How Marathi Film Zombivli Staged A Zombie Invasion In The Middle Of A Pandemic

Director Aditya Sarpotdar talks about the logistics of transporting more than 200 actors to Latur, working on a Rs 4.5-crore budget and setting up a zombie makeup bootcamp
How Marathi Film Zombivli Staged A Zombie Invasion In The Middle Of A Pandemic

The toxicity of corporate greed is explored quite literally in Marathi movie Zombivli, in which factory waste water begins converting the residents of a Dombivli high-rise and adjoining slum into zombies. Factory engineer Sudhir (Amey Wagh) and his pregnant wife Sapna (Vaidehi Parashurami) join a motley crew of local residents, including slum leader Vishwas (Lalit Prabhakar), to fight their way out of the infected hordes. The film is the latest in a genre that's been on the rise over the past few years, following entries such as Korean thriller #Alive (2020), Zack Snyder's Army of the Dead (2021), Telugu comedy Zombie Reddy (2021), the latest Resident Evil installment Welcome To Racoon City (2021) and 12-episode Netflix drama All of Us Are Dead (2022). It's a cinematic boom that has aligned with, and even become an uncomfortable mirror to the pandemic, reflecting people who are stuck indoors, afraid to venture out for fear of being infected, wary of their neighbours. These parallels are what director Aditya Sarpotdar seized upon when he began working on the idea for his film in February 2020, when the first state lockdown had been announced. "It was a pure product of the pandemic," he says. "We were on Zoom calls with our producers, brainstorming about what film we could do next. One of our writers, Mahesh Iyer, said: What if we do a film called Zombivli, in which zombies enter Dombivli? It was such an exciting idea, we said yes." 

The film was written over multiple Zoom calls, with the real-life Dombivli water shortage being incorporated into the drafts, alongside the themes of class warfare, gentrification and anti-capitalism. Sarpotdar's observation of the resilience of nurses and women doctors during the early days of the pandemic made its way into the character of Seema, who stands out as a level-headed figure during the crisis, a rare exception to an otherwise male-dominated genre. Once the script was ready in June, Sarpotdar and his team began asking actors to send in self-taped auditions to play the zombies. "We wanted actors to imbibe a certain physicality and to be able to emote. So we divided the casting into three groups — theatre actors, whose expressions we could rely on for scenes requiring close-ups, acrobats and dancers, who could embody the zombie physicality, and people capable of doing stunts, for scenes in which the zombies were running and falling." 

The director, a fan of South Korean zombie series The Kingdom and AMC's 11-season-long zombie show The Walking Dead, soon found out that not everyone shared his enthusiasm for, or even knowledge of the genre. Many of the auditions featured actors pretending to be generic monsters or ghosts, or performing actions not usually associated with zombies, such as jumping. Of the 1,500 auditions that came in, only 50 were usable, says Sarpotdar. The quality of auditions improved after the team shot a reference video, following which 200 selected actors attended a week-long audition in Andheri. Since bus and train services had not yet resumed in Mumbai, the production had to arrange for daily buses to transport the actors to the rehearsal hall. 

"We had to teach them how zombies think, how they act, the rules they have to follow," he says. "In the film, our zombies can't see so they react to sound. They don't use their hands. When you attack somebody, you naturally start using your hands so we had to train the actors not to do that. They were taught how to drag their feet, how to turn."

By the time lockdown restrictions were lifted in Maharashtra that month, they were raring to shoot, but the government had placed a 50-member cap on film crews. Sarpotdar and his 200-member crew began drawing up a list of areas with low Covid cases before zeroing in on the district of Latur as a potential shooting location. Actor Riteish Deshmukh, who had worked with the director on Faster Fene (2017) and Mauli (2018), and whose brother Amit is Latur's guardian minister, helped them secure permissions. "We met with the Latur collector and he was okay with us coming there, provided we got ourselves tested beforehand," he says. Shooting in the district would give the team a chance to escape Mumbai's peak-monsoon weather and also provide them with access to one of the state's largest water manufacturing plants, a crucial location in the film. So far, so good. Then came the logistics of figuring out how to transport a large crew and the cast, including 200 zombie actors, to the site. "It was a production nightmare," says Sarpotdar, who had to book an entire resort on the outskirts of the district for his team for two months of the shoot. Everyone got tested for Covid and quarantined for a week before the shoot began.

The film's tight budget of Rs 4.5 crore meant that the team had to devise ways of working efficiently. "When you're doing a Marathi film, you have to clock more minutes in a day. You don't have the liberty of getting longer shoots," says Sarpotdar. "We knew we had to pull up our socks and make this film on the tightest budget possible." 

The zombie actors were regularly tested and quarantined in groups of 20, so that if one of them caught Covid, only that batch would have to be monitored and the shoot wouldn't be disrupted too much. "That was the biggest challenge of making a zombie film. You're counting on the hordes of attacking zombies to add an element of fear and thrill to the movie. You can't expect isolated zombies attacking to have the same effect," he says. Sarpotdar worked with different batches of actors on consecutive days so as not to tire them, but groups were not allowed to venture out of the resort on their days off. "It would've been risky to send them out and then test them once they got back. At that time, testing was not as fast as it is now. There were no home kits, no rapid tests. It was time-consuming." 

The crew worried that having large groups of zombies attack the main characters would be risky, given how close the actors would have to stand next to each other at a time when social distancing was a norm. Suggestions of having the zombies stand six feet apart, however, were eventually dismissed. "Even if you have a distance between the zombies, they're eventually supposed to bite their victims. So you can't show that if there's a six-foot gap between them," he says. The only suggestion was regular testing. "We shot over 40 days with a unit of about 200-odd people and with zombies in groups of 60 or more. Luckily, we didn't have even a single positive case on set," says Sarpotdar. Since each actor took at least 45 minutes in the makeup chair to be transformed into a zombie, the crew set up what they called a 'zombie bootcamp', an all-women team of 15 makeup artists who worked on batches of 50 actors at a time, five hours before the shoot began. One batch of zombies would be ready by the time the cameras rolled, and a second batch midway through the day. Since the team had to be in close contact with the actors, they wore PPE kits for close to six hours every day.

Even though Zombivli was shot mid-pandemic, it feels refreshingly insulated from its effects. None of its characters wear masks or practice social distancing. Sarpotdar's reasoning was that since the film deals with a zombie outbreak, adding a real-life infection to the mix would've made it too confusing for audiences. "It would've been another layer of information to digest," he says. Even then, reality sometimes spilled over into the frame. "We had to reshoot many, many retakes because my assistant would spot actors at the back of the frame who had forgotten to remove their masks," he says. The crew returned to Mumbai in August and shot larger sequences involving an additional 100 zombies, repeating their process for a month. Much of the film's marketing involved short videos introducing regional audiences to the unfamiliar idea of zombies.

Released on January 26 this year, the film had 300-plus daily shows across the state, says Sarpotdar. While its open ending suggests an impending sequel, he says it's too early to talk about, though his desire to see more Indian zombie movies suggests he might just make the next one himself. "This genre is rarely done in India, but its themes are universal," he says.

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