Filmmaker Bharatbala's 'Meendum Ezhuvom', releasing in multiple languages, is a four minute documentary that captures the lockdown imposed in India to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Bharatbala worked with a crew of 117 to put together the stark images from these unprecedented times.
Speaking to TNM, Bharatbala says, "When we got hit by the coronavirus and the PM announced that the nation will go into lockdown from March 24 midnight, as a filmmaker I thought we have to document this. We didn't know how we were going to do it but we knew that we had to do it. It was our creative responsibility to document it in a cinematic way."
The film has evocative visuals from 14 states across the country.
"We needed to identify crew who would have mobility within that region. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, we had a crew in Lucknow and another in Varanasi because even inter-district travel was not permitted. But we got unprecedented access to film in these places. Typically, when you shoot a film, you'll have a location manager, you'll know from whom you have to get permissions etc...but we had to surpass all of that in this situation. We had to get permission from top level authorities. It was nightmarish. But when the intent is so pure and you keep knocking at the doors, the doors do open," he says. Sometimes, Bharatbala would take the permission letter he received from one state government to persuade another government to give it. "There's strong credibility for the work we've done in the past for people to believe that we're doing something purposeful for the nation," he adds.
Making the film look seamless when there were so many crews working in different parts of the country was a challenge.
"Usually in a film, you'll have one cinematographer and one crew who will go to all these places. But I had so many. So how do I balance that and ensure that everything is cinematically the same? The lenses we use, the kind of movement and the timing of the movement is all similar? We had to work at it to get it right. We had a master control room in Mumbai, where people were there 24X7 for the last 45-50 days, to coordinate with the different teams. Normally, we'd move from one place to another to shoot a film. But here, in one day, I finished filming in Guwahati, Benares and Rishikesh," he says.
The crew would confirm the frames with the filmmaker before going ahead with the shoot - and all of this happened over WhatsApp. Artistes from different industries have also lent their voices for the films. Sonali Kulkarni in Marathi, Seema Biswas in Marathi, Manju Warrier in Malayalam, Kalieaswari Srinivasan in Tamil, Chinmayi in Telugu, B Jayshree in Kannada and so on. At the end, the filmmaker had over 100 hours of footage.
"When I started looking at the footage at the editing table, I was looking at the colossal imagery of India in lockdown, from the Ganges to the Himalayas to airports, railway networks...everything was empty, empty. It was probably the first time that we were seeing images like this in a country of over 1 billion where we can't see the population. The compelling emotion for me was that we should never forget what we have gone through," he says.