will figure out ways to make films. But once these films are made, if there is no footfall in theatres, it will stop! There is a limit to how many films can go on OTT platforms. If we cannot get people back in theatres, it does not matter how many ways we find to make films."

The fear was not unfounded, and audiences took their time returning to cinema halls, but return they did eventually.