Lockdown and shutdown

“An invisible virus has wrecked ego, pomp, hypocritical, blood-soaked politics, superstition about geographical borders in one go. Countries, which hoarded war weapons, that could destroy the human race at one go; made to kneel down before this virus.”

This is how filmmaker and theatre activist Jayatheertha describes the impact of COVID-19 which brought both wealthy and poor, regardless of caste, creed, and culture to their knees across the globe. The pandemic has thrown a spanner in society’s functioning and the film industry -- Kannada cinema is no exception. It is facing the wrath of Corona virus like never before.

Will this be the new normal?

Will this be the new normal?  

For the first time Kannada cinema industry has remained closed for more than 120 days and all activities including screening and shooting came to a screeching halt.

“Kannada cinema has not faced crisis of this kind in the past 86 years, except during Veerappan’s abduction of Dr Rajkumar. Suspension of screening and shooting for 108 days then was a voluntary decision at that time. The film industry recovered after his return from the forest. Now, it is state-directed - Lights, Camera, Lockdown, Shutdown and there is no sign of commencing cine activities, as more and more cases are emerging by the day. Karnataka government announced another week of lockdown from July 15. There are signs of extending the lockdown period if the situation fails to improve,” says veteran actor and President Karnataka Chalanachitra Karmikara Kalavidara Tantrajnara Okkuta Ashok.

Old-time exhibitors in Karnataka admit that films were screened occasionally even during the Second World War and in the midst of plague. K.V. Chandrashekar, proprietor Veeresh Cinemas and President Karnataka Exhibitors’ Association recalls his grandfather’s words; “When Dr. Rajkumar was abducted, my grandfather used to tell us about the screening of one or two films when plague struck Bangalore in 1921”.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has led to large scale anxieties about the future of the arts. Many livelihoods rely upon the performing and visual arts. It is just not the fraternity of artists’ but their support staff, co-workers, and an entire ecosystem that is sustained through their practice. Karnataka is one of the largest film making states in the country and offers jobs to several thousands.

Approximately 500 artistes, technicians, besides hundreds of daily wage workers who are involved in various divisions of film production, rendered jobless because of pandemic effects on the entertainment industry. Okkuta has drawn up a temporary plan to support the daily wage workers, artistes and technicians. Meanwhile, filmmaker Pawan Kumar and actor Dhananjaya are collecting funds to help the film workers in distress. Similarly, many leading personalities have come forward to help the workers and artists in distress.

As many as 240 multiplex screens and 615 single screens have displayed “NO SHOWS” notice in their premises. Because of lockdown and screens going blank, -Kempe Gowda Road in Bengaluru, which is the nerve center of Kannada cinema in Karnataka, looks deserted.

The pandemic has dealt a severe blow to owners of single-screen cinema halls in Karnataka. The majority of owners are either thinking of shutting shop or venturing into other businesses. According to industry sources, at least 150 of the 615 single-screen theatres are staring at closure. Some owners confess that they are not optimistic about the revival of theatre even after the situation improves, as they feel the pandemic has changed the concept of watching movies with social distancing becoming the new norm.

Nevertheless, some filmmakers still believe that the experience of watching films on a big screen is different. “Audience will not sacrifice that kind of experience. Getting the feel of screens will not be there in the OTT platform watching. It is certain that the audience will return to the theatre once doors are opened,” says filmmaker Nanda Kishore. Despite releasing two films produced under his banner PRK Productions, Puneet Rajkumar acknowledges opinion of Nanda Kishore and says: “I am optimistic about people standing in queues in front of theatres.”

The exhibition sector is chalking out a strategy to draw audience to screens, once the government clears the block. There are talks of even slashing the entry fee both in single screens and multiplexes. Multiplexes that were not budging to bring down the entry fee, despite the direction of the government, have now come around and agreed to cut the ticket rates. “We have submitted a memorandum to the concerned authorities on slashing the ticket rates,” says Raghavendra, Manager of a multiplex facility.

Though the government permitted shooting with riders, no producer is daring to switch on the lights in studios and no director is coming forward to call the shots. “There is no point in commencing the shooting till exhibitors are allowed to screen movies. Spending money for production in the time of uncertainty tantamount to gambling”, says Jayaram, producer of Buddhivanta-2 starring Upendra. Many stars have refused to shoot and complete their films, as they are worried about the safety and security of their families. “Concerned about children at home, I don’t want to take the risk,” says Priyanka Upendra, who is shooting for her film, Ugravatara.

Meanwhile, the involvement of technicians from other languages, especially from Mumbai, Chennai, and Andhra Pradesh in production posed additional problems. Producers refuse to engage or involve them in production now, as they don’t want to invite unwanted risk. “Unlike manufacturing, shooting is not a controlled and organised sector. To try and mount protocols on what is fundamentally a creative process will post challenges,” says producer, Rockline Venkatesh.

Of course, the entertainment industry is appreciative of every step being taken by the government in its bid to halt the spread of coronavirus of community transmission and promised to cooperate. The estimated loss incurred by both the film industry and the statement government is pegged at an approximate Rs.1000-crore by the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce (KFCC). “It takes years for the entertainment industry, especially Kannada cinema to recover from the loss incurred from the past 120 plus days,” says K.V. Chandrashekar, who is also former president of KFCC. The pandemic has pushed Kannada cinema at least 20 years behind, he adds.

The production sector claims that it is producers, who are worst affected when compared to other players in the industry. “With stalling of screening and productions- producers are not in a position to repay the interest, leave alone the principal amount. Our situation is no different from the farmers in Karnataka, who are resorting to the extreme step of ending their lives because of their inability to repay debts,” says Praveen Kumar, President Kannada Film Producers’ Association.

Though big-budget films have taken up insurance cover for their films, it does not cover the loss due to the pandemic. “The practice is taking insurance to meet the risk while shooting the film. The risk involved in the release has not been included in this package. Padmaavat of Sanjay Leela Bhansali was the only film which insured for the risk involved in the release. But none of the Kannada producers have taken insurance covering the risk of the release so far. It is time to understand the importance of insuring the film from the state of production to release period,” says, Jairaj, President KFCC.

So what does life ahead look like for the industry, when the situation turns normal? How will cinema be consumed in the future? Movies releasing on streaming platforms has caused exhibitors and theatre owners much heartburn.

Some producers are opting for OTT as there is no sign of resumption of screening. With COVID-19 curbing the number of viewers going to the theatres, OTT -platforms are eating into the major share of the audience. Actor Puneet Rajkumar has released Law produced under his PRK Banner starring Ragini Prajwal on the OTT platform. Similar is his plan to release French Biriyani directed by Pannaga Bharana.

It is absolutely clear. The writing is on the wall for the screen owners -- the advent of technology and COVID-19 scare will alter the landscape of the entertainment industry permanently and brick and mortar theatre will become obsolete, predicts S.V Rajendra Singh Babu, producer and director, former chairperson of Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy.

Actor turned politician Taara Anuradha has studied the problems being faced by the Kannada cinema because of the pandemic and submitted a report to the Government. “Chief Minister B. S. Yeddyurappa has promised to come to the rescue of Kannada cinema,” she says. “Film industry has to come together and join hands to seek a package from the government that would help in rejuvenation of all the sectors,” says Thomas D’Souza, executive member of South Indian Film Chamber. His observations sounds a bit rational and practical.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 2:43:54 PM |

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