After over three months of all production activities being suspended, the television industry finally sprang into action over a month ago with precautions by the cast and crew amid the coronavirus pandemic. With all the general entertainment channels starting to airing fresh content, around 90 fiction and non-fiction shows (Hindi, Marathi, and Gujarati) that were garnering decent TRPs began their shoot with minimal crew (33 percent of the usual 200 plus crew) and revised scripts for social distancing.
Many restrictions were imposed and the state government directed shows to avoid scenes with crowds " market, wedding, or any kind of celebration. Social distancing also brought a complete curb on showing intimacy and romantic scenes. The producers of these shows are also following strict timings for shoots, which doesn't cross beyond 7pm.
"Currently, most of the Balaji shows are romantic like Kundali Bhagya and then there is Kasautii Zindagi Kay which has a lot of passion and romance. Hence, we have to cheat and shoot hugs with certain camera angles. These restrictions don't hit the family dramas like Anupama or older shows like Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai but it is definitely compromising the romantic ones and we are trying our best to transmit as much emotions and feelings as possible in the storyline," says story-screenplay writer Anil Nagpal.
The other big challenge for some of the shows was to replace the cast due to age restrictions, essentially children and older actors, and changing the storyline if any of their actors tested COVID positive. The male lead of Kasautii.. Parth Samthaan, and a few others were tested positive some time back, following which the show's leading lady Erica Fernandes decided to work from home. "There were four cases on set and that had me scared. Now I am filming everything at home. I have my DOP, director, and creative person who guide me," says Fernandes.
"Finally the impact will show on air, say in romantic scenes where one person is missing and you are shooting with duplicates who will never be able to bring that intensity," says Nagpal, further adding, "we were forced to fill our episodes without Parth, the lead hero. The easy way out is to say that the character is out of town, but obviously nobody is satisfied with the compromise we are showing on air. This will take some form of a hit on the TRP front. We have to adjust."
Senior actor Varun Badola, who is the main lead of Mere Dad Ki Dulhan, a successful show on Sony Television, reveals that he's had to provide creative inputs so as to ensure the compromise is negligible. "On the very first day when we started the shoot, my screen daughter (played by Anjali Tatrari) had to console me after an emotional and teary scene. She obviously did that scene from a distance but I felt it wasn't working because it is not that I won't touch my own child during the lockdown, so we just held each other's elbow to bring some emotions and once the shot was done both of us sanitised our hands at the elbow level. For certain scenes where I am shown eating, say poha for breakfast, I suggest the team that I carry food from home," reveals Badola, laughing.
Writer-producer-director Mahesh Panday, known for commercial, larger-than-life dramas and who is currently working on a new show for Star Plus, says, "We are not creating the grandeur in scenes. We are now paying attention to characters. We can't collect a huge crowd, so we are following a very simple and basic storyline like the way it was done in the past. We are now exploring interpersonal relationships between characters. We can't shoot the exterior scenes, now our focus is between the four walls. Earlier we would have 50 junior artists, today we have only five. If the unit size used to be 100, today we are managing with 40 to 50. But eventually, the whole business is about the TRPs and if we don't get that then the show will be shut down."
"We have to take a lot of support technically. We are not compromising in storytelling but we are compromising in shooting. Everything now is a challenge," says J D Majethia, producer, comedy series, Bhakarwadi. Adds Sumeet Mittal, writer-producer-director, whose two shows are currently on air, Barrister Babu and Shubharambh, both on Colors. "It is like you have to cook delicious food with limited grocery for the guests but the guests shouldn't know that you have compromised. So, we write in such a way that it doesn't look awkward on-screen. That is the craft. And why would I spoil my own show?"
Non-fiction shows, too, have their own limitations in the current scenario. India's Best Dancer (Sony TV) was one of the first reality shows to start shoot during the pandemic, and the team has been trying their best to maintain energy and euphoria without the physical presence of the audience on set. Says celebrity judge Terence Lewis, "The set now has bare minimum people. Usually, when a contestant gives a great performance the audience is cheering and going crazy. With that missing off late, you may feel the energy dropping. But the dancers were mentally prepared that they wouldn't have the audience and they have to perform only for the judges. We were still able to cross that bridge and very safely."
Himesh Reshammiya, one of the judges on singing reality show, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa li'l champs, says, "We have a 15-member jury and there are parents of the contestants present, then we have host Maniesh Paul along with a band of musicians so we don't feel much of a difference without the presence of audience."
Even as all the directives and necessary guidelines on sets are followed " COVID inspector keeping a check on temperature and oxygen levels; social distancing; medical facilities; sanitising the studio, costumes, artistes' rooms; technicians, make-up artists, and hair-dressers wearing PPE, face mask, face shield, gloves; following food hygiene and disposable cups and plates " some of the crew members have not been able to escape the infection. In a tragic incident, a crew member from Bhakarwadi passed away a few days back, few others on the set were tested positive and as a result, the shoot was stalled.
In yet another incident, the male lead of Kasauti... Parth Samthaan and a staff member of actress Aamna Shariff from the same show were tested positive. There have been few more incidents where actors and crew members contacted the virus but the fraternity is not panicking yet. Mere Sai producer Nitin Vaidya, says, "There are 10,000 odd people working on various sets in the industry out of which about 10 were tested positive. All these cases happened because you don't have control over where they come from. We have given accommodation to most crew members in the set premises but few people who can't stay away from families may contact the disease outside."
Vaidya concludes by saying, "Yes, shooting in these times is a challenge and risk-taking but then we have to live with this reality. For how long can people sit at home? Now workforce is reduced to 33 percent, so imagine the kind of stress in bringing out episodes but there is no choice. It is only television that has taken the lead and no other medium. At least people have got some kind of job otherwise how will they survive?"
Sukhvinder Singh Chauhan, freelance Director of Photography, says "Going to shoot for me is as good as going to the market to buy your essentials. It is just like how a shopkeeper sits in his shop for eight to 10 hours but we feel safer on a shooting set because we are in our designated areas. It took a pandemic to teach us discipline and hygiene."