Suddenly, Sundari disappeared. Her mother, grandmother, husband, his friend, her friend, all have COVID-19 and are admitted to a hospital. Her uncle is searching for her everywhere for Sundari, with new characters we have never seen before helping him. And then, the uncle ‘changes’ — it’s a new actor playing him, and the serial pretty much has no characters we’ve seen before. The second wave of COVID-19 in Tamil Nadu saw the showrunners and writers of Sundari on Sun TV get “creative” and wrap themselves up in knots to keep the show going, as the pandemic hit them in more ways than one. And one fine day, they decided they couldn’t do it any longer, and started re-telecasting old episodes of the show.
With lockdown restrictions in place due to the second wave of coronavirus, the production of several movies and shootings had to be halted. While movies, web series and short films are presented with the choice of either waiting for theatrical release or going the OTT way, television serials, which are broadcasted on a daily basis, have struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic. TNM spoke to television actors, directors as well as viewers of Tamil daily serials to look at the changes that have been incorporated in serials’ plots and production to ensure that new episodes are filmed and broadcasted during the pandemic.
While the top-rated shows continued to telecast new episodes, multiple serials on Vijay TV like Raja Paarvai, Senthoora Poove and Velaikkaran went off air for more than 10 days during the recent lockdown in the months of May and June. A few other serials like Sun TV’s Sundari and Vijay TV’s Pandian Stores were re-telecasting older episodes until the lockdown was lifted. In many serials, including Sun TV’s Kannana Kanne, some characters went ‘missing’ and new characters were introduced to extend the plot in a different direction.
Speaking about how the crew has been adapting to the pandemic and the changes she has been noticing on the sets since last year, actor Gabrella Sellus, who plays the titular role in Sun TV’s popular show Sundari, tells TNM, “When I was unwell and couldn’t attend the shoot for a while, the focus was shifted to other characters and their sub-plots. All of us are trying our best to follow safety protocols during shoots since we do not have the option of working from home.”
Actor David Solomon, who appears in recurring roles in Tamil television serials such as Vijay TV’s Pandian Stores, Naam Iruvar Namakku Iruvar and Sun TV’s Pandavar Illam, agrees that the spotlight has been turned on the background stories of supporting characters in recent times. “It is true up to a certain extent that the storylines were stretched. However, in the prevailing situation, we don’t really have much of a choice. Having said that, it is a good thing that writers are now spending time exploring the storylines associated with other characters as well,” he observes.
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Citing how his co-star, actor and producer Venkat Subha succumbed to COVID-19, he says, “Some of my co-stars in Pandian Stores have unfortunately passed away in recent times. Other than that, there were cases of COVID-19 as well as actors who were unwell. The script naturally had to be changed.”
How shooting has changed
With the prevailing COVID-19 restrictions, makers have not just made changes to the serials’ narration and plots but also changed conventional shooting methods. Following the trend set by one-shot films and shows, a number of serial actors, too, have chosen to shoot scenes from the comfort of their homes. “Many scenes are based on video and phone calls. We are also increasingly seeing scenes shot from terraces or apartments. The resolution of the video seems different in comparison to other sequences from the same show,” suggests Janaki Kathiresan, a 50-year-old homemaker, who is an avid television viewer. Sharing one such instance, David Solomon recounts that actor Hema Rajkumar, who appears in the role of Meena Jeevanandham in Pandian Stores, opted to shoot sequences from her home. “Post childbirth, she needed time to recover. Her scenes were shot over phone or video calls," he says.
The director of Star Vijay’s Naam Iruvar Namakku Iruvar, Thai Selvam, points out that the makers have decided to cut down the number of technicians in the crew. “When we come up with scripts for upcoming episodes, we take the number of technicians on board into account since a small crew limits our ability to shoot elaborate sequences outdoors.”
Team Naam Iruvar Namakku Iruvar had over 30 new episodes in stock and hence, managed to air new episodes during the recent lockdown. He adds that following the complete lockdown in March last year, the makers of several serials have been trying to shoot episodes in advance and have a good number of episodes in stock so that the show could continue to go on air even if the government orders the production of television shows and movies to be halted.
Crossover episodes, which are generally reserved for special occasions like festivals and public holidays in order to increase the viewership and TRPs, are also being increasingly used in recent times. Crossovers refer to episodes where the cast of two or more serials are clubbed together. Typically, serials that are telecasted consecutively are clubbed together for crossover episodes, with the timings remaining unchanged. For instance, this week, actors from Sun TV’s Roja are making an appearance on Anbe Va, another serial on the same channel.
Some of Vijay TV’s most viewed soaps such as Bharathi Kannamma, Raja Rani 2, Pandian Stores and Baakiyalakshmi have been combined together in ‘Mega Sangamam’ episodes. Actor David Solomon says that select characters from each serial are chosen for the ‘Mega Sangamam’ episodes and they are shot in the same place to make things easier for the cast and crew. “Mega Sangamam episodes of Pandian Stores were shot after the lockdown restrictions were relaxed. I was only a part of a brief schedule in one of the crossover episodes but I believe the shoot is happening at the outskirts of Chennai or remote and spacious venues are selected so that safety precautions can be followed. Some of the production units have also resumed shooting in Hyderabad’s Ramoji Film City,” David says.
The Mega Sangamam episodes of Pandian Stores and Baakiyalakshmi were bound together by a series of co-incidences introduced in the storylines. A pregnant Dhanam, along with select members from the household decide to go on pilgrimage to Madurai to pray for a healthy and safe pregnancy. However, one cannot help but wonder why Dhanam and others choose to stay with Malli, her husband Moorthy’s ex-fiancée who leaves no stone unturned to belittle Dhanam and her family.
On the other hand, we find Gopinath, the man who hates to spend time with his family, going on a vacation to Madurai for a family retreat of sorts. ‘Co-incidentally’, Dhanam, who is one of Baakiyalakshmi’s distant relatives, learns that both the families are in Madurai and urges them to stay over at Malli’s place, out of the blue. The crossover episodes take off against the backdrop of both the families indefinitely staying in Malli’s residence.
What about actors who play recurring roles in both the shows, you ask? Well, that was the case with actor Meena Sellamuthu, who appears as Kasthuri Jaganathan in Pandian Stores and as Selvi, a maid and Baakiya’s close aide in Baakiyalakshmi. The makers acknowledged the fact through dialogues where actors from the cast of Baakiyalakshmi wonder how Kasthuri, co-incidentally, has an uncanny resemblance with Selvi. For viewers, it is hard not to connect the dots between the co-incidences and the pandemic-induced lockdown restrictions, that might have influenced showrunners’ creative choices.
Sharing her experiences from the sets, actor Nakshatra Srinivas, who plays the lead role in Zee Tamil’s Endrendrum Punnagai, explains that despite safety protocols being in place, actors continue to have concerns about shooting. “Although safety precautions are followed in the shooting spot, we don’t have much of a choice while shooting scenes. We can’t wear masks while we are in front of the camera and physical distancing cannot be maintained if there are intimate scenes. Those are some of the challenges we continue to face,” she adds, while hoping that the pandemic situation improves soon.
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