Every 20 minutes, a safety team from Life First, a Mumbai-based company, makes the rounds of a film set to sanitize cast and crew members' hands. Every three hours, like clockwork, it takes everyone's temperature and notes any major discrepancies. Earlier that day, before the shoot began, it sanitized the sets and vanity vans, handed out gloves, masks, face shields and PPE to the crew and tested everyone's oxygen levels. Excessive? Barely. Despite the pandemic, film shoots across India are still ongoing and it's now the company's job to enforce Covid safety guidelines.
Life First founder Aditya Gupta has been a chief assistant director in Bollywood for the past 12 years. Back in May, when the Coronavirus awareness advertisement that director R Balki shot with Akshay Kumar was posted on one of the WhatsApp production groups he was in, he was in disbelief.
"I was like: Dude, this cannot be it. They went through a sanitizing gate and that was it," he says. "In India, we don't have the concept of safety officers and so I knew it was going to be the chief AD's responsibility to ensure safety on sets. Every production house was coming up with their own guidelines, which was great, but who was supposed to implement them?"
Now, Gupta estimates that Life First has completed more than 300 days of shoots across 15 projects. Members of the 80-employee company are currently at work at a feature film shoot in Goa, another in Madhya Pradesh and two Netflix series.
The firm is one of several that have mushroomed since Bollywood decided to go back into business and resume shoots since July. "New 'Covid departments' have cropped up across productions. Just their presence on sets makes the crew feel safer," says Pooja Kadam, the first assistant director on Excel Entertainment's upcoming series Dongri To Dubai.
When Atharva Samanth, one of the partners at security systems firm TISA Tech Secure, added a health and safety department to the company this July, production houses told him that their own spot boys could sanitize the set and get crew members to wear masks. "They, however, failed to realize that spot boys are never going to walk up to an actor or director and tell him what to do. That is where a health and safety officer, being an outsider and being trained, is able to implement such guidelines," he says. The company's 100 sanitization personnel and 26 health and safety officers have since worked on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Endemol, Aamir Khan Films, Salman Khan Films, Sony and Zee 5 projects.
Crew members forget to maintain social distancing or inadvertently pull down their masks while talking to each other. Worse still, some refuse to undergo testing or deliberately conceal their illness for fear of losing out on work
While the sanitation workers disinfect surfaces, equipment and props using UV lights and fogging machines, the health and safety officers monitor the crew, ensuring that everyone wears a masks, that the hair, makeup and sound departments wear PPE kits when they have to interact with the actors and that people aren't sitting across from each other without a barrier in between. They're certified by either the National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health (NEBOSH) or autonomous certification body AOSH, both in the UK. "As many as 90% of them have worked in the Middle East and in different parts of the world," says Samanth.
Life First, on the other hand, has devised its own training protocol for its employees — most of whom are under 30 and have a hospitality background — based on inputs from specialists from the disaster management and health and safety fields. "They have to understand how a film set works, how the virus works, all places the lapses can happen, how to do contact tracing if there's a breakout," says Gupta. They're also taught to operate India's only portable UVC hub, which takes 30 minutes to set up but can kill bacteria and viruses within a minute, using wavelengths of light. The company came up with the idea of building this 10 x 20-foot hub, a larger version of the boxes doctors use to sterilize medical equipment, so they could fit cameras, lighting equipment and on-set furniture inside. They've since applied for a patent.
Despite extensive protocols in place, the margin of human error is high. Crew members forget to maintain social distancing or inadvertently pull down their masks while talking to each other. Worse still, some refuse to undergo testing or deliberately conceal their illness for fear of losing out on work. "This has been an extremely desperate time for daily wage workers," explains Gupta. During one of their daily temperature checks on a set, his team noticed that a few of the crew members were running a fever and had low oxygen levels. They were immediately isolated and asked when they first noticed these symptoms. "They said subah se tabyath kharab tha tabhi hum dawai kha ke aa gaye. Itne dino baad kaam mila asie nahi chod sakthe. (We were feeling sick since morning, but took medicine and came to work. We've got work after so long, we can't just leave now.)," he adds.
Filmboard founders Sandeep A Varma and Rajesh Butta have developed an app through which crew members can upload photos of themselves wearing protective gear at several points during the day, at specific locations on set, such as the makeup room
The company added 'anti-Covid shaming' to its guidelines, urging producers to neither dock the wages of crew members who take sick leave, nor pressure them to come to work. If someone tests positive, they're asked to quarantine or seek treatment and submit two negative tests before they can resume work. "It's important to train the people on set to be cautious because it's hard for four or five of us to monitor 100 or 200 of them," he says.
Another company is working on the solution to just that. Filmboard founders Sandeep A Varma and Rajesh Butta have developed an app through which crew members can upload photos of themselves wearing protective gear at several points during the day, at specific locations on set, such as the makeup room. The collated reports specify the date and time these photos were taken. "Since there's no provision to upload a photo already in the gallery, the app cannot be manipulated," says Butta. He expects these reports to aid insurance claims and a few short film productions across the country are currently trying it out. By December, the company — a database through which filmmakers and producers across the world can book actors, locations and other shooting requirements in India — plans to start its own Covid inspection teams, comprising a production person, a healthcare worker, and security.
In the meantime, Samanth's convinced that the benefits of a safety department will outlast the pandemic. "On a particular set, officers discovered the electrical wires were not up to regulation. It was a fire hazard. I think that's the future — the entertainment sector realizing that it needs to invest in its safety. Health and safety officers will be there for the long run."