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Saturday, April 17, 2021

One year of lockdown: How the TV industry survived a year of pandemic

A year after work was brought to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, indianexpress.com revisits people in the television industry and how they have survived during these unprecedented times and what new normal means to them.

Written by Sana Farzeen | Mumbai |
Updated: March 21, 2021 9:34:38 am
tv show shoot pandemicShooting for TV shows were put to halt for four months.(Photo: PR)

In March last year, people across the country were trying to wrap their heads around the novel coronavirus-outbreak. When the World Health Organisation declared it a pandemic on March 11, most were already aware of its seriousness. Schools, colleges started shutting down, big events started getting cancelled, people started donning masks, but the entertainment industry continued to pull through, not wanting to incur major losses.

While production houses and channels started introducing precautionary measures, organisations responsible for the safety of people decided shoots need to be halted to keep the cast and crew safe. Consequently, a notice was issued informing that shoots will remain stalled on television, film and web shows from March 19-31. For the first time, sets saw no action for a period as long as this. In July the government allowed resuming shooting but there were a host of changes: 50 per cent workforce, extreme pay cuts, and strict sanitary measures. The new normal was adopted by everyone.

As we clock a year to the unprecedented time when work was brought to a halt, indianexpress.com decided to speak to industry insiders to find out how things have panned out.

‘Despite losses, the show must go on’

Producer Zama Habib’s show Ishaaron Ishaaron Mein (Sony TV) was having a successful run but was taken off air during the pandemic. However, the maker has no complaints given it was always supposed to be a finite series, and even if they came back after the long gap, he felt the story wouldn’t have left an impact.

“We honestly had expected things to get back to normal by April but soon realised it wasn’t. Survival of people was more important then. What was getting really tough for us was to get everyone paid in time, and to do it digitally,” he shared talking about the challenges. The producer is set to go on floors with his new show on Star Plus, and when asked if the budget cut demand by channels added to his woes, Habib smiled to say, “We are all in the same boat, everyone is going through losses. In order to keep working, you need to overlook these monetary crises, and I think everyone has been understanding of the situation. Also, I think in such times, you manage to sometimes surprise yourself with better creative ideas even on a limited budget.”

tv shows new episodes, post lockdown Shakti team posed for a happy picture with masks as they headed back to their set (Photo: Kamya Punjabi/Instagram)

Given Zama Habib is also a writer. This kept the finances coming in, helping him sail smoothly. He did add that the losses the television industry faced are huge but assured that slowly and steadily, they will rebuild things. “Earlier, the notion was ‘roti, kapda and makaan’, today it’s ‘roti, kapda and television’. Whatever may come, the entertainment industry is here and to stay and will keep fighting every challenge together,” the show maker concluded.

‘There has been no work for one year’

For the acclaimed director Arif Shamsi, the pandemic is yet to get over. He has been without a project for more than a year, and with limited shows getting launched, he feels it will take time before he heads back on a set. The director was already working on a serial, taking workshops with the team and prepping himself with the script when shoots were put to a halt. Once the show went on floors, the makers decided to make it with another director instead, leaving him empty handed. “Not many directors prep so much, especially because you start getting paid only after shoot begins. The irony here is that even when I had invested time and effort, the show did not come to me,” Shamsi said, adding that he is waiting for a worthwhile show to knock on his door. The slash in the budget has indirectly made the wait longer for him. “A lot of producers and even channels don’t call me knowing that I would not fit in the new budget. Although, I too understand the situation and would be okay coming to a mutual discussion but they have already assumed I am not available,” he said.

‘Times are tough, some had it worse’

Arif Shamsi has had a successful career helming magnum opus shows like Maharana Pratap, Chandragupt Maurya, and Chandra Nandini, among others. However, he is not shy to accept that even after so many years, he did feel the financial pinch during the last year. “Firstly, I don’t think many manage to rake in a lot working freelance. While there was no income, one had to look after the family, EMIs, school fees – these things didn’t halt during the lockdown. Also, initially, you want to help people around you wholeheartedly, and then at a point realise that you cannot slip out everything. It has been tough for everyone, some had it worse, some managed to float through. I am hopeful that times would be better,” the director added with a smile.

‘Shows were shut, pay cuts announced’

Vijayendra Kumeria’s Naagin 4 may not have been topping rating charts but it was doing fairly well. And then amid the lockdown, news of it shutting down arrived. The actor said it was shocking initially but having been part of TV for a long time, he understands each show has to end somewhere. As they got back to shoot the climax, Kumeria added that it was quite scary, as no one had any idea how things would work out in the new normal.

In the past few months, the actor said he took time to introspect on the kind of work he wants to do next. And while a few offers did come in, he chose Aapki Nazron Ne Samjha as his comeback vehicle. It has him essay the role of a visually impaired man. The process of pre-production, as per the actor, was quite like earlier times. The look test and other meetings happened in the production house office, “but with complete precautions,” he added. And what about “pay-cuts”, did he too have to nip his remunerations. “Honestly, for actors, the fee is not fixed and depends on channels, producers and how much they want you on the show. The ‘budget nahi hai’ excuse has been for a long time, even before the pandemic. I think at the end of the day, it boils down to the quality of work you have done, how well you can play this new character and also your negotiation skills,” the actor added.

tv actors on set, new normal Leading actors of Bhabiji Ghar Par Hain captured rehearsing their lines maintaining social distancing once shoot resumed in July (Photo: PR handout)

Cases are on a rise, and Mumbai is mostly seeing a second phase of Covid-19. Recently, a lot of actors have also tested positive, and Vijayendra said that while the situation is worrying. The team is trying their best to maintain safety. He added that everyone is going out, meeting friends and family, and it’s not necessary that the virus can only come from the set. Hence, he is hopeful that things will only get better with time if people start taking measures seriously.

‘Praying for a miracle’

Recovering from a knee issue in 2019, light man Ghulam Sattar was looking forward to his second innings when he joined Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai in January 2020. It was a means to start earning again. However, in just two months, his dreams came crashing down after shoots were stalled in March. The wait continues as he is yet to get back to work. “While shoots have resumed, the force has been cut down. The ones who were lucky enough to get back are being asked to do multiple jobs or work overtime,” Sattar shared.

The 55-year-old had it tougher given he’s not part of any union. The only little help that trickled in was from Yeh Rishta.. makers Rajan Shahi and Sajid Nadiadwala. “Thanks to indianexpress.com, my ordeal reached Sajid sir, who helped me financially. It was the time of Ramzan, and through their help we managed to survive the pious month. Now that Ramzan is set to be back, I am praying that a miracle happens and we get the chance to work and earn again,” shared Sattar. He added that while he has been home trying to pick some odd jobs, his son Mohammad Saif Ullah, who is also a light man has been working on freelance basis for ad films. This has been the only respite in the current times.

Spot boy Kalimuddin Sheikh thanks his stars that he works with a big corporate giant like Zee Studios. While his employers kept paying them even in the lockdown, he shared that he did see a lot of his friends fighting for survival with no income for months. He also shared that none of them also get any aid from unions, organisations or individuals.

‘No aid, fighting for survival’

Spot boy Kalimuddin Sheikh thanks his stars that he works with a big corporate giant like Zee Studios. While his employers kept paying them even in the lockdown, he shared that he did see a lot of his friends fighting for survival with no income for months. He also shared that none of them gets any aid from unions, organisations or individuals.

With not much work in Mumbai, Sheikh has been in Chandigarh working for Zee Punjabi shows once shooting was allowed to resume. “It has been tough to find work. While my family did not have to face a harrowing time, I have seen the worst around me. The daily wage earners like us live hand to mouth, and the pandemic disrupted everything for us.” Sheikh added. Having been in the industry for more than a decade, he has empathy for producers who could not pay their workers, as he said, “Woh bhi kya karte, kaam hi kahan tha? (What would they have done, there was no work).” Sheikh, who is set to travel home to Mumbai soon, hopes that he and his friends never have to face a similar time as work is what keeps them going. “I just pray that the makers are allowed to have the full workforce so that everyone gets employed. That’s the only way to have a better life for us and our families,” he concluded.

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