When we spoke over the phone last month, Praveen Bennett made this remark about how different life at the shooting spot felt in a post COVID-19 world. “It feels like we are working in an ICU ward,” said Bennett, the director of two soaps on Star Vijay.
Two days after this conversation, the Government of Tamil Nadu scrapped all relaxations and announced a total lockdown in the State’s capital, leaving Praveen, like many of his peers, to reminisce about a time when work was a smooth sail.
The severe restrictions ended on July 5, and the next day, Praveen resumed work. Today, he has “in the bank” over 20 episodes of the primetime soap, Bharathi Kannamma , which is all set to air fresh content starting July 27.
“The same precautions are being followed now. But there is an air of fear since the number of positive cases has risen considerably since then,” says Praveen.
Besides Bharathi Kannamma , Star Vijay says that Pandian Stores , Ayutha Ezhuthu , Senthoorapoovey and Thenmozhi B.A. are among the soaps to start fresh episodes from July 27. There are two new shows as well: Bhagyalatchumi and season two of Naam Iruvar Namakku Iruvar .
Meanwhile, Zee Tamil announced that shows like Rettai Roja , Endrendum Punnagai , Neethaane Enthan Ponvasantham , Gokulathil Seethai , Yaaradi Nee Mohini and Sembaruthi will also air fresh episodes from July 27.
In a statement, Zee Tamil, part of Zee Entertainment Enterprises, says, “A team of safety experts is brought in to sanitise the sets, prior to shoots. This is a nine-hour process. A Government-approved team is then invited to conduct an inspection once the sanitisation is complete.”
The shoot for Bharathi Kannamma happens at a house the soap’s producers, Global Villagers, have leased in Valasaravakkam, Chennai. “The house is sprayed and mopped with a disinfectant thrice a day. Masks and gloves are provided to every person on the spot,” says Praveen.
He also alludes to a “sanitiser break” where the acting and technical crew take 15-20 minute time outs to cleanse their hands.
In the weeks since production started, Praveen adds that Global Villagers made sure to test all crew members attached to Bharathi Kannamma and Bommukutti Ammavukku , the soaps he is in-charge of.
“I don’t suppose any other production team has done it. The tests are expensive, around ₹3,500-4,000 per person, and all the results returned negative,” he says.
Actor-producer Neelima Rani, whose banner Isai Pictures produces the Zee Tamil soap Endrendrum Punnagai , says that the serial will start airing afresh from July 27.
- In June, most production units had resorted to supplying packed food instead of the usual practice, which was to hire a catering service/mess for meals supply. Neelima Rani did something different. The actor says that she cooks, packs and delivers food to all 50+ members of her crew from her house. That the shooting spots are within a two-kilometre radius of her house helps. The actor concedes that it is like cooking for a wedding but does not consider it a strain.
- “It is a responsibility,” she adds. In fact, so taken are some of her peers by this idea that other production teams, Neelima claims, have approached her with requests to supply food for their units. She has now applied for a license to operate as a canteen from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.
“We had just gone on air in March (10 episodes) before lockdown was announced. Now, we have 18 episodes in the bank. We need to shoot more, but we will start airing from the first episode because there wasn’t enough time for the audience to connect with the content,” she says.
The serial, Neelima adds, shoots out of three houses in Valasaravakkam. On the set, a temperature register is maintained. Each member is required to enter their recorded temperature by hand, and furnish details of any ailment (or comorbidities) they may have. But this is a voluntary disclosure procedure, and so operates on a good faith basis.
This is one of the reasons for Praveen to still harbour concerns; he is also apprehensive about the “safety” an infrared thermometer can ensure.
“If you consume paracetamol tablets and turn up, the temperature check is of little value. All are mindful that whoever they speak to may be carriers, unknowingly, since there have been so many asymptomatic cases recently,” he adds.
But as Neelima puts it, being out of work all these months is starting to force people’s hand because “most people attached to the film industry are daily wagers”.
Compensating these individual risks, to an extent, is measures such as what Zee Tamil has mandated, she adds. “The network has made it compulsory to take out COVID-19 insurance for all crew members. It is this trust we build that will help people come back to work.”