Lockdown Movies

COVID-19 effect: Telugu cinema mulls over ‘new normal’ in the post-pandemic phase

The usually bustling Prasads multiplex wears a deserted look.   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

Summers usually usher in a cheery mood in cinema halls across Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Had things been normal, the celebratory mood would have kicked in for Telugu cinema on March 25, Ugadi, with the opening of director Indraganti Mohanakrishna’s action-thriller V, starring Nani, Sudheer Babu, Aditi Rao Hydari and Nivetha Thomas. But the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown has thrown the release dates of all new movies out of gear and has cast a question mark over the films in progress, as shootings have come to a standstill. A few filmmakers are contemplating direct OTT releases, while others are willing to wait and watch.

Writers, directors and a few composers have been connecting through video calls to collaborate on scripts and compositions and make the best use of lockdown time. There are also discussions to decide the next course of action — for filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors.

It’s an evolving scenario and a clear picture will emerge only when India tides over the ongoing health crisis. Till then, there are only questions: What will happen to films that are awaiting release? Will theatres reopen after two or three months? Even if sanitisation protocols are followed, will the audience return to watch movies in a crowded hall? What should be the guidelines for health and hygiene at studios and film shootings when people return to work?

50-day guideline

Until now, Telugu films would stream on digital platforms only 50 days after the theatrical release. The 50-day norm, according to industry circles, might be tweaked to help small and medium budget productions that are considering direct release on OTT platforms. The others who’ve invested heavily and want their films to be savoured as theatrical experience will wait and watch, provided they can withstand the financial limbo for a few months.

Director Srividya Basawa whose debut film Madha released in theatres in mid March, barely two days before cinema halls across Telangana were shut, says niche films like hers would hugely benefit by releasing directly on OTT platforms. “I struggled for a year to get my film released and at one point, approached both Amazon Prime and Netflix. It wasn’t feasible then,” she says.

Madha fetched good reviews and she’s been happy with the feedback after her film began streaming on Amazon Prime on April 8. “I’ve been seeing social media comments; people are watching films like Madha, HIT, and Palasa 1978 in Telugu, Trance, Ayyappanum Koshiyum and Driving Licence in Malayalam, and appreciating them. I think this lockdown period will open up people’s minds to new content. There will be more scope for us to explore unconventional films,” she says. Srividya has been using the time to write a web series and her second feature film.

Her thoughts are echoed by director Tharun Bhascker who agrees that it’s likely that new, brave content emerges in Telugu cinema. He also foresees writers and directors exploring themes of family bonds, humanity and survival. “This is a time to introspect and look at all the things we took for granted in life,” he says.

Tharun looks at two possible scenarios in the post Covid-19 phase — people getting too comfortable with viewing content at home, or realising the importance of social interaction and stepping out with a vengeance. Tharun feels the lockdown might also help create a bank of good scripts for Telugu cinema.

Content aside, the business is set to go through a churn. The Telugu and Tamil audience have so far been patronising the culture of watching films in theatres, not only when a spectacle film like Baahubali comes along. However, producers and distributors have been closely gauging the change in viewing habits in the last one year, as OTT platforms grew from strength to strength.

Producer Madhura Sreedhar is looking at a direct OTT release for his next production titled Love, Life and Pakodi and says, “That feels like the best option, for me, where a small production is concerned; I needn’t worry about theatrical revenue and other logistics.”

New normal

Once theatres re-open, we might be passing through temperature scanners, witnessing increased hygiene standards at cafeterias, and maybe even distanced seating, until a COVID-19 vaccine is in place.

Supriya Yarlagadda of Annapurna Studios explains how this ‘new normal’ will be enforced at Annapurna Studios. Two weeks before the nationwide lockdown, following the news of COVID-19 outbreak in Europe and the USA, she had installed wash stalls with soaps at the entrance of the studio, and put up boards about personal distancing. “People thought I was overreacting,” she says.

When shootings of films and television serials resume in the studio premises, enhanced safety measures will be put in place. “We cannot go back to the old method of functioning until there’s a vaccine and everyone is inoculated,” she asserts.

The disruption due to COVID-19, says Supriya, has affected all aspects of the entertainment sector. She’s of the opinion that the film industry cannot thrive solely on OTT releases and those projects that promise a grand theatrical experience are likely to hold on till things get better.

Nani and Sudheer Babu in the action-thriller ‘V’

Nani and Sudheer Babu in the action-thriller ‘V’  

Director Indraganti Mohanakrishna agrees and says his team of V is going to wait and watch. “A comprehensive understanding of the scenario is only possible after a month or two. Public health is of utmost importance, everything else can wait. This is no time to promote our film. Ideally I would want people to watch my film in theatres, not only because of the budget involved, but also for the aesthetics. For instance, we have sound design by Bishwadeep Chatterjee and such good music by Thaman and Amit Trivedi, all of which will add to the theatrical experience,” he says.

He acknowledges that OTT platforms have helped new voices emerge, but feels it might signal the beginning of the end of theatre culture if more films were to look at direct releases on these platforms. He points out that films don’t get undivided attention while viewed at home: “It could also get boring to watch film after film on your television or laptop.”

In the film circles, ‘pay per view’ method of release is also being discussed, on the lines of what Kamal Haasan proposed for Vishwaroopam. If that model is to be followed, efforts will also go into plugging loopholes in film piracy.

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 9:58:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/covid-19-effect-telugu-cinema-mulls-over-new-normal-in-the-post-pandemic-phase/article31298706.ece

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