India has been in lockdown since 22 March owing to the coronavirus pandemic. Two and a half months ago, when the lockdown was announced, all business, industrial and commercial activities came to a sudden halt. Mumbai’s TV and cinema industry saw the suspension of all it shoots. Massive sets were brought down and thousands of people were left without jobs.
The Maharashtra Government has finally allowed TV and film shoots to resume in non-containment zones with strict measures in place. The state government has issued a 16-page long set of guidelines for producers to follow. The guidelines include allowing 33 per cent crew (which will not include the main cast) on the sets, carrying staff identification cards and downloading of the Aarogya Setu app on compatible devices.
The government’s order also clearly stated that any actor above the age of 65 will not be allowed on the sets. The IFTDA has, however, requested Maharashtra chief minister to revise this clause since most senior actors are very active.
In the month of May, when the producers guild wrote to the government requesting to resume shoots, they said that they will avoid or make judicious use of cast aged 60 or above. Can shoots go on without senior actors? Are the producers comfortable with compromising the content and realistic cinema and TV?
Avtar Gill (70), an actor and director himself, who has been a part of the industry for about four decades now, tells The Quint that you can’t have the industry function without senior talent. “You can’t replace actors like Amitabh Bachchan. If the lead is Amitabh Bachchan, you can’t have anyone else. Similarly, you can’t replace Raza Murad, Anupam Kher, Kirron Kher, Paresh Rawal, Ranjit, Prem Chopra, Dalip Tahil, Farida Jalaal...how many, how can you do that?,” asks Avtar Gill, who is part of a popular TV daily soap Chhoti Sardarni.
Gill says that one should take the fitness profile of a certain actor into account and make the decision. Senior actor Suhasini Mulay who has worked in Hindi, Marathi and Assamese films and has been a part of the TV industry agrees with the same.
“Producers have latched on to the most vulnerable and the most easily identifiable group, which is age. I guess people above the age of 60 are more vulnerable because their basic immunity is lower. But what’s a greater danger is people who have a pre-existing diabetic condition, a heart condition. One of the reasons why younger people are dying is because they may have Type 2 diabetes, they may have had a transplant recently that has lowered their immunity. So people with diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure are as much at risk. So, when the producers are going to take people for their shows, age is one factor but they have to also look at the health profile of everyone, including the director and the producer themselves,” says Muley, who finds herself in a catch-22 situation with her age being over 70 and projects lying in post-production.
Suhasini Mulay adds, “I am shooting a web series and let’s see how that pans out because I am caught in this situation. I think everyone is trying to find their way out of such a crisis. Financial instability is middling at the foot of everybody. The bottom line is that everyone wants to start working. Everyone is fed up of being indoors for two-and-a-half, three months. Having said that we are dealing with a pandemic. I don’t think anyone has a living memory of what a pandemic feels like.”
"“I understand that younger actors want to get back to the sets. But looking at the older actors, they might be financially a little better than some younger actors but the older you are the more liabilities you have. So more than worrying about the project, I am worried about my staff. I have been paying them their full salaries. If I don’t earn enough money, I don’t know how I’ll be able to continue with that.”" - Suhasini Mulay, Actor
Rajendra Gupta has been a part of projects like Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Vishwaroopam 2 and has finished filming for Katrina Kaif and Ranveer Singh-starrer Sooryavanshi . The actor, aged 84, says he is willing to resume shooting as and when he gets a call. “If there’s a character who is 70 and if you look at it from a realistic cinema point of view, then someone who is 50 can’t do justice to that role. You will end up limiting the character if you settle with someone who’s 50 playing the role of a 70-year-old,” he says.
However, he says it’s up to the producers to decide and it will depend on how the makers conceive stories now.
Rakesh Bedi who has acted in shows like Bhabhi Ji Ghar Pe Hain and has also done a variety of Hindi films like Uri, Yess Boss, Phir Hera Pheri, is hopeful. “I think the film and TV industries will also start in phases. Just how the government is phasing out everything and resuming operations. Similarly, the film and TV industry will resume and hopefully, senior actors will soon be on the sets too.”
The truth is, we have seen a younger actor play the role of an older age group on television. It’s only been a recent trend to adapt to more realistic characters in the TV space.
Incidentally, the role of the Champaklal Jayantilal Gada, the grandfather in Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashma, is played by 47-year-old Amit Bhatt.
“Producers are notoriously careful and the audience is willing to have very young women with a lot of white in their hair to play elder people’s roles and after all television is full of it. I don’t know if they really worry about someone succumbing to the virus, that’s not their main concern. Their main concern is, especially when you are doing serials continuously, is that you suddenly can’t have someone disappear,” says Suhasini Mulay.
Adding to that Avtar Gill says that it will be a long process to have all the health protocols in place on the sets. “A Salman Khan is not going to come on set alone or Deepika Padukone will not do her own makeup. There are actors who are willing to take on these roles to reduce contact but in reality, making films and TV shows is a group activity. It is not possible to have lesser people on the sets,” says Gill.
“A cameraman needs a focus puller. You need at least five lightmen on the sets and so on and so forth for every department. I don’t know how they will make it work,” he adds.
Will the ground reality be different from what’s proposed on paper? While some senior actors are willing to compromise and say they will do their own makeup and won’t need an entourage because they want to reduce the risk of infection, the question is - will the senior and smaller actors be the only ones to bear the brunt? Will the rules alter for the A-list TV and film actors as well?
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