R Balki shot an ad film in the middle of a lockdown; how did he pull it off?(Prabhat Shetty)
R Balki shot an ad film in the middle of a lockdown; how did he pull it off?(Prabhat Shetty)

Guest column by R Balki: We can start shooting, but we must be honest!

The first filmmaker to shoot even before the lockdown was lifted, writes about his experience and the way forward
By R Balki | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JUN 07, 2020 03:36 AM IST

It’s about time we realised that the Covid-19 virus is not going anywhere any time soon, so we need to learn to live with it. It is not easy. In fact, the first step is the most difficult. But once you take that step, things start to fall in place.

The Mumbai film industry is back to work, fighting Coronavirus with strict rules of The New Normal (Photo Imaging: Parth Garg)
The Mumbai film industry is back to work, fighting Coronavirus with strict rules of The New Normal (Photo Imaging: Parth Garg)

I recently wrapped a shoot of an ad film; it was the first shoot in Bombay since the lockdown was announced. It was not a complicated a process. All we needed was a bit of preparation to ensure the process was in place and hygiene levels were maintained.

“Apart from hygiene, basic health honesty will be crucial and that will come only when we normalise the situation and remove the stigma that is becoming associated with the disease”

When Akshay Kumar called and asked me to direct this ad film, of course there was that important conversation at home. But there was no doubt in my mind or in Gauri’s that it was about time we resumed work. And what better way to do so than with a public service campaign ad for the health ministry to spread awareness about our post-lockdown responsibilities. The message is to live with the virus, but with proper precautions. Akshay was approached by the ministry for this and I think for a big star like him, it was a very brave step to agree.

The process

We shot in the last week on May. With the city under a government lockdown, we had to get police permissions first. This wasn’t that difficult as we were doing this for the health ministry.

R. Balki shooting a public service campaign ad with Akshay Kumar in Mumbai’s Kamalistan Studio
R. Balki shooting a public service campaign ad with Akshay Kumar in Mumbai’s Kamalistan Studio

The next most important thing was to have a lean crew: each person at the shoot had to be actually indispensable. Such shoots usually have a crew of about 60 to 70 people. But we cut it down to 20. We ensured that everyone was picked up and dropped home in cars with social distancing norms in place, that everyone was wearing a mask, and that at no point would those masks be removed.

And then it was all about sanitising. From the cars to the equipment, including lapel mikes and even the cloth used to wipe off make-up, everything was sanitised after each use. Amid all this, we ensured that social distancing rules were maintained.

It was kind of strange for the first 10 minutes, especially while greeting people after so many days. You couldn’t shake hands with anyone or share a warm hug! And then you had to keep an eye on the little things that you otherwise wouldn’t bother about. But then you get used to it and get back to work. Everyone was keen to get back to work. This was a kind of dress rehearsal for them before getting started with bigger productions, and they diligently followed the guidelines while shooting.

Finding what works

Armed with this experience, I can tell you that it is definitely feasible to start shooting feature length films. Of course, those require prolonged shoots and the rigours would be worse. But there has to be method in the madness. Bollywood has to change its ways. There has to be a limited number of people at film shoots; unions and federations need to be spoken to and there has to be a mutual decision. We cannot employ as many people as we usually do. A lot more VFX work will happen now and you will see complex sets designed and created on the computer instead of physical sets.

We don’t have to get paranoid about it, but this will bring discipline to Bollywood. Because now there is no other way to work.

Honesty is the best policy

Apart from hygiene, basic honesty will be crucial. Apart from sanitising the sets, the crew has to be sensitised to be truthful about their health. Everyone has to take this responsibility. It will not be possible for the production house to take care of every minute detail and the temperature checks aren’t fool-proof. Total health honesty will come only when we normalise the situation and remove the stigma that is becoming associated with the disease. If you are sick, say it up front, take a break, stay home, get better, resume work. Each step is crucial. Also, the more we see people defeating the virus and resuming work, the more confident we will be about dealing with the situation. And we need to remember that more than 95 per cent of us will be marginally, if not at all, affected by the virus physically.

We can’t stay stuck at home indefinitely. With so many people working at the frontline, battling the virus every day, we must take the first step outside.

­—As told to Ananya Ghosh

(Author bio: R Balki is a filmmaker who is known for his movies on unconventional subjects like Cheeni Kum, Paa and Pad Man. He is married to director Gauri Shinde.)

Also read: The accidental couple: The unconventional marriage of R Balki and Gauri Shinde

From HT Brunch, June 7, 2020

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