Does cinema need to acknowledge the pandemic?
Has the pandemic changed the way films are written? Filmmakers weigh in on how stories have changed, and whether they prefer to write the pandemic into their work…
When Ram Gopal Varma’s Coronavirus became one of the first few films to open in theatres after the resumption of film screenings in December last year, many asked why films, instead of serving as an escape avenue, were reiterating the horror of the pandemic. Now, seven months and a second wave later, the pandemic continues to be far away from its finish line. What has changed in the interim though, is how we have grown to live with it. We don’t refer to it as “the new normal” anymore; face masks, shields, and sanitisers have become part of our everyday routine. How have writers changed their process though, to accommodate this new life?
Tamil filmmaker PS Mithran, whose Irumbuthirai and Hero focussed on social issues, believes that the disaster “has bifurcated our times into pre-and post-pandemic eras. You can’t brush it under the carpet. Considering it has impacted every individual, directly and indirectly, our stories will see a change too.”
The filmmaker cites the 2004 Tsunami as a reference point. “Post the Tsunami in 2004, films like Dasavatharam and Kayal incorporated it into their storylines. The pandemic will seep into our stories. The lockdown, the politics involved, and the lifestyle and cultural changes the pandemic has instigated, are bound to serve as fertilisers for stories waiting to be told.”
A writer himself, he believes the pandemic to be a treasure trove for stories, albeit with certain logical and practical obstacles. “And yet, I remain unsure about the imagery these incidents will create. The idea of a couple sitting on a beach wearing masks isn’t exactly appealing. The film I am currently working on, Sardar, was written before the outbreak, and naturally, it doesn’t allow me to acknowledge the pandemic. I’ll have to treat this as a story taking place in a pre-pandemic timeline to circumvent logical issues.”
Rathna Kumar, whose directorial credits include Meyadha Maan and Aadai, on the other hand, isn’t exactly thrilled about making the pandemic the centre of his stories. “I’m cautious about eschewing stories set around the pandemic, although we may soon get to see films based on real-life incidents. For instance, the hardships of migrant workers can take the form of a movie. We have all heard many heart-wrenching stories, like that of an ambulance that drove with a dead body for days before delivering it to the family of the deceased. Such individual incidents might inspire films, but I wonder whether filmmakers would be interested in telling stories that take place in that timeframe in general or use lockdown and travel restrictions as only conflicts in their films.”
He adds that the pandemic can be a tough nut to crack considering that it is an ever-evolving threat. “The uncertainty over a film’s release runs the risk of making films dated. We are coming across new variants and scientific terminologies every day. Moreover, Covid doesn’t have a form that can be portrayed. Natural calamities like floods or earthquakes have a definite form, whereas, in the case of Covid, the threat exists as a set of norms. From a creative perspective, it’s easier to write fictional dystopian films as they offer the liberty to create a universe with your set of rules. Considering all these challenges, I’m choosing to avoid this in my films.”
Milind Rau, the director of Aval and the recently released Netrikann, points out that Malayalam films like Joji and Cold Case have already ingrained the pandemic in their narrative. “Although the stories that have been written before the pandemic are likely to remain untouched, the films that will be scripted henceforward cannot dodge reality. The pandemic is a marker of sorts for our timeline. There will be films based on Covid; it’s inevitable.”
Actor-filmmaker Rakshit Shetty, whose Kannada film, 777 Charlie, was partially shot during the pandemic, believes that it’s all about the timeline the story is set in. “If the timeline permits, it’s definitely possible to incorporate Covid. I, for one, am not particularly thrilled about bringing in the pandemic into my stories. However, if a niche subject demands it, why not?”
Ratheesh Ravi, the writer of the Malayalam film Ishq: Not a Love Story, has a rather pragmatic perspective to offer to this conversation. “In the post-pandemic scenario, anyone pitching a script gets asked if their story takes place before or after Covid. The specificity of the period has become a talking point. We made a film during the pandemic, but the story doesn't take place during it. There is no compulsion to acknowledge whether a story is set in before the pandemic. It makes us have to be cautious about every little detail because people notice everything these days,” says Ratheesh.
There are more on-ground considerations too. “It's a challenge to shoot films because we have to take into consideration the presence of masked people in the background when we are using, for instance, a wide shot.”
Halitha Shameem, the director of rooted and realistic Tamil dramas like Sillu Karupatti and Aelay, is hearing people talk about how the world shown in films doesn’t exist anymore. “We may end up forgetting events like festive gatherings if this pandemic goes on. Perhaps this will look like a scene from a period film considering that we are in a different era now. Our lives have changed and naturally, our stories will too.”
Responding to whether she is keen on accommodating the pandemic into her stories, she shares that she has not been in a mood to write in the first place. “I have not been in the right mind space. However, an OTT platform has given me the opportunity to tell a story set in the pandemic, and so, I am working on it now. This has come as a relief; writing is such a healing process.”
Relevance matters above all, according to Halitha. “At this point, I don’t know whether it’d be possible to make ‘normal’ films, and I’m not letting this uncertainty affect me because staying relevant is more important than everything.”
Telugu filmmaker Tharun Bhascker, whose films Pelli Choopulu and Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi drew heavily from the beauty of everyday life, is firm about not depicting the darker side of the crisis. “That is because I’m sure we will see lots of films that deal with it. I see cinema as a medium of escape, and the whole point of watching cinema is to escape reality. I don’t want my films to be a reminder of the agony we have been going through,” says Tharun. “Cinema, at the end of the day, is all about universal emotions, and regardless of the setting, what matters is how people react to a certain situation.” He’s quite optimistic about the future of what he calls ‘escapist’ cinema. “A semblance of normalcy seems to be returning in several parts of the world. People are getting vaccinated, and masks are disappearing.”
Mithran’s slant, however, is grim but realistic. He summarises: “Our idea of the future is built on hope. We don’t know how many years the pandemic is likely to last; we are unsure whether the vaccines will be able to control the spread, nor do we know how many waves await us. All we have is the hope that it all ends this year; it may or may not. On the contrary, it is also possible that we put it behind us, calling it a 'two-year glitch', and go back to making films about farmers’ issues. If we continue to see the pandemic as a disaster, we won’t get many films on it. However, if we accept that it’s a change in lifestyle, we will see films acknowledging and portraying it. For that to begin, the dust has to settle down first. And really, who of us can claim to know when that will happen?”