Coronavirus: The serial killer
Directors, producers and actors of Tamil television soaps talk to us about the changed status quo, and what this means for their business
Televison serials are often mocked for being endless, but right now, the coronavirus-enforced lockdown is starting to vie with it for competition. With shooting of mega-serials forced into a halt when the nationwide lockdown was announced in the last week of March, they were stopped from airing barely a week later as channels ran out of content. While some actors and technicians in the Tamil film industry kept themselves busy with short films and OTT content, those working for these soaps were marooned.
Producer Venkatesh Babu of Global Villagers, the makers of Vijay TV soaps such as Bharathi Kannamma, Bommukutty Ammavukku and the game show, Enkitta Modhaade, has never faced such a problem before. “We have around four thousand active members who are directly involved in Tamil TV content. For these people, this is the only source of income and 90 per cent of them get paid only at the end of each day's work." Explaining the ground reality in detail, producer Ramanagiri Vasan of serials like Naam Iruvar Namakku Iruvar and Ayutha Ezhuthu, shares that they work on a “first copy basis. We get a fund from the channel per episode, we keep our margins and produce it. During normal months, we shoot 24 episodes a month to get by. Not anymore.”
More than the producers, it's the cast and crew that is in particular distress. Director Ravi is known for serials such as Pagal Nilavu, and is currently the director of the Colours TV show, Amman. He says he’s survived due to some savings. "I am glad I saved enough to be able to ride the wave. If this were to go on for another two months, then I would be in trouble. In this industry, we get paid only per episode telecasted.”
Actor AK Hussain, who has been in the industry for more than 25 years as a supporting cast member, has had no such financial cushion. "Well-known actors make around 15-20 thousand rupees per day and they typically have around 15 days of shooting a month. Junior artistes get only about 500 and 1000 rupees a day but they are able to work every day on serials across channels. The ones really in trouble, according to me, are supporting actors like me who get around 3-4 thousand rupees per day but are able to get work for only about five days a month," says Hussain who knows of experienced artistes who find work just one day every month. "People think serial actors are well-off, but this is the reality. I was able to manage the first 20 days of lockdown with whatever I had but after that, it has become a struggle."
Vijay TV reportedly allocated Rs 75 lakh to 750 members of the FEFSI union in April. Producer Venkatesh explains: "The channel took an entire list of television technicians and daily wage workers and paid them the average monthly payment that they would get. Keeping Rs 15,000 as the upper limit, they sent us the money for our 120 employees. We distributed the amount and produced the proof back to the channel." He says that producers of Tamil serials are small players compared to their Hindi counterparts. "We don't have corporates backing us. Whatever we get in the name of income, is distributed with those who are working on the project.” Venkatesh says everyone’s sceptical about starting new projects now. "Bigg Boss Tamil, for example, would have begun by June. As the concept itself is for 15 people to stay together in close proximity under one roof, I am not sure if we can have such a show in the current situation."
The government has now relaxed restrictions and permitted the shooting of serials, under certain conditions. "We have to shoot with just 20 people in a set that's typically filled with 50-60 people," shares Ramanagiri, who adds that the unions have taken it upon themselves to make shooting spaces a safe environment. "Wearing a mask when doing a desk job is easier than running around a set with it." Director Ravi adds, "Cast and crew members are in their hometowns and will have to cross borders to get to Chennai. Serials that rely on local actors can presumably get on."
Hussain, who plays a supporting role in a Sun TV serial called Roja, doesn’t think it will be easy to make serials with such restrictions. "The lightmen team alone is made up of around 10 people. The makeup team would have one at least for the makeup, touch-up and hairdressing, respectively. And then, there’s the production team for the food, the set team. There’s the camera crew, and in addition to all this, each artiste typically has an assistant and a touchup person. At the bare minimum, a set would need at least 40 people to function, even if a scene features just the hero and the heroine," says the actor, who makes a further point about a possible logistical nightmare for many a serial. "For my serial, the male lead is from Bangalore and the female lead is from Hyderabad. Though the flight services have resumed, they are required to self-quarantine for 15 days once they land in Chennai. Once they are sent back, they will have to spend another 15 days in their hometown in quarantine. For one schedule of shooting, they will have to waste an entire month doing nothing." All this is assuming that nobody on the sets tests positive. “That would have disastrous consequences. We need about 24 episodes every month to survive, and this cannot be done with the current constraints."
The content too is expected to undergo changes. Ramanagiri says, "Audiences have not seen the serials for two months. We have to bring them back into that world, and we will likely have to do this with a recap.” He adds, "My Amman serial has a lot of temple shots and village scenes. Some of these haven’t been shot completely. Out of the necessary 120 scenes, for example, we would have shot only about 60-70 shots so far. Now, we have to make sense of all the footage and convince the channel too."
In order to comply with government restrictions, Hussain believes that makers will have to take on the unenviable task of prioritising between cast and crew members. “Those playing supporting roles are likely to lose their jobs. Strangely though, main actors who will get prioritised, are those who can manage the longst without shooting," says the actor. "I can’t go back to being a junior artiste, and neither am I a star to be a mandatory presence.” Such supporting characters are already under threat of being axed, every time there’s a budget problem, he says. "I play the assistant to the hero who plays a lawyer. My character will be thought dispensable."
Ultimately, it all comes down to the most used abbreviation in the television world -- TRP (Target Rating Point). Unlike a film that might just have to compete with a couple of other films that releases that week, a soap has to be consistently good enough to hold the attention of the viewers. Ravi knows this will be a challenge. “Once people are allowed to leave their homes, they will want to get away from the TVs. This will result in the ratings going down and the channel will raise questions. We have to come up with a screenplay that will keep people watching." Hussain adds to this: "Our Roja serial was number one in Sun TV's TRP, so getting back to that spot would be a challenge. I think it’s likely that some known actors from the film industry will be added to increase the appeal of the serial."
There’s a hint of a silver lining. Ramanagiri notes that the TRP ratings during lockdown did not come down, despite the lack of serials. “This shows that people are still watching TV channels." Fellow producer Venkatesh summarises, “Only the best will survive this phase. To be relevant, we now have to do way more… for much lesser money.”