Anirban Roy Choudhury

What are the new tenets of storytelling amidst a dark reality?

Producers continue to shoot in bio-bubbles, however, content does reflect the times around and that is impacting storytellers, storytelling.

Pyres are burning. The news feeds of social media accounts have become scary. The more you scroll the more you get to know about near and dear ones suffering. The second wave of Coronavirus cases in India has hit the country like a Tsunami. Many states have imposed strict lockdowns while some states have restricted movement. For any escape from the dreadful scenario all around, Indians are turning to television or OTT as theatres too are shut.

After the lockdowns were announced in Mumbai, channels shifted their sets to locations that weren't heavily infected. Some moved to Goa and created a bio-bubble while few went to Ramoji Film City. Forgetting what is at the backdrop, the daily soaps and OTT releases continue. The show must go on... but now, it has started to impact creative workflow. Not just the second wave, but after the pandemic first broke, and the shoots took a hiatus, the new SOP forced many changes.

In an interview with afaqs!, Manisha Sharma, chief content officer, mass entertainment, Viacom18 had said, "At this point in our lives, television has become full of dance, shaadi, engagement, and similar big scenes at large setups. Because of the SOP, we have to let go off those."

Siddharth Anand Kumar
Siddharth Anand Kumar

While those were changes in storytelling forced by the logistical issues, there is no denying that "Content does reflect the times around us," says Siddharth Anand Kumar, Vice President - Films & Events at Saregama India. " We are making stuff which would be more standard as entertainment. We are making thrillers, comedy, stuff that will lift the spirits. We are not making dramas as because of the current situation and market dynamics," he adds.

"During and after the pandemic especially, fearlessness and compassion need to be the core values while creating content. Entertainment! Entertainment! Entertainment! can wait for duller times,"
Shailja Kejriwal

The makers of multiple shows that streams on Netflix, ZEE5, Disney+ Hotstar, Yoodlee's Kumar feels, it is important to remember that the stuff written today will be screened a year or 18 months later. He says because the times are really bad and unlike last year, where the devastation was abstract, during the second wave it is up close, the creators will show a lot of restraint, at least in terms of celebration. "However, my question is that, a year and half later, when you have survived the pandemic, what would be your reason to watch a show that has a pandemic or the sadness of pandemic in it. That is why, whatever is written or commissioned now, we are not encouraging, sad stuff," adds Kumar.

Shailja Kejriwal
Shailja Kejriwal

Shailja Kejriwal, Chief Creative Officer - Special Projects, Zee Entertainment Enterprises, asserts, "Hope and opinion are two extremely powerful sentiments that need to be a part of good storytelling."

The producer of late Irrfan Khan starrer 'Qarib Qarib Single', 'Madari' and more recently, critically acclaimed show, 'Churails' Kejriwal feels voicing an opinion makes one fearless and hoping for a better future, compassionate! "During and after the pandemic especially, fearlessness and compassion need to be the core values while creating content. Entertainment! Entertainment! Entertainment! can wait for duller times," she adds.

From copywriters in ad agencies, to authors or scriptwriters, the environment matters to them the most. Unless they are in the correct setup, it is difficult for them to channelise their energy into creative storytelling. "Yes, it’s becoming increasingly hard to stay positive and creative," says Sanyukhta Chawla Shaikh who wrote for Netflix's hit 'Delhi Crime Season 1' and is also writing for Disney+ Hotstar Special 'Aarya Season 2'

She adds, "My parents are in Delhi and I’m here (in Mumbai), I worry about them, that preoccupies me sometimes. But then again, my parents and so many more away from their children, are finding some solace in viewing shows, films etc. The multiple platforms have brought something wholesome, versatile and engaging for so many people trying to see this time through. Without taking away from the gravity and seriousness of where we are at with this pandemic, I think about the welcome distraction that people get from what I and my peers do. And that pushes me back to writing, to burying my head in my pages."

Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh
Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh

Echoing Shailja Kejriwal, Sanyukhta Chawla Shaikh says right now, personally, she would push herself to try and write something with hope, love and positivity. "It may seem like a fairytale but I have always loved stories with hope, stories in which ordinary people overcome extraordinary circumstances, where humanity triumphs - if anything we need more stories with these elements than ever before," she opines.

Unlike Films and OTT shows, television airs content that was shot the previous day or at best a couple of days earlier. Television shows earlier never shied away from presenting the big fat Indian wedding, but now most accepted the 'simple ceremony' ritual to work safely. Outdoor sequences have also been limited. With a shift in locations, serial 'Aap Ki Nazron Ne Samjha' has included a destination wedding in the track and was forced to clarify in the fictional storyline why they cherry-picked the guests. Star Plus' 'Anupamaa' has also moved to a resort as a way of retreat for the family before the lead separates.

Creatively, logistically or mentally, the storytelling has changed a lot since the time the pandemic broke in India. More so, in what is called the second wave.

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