As lockdown relaxations are introduced, and businesses look for ways to open up, there has been some progress in the entertainment world as well. Last week, the Producers Guild of India submitted a shooting guideline following a meeting with Maharashtra Chief Minister. The guidelines seem comprehensive, but according to many, not detailed enough. Shoots in Mumbai might begin around 15 June, but it may take longer, given the guidelines will have to be approved by the government. Producers and studios may also want to do their own mock-shoots and surveys before taking the plunge.
And the first lot that'll have to wade through the complicated waters of the new shooting guidelines is TV. Because unlike movies and web series', serials are an ongoing show. It's as if a sudden pause button has been pressed after the 564th episode of the Season 6 of of Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata, running since 2009, or after the 2951st episode of of Tarak Mehta ka Ulta Chashma, which started in 2008. So there is a greater urgency to, as one writer I spoke to put it, "put something on air as soon as possible".
Before the lockdown, the TV industry scrambled to create a bank of episodes that will last them the lockdown, which they expected to be, at the time, a couple of weeks, or a month. But 3 months down the line, they face an existential threat. The ratings have been falling because of the web series boom in India, and the lockdown has taken away an even larger chunk of their audience, who have opted for, in the last couple of months, digital platforms for new 'content', because reruns can work only up till a point.
"TV viewing is a habit. And we have to get that habit back now. In these two and a half months, people didn't wait at 7:30 for Tenali Rama or a Choti Sarrdaarni. They have to be reminded, this is what Choti Sarrdaarni was all about. Come watch us," says Raghuvir Shekhawat, one of the writers of the above mentioned serials (and others such as Kasauti Zindagi Ki, Bhabiji Ghar Par Hai and Happu ki Ultan Paltan).
TV's desperation in getting back to business is palpable, but there are new challenges to tackle, on multiple levels. For one, expect a stripped down, less glamorous version of the shows. With less budgets at disposal, they will now have to do away with lavish sets, weddings, birthday parties and festivities, elements considered to be liked by the audience. Sandiip Sikcand, the creative producer of Kahan Hum Kahan Tum, says that TV writing has to be sharper to engage with the audience, now that it doesn't have gimmicks to lean on. "We are all writing shows in a particular manner for so many years. You can close your eyes and write an episode… But now the writers have to adapt to the new normal,"
Tenali Rama, for instance, features a Raaj Darbari, for which there is a requirement of crowds. According to Shekhawat, its writer, they are now "trying to use stock shots from previous episodes." Tarak Mehta ka Ulta Chashma, set in a housing society, generally features a lot of scenes where multiple characters are seen standing and talking in the same frame. Manish Bhushan Tiwari, who wrote the new track, says that he had to "create situations so that you don't need everyone at the same time, as well as shoot indoors and avoid outdoors, which requires a bigger crew".
Since there is little gap between the shoot and telecast, TV writers are used to fast writing, and rewriting. For instance, if the actor falls sick on the set, the writer comes up with on-the-spot solutions. But under the new guidelines, where the emphasis is on a minimal crew size, the writer may not be present on the sets. Add to that, uncertain about when shooting will begin and unable to pay their rents, a number of actors have left Mumbai for their hometowns. The writers will have to work with the available ones.
Then there is the matter of the restricted use of actors aged above 60 (a big problem) and children aged below 10 (a smaller problem). "Almost all serials have characters like dadas and nanis. One of my storylines had to changed because there is an important character played by a senior actor," says Bandana Tiwari, the story writer of Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai. The other option is to focus on another storyline that does not involve the senior actor and "tell the audience something like the character had gone to visit an old relative before the lockdown and got stuck there." (a realistic touch: my neighbour's mother is in a similar situation).
The Covid-19 effect on the writing is not just at a technical level; in Tiwari's story it is the "driving force". Issues that daily soaps shy away from have entered the domesticated set-up.
In one of her shows, the main character is a rich industrialist; the pandemic brings out her concern for her workers and staff. In another, a man contemplates suicide because of a financial crisis. This was pre-Covid. The news about the migrants and daily wage earners stirs something in him, and he realises that he is privileged compared to them and ditches the idea. "We want to make the audience feel that their favourite hero-heroine are also going through the same trauma, dilemma, and show how they are coming out of it, and live them on a positive, hopeful note," she says.
In Sikcand's show, Covid-19 may not be shape the story, but it'll be present in the backdrop. The actors will be seen maintaining social distancing in the show itself. "They will wear masks if they have to go out, but if they are inside house mask down. When the protagonist will come home from work, the first thing he will use is sanitiser," says Sikcand, "My actors will also be a little relived that they are shooting with gloves and masks," he says.
Whether the storyline incorporates Covid-19 into the story depends on the show and its tone. A humorous show like Tarak Mehta may not dwell on the virus in its new episodes lest it trivialises the crisis.
Moreover, writers are wary of the fact that their Target Audience — middle aged women from villages and small towns, and in the case of certain shows, young women from small towns — watch the serials to escape from their realities. They want to present a "hopeful, positive" message—even if that means starting an ongoing show anew. The "high-drama" of Tenali Rama and Baal Veer will give way to a more "light-hearted" storyline post Covid. "We have changed the strategy. Let's say the story was at point C before Covid. We are not resuming and going to D. We are starting from A," says Shekhawat.