Coronavirus Outbreak: Writers and creators weigh in on how the pandemic will shape the stories Bollywood tells
Director and writers talk about how the coronavirus outbreak will affect the way films are shot and stories are written in the Hindi film industry.
For months now, the world has been staring into an abyss of uncertainty. No conversation, public or private, is complete without at least some mention of the health crisis that is altering our reality. Through human history, art has reflected the age it comes from, and cinema is no different. Even within the constraints of the formulaic, escapist fantasies that Bollywood has been accused of peddling, there has always been a sense of the time a film was made in.
Legends like Raj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan, KA Abbas, V Shantaram, and Bimal Roy told stories that reflected the angst and hopes of a newly independent nation. The '70s Angry Young Man archetype reflected the angry and unemployed youth of the time. In the ‘90s, as liberalisation opened up the Indian economy, our films become slicker, more modern, and reflected a consumerist lifestyle.
So will the stories that writers and directors choose to tell once this lockdown ends mirror the world as it is today? Will characters maintain social distancing, wear masks, and constantly wash their hands?
Screenwriter Atika Chouhan (Chhapaak, Margarita with a Straw) is currently working on two scripts. “One is a war film, and the other an intimate contemporary story, and neither of these films will reflect the pandemic in its texture. But I am toying with the idea of an environmental thriller. Having lived through these times, I feel extremely awakened to ecological concerns and the human practices that have brought us to this point,” she says. Beyond the two screenplays she is working on, Chouhan believes 'the world that our stories will be set in will have to reflect the world that we live in'. “Having said that, unless it’s a plot point, I don’t see the story dwelling too much on these new hygiene practices. Social distancing, being afraid to touch surfaces will become a part-and-parcel of our contemporary stories”.
Beyond the physical reminders of these times, there are the more powerful psychological and emotional responses that National Award-winning screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi (October, Piku) foresees finding a place in our stories. “We are living through a time when we are aware of how many people are dying every day of the pandemic; when we see poor migrants walking hundreds of kilometers bare feet; and everyone is learning to live with 'less'. All of these things will alter us. As a people, we are different from who we were on 1 January, 2020. This awareness and sensitivity will reflect in the kind of stories we tell. That doesn’t mean that they would be dark or morbid stories or even that these films or shows would come out instantly but it would be foolish to think that we’ll just move on from a pandemic that affected the whole world.”
Chaturvedi, whose Gulabo Sitabo is the first big-ticket Bollywood film to get a digital release, thinks the industry would recalibrate itself in the post-pandemic world, and we’ll have 'Bollywood 2.0'. She is probably right. Industry experts are talking about tighter budgets and the new guidelines for shooting calls for much smaller crews. This will definitely alter the kind of movies we make. As things stand today, it is impossible to imagine someone filming a high-octane action car chase or spectacular song sequences with hundreds of dancers.
Even as shootings and film releases came to a screeching halt in March, there have been announcements of new films. John Abraham announced the remake of the Malayalam action thriller Ayyappanum Koshiyum. Director Ali Abbas Zafar has confirmed a superhero film with Katrina Kaif, and Mohit Suri is working on Malang 2. Though it is important to remember, even at the best of times, an announcement does not necessarily mean that a film will get made or give any indication about when it will happen.
Director Sanjay Gupta, who is known for larger-than-life action films, decided to use this lockdown to write the script for his next – Shootout 3: The Gang Wars of Bombay with screenwriter Rajat Arora (The Dirty Picture, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai). “Shootout is a big franchise, and it was exciting to take it forward. But I don’t see it being my next film unless the situation settles down. A lot of the film is set on the streets of Mumbai but as things stand right now, we can’t shoot in live locations. Also, the film will require big action sequences, which means a lot of stuntmen,” Gupta says. While for now, he is focused on completing the shoot of Mumbai Saga, with John Abraham and Emraan Hashmi, Gupta adds, “Our choices for the foreseeable future will be dictated by the conditions that are available for shoots’.
Tastemakers in Bollywood have always talked about 'giving the audience what they want', and the industry will possibly see a shift in its business model over the next few years. Realistically, makers understand it will take about a year or more for the audience to be comfortable enough to return to theatres. This would mean more films releasing digitally, which will free storytellers from the constraints of catering to the masses. Smaller budgets and crews would also force directors to tell more intimate and pertinent stories. Possibly for the first time, in what is a skewed relationship between filmmakers and viewers, the former will have the opportunity to dictate the kind of stories they tell. Of course, this does not mean an end of the larger-than-life spectacles that are so uniquely Bollywood, but just that they would be rare.
Hindi films have made us all believe that the underdog always wins and for decades, the industry’s writers and directors have been up against the might of stars, producers, and the audience. Maybe this is the opportunity for the underdogs to seize the day.
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