For whatever reason, one might have thought that the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic would be a blessing for creativity, a fertile time of artists. Somehow the reality has turned out a bit different. The new normal has given birth to new anxieties. How do you balance making art and doing the dishes? At present, most of the film industry is not working, except some, whose nature of their jobs allow them to work from home. Even though film production, like everything else, has hit the pause button, writers and composers are among those who are able to get some work done during the lockdown. We spoke to 3 screenwriters, 2 composers and a lyricist about how they are coping with the new environment, and managing to work through it.
In her writing time, Chaturvedi generally keeps the curtains in her room drawn to shut herself from the outside world. These days there is 'such stillness in the air' that she has decided to keep them open, and let life in. Chaturvedi is married, with a daughter and a dog, and with a father who has a medical condition. Living in a Red zone building has brought upon her new responsibilities, such as "ensuring the elders of the building get everything including that they have access to, to check on WhatsApp that they have not missed any message that has come". "I can't just behave like Oh I am a writer I don't care about them…I did not think I will be able to make that excel sheet ever to write down the stores or flat numbers," she says. There are good writing days and bad writing days—and abstract puzzles have been helpful. At the same time she's grappling with those fundamental questions about how the pandemic is going to impact storytelling. She has been working on two dialogue projects and a feature film project. She has turned down offers that asked if if she "has anything ready that they can start on", because according to her, this is a time to revaluate and introspect as storytellers. An idea she thought is good until February suddenly doesn't fit into the new world anymore. She says that her next, Shoojit Sircar's Gulabo Sitabo, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, which was supposed to release in April, has a theme that is somehow relevant to the current moment—and that's a big relief considering "even 2019 is now seeming like an old era".
Shrivastava does a large part of writing in cafes, in airports and flights, where the constant buzz of strangers and the anonymity puts her into her space. During the lockdown, she has found herself constantly 'doom searching', reading long form articles about how the world will be after Covid 19, letting her mind wander and staring at the ocean. Luckily, she and her editor are working for a web series in a virtual edit room, where you "can see all the footage, the timeline, and is as close as one can be to actually being there in the same edit room." Originally, she had planned to write a new movie in these months. But she feels "everything we watch and make much after Covid will have to be somehow informed by it—even if it is not set in the Pandemic." "If you feel like there will be another world on the other side of the tunnel, I don't know what that world will be," she says. At the same time, Shrivastava who lives alone, has to deal with something far more mundane and basic: she has never cooked in her life before, but now has to manage.
Dasgupta is in "a weird head space". Only her studio's AC is working— the ACs in the other two other rooms conked off in the midst of the lockdown. The studio is doubling as the place to sleep at night for all the members of the household, which includes her husband photographer Craig, an American, and their two pet cats. While he wakes up early and "gets shit done"; she gains her pace slowly. Her cats wake her up at 5:30 am—even if she has gone to bed late. She opens her eyes and finds them staring at her, like a horror film, she says. She has been watching a lot of horror films, and feeling like scoring one. At the cost of sounding pretentious, she says wants to compose "something dark". Dasgupta's process involves recording with a lot of live instrumentalists. And although she is used to collaborating remotely with musicians from Canada and New York and Europe, "there is some music that" she can't "program, say, like a guitar bend, a slide, or the way an instrumentalist comes up with 5 or 6 different ways of doing that". Add do that, she hates the flat, from where you can't see the sky. Since last year, she has been dreaming about leaving city life, toying with the idea of working remotely, so she can "do a Polish film from China, or a Hindi film from Toronto". Now here she is: Trapped.
The days of a lyricist are largely spent in self-isolation anyway, and Raj Shekhar doesn't feel much of a difference between pre-Corona days and the present. A lot of exchange with the composer happens over WhatsApp. These days, between taking his own time to write a children's novella with a relaxed deadline and refining the lyrics of already-written songs, most of his time goes in house work, doing dishes, dusting his books and planning what to cook. He doesn't sit and write everyday. Only in early April, when ZEE5 decided to release Bamfaad did he suddenly find himself working under short deadlines. He rewrote the song a bit–written a year and a half ago–simplifying the heavy Urdu segments. Luckily those portions weren't lip sync, and the changes could be made easily. Shekhar says that he tends to get affected by things around him, as in the migrant workers crisis at the beginning of the lockdown; he couldn't work for a few days after Irrfan's death. He had been signed for a film with Irrfan, where he was a producer, and he recalls how the actor would be present in the jamming sessions because he was curious about the process. Shekhar misses the 'human touch' of being in the recording studio—the moment when the singer hits the first note, when technicians and instrumentalists come into the picture and a song gradually comes to life.
Chohan finalised her divorce in January. But with two big releases — Chhapaak in January and Guilty in March, and the accompanying thrills and excitement, she hadn't had the time to reflect on her feelings about the separation, which this lockdown forced her to confront. She missed her ex. But she's glad she didn't drunk dial him. For that she is thankful that there was only half bottle of gin left. She was a wreck in the initial weeks of the lockdown—making do with an old bag of tobacco, which had gone soggy, so she had to toast it on the tawa. She was spending a lot of time on Twitter, retweeting Norbert Elekes, the Coronavirus data harvester—till she realised that it's getting "too toxic" for her. She couldn't keep up with deadlines, but says people were understanding. She has managed to pick herself up. By week 7, she found her groove, going to sleep on time, waking up early. Switching off social media helped. An interview she saw of entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar Shaw helped her look at the situation more holistically and made her realise that "she must participate in rebuilding this economy for the sake of the country", which has helped her get back to writing with renewed energy. "If I don't work I will not be earning, and if I don't earn, I won't be able to generate employment… I feel that's my greatest contribution right now," she says.
Unlike a lot of composers, who are accustomed to working from their studios, Royal has been working from home just fine. She has a mobile set up, with which she can work from anywhere, although she has her preferred little corner in her house in Khar. There have been the delays of release dates, and the uncertainty about when a certain film will go on floors. But Royal says that new work is coming in. There is no drastic change in terms of her working style; she is used to communicating with her collaborators on video calls, such as one of her lyricists from Jammu. Even singers can record stuff from home with apps on their phones. "Everyone these days have their mics and small sound cards, which enables you to record at home. I can get ideas and record things, and if I want someone to jam on it, I can send them the files. So everything is virtually possible," she says. Meditation is something Royal has started during the lockdown. She exercises for 15-20 minutes late in the evening, cooks when she feels like it—she has a cook, and a dog. She sounds sorted. But she says that she understands how others may not be in the right state of mind to work. For instance, she had reached out to a lyricist friend for a possible collaboration; after a week, she messaged her back saying that 'It's not happening, I'm not being able to think clearly."