With film shoots on hold, Bollywood writers and directors are using this time to develop new scripts and ideas. But how much of it will be relevant or factually correct in a post-pandemic world? Will their characters have to maintain social distancing? Filmmakers and writers Zoya Akhtar, Kabir Khan, Vishal Bhardwaj and Vikramaditya Motwane (all of whom are trustees on the board of the Jio MAMI Film Festival) on the challenges they're up against.
AC: Vikram, you and I participated in a webinar a couple of weeks ago and in that Mr. S. S. Rajamouli was talking about how he sees the pandemic as a sort of creative challenge. He said that when we emerge from this budgets will be tighter but expectations will be higher because people want to see even better stuff. Is that something you can connect with as storytellers?
Vikramaditya Motwane: I love what Rajamouli said. He said that today you go into a theatre, and Salman Khan takes off his shirt and you whistle and you clap, for no reason. He predicts that after this pandemic is over you're going to go there and you are still going to whistle but, you will expect a reason because the audience will be so tuned into watching stuff that is more sensible than single screen cinema. I don't know if that is necessarily true. But I do believe that budgets are going to come down and the we are going to have to make smaller films and Zoya and me were just talking about how are we going to really (do that)? Because the scale of stuff that we were looking to do, we're not going to be able to do that in the near future. It means that a lot of us will have to go back to school and learn how to shoot on the green screen properly which maybe in the long run is a great thing. We will cut down crew sizes, learn a new craft, and learn new ways of filmmaking. It's going to be a very tough year, year-and-a-half, I think, at the very least.
AC: Do you think this is, like you said, the time to cut down, not just on crew sizes but on some of the flab, the unnecessary costs that were just a way of life in the film industry?
VM – Absolutely! We have to. We've all been complaining about why there are 4 camera attendants on the set, why there are always 6 people for the crane, why is there one person with every light. Nowhere else in the world does this happen except in India. So those are the things that have to be done but at the same time, that is your day labour, right? The union and producers and networks and studios all have to come together and find the solution that if there are 100 people and we are going to cut down our crew size by 50% then where are the other 50% working? I think there's an urgent need for everyone to sit together and come with a solution that helps the industry.
AC: What do you see as the function of the artist at a time like this?
Zoya Akhtar: Now we are talking about people that are not really scrounging for shelter and food and clothing, that's a completely separate chapter. But the people that are locked up in their homes, they all have turned to the arts, that's all everyone is doing! They're either reading a book, they're either watching a film, they are listening to music. So it is of prime importance because when everything goes to shit, that's where you look for solace, for entertainment, for diversion of your mind! So I think the arts are super important.
But taking off from what Vikram said, one thing is the industry and the nuts and bolts of it, and how is it going to function and when are we going to be on our feet. The other thing is what is it going to do narratives? Tomorrow if I am making a film that is contemporary, I don't know what the post-Covid world is! Like do people always have masks, is everyone sanitizing all the time, has that become part of our life? We don't know! And does it come into the narrative? I mean, right now, we are in it, so we can only look at it a little later. But already I'm working on stuff and I'm like, when I shoot this, what's the world going to be like? You're writing stuff that you know you're going to have to do a post-Covid pass on because the world's not going to be the same.
AC: Vishal and Kabir, is this something you are grappling with? I imagine all filmmakers are thinking about the future.
Kabir Khan: Absolutely. I'm also going through this process where I'm working on a show that we started work on 6-7 months ago and now in this lockdown we're all having discussions about the script. We're going to shoot some things maybe 10 months from now, it'll come out maybe 2 years later, and we really don't know what 2 years from now is going to look like! And we're saying that it's a contemporary story and suddenly all the post-Covid elements are not there. It can start looking weird. It's such a dynamic process that we have to come out of this and realize what are we coming to. What's the world going to look like? It's difficult to have clarity on anything!
AC: Vishal, what is your sense? Do you think people will want difficult narratives that perhaps might help them process what has happened to all of us or will they be looking for something that allows them to escape from what is outside?
Vishal Bhardwaj: I just heard what Rajamouli said and it's wishful thinking. Covid is not going to change the perception of the audience. They are still going to whistle on Salman Khan taking off his shirt and why not? Do you think that the Covid will mature our audiences to the extent that they will go and watch True Detective in the theatre? I think that's the wrong assessment completely. But I can talk about my films… I'm a little confused like everyone else. The story that I have been thinking of or the script that I have been working on, will it become a period film later? I don't know what's going to happen…If I'm trying to make it contemporary, how will my two actors kiss or even hold hands? Will they be talking with social distancing? I mean, it will be great to explore a subject like that you know, a film in the time of social distancing! And I think, as everyone said, that we're part of the storm, so we don't know. Once the storm stops and we come out of it, we will be able to have a perspective about it. But great subjects are going to arise out of this tragedy. With what's happening with migrants, I mean there will be hundreds of Do Bigha Zamins that will come out of it. And it is time for introspection. I am getting to know so many things about myself which I didn't have the time to think about. Why did I have such a big office? Why I was going to meetings to town (South Mumbai) for a 10-minute thing? I mean, I can do it on Zoom! Why was I giving priority to my direction and not concentrating on music?