“The stars are all here,” declares Shaukat Khan from the booking office of Mumbai’s famed Mehboob Studio. After months of lying vacant, the studio is buzzing again, mainly with shoots for ad films. A-list stars like Akshay Kumar, Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Vidya Balan have all begun facing the camera again. Film City, another hotspot for film shoots in Mumbai, is also full up with shoots of television serials, reality shows and ads.
This is good news. In March, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the movie industry to its knees. Theatres were shut and film productions stalled, putting numerous daily wagers on film sets out of work indefinitely. Therefore, getting back to business is a sign of hope. In the coming weeks, more producers will take the plunge. Akshay Kumar starts shooting Bell Bottom in the UK soon. Salman Khan is looking to wrap up Radhe in November.
Excel Entertainment, the production company helmed by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani, recently released a video on social media announcing that they were finally back to doing what they love – making movies. Only now one must wear masks, gloves and face shields with temperature checks and sanitisation tunnels at all entry points.
Apart from being less fun, what does it take to work on set wrapped up in PPE suit? Pooja Kadam, the First Assistant Director on Excel Entertainment’s upcoming streaming show Dongri To Dubai, says it has only added to the physical strain of an already strenuous job. It doesn’t help that her crew of 200 has shrunk to 20. “It’s very hard to work wearing a PPE kit. You feel hot and claustrophobic. You feel tired and your productivity is hampered,” she says. In fact, one of her ADs had to sit the shoot out because he was sweating so much and unable to function.
Cinematographer Mitesh Mirchandani (Uri, Lust Stories, Neerja), who recently completed an 8-day ad film shoot in Film City, felt a similar fatigue. “I ended up with a headache at the end of every day just because of the mask. And constant sanitisation gives you a headache as well because there are so many chemicals in there,” he explains. His experience begs the question – can one shoot an entire feature under these conditions? “Shooting a few days like this is okay, but shooting a feature like this for me is impossible,” he says.
In a recent interview with Film Companion, actress Vidya Balan spoke about facing similar difficulties during a recent photoshoot for a brand. “This PPE business is very tough. The face shield fogs up, people get brain fog, they’re just generally sweating a lot even in an AC environment. It’s really tough, so I don’t know how we’re going to resume film shoots” she said.
For projects like Dongri To Dubai which are resuming production after the three-month enforced break, there’s also the matter of continuity. “A lot of the actors were not in their continuity look, such as their hair or facial hair, so everyone had to get a haircut. Also, some actors had put on or lost weight and so the costumes also had to be altered accordingly.” says Kadam.
In July, Yoodlee Films (the film division of a Saregama India Ltd) began shooting two features –Comedy Couple starring Saqib Salim and Shweta Basu Prasad and the Marathi horror-comedy Zombivali. Producer Siddharth Anand Kumar, Vice-President of Films and Events for Saregama, says budgeting for a ‘Covid-friendly’ shoot meant several new expenses. For starters, providing accommodation for cast and crew who don’t have access to safe transportation. Add to this the cost of sanitisation on set, hiring full-time COVID officers to monitor precautions and arranging weekly COVID tests for the entire set. What’s more, to abide by social distancing rules, films now need to hire two separate locations – one for equipment and staff who aren’t required when the camera is rolling and the other for the actual filming with the actors and key crew. “The increase in the budget is anywhere from 6 to 10%. That’s a lot of money. Often a producer’s margin is only about 10 to 15%, so right now it’s like letting a major portion of your margin go,” says Kumar.
Then come the creative adjustments. Dongri To Dubai had a scene set in a gambling den which required 80 extras. With that no longer an option, the script was changed to make it a non-functioning gambling den. One of the Yoodlee’s films is about stand-up comedians and requires an audience. “We’re using crowd multiplication, an old-school blocking technique which involves moving the same crowd and changing their clothes. In place of extras, we used crew members,” says Kumar.
In May, the Producers Guild of India, published a 36-page handbook of safety protocols that need to be met on a film set. While the guidelines appeared comprehensive and thoroughly researched, it didn’t account for the physical and emotional toll that comes with these rules. Or for unforeseen problems like a key crew member getting cold feet before a shoot. Kadam says that daily wagers like the light men, who haven’t earned in months, don’t have the luxury of feeling fear. But there were several members of the crew who were apprehensive about getting back to work. Her Production Designer was sceptical because he was diabetic, so he coordinated with his team via video call. Producer Anand Kumar had the lead actress and entire senior crew of one of his film’s drop out 10 days before the shoot. “We let those people go without any hard feelings. I don’t blame them,” he says.
The idea of this being the “new normal” is a daunting one. But for the next year at least, this is what filmmaking will look like. “You just have to be calm about it. You need to know that there will be problems and you need to deal with those with a very calm mind. We have to learn to deal with it.” says Kumar.