2020 has been a year unlike any. Many months robbing us of the pleasures of public life have passed. Still, coronavirus threat looms large and the fear of infection lingers on in people's minds. However, amid raging issues like migration, job-loss, mental health and medicare crisis, everything else seemed to take a back seat.
Covid-19 came as a jolt out of the blue but art and culture became our refuge from uncertainty the future holds. But the question arises, has the theme found voice in mainstream cinema? Is there any potential to it? If yes, then what are filmmakers' plans towards this new, a likely novel genre/style of movie-making?
Sticking to escapism over realism, again
Rewinding back to the time when Covid wave struck and complete lockdown was announced in March, film industry was busy shooting for already announced projects with no pandemic themes. When work halted, came a flurry of announcements that tended to ignore coronavirus completely. Raksha Bandhan, Ram Sethu, Kick 2, Karram Kurram, Dhamaaka, Mayday, Chhori, Adipurush, Salaar, Chandramukhi 2 and Drishyam 2 are some titles that were launched later in the same year, none mentioning the virus threat. Escapism over realism seems to be the call for the day for most production houses.
"I don't think that any of us filmmakers have processed the ongoing pandemic. It will take some time to reflect back and make something of this situation. Very often we don't look the difficult questions in the eye. As an artist that is my responsibility and I'll try to do that," says director Hansal Mehta, who is part of an anthology based on lockdown experiences.
The project is backed by Anubhav Sinha, who made a music video on migrant workers in Mumbai during lockdown, titled Bambai Main Ka Ba. Hansal adds that his short film is a tragic-comedy interpretation of the entire turn of events in the year gone by and is an "immediate reaction" to it.
"We're still in the midst of it (pandemic) so that is the reason a lot of filmmakers may not be willing to touch it at the moment. The audiences and makers have an escapist attitude. They want to get entertained. These 8-9 months have been harrowing for all of us and we don't need to get reminded of it yet," adds Nikhil Bhat, director Gone Game, a thriller based on and shot during coronavirus.
"In popular thought, we certainly will never be able to escape this year. It isn't possible to miss it. A lot of writers will be touching coronavirus as a backdrop, if not the grim reality of it," he further shares.
Still from 'Gone Game'
The ground reality
It is not entirely the case that the film industry is sidelining the global pandemic for the sake of more mainstream and 'entertaining' subjects. Rather, there seems to be honest efforts in weaving it in storylines. Wakaalat From Home (Amazon Prime Video), Gone Game (Voot Select), Unpaused (Amazon Prime Video) and London Confidential (ZEE5) are some of the projects that have adopted varying approaches.
Filmmaker Rohan Sippy, director of Wakaalat From Home, shares his thoughts on ideating and shooting a Covid-theme show, saying, "It was just weeks after the lockdown, the first news of Covid was spreading. We quickly realised that life was not going back to normal. It seemed to affect more and more people everyday. Our show was a reaction to it and the fact that for the foreseeable future, the way we normally thought about creating content was not going to happen. We thought of something that could be fun to play out. Fortunately, the platform responded very positively to the idea of a humourous take on the pandemic. But we made sure that it was not going to be misinterpreted in a way that would be seen as insensitive to the vast community of people who are suffering."
A couple of more movies are in the making that embrace Covid as the central theme.
Andaman, an inspirational drama featuring Sanjay Mishra with director Smita Singh, is happening for March next year.
"It is an ongoing struggle for everyone, so I thought of adding value to it through my story. There is novelty in this situation right now and instead of crying over it, I am making it a central theme in my film. I want to capitalise on the timing of it. I am doubtful if one year down the line the uniqueness will be there," says Smita while working on editing of her debut feature film.
Working still from 'Andaman'
Writer-director Raaj Shaandilyaa, Chairman ThinkInk Picturez, confirms a Covid theme venture for 2021 under his production house.
"As a writer, I have written 2-3 stories where I have incorporated sentiments of the pandemic. There is another movie also happening, which I am producing, that is based entirely on lockdown."
Additionally, Raaj believes that coronavirus will be a recurring theme in movies over the next decade.
"This is the ground reality and there is no escaping it. It will certainly stay with people for some years. This has touched our lives in a major way and it will keep coming back in films in some way or the other," says Raaj.
Squeezing space for issue-related movies?
Writer Anuvab Pal says his comedy show Wakaalat From Home was an immediate response to the coronavirus. He is apprehensive if more Covid stories will see the light of day.
"I think people will get tired of Covid stories. They are already tired of the lockdown. Our show was a quick point in time comedy when none of us knew what was going to happen in June. I doubt something like this would happen again."
When questioned whether he has been approached to make a Covid theme project by any production house or OTT platforms, Hansal says, "No".
At this point, his only collaboration touching upon this crisis is an anthology, backed by Anubhav Sinha. "Since it started, I've been getting calls from people asking me to make music videos that inspire hope. I am all for optimism, but we need to be realistic and show the mirror," he adds.
"Personally, I would like to work on creating entertaining content that takes the audience's mind off Covid and if a Covid theme is to be explored, I would favour a treatment laced with humour. But it would depend on the appetite of the creators and the platform," says Rony d'Costa, Creative Director, Ramesh Sippy Entertainment, adding, "We haven't been approached yet to work on any Covid related projects."
The Real potential of Covid theme
The conversation around the potential of Covid-related projects seems to be pulling in both directions.
"It will get explored in a lot of ways, once we come out of it. It is a social consciousness cycle which will come about. If we are not seeing it right now, we will be seeing a lot more stories with Covid-19 as a backdrop in the future," says Nikhil.
He gives examples of 'heroic', 'motivational', 'scientific feats', 'medical thrillers' and 'hopeful' narratives emerging out of this situation.
Raaj adds on to this and shares, "The pandemic has been a big headache for people. If I start showing things that troubled us during this time, people may not like to see it. Instead of the negatives, I want to touch upon the positives of it. There is a lot of scope in comedy around it."
Tannishtha Chatterjee, who has directed short film Rat-A-Tat in Unpaused, has views that are unlike Raaj's. She asserts that for her, Covid cannot generate any more stories.
"We've overdone it in news and social media. In the past, there was not much news access (giving the example of the time World War broke out) and generations of people talked about it through art and literature. Now, you are constantly online with articles, news, videos and millions across the globe are sharing. There is an overdose of immediate information and everything, even this pandemic, seems short-lived. I don't think people will live with this idea for a very long time."
Stills from 'Rat-a-tat', a short from 'Unpaused'
Rohan stresses on differing takes on the pandemic. "This is certainly a huge thing and the content will have to address it. But it has to be something that furthers the drama. From morning to night people are dealing with the issues of Covid so just putting it in something for the sake of it won't help. It should be made more interesting. If used intelligently, it can be something that adds to the relatibility and makes it more contemporary and sharp."
The pandemic is a long process. Its repercussions may be lasting too. If such is the case, can the film industry choose to completely pretend it never happened?