It took a pandemic to truly understand that obstacles create the path, writes Sharan Sharma, director of Gunjan Saxena

'We couldn’t put a super below the film, saying: low quality product due to COVID. A film lives on forever, so we would not settle for a compromised process.'

Sharan Sharma December 29, 2020 11:19:01 IST
It took a pandemic to truly understand that obstacles create the path, writes Sharan Sharma, director of Gunjan Saxena

Sharan Sharma

2020 has been a watershed year in history, and that has also trickled down to the realm of entertainment. In this series, 2020 Unwind, stakeholders from the Indian entertainment scene weigh in on how they view entertainment now, how their skills had to evolve and adapt to changing patterns and whether the year has altered them as artists.

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A few years ago, while watching The Hollywood Reporter's Directors Roundtable, I heard a filmmaker say that in filmmaking and in life – Obstacles Create The Path. There was something about this line that struck me. When we started the journey of making Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl in 2018, I wrote this line on my white board in the office, without really knowing the impact this line would have on us.

On 24 March, India went into lockdown. At that stage, we were exactly one month away from releasing our film. We had about 20 days of work left on the film, ranging from locking the final VFX, DI, a few pending scenes of BGM, Final Mix, and final subtitles. 

During the initial days of lockdown Nitin Baid (editor), Janhvi Kapoor, and I would have detailed discussions of when we thought theatres would reopen and lives would be back to normal once again. We each had our own theories and scientific evidence to prove our theories. Clearly, we had no clue what we were in for. We knew COVID-19 and the lockdown would affect our release plans but we did not realise how drastically they would affect the entertainment industry in general. Nearly nine months later, Nitin, Janhvi, and I are still discussing when things will go back to normal, and we are still clueless.

As we entered May, one started realising that COVID-19 was not going to disappear anytime soon, and we would have to start adapting to "living with the virus." With no signs of theatres opening anytime soon, Dharma Productions and Zee Studios partnered with Netflix India, and our film would now release digitally.

We were then left with the task of completing all the pending work in this world of the "new normal." No film that I know of has been completed working in a virtual way. How would we lock VFX on a laptop screen? How would we mix and grade the film from home? There were a million questions running through our minds.

We had to discover our own process, and this task was quite challenging and exciting. The team (HODs, Production and ADs) was very clear that we needed to make sure we are all safe and not putting anyone’s life at risk in the process of completing the film, but we would not be willing to compromise on the process of filmmaking either.

We couldn’t put a super saying – low quality product due to COVID. A film lives on forever, so we would not settle for a compromised process. 

What would have taken us 20 days of day-and-night non-stop work to complete, eventually took us nearly 45-50 days to complete in the new normal.

John Steward Eduri (BGM Composer) and I had locked about 95 percent of the score for the film, before lockdown. Our tuning and understanding was set. Hence, it was quite easy for us to lock the score of the pending scenes over email without having to meet each other. 

Working on VFX virtually was a very strange process initially but it turned out just fine. Hats off to the team at Red Chillies. They were able to set up a system where everyone worked from home, and was still able to work without any loss in the quality. Once again, since Manush Nandan (DOP), Jayesh (VFX Supervisor), and I had spent enough time together in the pre-COVID days, we were in sync. I discovered that since I was looking at the shot in my own time, at home on my laptop, I could look at it and analyse it a million times, and give far more detailed feedback, which allowed us to work with a lot more precision. If going to the studio and reviewing shots took two hours, I could now take all day to review the same number of shots from home, and hence have more detailed observations and feedback. I still don’t totally understand how we managed to pull off the VFX of the film without actually physically meeting to lock the final shots.

DI & Final Mix were the two aspects of filmmaking that can’t be locked sitting in your house. Luckily, in early June, lockdown restrictions lifted, allowing us to go into Mix & DI without affecting our timelines. Masks, Sanitizers, and a lot of prayers kept us safe. From my experience as an AD – the final stretch of completing a film involves nonstop work. You don’t sleep for days, it’s a high stress environment, and it’s a constant race against time. Due to COVID restrictions, during DI and Mix, we worked for only eight hours a day. The amazing discovery was that working in a more structured and systematic manner made the process a lot more productive and pleasant. Hats off to Ali Merchant and Mokashi for their work on the mix, and Manush Nandan and Ashirwad for their work on the DI. We all entered these closed dark studios with fear, but once the work started, it felt like COVID-19 disappeared.

It took a pandemic to truly understand that obstacles create the path writes Sharan Sharma director of Gunjan Saxena

Sharan Sharma and Janhvi Kapoor on the sets of Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. Netflix India

One of the strangest things that we encountered was coming up with our Netflix announcement video. We produced the video without anyone leaving their homes. I made a rough edit of the video on iMovie. It reminded me of my time as a kid when I would put together family holiday videos on iMovie. Janhvi then dubbed on her iPhone with me on a Zoom call. We often joked on our sets during filming that we are approaching the film like we are making a student film. This process really felt like that! 

The process of promoting and releasing the film also took place without leaving the house at all. All the media interactions were on Zoom. It was strange to be doing laundry in the gap between interviews. 

The pandemic forced us to adapt, change our plans, and restructure our processes. Luckily, the entire team believed in the film, and did not compromise on the quality we wanted to put out.

It took a pandemic for me to truly understand that obstacles do create the path.

Sharan Sharma is a filmmaker, whose directorial debut Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl released on Netflix India in 2020.

Read more stories from this series here.

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