OTT will flourish, but movies can't be domesticated: B Unnikrishnan
The filmmaker on the status of his upcoming Mohanlal-starrer Arattu, dealing with the second wave of the pandemic, and his take on OTT releases
Unnikrishnan B compares humanity's plight during the Covid outbreak to the protagonist in Franz Kafka's novel The Metamorphosis, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into an insect and struggles to cope with the new condition. The director's colourful, big-budget movie Arattu is in the final stages of post-production work. However, the raging pandemic has put on hold any concrete release plans. As the general secretary of the federation of employees in Malayalam cinema (FEFKA), he has an equally big, but different responsibility to shoulder. Unnikrishnan speaks to us about the present situation and future path.
Has the second wave dealt Malayalam cinema another blow? How severe is it?
It has proved to be more devastating. We were coming out of the fear factor after the first wave. Whatever data we have point to the second wave being relatively more fatal, and people are really scared. There already exists a phobia about the closed environment. The scenario is bleak.
Shootings have stopped, post-production work stalled, and theatres remain closed. I was supposed to release my movie, Arattu, in August, but now it will be released after Marakkar.
How is FEFKA supporting the thousands in the cinema industry?
It's the daily wage workers in our industry who are the most affected. FEFKA has 19 affiliated trade unions, and most of the employees do hard labour from 6 am to 9.30 pm. They have mostly been out of jobs since the first wave. They had started getting back to work slowly, and then this second wave happened. Many of them have contracted the virus now, and some are suffering from post-Covid problems. We managed to mobilise funds and support them during the first wave, but it has become even more difficult now. What we look at is a long-term, all-inclusive package from the government.
But the state government has its own limitations...
I'm very realistic about it. It'll be naive to go back to the government every time and seek help. But since we are considered as an industry, there are many things that the government can do. They can help us with regard to taxation, by restructuring the financials, liaising with banks, giving concessions on power charges and government locations. But they are all macro-level solutions. What the workers, not just in the cinema industry but the whole cultural sphere, got during the first wave was Rs 1,000. It's a laughably tiny amount, I would say.
It's not practical to keep asking the government to fund. So we mobilised funds. A lot of people --- Mohanlal, Manju Warrier, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Alencier, Santhosh Keezhattoor, Mamta Mohandas --- contributed. We also got into a tie-up with Kalyan Jewellers. We gave Rs 5,000 each, other than medicines and provisions, to the workers. We've to start the process again. When I say support, it's not an act of charity by standing on a high pedestal. It's solidarity at a time when everyone is suffering. I feel all organisations within the cinema industry have to chip in.
Does FEFKA insist on any restructuring, especially in terms of budget, considering the dent the Malayalam cinema industry has suffered?
Consciously or otherwise, a restructuring has already happened. For Arattu, we spent around Rs 30 lakh to maintain Covid protocol. The way a scene is conceived has changed. Such changes will evolve as long as Covid persists. I'm very much relieved that the fatality rate in our industry is very low despite resuming work. I'll say protocol has really worked.
How will OTT position itself in our cinema?
We don't have to get hostile at the very mention of OTT. We all know how various art forms evolved over the years and found new ways of expression. We have been taught how different forms can co-exist.
We can't hold back a product for long, so when you get an opportunity you should grab it. That's what Vijay Babu did when he received a proposal to release Sufiyum Sujatayum on an OTT platform. On the flip side, there are movies like Marakkar or Arattu, which demand a big canvas for release as OTT can't procure the invested money.
OTT has serious limitations, but it's flourishing and will continue to flourish. Covid proved conducive to its growth. Cinema, as an art form, is about collective viewing and it's not one to be domesticated. It has to be shown in a public space where people from all walks of life come together. I'm confident that movies will come back to the cinema halls. When I say that, I'm not looking down upon OTT. It's another platform. People who want to make films for that platform can continue to do it. I don't think it will kill a large format of cinema, which demands commitment. It's not for passive viewing.
But aren't OTT films reducing the working hours for FEFKA members?
Not at all. It's our members who work for OTT films. They also work for TV serials on the same financial terms and conditions. OTT has helped so many people to stay afloat during this pandemic. When we get back to normalcy and if OTT successfully co-exists, that will be the ideal scenario for a trade union like FEFKA as it will provide our members with more jobs.
Exhibitors were the most worried lot about OTT, but now they, too, have realised that the big-budget movies will wait for the theatres to reopen. Once everything becomes normal, people will come back. They won't sit at home. I'm fully optimistic.
There was news about actors not taking a cut in their remuneration.
I'm not the right person to comment on it. But I would say, everyone, including actors, understands the situation now. I know that directors have reduced their remuneration. A sense of solidarity is there because one can't survive without the support of the other. We can't show one-upmanship. Everybody is in conversation.