How will Covid-19 change the way India makes its cinema?
New norms and slimmer budgets are set to transform every aspect of movie-making.
As Covid-19 radically reshapes the entertainment business, we continue to grapple with questions that have no answers yet, like: When will theatres reopen? When will audiences feel safe enough to venture back in? How will social distancing norms impact the theatrical experience (if we have to sit apart from the friends we go with, will it still be as much fun)?
How will this extended hibernation impact audience tastes and viewing habits? How will cast and crew adapt to new shooting norms, and when will they feel comfortable returning to set?
There’s one question I’ve been thinking about on a loop: How will the pandemic change the way we tell our stories?
First, there are the practical considerations. The Producers Guild of India has released an extensive report on shooting guidelines. For one thing, it requires all actors to practice social distancing. Even handshakes are now fraught with danger. So how do we show affection?
The advisory also suggested that actors and crew over 60 be “judiciously employed”, since the virus is more fatal among seniors.
Last week, the Maharashtra directorate of cultural affairs said filmmakers could restart shoots, under conditions similar to those of the Guild. These conditions are expected to remain in place for at least three months.
If there are to be no actors over 60 or 65 employed, does that mean that Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor and Naseeruddin Shah have to go on sabbatical? Is an entertainment industry already notoriously ageist now going to be forced to be more so? Will our stories only feature young people — and how mangled will our narratives be, if that is the case?
Since the economy has taken a body blow, budgets will necessarily be slashed as well. Scripts that require scale will have to be put on the backburner.
We are likely to get a slew of intimate dramas, set against simple backdrops. I’ve heard several conversations about the possibility of crews being contained in spaces such as Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad for the duration of a shoot and exiting only once the project is done.
Spectacle, which has been such an essential part of big-budget, mainstream cinema, will take a pause. Until a vaccine is found, the set-piece song-and-dance numbers with 50 dancers in the background seem impossible.
“How do we imagine the post-Covid world?” Zoya Akhtar said to me in an interview. “Do the characters always wear masks?” Zoya is currently scripting a contemporary story but said she would need to do a ‘post-Covid pass’ on it to see how to incorporate the pandemic.
Because the difference between the before-Covid and after-Covid worlds is so stark that any contemporary movie that doesn’t mention the virus might automatically seem like a period film!
Meanwhile SS Rajamouli has hypothesised that this period will likely see audience tastes evolve, because everyone is consuming such a range of content online. Viewers will still get excited about Salman Khan taking his shirt off, he added, but now they will want a reason and a context for the visual; makers will have to provide a “story experience”.
Vishal Bhardwaj wasn’t sure that such a change would take place, but he did say that great films are going to emerge from this time.
We wait, and we hope.
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