Anirban Roy Choudhury

Will TV soap makers be forced to look beyond Mumbai?

It is clear that the lights, camera, action world is not sleeping well at night these days. Come June, and the production houses are hoping to get busy again.

Sadik, Dhananjoy, Vivek, Umesh, and Prashant live in a rented apartment in Four Bungalows, Mumbai. The apartment has one bedroom, a hall, and a kitchen. The five of them, most of their neighbours, and almost the entire colony in suburban Mumbai are employed in what they call the ‘industry’. They normally return to their home just for a few hours to get some sleep. But since March 16, the twenty-somethings have hardly stepped out of their home, and neither have their neighbours.

‘Industry’ in Mumbai means the business of filming/shooting (primarily television). Around mid-March, it was announced that there won't be any sort of filming in Maharashtra because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Then came the subsequent phases of lockdown. The Filmcity in Goregaon is deserted, the giant studios inside are stinking as the air conditioner hasn’t been switched on for a long time, and there’s no ventilation. People living in Four Bungalows, Lokhandwala, and Andheri are losing patience and running out of money. They’re all wondering, “When will we shoot again."

Apart from being the business capital of India, Mumbai has, over the years, also emerged as the content production headquarters, especially when it comes to Hindi TV. About 70 Hindi shows are shot in different parts of Mumbai, and the outskirts of the city. Then there are Marathi and Gujarati content creators. They also use the land, resources and skilled labour, who migrate from all over the country and station themselves in the ‘maximum city’ to be a part of the ‘industry’.

According to industry estimates, the likes of Star, Zee, Colors, Sony, and other broadcasters spend around Rs 15,000 crore per year on shows which get made in Filmcity, SJ Studios (Andheri), Filmistan (SV Road), Naigaon, Mira Road, Malwani, and so on. Close to 20,000 people work at various sets. Each set has a minimum of 50 people, and a maximum of 300. Most of them are daily wagers, though paid on a monthly, or assignment, basis. No work means no money.

Will TV soap makers be forced to look beyond Mumbai?

In India, the broadcasters commission producers, or production houses like Ekta Kapoor's Balaji Telefilms, Siddharth Kumar Tewary's Swastik Productions, Rajan Shahi's Director's Kut Productions, among others, to make shows for them. Various channels air the shows, own the intellectual property rights and monetise them through advertising. The production houses are paid per-episode fee, with additional incentives depending on the ratings, which covers the cost of creation and saves them a profit.

For a regular fiction show, the fee ranges between Rs 7 lakh and Rs 10 lakh per episode. For a supernatural title like 'Naagin' or 'Mahabharat', it can go up five times, while 'Kaun Banega Crorepati', featuring Amitabh Bachchan, and 'Bigg Boss' with Salman Khan over weekends are multi-crore yearly extravaganzas. Apart from the people on the set, there are creative and research teams that production houses employ. There is a post-production team that edits, colour-corrects, dubs, adds background scores, etc. The ‘industry’ in Mumbai is clearly a large employer. But, it has gone into a ‘coma’, like many other sectors in the country, because of the Coronavirus. But, what's next?

On May 22, all the stakeholders, including the Producer JD Majethia, Chairman – Television and Web, IFTPC (Indian Film and Television Producers Council) Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) president NP Singh, Zee MD Punit Goenka, Viacom18 CEO Rahul Joshi and many others, held a video conference with the chief minister of Maharashtra Uddhav Thackeray. Sources reveal that the CM encouraged the stakeholders, and asked the IBF and FWICE to lay down a plan of action that is safe, secure, and can maintain social distancing. The CM also sang the Bollywood song, 'Aane Wala Pal, Jaane Wala Hai'.

Will TV soap makers be forced to look beyond Mumbai?

Moments after the meeting, rumours started spreading. Some said it (filming) will resume in June, others said July, and some left it to the COVID situation. However, some things became clear. The sets, for instance, aren't going to be as crowded as they were earlier. Production houses will have to work with smaller crews, set up contained facilities, and ensure regular (employee) checkups. So, are we looking at many people running out of work? "At this stage, we are at zero. The scenario is such that everybody is losing... What we are looking at this stage is to somehow hit the floor and start shooting, while maintaining the standard operating procedure," says producer JD Majethia, chairman, television and web, Indian Film and Television Producers Council (IFTPC).

Star and Disney India chairman Uday Shankar has already hinted that to start with, the broadcasters will cut down the number of shows they air. "We are headed towards a dark, scary winter," he told ET Now in an interview. He also suggested that the industry must learn a lesson from the scenario and start declustering, instead of setting up everything in and around Filmcity. What bothers Shankar is the number of people on the sets. He said that he would like to see more technology being used, and fewer people, while executing creative projects.

"It will take time to build facilities outside Maharashtra, or anywhere else," says Abhishek Rege, CEO, Endemol Shine India. "Ramoji Film City (in Hyderabad) is the other option, but that is already busy with southern shows," he addS. Working with fewer people on the set is doable, he feels, but for that, the unit will have to remain far more planned. "If we go to the set and feel there is a need to put up something at a particular place, we simply pick up the phone and call a carpenter. That flexibility won't be there, we will have to put up everything, and then go and roll," says Rege.

Setting up facilities outside Mumbai requires a lot of effort, too. Swastik Productions which is renowned for making mythological content, like ‘Mahabharat’ (Star Plus), ‘Mahakali’, and ‘Radha Krishn’, has a set in Umbergaon, Gujarat, about 160 km from Mumbai. Once the set was built, people started shifting near that location. There are 200 individuals who now live in Umbergaon just to work at that set, which has not filmed a second since March 16.

"We are ensuring that they are getting screened and have access to all the necessities. There is no way you can ask all of them to go back to their respective homes just because there is no work going on at the moment," says Tewary, adding, "The set in Umbergaon is in a green zone and is contained. If we can ensure that the people working there stay there, then we feel we will be able to create a safe working environment."

Another problem that comes with the expansion is resources. Majethia feels that infrastructure must be created in each and every region of the country, which will then increase employment and reduce the stress on Mumbai. "We have more people and less work in Mumbai," he says, adding that if a channel decides to shoot in Jaipur or Agra, the production house flies down the core unit and equipment from Mumbai, which makes the product more expensive.

Will TV soap makers be forced to look beyond Mumbai?

Talking about expenses, the broadcasters who, according to various reports, are operating at 20 per cent of their normal revenue, have already asked production houses to cut costs. According to industry sources, depending on the show, the per-episode cost has been reduced by 20-40 per cent. With broadcasters reducing commissioning cost, the producers are in a soup as they need to follow the rate card issued by the council.

The association also decides how many people one must employ, "To give you an example, if I rent a fan, I will have to hire three people - one who will carry the fan, one who will operate it, and the driver who will transport it. I need to pay their conveyance, and arrange their food," says an industry source. So, should the cost go down?

"The stakeholders will sit and decide (all this), and there is an association which will take care," says Shahi of Director’s Kut, the maker of 'Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai'. "… We don't know what will happen, so let us wait till the norms are announced," he adds.

An analyst with a top consulting firm, however, feels that the broadcasters should ideate well before cutting cost as that could harm the quality of content. He is of the opinion that reducing the number of shows on air would be a ‘better’ option. "OTT players have quality shows in their bank, and if television content deteriorates, then the migration to video streaming will gather pace, especially at the top and middle of the pyramid," says the analyst.

June is when the production houses feel they will get busy again, but gradually. What unfolds on screen remains to be seen, but it is clear that the lights, camera, action world is not sleeping well at night. "Creativity and safety will be the key, and at the same time, the biggest challenges once we resume," says Shahi. "For me, this will be the relaunch of our shows as the mood of the country has completely changed from what it was when we last aired," he concludes.

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