Feature: Lights. Camera. Lockdown.
How do you make a film during a lockdown where there is a pandemic raging around you and the world has come to a grinding halt? We spoke with filmmakers Srinivas Sunderrajan and Tanvi Gandhi about the tricks, technology and even the good old jugaad they embraced while directing their respective lock down short films - Banana Bread and Delivering Smiles.
“Art in its simplest terms is a way to force a new perspective onto something familiar. To rip apart its definition and to redefine it, is the work of an artist,” purrs Cate Blanchett’s silky voice in Ana Lily Amirpour’s new short film in Netflix’s quarantine anthology Homemade. If there was ever a moment in history that called for fresh perspective, the current pandemic would certainly be it. For filmmakers though, wielding the power of their art during this time has not been easy. Cinema is, at its heart, the communal creation of many, its grandioseness fuelled by this collective energy, which becomes intricately stitched into the fabric of the final piece. But when the physical existence of the collective itself becomes a potentially fatal threat, how do you go about making a film which captures this unique moment in time? We spoke with filmmakers Tanvi Gandhi and Srinivasan Sunderrajan, who helmed our two favourite films from the selection of Indian shorts that emerged during the lockdown.
Produced by Terribly Tiny Talkies, Sunderrajan’s Banana Bread tells the story of two single neighbours living alone who meet on their shared landing, for the first time, during the lockdown. One awkward invite later Shruti (Rasika Dugal) and her newfound neighbour (Mukul Chadda) find themselves sitting in her apartment, watching Sherlock, bonding over the titular banana bread while trying to maintain the mandated distance of 2 metres between them. The wry, slice of life satire written by Chadda and Dugal is dotted with astute coronavirus symbolism; from masks and sanitisers to zealous society WhatsApp groups and urban loneliness. At first glance, it looks like a simple film - with only two characters, shot entirely indoors with no special effects, drawing from its dialogue and the chemistry between the characters (who are husband and wife in real life). Except that without a lockdown, even this ‘simple’ short film would have seen between 25 to 50 people working on its set!
Sunderrajan is clear that not a single person violated any lockdown rules during the making of this film, which he directed entirely remotely using multiple phones and the absolutely essential, Zoom and Meet apps. The actors themselves took on many other on-set jobs; apart from focusing on their performances, they also did their own hair, makeup and costumes, handled sound recording and footage transfer, and most importantly, manned the camera, shooting themselves under Srinivas’ virtual direction. To ensure that they wouldn’t feel overwhelmed, Sunderrajan put together what he calls his very own ‘Dogme95’ guidelines (aka making do with whatever was at their disposal!). He decided to shoot the entire film on the actors’ existing devices - One Plus 7T mobile phones set up on a tripod, with the audio recorded onto a spare One Plus 5 through a wired lav mic. Next, he familiarised them with the technical / behind the camera aspects of filmmaking. Luckily, with Dugal and Chandra both having tons of experience with big and small film shoots, it didn't take them too long to orient themselves.
“I made a conscious decision to not have a DOP onboard because I felt it would just add to the chaos,” reveals Sunderrajan, “I had some experience of handling cameras in my older films - so figured it'd be best if I 'framed' the shots that I wanted and shared it with the actors.” This unique division of the camera department’s responsibilities required meticulous thought and organisation on his part starting with a small video recce of their house, to figure which ‘locations' work best for the scenarios in the film. He then made them sit according to a mental storyboard and clicked screenshots. All of these were then divided into wide, mid and closeup shots, which Sunderrajan created a numbering system and PDF file for. This became the main storyboard for the actors, the numbering making it easier for them to know which shot was going for take so they could set up the camera using the reference images. “Since we were shooting with natural light, it was essential to find the pockets that had daylight filtering in and avoiding places where it was dark (phone cameras also function poorly in such settings),” he adds.
Interestingly, a lot of the film’s tension (and humour) comes from the characters attempting to maintain their ‘social’ distance; it is a meet-cute after all! In fact, Sunderrajan had imagined the chemistry between the two characters to have a sense of the 70s and 80s films of Basu Chaterjee, Sai Paranjpe and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, simple and without any gimmicks. “I wanted to highlight the irony of the current ‘social distancing era’ which questions the very basis of such chemistry, but not in a verbose or direct manner,” admits the director. “That's why the framing played a very important role. My idea was to always have them at either end of the frame, and as the film progresses and they try to justify their 'new normal' notions, we see them come closer and closer. But whenever we see them isolated, they are centre framed.” For Srinivas the biggest challenge was to not make this look like a film made in lockdown. “I wanted to avoid the use of smart shooting techniques like video call or chat screens/bubbles because I view Banana Bread as a standalone short film. Even if there wasn't a lockdown, I'd shoot it the way it is currently!”
Tanvi Gandhi, the director of Delivering Smiles, which was part of Netflix India’s quarantine anthology Home Stories, had a more action packed experience making her short film, also in May. The film sees Bombay at the peak of its lockdown through the eyes of a good natured and dedicated home delivery executive, Prakash (Tanmay Dhanania), who zooms through the empty, glaring ‘city’ roads - after taking all the necessary precautions mind you - determined to bring his customers a side of cheer along with their meals during the novel coronavirus pandemic. “Because of the nature of the story, we couldn’t possibly write a script which took place in one space,” begins Gandhi. “It had to have that scale, and show his journey, the city.” And yet, she tells us, the only people who left their homes to enable the production of this film were WeFast delivery executives! To add to the irony, it was the production team’s arch nemesis - the unending fluctuation of the lockdown rules - that presented the film director with her masterstroke; a ‘vlog’ styled camera treatment shot by Prakash himself, for the benefit of his online followers. “It’s probably my favourite part of the film right now,” says Tanvi (ours too) “and even though the constant changes really made things quite difficult, I’m glad, because without them we would have never ended up with this treatment.”
By then, the rule was that nobody was allowed to leave their gates for non-essentials. “With this treatment we really maximised the potential of what you can shoot, in terms of creating fiction, during a lockdown,” she continues. The decision also helped ease some of the production aspects of the film - the crew simply hired 3 iPhone 11’s which were then transported (with gloves) to the ‘actors’ playing Prakash’s clients. Because shooting on a mobile device would actually lend to the mood and authenticity of the film as well, it suddenly became possible for the most risky aspect of the film’s production to be outsourced to a professional third party like WeFast. Also feeding the film its ‘authenticity’ were friends and family across the city - the supporting cast - cheating the actual delivery scenes! “Essentially, the locations had to be passages and doorways that I had already seen. So I thought about which of my friends lived in a colony and since we weren’t allowed to shoot on the street, this seemed like the next best option - with buildings on both sides, cars parked etc.” Tanvi lets on. “I’d also pick people who lived either with family or their partners, so that there could always be one ‘client’ while the other shot Prakash’s point of view,” she adds. The production finally caught a break with the lockdown rules thanks to the mandate for delivery executives to wear gloves. “We could get away with all the cheating because everyone’s hand was covered in a white glove and so their gender, age didn’t matter at all - it was a big advantage!” the director reveals.
Given the strict restrictions on movement at the time, Gandhi too led a small tight team remotely, with everyone coordinating virtually from the safety of their homes. Like Dugal and Chandra in Banana Bread, actor Tanmay Dhanania had to fill the shoes of all the other departments (with the exception of his flatmate being the sound recordist), in addition to concentrating on what was crucial: his role as Prakash; one we think he slipped into impeccably! Dhanania’s earnest and endearing Prakash was a wholesome spark amidst all the characters depicted in the anthology. “The key was the format of the film,” Tanmay reiterated, “once we decided that he was a vlogger, it became much easier because while I was filming myself, Prakash was also filming himself, aware that he was performing for a camera.” If Dhanania’s past work is anything to go by (he went through 6 months of intense method training for his role as a drug addict in Ronnie Sen’s fascinating film Cat Sticks), you’d know Prakash was in safe hands. The actor took his time getting this aspect of him, his “performing personality” just right, even making Tik Tok videos of himself as Prakash and growing a moustache as the finishing touch, styled after a picture of his father from the 60’s!
A pleasant discovery Tanmay made was that he thrived in that extra level of control over his character this filmmaking experience, with “not too many cooks to spoil the broth,” had afforded him. “Without multiple levels of approvals typical of an ad or large film set, Tanvi and I could discuss Prakash at length,” says the actor, “and I could fight for my vision of him and she really understood, and that combination worked very well.” Interestingly, Gandhi too said that the experience left her with a new found respect for the idea of control - “I will never take playback for granted!” she exclaims, “As a director on a film set you have complete control over even the tiniest prop, and there are so many people enabling you, making you feel comfortable, pampering you, bringing you tea or coffee just so you can concentrate on what you’re doing. It’s such a beautiful thing.” But with Delivering Smiles, the normally hands on director had to learn, not to let go, but rather embrace this type of remote filmmaking for what it was and find what worked within that space. “You have to leave a lot of things open because you don’t know what problems you might face. And there’s constant troubleshooting going on, live, because everybody is doing it for the first time, and no one has actually dealt with it before.” Sounds like a coronavirus coping mechanism we could all use!
Without art, the year 2020 thus far would have been undeniably insufferable for most of us. And so it was incredibly heartening to discover that there are filmmakers out there willing to experiment, adapt, embrace and brave all the different challenges that this pandemic has thrown (and will likely continue to) in their stead. While a virtual filmmaking experience might never be able to recreate the creative energies a physical film set feeds off, resilience has also long been a stronghold of cinema makers. And at this confusing and uncertain moment in the story of mankind, the very existence of these ‘lockdown films’ is proof of its vast reserves amongst filmmakers and artists today, a useful vault no doubt as we slowly begin the reconstruction of our once familiar world.