The Hindi-language film industry, popularly known as Bollywood, is displaying its resilience after being hit by yet another COVID-enforced pause.
India is currently in the throes of the pandemic with 330,000 new COVID-19 cases everyday, with upward of 2,200 daily deaths. The western Indian state of Maharashtra, home to Mumbai and Bollywood, is amongst the worst hit with more than 67,000 new daily cases and 568 deaths. Of these, Mumbai accounts for some 7,410 cases and 75 deaths. The state is operating under severe movement restrictions, a lockdown in all but name, and Bollywood productions have paused.
Though the intensity of the pandemic is higher during this wave, compared to last year, there is one major difference – the industry has been through a year of hardship and is now better equipped to deal with the crisis, once the Maharashtra government lifts restrictions.
The restrictions are currently due to be lifted on May 1, unless the pandemic takes a turn for the worse. “If the restrictions are lifted, then I definitely see people getting back to certain types of shoots – the more contained ones that don’t involve large crowd sequences, fights or dances, if it’s in a more controlled atmosphere with rigorous testing and all the protocols in place,” Siddharth Roy Kapur, president of the Producers Guild of India (PGI) told Variety.
That is exactly what the industry did after the first Bollywood lockdown was lifted in 2020. “The producing fraternity, whether it’s film or television, is quite resourceful and adaptive when it comes to finding ways to make things work,” said Roy Kapur.
From May 1, every adult 18 and above in India is eligible to get vaccinated and the PGI is working towards getting all crew members shots, depending on availability of vaccines.
Vaccines in India cost INR600 ($8) per shot and will affect considerably a production’s bottom line. “As a fraternity, we are doing it on a principled level, and secondly, to get keep the business going,” says Roy Kapur.
Meanwhile, shoots are affected in large parts of the country. Though Netflix declined to comment, Variety understands that shoots are paused in the cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Lucknow. Roy Kapur Films and and Emmay Entertainment’s Sony LIV series “Rocket Boys,” based on the lives of leading Indian scientists, is paused in Pune, which is also in Maharashtra, another major project that has had to halt.
Producer Vikram Malhotra’s Abundantia Entertainment’s female-led Amazon Prime Video series “Hush Hush” has had to halt its Delhi shoot, and “Ram Setu,” a co-production with Amazon, was paused when star Akshay Kumar tested positive for coronavirus and that stoppage segued into the current standstill.
Abundantia has already reached out to India’s vaccine manufacturers for supplies and has built the cost into the overall budget. Malhotra lists the already steep costs of protocols, including tests for crew at INR800 ($10.70) per test, bio bubbles, not more than two people in a vehicle, at least six dedicated COVID inspectors per unit, ambulances, doctors on call, sanitization and so on.
Indian crews typically have 200 personnel. “It is a significant cost. Vaccines are going to be on top of that,” Malhotra told Variety. “If that enables us to keep our crew and our team healthy and safe and protected, that takes top priority. We’ll do what it takes, including the vaccine cost and hopefully it pays back in a bigger way.”
Like many other outfits, Abundantia’s projects in post-production are proceeding remotely and smoothly, including feature film “Sherni,” starring Vidya Balan. Others, like Emmay’s “Empire of the Moghul,” a big-budget Disney Plus Hotstar series based on Alex Rutherfurd’s books about the Moghul empire, snuck principal photography in under the wire, but post-production has been challenging. “We can do part of the post remotely, including some editing, and a certain amount of VFX,” says series director Nikkhil Advani. “When it comes to sound you need the mixing board, particular types of mics – the sound gets affected terribly.”
India is a vast country and shoots are proceeding after a fashion in other parts of the country where there are no restrictions yet, except night curfews. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan, an ASC member, is shooting period folklore tale, the Malayalam-language “Barroz,” South Indian superstar actor Mohanlal’s directorial debut, in the southern Indian state of Kerala. A VFX team from Canada is present on set. “We are following a protocol similar to the strictest ones followed in the West,” Sivan tells Variety.
Among the other major Indian industries, shooting proceeds in the state of Tamil Nadu, home to the Tamil-language industry. In neighboring Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, home to the Telugu-language film industry, the Telugu Film Producers Council is allowing only “emergency” shoots, which means crews of 50 or below are allowed to work.
Over in Bengal, home to the Bengali-language industry and the location of one of the biggest election campaigns in Indian history where the Narendra Modi-led central government is trying to defeat the incumbent administration, shoots are “becoming less and less, but officially not off yet,” according to a prominent filmmaker. “Until the election results are out, no official diktat will come out. None of the sides can afford that.”