Bollywood director Shakun Batra initially envisioned the beaches of Sri Lanka as the location of his latest film, a relationship drama for one of India’s biggest studios.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic making international travel nearly impossible, he quickly had to choose another location.
All I could think of was it felt like you were an athlete and the rules of the game had changed, Batra said by phone from Goa, a coastal state south of Mumbai, which he had chosen. as a backup location.
After months of deadlock and uncertainty, the world’s largest film industry is finally up and running. But with the pandemic still raging, Bollywood actors and crews are still figuring out how to work and how to perform the lavish venues and dance sequences it’s known for without making a lot of people sick.
Filming takes place against the backdrop of a COVID-19 outbreak that India has struggled to control, with nearly 9 million infections recorded, second after US scientists estimate that hundreds of thousands of new infections go undetected every week due to a widespread inability to observe social distancing.
It’s tough because you have to hang on to that same creative vision, but react to a whole new set of conditions, Batra said.
After choosing new locations for his still untitled film, expected in April by Dharma Productions, he had to face another problem: a series of cases of COVID-19 on the set. Batra declined to go into details, citing privacy concerns, but said infections slowed filming because people had to be quarantined and sets closed and disinfected.
Movie sets have instituted a variety of precautions.
Among the most elaborate are the sprinkler systems that spray the costumes with disinfectant and not proven sterilization rooms that apply ultraviolet light to camera kits and crew members.
Directors shoot with skeleton crews, makeup artists work without assistants, and stars have been invited to leave those around them at home. Several productions refused a request from Times reporters to attend the filming.
The production team of Dostana 2, the sequel to a 2008 romantic comedy blockbuster, was trying to figure out how to make a wedding sequence one of the iconic scenes in Bollywood films look lavish with just 50 dancers instead. from 300.
Those big numbers that have hundreds of backing dancers are definitely at risk, said the film’s assistant director Jehan Handa.
In Bollywood the number of people you have in a song comes into its budget if you can afford the hundreds of dancers and all of their costumes, then that comes across as a very, big, important song. Anything less, and it might sound a bit cheap.
Actors and crew are tested for COVID-19 and undergo daily temperature checks, but testing is spotty after that and every shoot comes with risk.
You have to stay close to each other while filming, otherwise it won’t look real, actress Neha Sharma said. You inevitably feel vulnerable. I guess all we can do is have a little faith.
In May, the state government of Maharashtra, which includes the Mumbai Film Center, issued guidelines requiring crews to operate at one-third of their usual size and members to stay six feet from one of the other and wear masks and gloves at all times. Those who appear on camera are exempt, but the state has said no extravagant scenes should be filmed until the threat of a pandemic subsides.
However, the security levels vary considerably from one set to another. Some crews are accommodated in five-star hotels, quarantined for a week before filming, and must wear full protective gear for 12 or more hours of filming per day.
Others are taking far less precautions, which has been blamed for a series of COVID-19 outbreaks on the shelves. After the cases were reported Among the cast and crew of Hindi TV soap operas earlier this fall, productions suffered numerous shutdowns and skyrocketing costs.
The point is, people have to work even if they feel safe, which you can’t afford not to do, said a member of a production team who requested anonymity to protect his work. . In the Bollywood hierarchy, only stars and directors have the power to stop filming or start over. I’ve heard of some actors saying, I don’t have symptoms, let’s continue.
Although India is a center of visual effects outsourcing for Hollywood, and recent hits such as Padmaavat and Baahubali have featured elaborate digital scenes, the process is too expensive to be an option for most Indian producers.
The West can allocate $ 10 million just for special effects, that’s about the entire budget for some films in India, producer Konark Gowariker said.
The theatrical release is generally the main source of income for films. But restrictions on theaters, only some states have reopened them, and most are allowed to operate at only half of their capacity, which has deterred production companies from investing in big budget films.
More movies have been released straight to streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazons Prime Video, with legends from the big screen including Amitabh Bachchan who recovered from COVID-19 in August making their direct digital debut.
The industry’s hope is that theaters will bounce back and that Indian fascination with movie stars will be worth it.
In America, people watch a movie once, maybe twice, Gowariker said. In India, if people like a movie, they go there five times. If they like the actor but the movies are bad, they might go three times.
In the meantime, the restrictions could result in smaller-scale family dramas with simpler sets, the kind of films that so far have only been made by a few independent directors in India.
Now, see mainstream producers giving this the green light because it’s safe and COVID-friendly, said Rohan Narula, a Mumbai-based screenwriter.
After the pandemic exposed rampant social inequalities in India, millions of migrant workers found themselves destitute and forced to return home when a nationwide lockdown was declared in March, some filmmakers believe audiences may have less appetite for the all-song, all-dancing and glamorous fare. that Bollywood generally produces.
The star value has really taken a hit, as the regular guy and his value have increased exponentially, Handa said. They are the ones who, during the pandemic, did not have the luxury of staying at home.
Sanghera is a special envoy.
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