This was supposed to be a year of resurgence for Bollywood, one of the world’s biggest film industries, which was devastated by coronavirus-imposed lockdowns last year.
As restrictions eased at the end of 2020, and cinemas opened cautiously, production houses began announcing a number of big-budget releases for 2021, many of them holdovers from the previous year.
Films released earlier this year, including Roohi and Mumbai Saga, have done decent business, even with limited seating capacities in cinemas, and were seen as an encouraging sign for an industry desperate to get back to business.
By March, however, as Covid-19 cases sharply rose in India and restrictions returned, distributors were once again forced to delay major releases.
Long-awaited films set for April, including Amitabh Bachchan's Chehre, Rani Mukerji and Saif Ali Khan's Bunty Aur Babli 2, and Kangana Ranaut's biopic Thalaivi were pulled.
On Tuesday, the film industry received more devastating news: the state of Maharashtra – home to India's financial capital Mumbai, where Bollywood is based – announced a halt on a spate of commercial activities, including film and TV shoots for the next 15 days. Cinemas will also be shut down for the duration, jeopardising all the releases planned for the coming weeks.
Maharashtra has been the country's worst hit state due to the coronavirus, accounting for about a quarter of India's 13.5 million cases. On Tuesday, the state reported 60,212 new Covid-19 infections.
The new rules directly affect big-budget films that have been shooting under tight regulations, including superstar Shah Rukh Khan's Pathan that was partly shot in Dubai.
Earlier this month, actor Akshay Kumar announced he had tested positive for Covid-19. The announcement was followed by news that more than 40 crew members working on Kumar's upcoming film Ram Setu had caught the virus, effectively putting production on halt. The release of Kumar's other film, Sooryavanshi, scheduled for an April 30 release, has also been postponed.
Other films that will now face inevitable delays include actor Ranveer Singh's film Cirkus with director Rohit Shetty, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 starring Kartik Aaryan – who also tested positive for Covid-19 – Salman Khan's Tiger 3 and Adipursh, starring South Indian superstar Prabhas and Bollywood's Saif Ali Khan.
BN Tiwari, the president of trade union Federation of Western India Cine Employees, said the latest restrictions will affect daily wage workers the most.
"It is unfortunate that no shootings will be allowed from April 14. About 100 shootings including films and TV projects are currently going on in Maharashtra. Big shootings were on hold but TV and small units were shooting. With this sudden lockdown, if the shootings are stopped, the industry is bound to lose crores of rupees," he told Times of India.
He said he was going to plead with Maharashtra’s chief minister Uddhav Thackeray to make some exceptions.
“We are going to write to the [the chief minister] to allow shootings of TV serials and we promise to shoot with the same guidelines that were announced by the government last year. The unit members will work in a bio bubble kind of environment to avoid infections," he said.
About half a million workers, including actors, directors and producers, are registered with the FWICE. Of these, about 250,000 are junior make-up artists, set designers, carpenters and background dancers, Tiwari said.
More than 200 Hindi films are made in a year in Bollywood, with an estimated revenue of Rs3,000 crore or Rs30 billion. Trade analyst Himesh Mankad says the industry’s losses last year could easily amount to around Rs20 billion, according to news agency PTI.
In his televised speech on Tuesday night, Maharashtra chief minister Thackeray acknowledge the toll that tighter restrictions could take on the economy.
"Livelihoods are important, but life is more important. We need to increase existing restrictions,” he said.