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From bio bubbles to no shoot on weekends, how TV industry is arming against rising COVID-19 cases

The rising coronavirus cases in the country, especially in Maharashtra, has made things uncertain in the television industry all over again. While the Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, after conversing with various industry representatives, has allowed shoots, he has implemented certain restrictions. The state government has asked shoots to continue with minimum workforce and cut down on crowded scenes. They have also been asked to regularly test everyone on set, and encourage a quarantine bubble.

Indian Film and TV Producers Council’s chairman (TV division) JD Majethia, spoke to indianexpress.com about their virtual meet with the CM. He shared how Uddhav Thackeray listened to them patiently and asked for solutions. “No one wants a lockdown given the economy will get hit. However, the health and safety of the people are also important. We put across our concerns, and the CM too shared his suggestions. He said he trusts us and wants the visual medium to be used as a way to promote safety measures like Covid warriors,” he added.

JD further shared that the chief minister acknowledged the issues and asked them to figure out the best solutions. The producer confessed that a lot of production houses had increased the footfall on set, given things had seemed to normalise. He added, “Local trains, malls and theatres had all got back to business and thus even on sets, people had also started to have comparatively more people. Now, we will have to cut it to bare minimum to avoid any further issues.”

While most shows have gone back to shooting with one-third crew, they have also cut down on scenes with a lot of people. “We are strictly maintaining social distancing even on screen. There’s no hugging, puja or shaadi happening on shows,” Sandiip Sikcand, producer Mehndi Hai Rachne Wali shared. The Star Plus show, which is shooting in Kolhapur, recently received a setback when multiple actors and crew members tested positive. Sikcand shared that now anyone coming on the set from outside the city would have to furnish a negative RT-PCR test report. “That’s the only way to go about it,” he added.

Even writer-producer Sonali Jaffar believes that following the SOPs and maintaining positivity would help one sail through these tough times. Recently, one of her lead actors Narayani Shastri from Aapki Nazron Ne Samjha tested positive for Covid-19 but the incident hasn’t deterred her. “It’s a pandemic and can happen to anyone anywhere. I think if we strictly follow the guidelines and shoot with minimum people, we all can be safe.” She opined that the guidelines they were following last year when shoot resumed were quite effective and well planned. And it’s time to go back to it.

But what really happens to a show when an actor tests positive? Sandiip says the character played by the specific actor would either get kidnapped or go out of town. Sonali too agreed that there’s nothing much they can do and now, since the audience also gets to know about the actor being in quarantine through news or social media, they understand the conspicuous absence. However, writer Sharad Chandra Tripathi shared that what’s rather challenging is getting them back in the storyline.

“Firstly, television, unlike the web series works on lead characters. If the main characters go missing it gets challenging to include their absence. But when they recover, you really need to scratch your head to get them to rejoin seamlessly,” said Tripathi.

Sandiip Sikcand, who is also a senior creative director, added that if makers keep the tracks engaging, the audience wouldn’t really mind not seeing a prime character, “It’s all about how you keep the entertainment going.”

For Sharad, creativity has taken a toll as the writing team has been working in solitude for more than a year now. With no brainstorming personal session, Zoom calls have become a routine. However, they are not willing to compromise on the quality of work. On the other hand, they have started creating a bank of episodes for worst case scenarios.

“If we do have to go for a week or 10 days lockdown, we need to be prepared. We have created a bank of episodes, and also keeping alternative tracks in our kitty in case an important character tests positive,” he shared. However, Sonali Jaffar added that given there is no certainty who might get tested positive next, a bank might not work as it will leave the entire line up in a mess.

Non-fiction shows cannot work in advance, as every development is on a weekly basis. Recently, 18 crew members on Dance Deewane 3 set tested positive halting shoots. Given judge Madhuri Dixit was to fly off for a vacation, and no elimination was planned for the weekend, the team had shot beforehand and managed to air a fresh episode. Super Dancer 4 producer Ranjeet Thakur shared that it would be a major crisis if anything wrong goes on a reality show set, as that would bring everything to a halt. Supporting the state government’s diktat of creating a bio bubble, Thakur’s Frame Production has already implemented the same with contestants and choreographers, but judges and the host have been relieved from the same.

He shared, “Given there are kids on our show, we have also got their parents joining them. Their food, lodging and rehearsal sessions are all under a protective boundary so that they are not put at risk. Even the choreographers (super gurus) are inside the bubble as they spend most time in close proximity with them.”

Can a similar system created for a fiction show? Sonali believes that it’s possible but could pose a psychological challenge. The authorities have asked producers to stop people from containment zones coming on sets, and thus a quarantine bubble could be helpful, according to her. “The crew who travel by public transport could be put together but they would not be able to meet their families, which could get tough,” added Sonali.

With the newly announced weekend lockdown in place, television producers have also decided to not shoot. While they claim it could lead to trouble in the long run, as of now, it’s a need to ‘break the chain’. While they are hopeful that it would be a temporary distress, another crisis for them is definitely the surge in production cost.

Ranjeet Thakur agrees that regular testing, extra precautionary measures and creating a bio bubble have added to the expense. Reality shows have also added glass panels between judges, and given a shields to hosts for added protection. Most shows have got the crew to don PPE kits and put extra sanitisation processes in place.

Various industry representatives have also requested the government to facilitate vaccination for its cast and crew, so that they can help build a safer environment. They have also requested for the testing price to be decreased so that it can be carried out more often, and in bigger numbers. As of now, in JD Majethia’s words, the next few days are crucial for the industry as post this weekend, they will know if their various measures reaped any results or harsher plans await them. Indian Express

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