Chasing 'normalcy' during a pandemic: How south Indian film industries coped with lockdown challenges, shutdown of theatres

Covid-19 outbreak in March, 2020 and the subsequent lockdown brought the four South Indian film industries to a grinding halt. Months later, when they resumed work, the world had changed around them, but there’s a glimmer of hope that there’ll be some sense of normalcy in summer of 2021.

Hemanth Kumar December 30, 2020 14:44:13 IST
Chasing 'normalcy' during a pandemic: How south Indian film industries coped with lockdown challenges, shutdown of theatres

In January 2020, post the success of Allu Arjun’s Ala Vaikuntapuramulo and Mahesh Babu’s Sarileru Neekevvaru, Telugu film industry was on a high. Business was booming, several filmmakers and actors had their eyes set on pan-Indian films. However, by mid-March, the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent lockdown that was imposed in late March slammed the brakes on life as we knew it. All film shoots, including those that were being shot abroad, were called off, theatres shut down, summer releases stalled, and by late March, it was evident that the industry was going to have to brace itself for a rough year ahead. However, it wasn’t just Telugu cinema that felt the sucker punch of the pandemic. Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam film industries too were on the same page.

Chasing normalcy during a pandemic How south Indian film industries coped with lockdown challenges shutdown of theatres

Allu Arjun, Pooja Hegde in a still from Ala Vaikuntapuramulo.

Everyone knew that the road to recovery was going to be long and filled with uncertainty. There was no question of cinema halls reopening anytime soon, but the industry itself began getting restless by June and the livelihood of thousands of people was at stake. In the meantime, Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, Suresh Babu, Trivikram Srinivas, Rajamouli, Koratala Siva and several other producers attended multiple meetings to chalk out a plan to get the industry back into action.

COVID-19 protocols and bio-bubbles

The extent of the pandemic varied in different states, and so, the respective state governments allowed film and TV shoots to resume at different time frames. Telugu film industry was among the first to resume film, series, and TV shoots by late June with several protocols and guidelines in place. Apart from ensuring everyone wore masks, social distancing, minimal crew, extensive use of sanitizers, and even mandatory Covid-tests became a norm. Some production houses even put their principal cast and crew in a bio-bubble for 14 days, followed by extensive tests, before getting back to shoot. A case in point being Rajamouli’s RRR, which had actors like Ram Charan and NTR Jr under quarantine, as a precautionary measure, before resuming shoot.

Actor Rakul Preet recalls: “On the first day of my shoot, it was really weird to see the crew in PPE kits and masks after a five months break, but then we all had to tune ourselves to the new normal. Everyone has adapted themselves to practising social distancing and taking other precautions. It’s become a way of life for us even though, deep down we all know that things aren’t like what they were earlier.”

For others, it was a liberating experience to face the camera after a long break. Talking about her transition from being at home for nearly seven months to getting back to work, Malayalam actor Aishwarya Lekshmi says, “Health has been a top priority for everyone on the sets, but honestly, it was so liberating to be back on the sets and not wear a mask in front of the camera.”

Interestingly, in the last few months, Hyderabad became a preferred destination for Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada filmmakers to shoot their films, including RRR, Prabhas’ Radhe Shyam, Yash’s KGF, Sudeep’s Phantom, Rajinikanth’s Annaatthe, Ajith’s Valimai, and Chiranjeevi’s Acharya, in the city.

“The floor space in the studios is so huge that you can recreate anything there. Another significant reason is the availability of equipment required for film shoots. Apart from Mumbai, there are several vendors in Hyderabad who can arrange all the lights and camera equipment that a film would need,” Imran Sardhariya, Kannada filmmaker and choreographer, reveals. In fact, there are so many people in Ramoji Film City alone that, not long ago, there was a shortage of rooms to stay in the vicinity.

Scaling down, but moving on

The guidelines issued by the government to film industries forced everyone to reevaluate the procedures on the set. It was practically impossible to shoot with a large cast or crew, which for big-budgeted films runs into hundreds and thousands of people on some days. Imran Sardhariya says, “For one of my Kannada films, we had planned to shoot a song with nearly 2000 dancers and junior artistes prior to the pandemic. But now, it’s impossible to shoot on such a massive scale. We had to make do with 500 people and use VFX to multiply the crowd.”

Some films like Prabhas, Pooja Hegde starrer Radhe Shyam, which was supposed to be shot in Europe, have had to undergo a major overhaul and significant portions are now being shot indoors where a similar look is being recreated in Ramoji Film city, Hyderabad. Many other films, whose shoots were planned in foreign countries, like Mahesh Babu’s Sarkaaru Vaari Paata, and Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan had to be postponed to a later date owing to visa and entry restrictions in foreign countries.

Chasing normalcy during a pandemic How south Indian film industries coped with lockdown challenges shutdown of theatres

Fahadh Faasil in a still from C U Soon.

For Malayalam cinema, the pandemic has had a different impact altogether. It was only in recent years that Malayalam film producers began pumping in money to make larger-than-life films and its market was expanding beyond Kerala. But the pandemic, lockdown, and the many restrictions on film shoots that came with it have forced filmmakers to change their approach once again. Mahesh Narayanan, director of films like C Yu Soon and Take Off, was awaiting the release of his film Malik, starring Fahadh Faasil, in April, 2020. “Malik is a huge production involving hundreds of people. But with this pandemic, I don’t know if I can make a film of that scale and budget for the next two years at least,” Mahesh Narayanan confesses, adding, “Now we have no choice but go back to our roots and make films on a smaller scale, lesser budget, but while remaining true to out ethnicity and milieu, which is the USP of Malayalam cinema.”

Struggle for survival

Incidentally, except for the Telugu film industry where a select few new films began their principal photography in the last four months, other film industries preferred to only resume shoots of films which were at various stages of production prior to the pandemic. One of the reasons behind this decision is the rising interest rates on the film’s budget. Tamil cinema had been reeling under pressure due to high interest rates that private money lenders charge for film financing, and the pandemic has aggravated the scenario.

Film producer S R Prabhu reveals, “It’s no secret that there’s no institutional funding for our films and we have to rely on a select few people to finance our films. Some producers even end up paying 20%-40% as interest rate per annum which is huge. The more a project gets delayed, the higher the burden on the producer. That’s one of the key reasons why not many new projects have been announced, because at the moment, there’s no clarity about when the current set of projects under production are going to release in theatres.”

The pandemic has also, incidentally, affected different people in the industry in a different way. While some actors got busy with shoots, several writers and directors found plenty of work to do for OTT platforms or revisit their earlier scripts to fine-tune them. But it has been devastating for thousands of daily wage workers, especially in the production and art department, who have to be on field to do their work. In the early days of the film shoots, many people let go off projects because they were reluctant to travel to different cities. Filmmaker and producer Sai Rajesh says, “When you make content for OTTs, they operate in a different style. The crew is always minimal and budgets are pretty tight. There are no restrictions on timings as well. It can’t generate a lot of employment for the majority of the workers. Their survival will depend on reopening of cinema halls which will revive production of many more films.”

The exhibition sector is among the worst affected segments in the film industry. With theatres being shut down for almost eight months in many states, many single screen theatres are staring at an uncertain future. Already, several cinema halls have been shut down permanently in Telangana, and many more are expected to follow suit.

This prompted the exhibitors, theatre owners, and their associations in all the industries to demand their respective state governments to waive off the electricity charges, lower GST, re-negotiate VPF (virtual print fee) charges with digital service providers, and allow flexible pricing of tickets for the next few months. While Telangana and Andhra Pradesh governments have announced numerous sops in a bid to rescue the theatres, the Tamil Nadu and Kerala governments are yet to take a call in this regard. Despite all these measures, many believe that only multiplexes and other cinema halls whose owners have deep pockets will survive in near future.

Chasing normalcy during a pandemic How south Indian film industries coped with lockdown challenges shutdown of theatres

Suriya in a still from the trailer of Soorarai Pottru.

“India has less than 10,000 cinema halls and it’s nowhere close to what China has. The pandemic is going to have far reaching consequences and we are already reaching a stage where going to cinema halls is being treated as a luxury whereas streaming films has become economical. If the industry has to thrive in the long term, we need more screens. Maybe, one day, we’ll have many small theatres mushrooming all over which will be able to stream films directly on screen once the 5G spectrum is introduced, like how it’s being experimented in the West,” Mahesh Narayanan says.

Film production and exhibition in cinema halls are interlinked so strongly in South India that any disruption to this mode of operation throws everything into a disarray. This was quite evident in the lead up to Suriya’s Soorarai Pottru’s release on Amazon Prime. Several theatre owners demanded Suriya to scale back his decision and wait for the film to release, and the adverse reaction from theatre owners underlined the frustration and uncertainty they had been facing. Not surprisingly, they welcomed the decision of the producers of Vijay’s Master to release their film in cinema halls, despite having a lucrative offer from an OTT.

A top executive in a leading OTT says, “Even though a lot more people are watching films on OTTs, watching a film on your computer or mobile can never give you a theatrical experience. Moreover, a lot of times, the money that an OTT can offer to producers of big budget films won’t be enough to recover their budget. For big films, their theatrical revenue will be much higher on any given day. That’s also a reason why so many producers chose to wait to release their films in theatres despite the pandemic.”

Movies will remain a cultural force

Top actors in the four south film industries are treated as demi-gods and their movies are released amidst great fanfare. The dynamics of the relationship between stars and their fans is so different in South compared to Bollywood that there’s clear consensus in all the South Indian film industries that this long gap won’t change the star system prevalent in their respective industries. Part of the reason behind this phenomenon is how movies play a significant role in people’s daily lives and going to movies itself is deeply ingrained in the region’s cultural fabric.

“Not everyone can afford to go on an expensive vacation with their families, can they? So, going to movies is a de facto choice for many people, especially in towns and villages,” S R Prabhu, producer, adds. Tamil actor RJ Balaji puts it in perspective saying, “There won’t be a change in the star system, but what will change is the kind of stories that we tell for the big screen. People have been watching so many movies and shows on OTTs that you need to give them a special reason to come to the theatres. That sort of demarcation will definitely come into place, but going to cinema halls will remain strong even if theatres open after a long time.” His film, Mookuthi Amman, also starring Nayanthara, was released on Disney Hotstar, and he says that it was a wise decision. “None of us knew that the lockdown would go on for so long, and there was no point holding on to a film that was ready for release. I would have loved a theatrical release for our film, but I’m glad our team took the right call.”

The OTT boom

The pandemic has turned out to be a huge blessing for OTTs. By June, 2020, Bollywood pivoted to releasing their films like Dil Bechara, Gunjan Saxena on OTTs, and soon, Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam filmmakers followed suit. AHA!, a Telugu OTT, added 300 films and 12 original shows to its library. Buoyed by the overwhelming response this year, the OTT has announced that in the next one year, they are going to release 52 originals on their platform. Zee5 added 500 hours of content including five original shows in Telugu. Amazon Prime acquired films like V, Middle Class Melodies, and Nishabdam, whereas Netflix picked up rights of Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya and Miss India. Hotstar unveiled its line up of Tamil originals which are slated for release in 2021.

Telugu actor Satyadev, whose performance in Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya earned him rave reviews, confesses that 2020 has been the best year of his career, so far. “I’ve had a lot of releases this year on OTTs, and their reach has been so huge that I didn’t expect that so many big wigs in the industry will get to see my work. There’s a lot of work for writers, actors, and directors these days, and I’m busier than ever before. If ever I buy a big car, I’ll make sure that the car’s number is 2020.” Filmmakers like Nandini Reddy are equally bullish about the future of OTTs. She says, “The consumption of content is so high in AP and Telangana that it really feels like there’s not enough content. In a way, it’s good that people have been watching so many Hindi, English and foreign movies and shows. It sets the bar higher for us and creates a bigger playground for creators to tell their stories which wouldn’t have been greenlit earlier."

Chasing normalcy during a pandemic How south Indian film industries coped with lockdown challenges shutdown of theatres

Satyadev (L) in a still from Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya.

Kannada film industry too saw the release of a select few films on OTTs and Rakshit believes that the future is brighter for Kannada films with good content. “Until three years ago, OTTs were not even buying Kannada films. That scenario is slowly changing now. Now, we are confident that if the content is good, then OTTs will definitely consider them if they are backed by a good production house,” Rakshit adds.

For Malayalam filmmakers, OTTs have traditionally proved to be a tough nut to crack. Despite the popularity of films like Premam, Bangalore Days, Jallikattu, Kumbalangi Nights in various cities across India, there are hardly any web series in Malayalam on leading OTTs. So, what explains this dearth of content in OTTs despite being hailed as one of the best film industries in the country when it comes to storytelling? Mahesh Narayanan believes that it’s got a lot to do with the market for Malayalam films. “Compared to Telugu or Tamil cinema, Malayalam cinema still has a niche market. It doesn’t get enough visibility compared to other languages. Our films are big in Kerala and Middle-East, and pockets of the USA, Canada, and UK. We are slowly trying to make films which have a pan-Indian appeal. My recent film, C Yu Soon, was a step in that direction. For OTTs, it’s also a question of who is going to watch the shows because the primary market itself is so small,” he avers.

On the other hand, the rise of OTTs hasn’t been as beneficial to small films as one would expect them to be. While many filmmakers confess that OTTs have been offering good money to acquire medium budget and big budget films, the economics changes when it comes to small films, even for those which are pitched as originals. A Telugu filmmaker, on the condition of anonymity, says, “Some of these OTTs expect you to sell your film for Rs 70-80 lakhs when the budget would be close to Rs 4 crores. It just doesn’t add up. Besides, you need a prominent name in the industry or a top production house to back you up. Not everyone has that luxury.” On the other hand, OTTs have been flooded with so many proposals for original shows and films that it’s creating bottlenecks to green light a new proposal. Shobu Yarlagadda says, “To put together a good series, and get the right team of writers and directors together, it takes about 1-1.5 years. Sometimes, the turnaround time to get a reply from OTTs is so long that you can imagine the volume of work being done these days. At the moment, there’s a lot more demand for new content than supply, and that’s a big challenge which all of us have to tackle.”

The road map ahead

Although cinema halls in Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka have opened to an extent, producers across the spectrum acknowledge that it will take another 6-8 months to see some sense of normalcy return to the industry as far as footfalls in cinema halls are concerned.

Kannada actor Rakshit Shetty acknowledges the need to get the timing of a film’s release right. “We need big films at the right time. There’s no point in releasing big films if people aren’t ready to come back to theatres in good numbers. If one film fails, then everything will go haywire. There’s so much money at stake that we can’t afford to go wrong, especially in times like these which no one has ever dealt with.”

Shobu Yarlagadda says, “In the last few months, a select few producers sold their films to OTTs and others are waiting for the right time to release their films in cinema halls. It’s too early to say what the future has in store for us. At the moment, everyone is still hoping that their decision to hold on to a film will pay off in a positive way. Perhaps, we’ll feel real pain if we see that the audience isn’t ready to come back to theatres yet. When people get over their fear of the pandemic, we need a stream of good films to bring the crowd back.”

The next couple of months are going to be crucial for the industry with a select few Telugu and Tamil film testing waters at the box-office. On 25 December, Sai Tej starrer Solo Brathuke So Better was the first big Telugu film to release in cinema halls amidst guidelines of allowing only 50% occupancy. With several theatres reporting housefull collections on the first day, it has come as a shot in the arm for the Telugu film industry. Clearly, even after 250 days of theatres being shut down and OTTs keeping everyone preoccupied, the enthusiasm to watch a film on big screen hasn’t been dented completely. One can expect a much bigger wave in Tamil Nadu when one of the most anticipated films of the season - Vijay, Vijay Sethupathi starrer Master hits the screens.

For better or worse, people have learnt to live with the pandemic, and the South Indian film industries are figuring out ways to sustain themselves in their own ways. Movies made us feel less lonely in 2020. The South Indian film industries will be praying hard that the audience will reciprocate their love in 2021 and beyond.

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