When the Malayalam film Virus (2019) was released, it quickly got the attention of audiences and critics across the country because of its subtext of anxiety. Based on the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala in 2018, the medical thriller, directed by Aashiq Abu and starring Kunchacko Boban, is an example of how fiction can absorb reality and make for riveting cinema.
Similarly, when most parts of the world were under lockdown last year, an anthology series called Homemade (2020) was released on Netflix proving how cinema can adapt to the worst of situations. Comprising 17 shorts by filmmakers from across the world, the anthology depicted the times and pain of coronavirus with intimacy and heart. It is safe to say that works like Virus and Homemade will go down in history as valuable documentation for posterity.
However, almost two years have passed since, and we have barely seen any real exploration of the virus and its after-effects in Indian cinema. Even in those few films, the virus and its impact seem only like afterthoughts rather than being an integral part of the story. Filmmakers across the country cite several reasons why our cinema is happy to remain detached from reality.
One of the main hurdles currently seems to be the mindset of the people. Sanu John Varghese, the director of the Malayalam film Aarkkariyam, which had the coronavirus lockdown as an important plot point, says, “People want more feel-good movies as they don’t want to see the depressing reality on the screen as well. Also, people are still hesitant to come to the theatres. Hundreds of stories are out there but with the current debilitating situation, I don’t know how they can be turned into movies.”
Ikkat is a Kannada film that cleverly showcased the life of two estranged partners stuck together during the lockdown, without touching upon the horrors of the times. Esham Khan, one of the two directors of Ikkat, speaks of how hard it is to make a film about the horrors of the pandemic. He says, “We had to be cautious of not mentioning certain ideas in the script. For instance, we had a scene with the speech of PM when the lockdown was declared. We faced difficulties convincing the censor board to let it be part of the film.
We had to argue that it was a public address, and it is already out there.” It makes one wonder if a realistic depiction of the issues like oxygen shortage and immigrants will ever make their way into our cinema. Yet, Nikhil Bhat, the creator of The Gone Game series, is hopeful that such stories will be captured with time. “If you look at history, when World War II was going on, there were only a few films around it. After a year or two, more films were made about the times. Similarly, I think writers and filmmakers will be coming up with stories of the pandemic in the future.”
Right now, producers are also rather unwelcoming of such subjects, Khan feels. “It is natural to have some hesitation while taking up such films. Yet, I am not sure because we produced Ikkat ourselves.”
On the other hand, Bhat seems to have a different experience with producers. “The Gone Game’s core idea—which was entirely about the pandemic—was conceived by one of its producers, Mautik (Tolia). Ayesha (Syed) and I later developed it into this series. As writers, it was a traumatic experience, and I guess that’s why many writers are hesitant to revisit the times soon,” he shares. Tamil producer Dhananjayan notes that the Netflix anthology, Putham Pudhu Kaalai, was about the lockdown. “Two more projects are in the making, and I believe more projects will follow suit.”
Even as the gap gets addressed, will real analysis of the horrors be allowed to get screened? Perhaps people have had enough of burning pyres and desperate doctors, and abhor experiencing the horror on the screen. That’s a question for another day.