Ram Madhvani's new show Aarya, in which Sushmita Sen plays a housewife who infiltrates a heroin cartel, wrapped shooting on March 15 and was all set for a DisneyPlus Hotstar release exactly two months from that date. Then, ten days later, the country went into lockdown. The months since have seen the director and his team work 18-hour days to complete the show in time for its new release date of June 19.
The post-production process is still ongoing — Madhvani's had to pause checking the music of episode 9 for this interview — and portions of the VFX and subtitling are yet to be completed. At 7.30 in the evening, he'll get on a Zoom call with the head of his sound department and a sound engineer to recheck the mix of a sequence he isn't quite happy with.
While the process of coordinating between different departments over Zoom calls and Google hangouts hasn't been too stressful, what he misses the most in isolation are team interactions. "A lot of ideation happens in the breaks, when you're hanging out, having lunch or walking down the corridor, there are those conversations of, 'So what do you think?' You miss those things, not just on a human level, but a creative one," he says. Here's what he learnt about working in lockdown:
"You have to have a whole bunch of people who will embrace technology. As soon as the lockdown happened, we knew we had to do the post-production work at home. I made a long speech to the team saying, 'This is where we are, this is how we are going to be operating.'
There are six editors. We had started cutting while we were shooting, but a lot of the edit then had to happen over Zoom or Google chats. There's always a lag, there are always internet problems but we knew we had to embrace this way of working. We had to navigate all of that in a way such that when the audience sees the show, they don't realize what we've had to navigate. We had to embrace technology or die. We had to adapt. We're doing a lot of post work live now, even though there are lags. If we're doing the sound mix, I'll give them an idea of what I think sounds okay and ask them to do it and send me a clip. 99% of the time, because of the team's energy, experience and intuition, I find it's okay.
Sometimes, the team's kids come into the room while we're on a Zoom call, but that's okay because I think they're intuitively imbibing what their parents are doing. We'll be getting a better generation of filmmakers.
There are about 40-50 people currently working on the show. There are three sound engineers and three sound teams to cope with the schedule we have. It's an Excel sheet nightmare. Everybody looks at the sheet every day to check whether certain things have happened by a specific time. The whole way of working now runs according to a tight schedule. Everybody's comments are on that sheet, all three directors, both co-creators, the whole sound department, the DoP, the editor. So if you get a rough cut, you say, 'Okay, these are the problems with the scene.' Then we all get on to a call. Since everybody's notes are collated on that one sheet, with timecodes, we know what the scene was like last time and what is different this time. It's a systematic, organized process.
There's a book called The Checklist Manifesto (2009) and it feels like we've been following that. Everyone gets a 10-15 minute break every hour, on the dot. We've been working 18 hours a day and I wish the team could get more sleep, but in one week or so, they will. One thing we've insisted on is that every Sunday should be a holiday.
You have to meditate because this requires a different sort of patience. Everything takes three times as long. Uploading, downloading, response times – all of those take long. It would be much faster if we were all in the same building doing the VFX, editing, sound mixing. That's how we were meant to be doing it and then I could've just gone from floor to floor checking if it works. If I'm in the studio with you, hearing the mix, I can tell you on the spot: Reduce that, increase that. But from home, I have to deal with the sound and picture lag. That's a big problem.
The government has said we cannot release content for streaming platforms in HD, it has to be standard definition. So everything we shot at 4K, we had to downgrade it to 2K. But it's still great picture quality.
Even dubbing has been happening from the actors' homes so sometimes you hear a dog in the background and have to tell them to redo it. Jayant Kripalani, who plays the father, was dubbing from his home in Kolkata when cyclone Amphan hit. Other actors are in New York, Delhi. Everyone's been going into their closets at night to record lines. Namit Das has been doing that at 3 am, when the dogs are finally silent. I never realized Bombay had so many birds. I think when the audience hears the show, they'll be fine, even purists will be fine, but when we watch it, we'll be going, 'Oh I wish we could've done that differently.' That's natural and normal for any show."