Bollywood: Coronavirus brings India’s mega movie industry to standstill

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Sooryavanshi was all set to be a mega Bollywood hit – and then the lockdown happened

With the world at a standstill because of Covid-19, India’s Hindi film industry is seeing abandoned film sets, closed cinemas and movie stars with empty diaries. BBC Asian Network’s Haroon Rashid reports on the impact on Bollywood.

This time last month, Bollywood fans around the world were excited. The latest instalment of director Rohit Shetty’s super-cop universe was set to hit the screens on 24 March. The makers of Sooryavanshi were expecting massive box office numbers because the release had been strategically planned to coincide with a national holiday in India.

Instead, the country went into a 21-day lockdown that day to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Sooryavanshi’s release was postponed indefinitely. So was that of 83, director Kabir Khan’s sports biopic about India’s World Cup-winning cricket team, starring real-life superstar couple Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone. The film was to premiere on 10 April.

Speaking on the YouTube channel, Film Companion, Khan said it had been “very disappointing” to make that call.

“We were really itching to show the film to the world. But some things are way bigger than all this. The whole planet today is on standstill so I think watching a film becomes a much lower priority.”

It’s not just film releases that were affected.

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Kangana Ranaut had to wrap up shooting for her film Thalaivi

Actress Kangana Ranaut was shooting for her new film, Thalaivi, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu when restrictions began. “I was supposed to be there for 45 days but then we were not allowed permission to have crowds [for the scene]. They stopped shooting and I was back in Mumbai,” she told Pinkvilla, a Bollywood news site.

Actress Deepika Padukone has said she considers herself “lucky” because she was due to fly to Sri Lanka to start shooting her new movie, days before India’s lockdown began.

“The great thing is that we hadn’t left Mumbai. We weren’t stranded somewhere else. I know a lot of people who had literally a few days of shoot left to actually get done with a film,” she told journalist Rajeev Masand in a recent interview.

Film stars have suddenly found themselves with time on their hands – and they are filling their social media feeds with snippets of their life at home.

Some, such as Deepika Padukone and Katrina Kaif, have taken up household chores – cooking, washing dishes and re-organising. Others, such as Alia Bhatt and Hrithik Roshan, are learning new skills.

Some have, however, attracted criticism for “being insensitive” to the gravity of the situation. In a blunt Instagram video, director Farah Khan threatened to “unfollow” a few of her famous friends if they didn’t “stop making workout videos”. She said: “I can understand that you are privileged and you don’t have any other worries in this global pandemic except for looking after your figures. Most of us have other concerns during this crisis.”

Some actors are using their social media clout to educate their followers about social distancing. Kartik Aaryan released a video where he spoofs a scene from his film, Pyaar Ka Punchnama. He amended the dialogue to reflect the urgent need for people to stay at home. It was viewed more than 10 million times on Instagram.

Many in the film fraternity are also doing their bit to help. Akshay Kumar and Anushka Sharma donated money to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national fund for the millions of daily-wage workers who have been left jobless by the lockdown; and many of their colleagues have contributed to a fund set up by the Producers Guild of India to support daily-wage earners in the industry, such as technicians and assistants.

But given the speculation that the lockdown will be extended, producers are already anticipating major changes to the way Bollywood will operate.

Filmmaker Karan Johar was supposed to start shooting his next film Takht – a big period drama – this April. His team had already started constructing sets in Europe, but speaking to Rajeev Masand, Johar said he was unsure about the future: “We had a palace in Florence that we were shooting in and we were shooting in Spain at the Alhambra. We had recced this for two years. It’s not one of the major concerns one should have right now. It’s what happens.”

As one of the most powerful producers in India, he has two films ready for release and seven others in production.

“That’s just at Dharma Productions. Every company, every studio has multiple such situations. We don’t yet know, when things get back to normalcy, what the levels of footfall will be at the cinemas.”

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The film 83 stars real-life couple Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh

Trade experts have suggested that the postponed films will suffer losses when they eventually release, but 83 director Kabir Khan is optimistic. He predicts that the “industry, as a whole, is going to slide by in about four months”.

But Bollywood stars and directors are also aware that their problems fade in comparison to what the poor are facing.

Actor Vicky Kaushal describes watching the news as “heart-wrenching” but hopes his fans can “be as careful and responsible” as possible and try to find the “little joys in life”.

Similarly, Deepika Padukone says: “Now, it’s just about focussing on other things that bring about joy or positivity or happiness.”