When a war breaks out, it does more damage than is visible to the naked eye. Lives are lost, houses destroyed, near and dear ones separated. Those who come out of it alive are left with years and years of trauma that can travel through generations. The magnitude of loss it can cause to business, property, lifestyle is unimaginable. Dwight D Eisenhower could not have summed it up better in the above lines when he said war is brutal, futile and outright stupid.
The ongoing attack that Russia launched on Ukraine is being globally condemned. Ukraine and Western allies call this a baseless pretext for an invasion that has raised fears of a wider conflict in Europe. With no signs of Russia withdrawing the attack, the war will only hit the world economy harder as it also tries to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Immediate and long term impacts will be noticed in India too in terms of global trade, capital flows, financial markets and access to technology. Oil prices have surged, stock markets crashed; even the Indian entertainment industry will take a hit. According to Yale School of Management, more than 300 companies have shut operations in Russia in the past two weeks over the Ukraine invasion. Netflix, TikTok, studios like Walt Disney Co, Paramount Pictures, Sony Corp, Warner Media, Universal Pictures have also halted operations in Russia.
Ukraine has been a popular shoot location for Indian projects. ‘RRR’, ‘99 Songs’, ‘Dev’, ‘Winner’, ‘Special Ops’ are some of the Indian productions that have been shot in picturesque locations of Ukraine. The ongoing war and its after effects will certainly have an adverse impact on the movie making business. In this week’s #BigStory, we speak to industry insiders and find out.
Geographically speaking, Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe. It is a preferred location for most international shoots owing to two main factors – its scenic beauty and cost efficiency.
Location guru Natarajan Ramji who coordinated the Ukraine schedule of SS Rajamouli’s ‘RRR’ with Ram Charan and Jr NTR, says Ukraine is the best option to replicate locations. “If a shoot is supposed to be happening in Paris, and the story is based in, say for example in France, it is not feasible for people to be in Paris everyday. So only one or two days are shot in Paris and then the shoot is moved to much more cost effective locations. Ukraine is the cheapest economically to match any location, we can match the UK, England, France, Italy, Rome, Paris. In fact, we can match many, many specific instances,” he explains.
Natarajan tells us that he has been associated with filming in Ukraine for about four years now. “I have been a part of Indian projects like the Telugu film ‘Winner’, ’99 Songs’, ‘Dev’, and most recently SS Rajamouli’s ‘RRR’. The song ‘Naatu Naatu’ was shot there. In the movie, the location was supposed to be somewhere in India in 1920. In India we could not find such a location. Hence it was replicated there in Kyiv. The song was filmed in the most iconic location, Mariinskyi Palace. It’s the President’s palace. We shot with almost 1000 people on the sets everyday, out of which 150 were from India, about 850 were locals,” he shares.
Film Scholar, historian and curator Amit Gangar reflects upon how and when film shoots started in Ukraine to facilitate capital flow. “Around 1989 (when the Berlin Wall began to collapse), the war-torn and insurgency-prone Kashmir got closed for film shoots. Even today, with the abrogation of Article 370, not many film shoots are happening in Kashmir as they were in normal times. Around that time, in 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) began to disintegrate and the major Republics of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic declared that the USSR or the Soviet Union no longer existed. This move seriously impacted all the three, particularly the Ukraine and it had to mend its own ways to raise finances in various ways; one was to invite film production companies to shoot their films on their land full of scenic European beauty – snow-covered mountains, sprawling meadows, more hassle-free procedures accompanied by being cheap cost-wise,” he says.
“You carry, say one million INR in your pocket and the moment you are in Ukraine, one million becomes over 2.5 million Ukrainian hryvnia. Naturally, Bollywood’s location managers and agents pushed mid-budget productions towards the Ukraine,” he adds.
Filmmaker Neeraj Pandey, who shot ‘Special Ops 1.5: The Himmat Story’ in Ukraine says their decision to choose the location was entirely based on the COVID scenario. “There were very few options that were available to us. Ukraine had opened up at that point of time, and we were wanting to complete the shoot and deliver the 1.5 version of ‘Special Ops’. For us, the very fact that this was the only option available, and the fact that it suited all our requirements, it fulfilled all our requirements in terms of location, we changed the script. We shot Kyiv for Kyiv. We also shot some portions of London over there. And some portions of Moscow with it, ironically,” he recalls.
Ukraine a pool of talented artistes and skilled technicians
Apart from its scenic locations, Ukraine is also known for its talented artistes and skilled technicians. Recalling his experience of ‘Special Ops’, Neeraj Pandey shares, “They are such warm people and they had a very interesting industry going there. Lots of content was getting made over there. We used their equipment, manpower, everything… nothing was an issue. So for us it was a huge blessing in disguise to work with a crew that was well versed in filmmaking and all the locations that we shot at, you’ve seen in 1.5. It added to the visual strength of the series, and it was a fantastic experience.”
A considerable Indian population residing in Ukraine also is an added advantage for Indian shoots. “Ukraine has more than 40000 Indians that can be the extras. They have terrific dancers, extremely talented and beautiful ballet dancers, actors… There were about 50 members in the orchestra, and another 300 Ukrainian extras who were portrayed as British in the movie ‘RRR’. And then there were a lot of technicians,” Natarajan recalls his shoot schedules.
The present and future of shoots in Ukraine
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has already begun to have its impact on the local economy as well as global. “In the risk-prone theatre of war around the Ukraine and Russia, no film shoots can take place. As the post-Soviet Ukraine wasn’t the same, the post-war Ukraine will never be the same again, already a EU-member, it might become a NATO member and that could change the cost-benefit equations for Indian film production houses, which again will have to begin their hunt for greener pastures to shoot romantic songs on romantic lands outside India. A new set of strategies has to be discovered in this divided world which is not going to be easy,” says Amit Gangar.
Director of Indo-Soviet Films, Satish Sharma, has been coordinating shoots in the USSR and neighbouring regions for years. He says it’s unfortunate that everything’s broken. “We were supposed to go there in May to shoot a film ‘Marshall’ and we had planned two schedules, one in May and the other would have been in December-January 2023. There was another film which was written by Ashok Mishra being directed by Shyam Benegal. We were planning to shoot that as well in Ukraine. But we can’t go there to shoot this film now,” he says.
Back in the day, Ajay Devgn too had approached Sharma to shoot ‘Shivaay’ in Ukraine. But the situation back then was flaring up, though it was not exactly a war-like situation. Ajay decided to not go there and then the team zeroed in on Bulgaria instead.
Neeraj Pandey wouldn’t mind shooting again in future. “If there’s a requirement or any other project, we would definitely like to look around and see what new can be done. Normally, we don’t want to shoot at the same location per se, all the time. We would want to bring something new to the table. We will see how it pans out in the future,” he says.
Natarajan Ramji believes the show will go on. “We can find other countries, other locations to replicate these. They (Ukraine) will lose out on the money, but when the war stops, the prices will go down further and there will again be a rush. 100 percent,” he asserts.
Satish Sharma adds people are skeptical about shooting in these locations now. “To me both the territories (Ukraine and Russia) were equal. I love both the countries, I love both locations. I don’t know how I will suggest these locations now. I can’t even suggest the Baltic states like Latvia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. What are the other options? I can’t even suggest those countries anymore, because they’re very close to Ukraine. So it’s affecting the whole industry at the moment. In fact I was the supervising producer of ‘Khuda Haafiz’. That film was shot in Uzbekistan. Now people are a little skeptical to go to all these ex Soviet Union countries thinking that the war might affect these countries.”
The perils of war
“I really want it to end tomorrow,” asserts Satish Sharma as he tirelessly tries to get in touch with the local crew he has become friends with over the years. “I’m a human, I don’t like people being killed. And unnecessarily! I’ve been talking to my friends in Ukraine, in Russia. I have people, there’s a cameraman who shot with me in India. The fellow’s been sending me videos, and he’s been sending me voice notes saying, ‘I’m in a bunker. There’s been a shelling, there’s been a siren going on. Fortunately, my family’s safe.’ He runs upstairs, gets some food and then comes back to the underground basement. It’s actually hell kind of a situation there. People respond to me in about two to three days, ‘I’m alive. Thank you.’ I think it’s very sad. I’ve actually been in all these locations that you see being bombarded,” he shares.
Neeraj Pandey says ‘it hurts’ to see the friends and acquaintances he made recently at that place going through all this. “It’s very recent in our memories – the team that we shot with, the locations that we shot in, and the people, the experiences, everything is in such recent memory. Then of course it does disturb you when you know the country is going through that. And the whole scenario is changed completely from the time that we went into such a nice, calm place and then suddenly it is reduced to this chaos.
Look at the world’s business today. It is impacting every country in some way or the other. And then it’s not rocket science to understand that war in any part of the world is definitely taking us back by hundreds and thousands of years. And we claim to be civilised. But if we are unable to reach a consensus on anything peacefully, that means it’s a major breakdown in terms of civility, some form or the other,” he says.
Natarajan Ramji too is pained by the events. “What is happening in Ukraine is murder actually. I know the people, I know the most peace loving, wonderful people in Ukraine. This is a murderous attack on them by Russia, the children and women are being murdered. People don’t seem to realise all that,” he laments.
Actress Urvashi Rautela was recently shooting in Ukraine’s Kyiv and Odesa for her upcoming Tamil film. She had to fly back to India just two days before Russia declared war on Ukraine. “There was a lot of animosity between the two countries when we were shooting. But we took things day by day. My brother was quite concerned for my safety when I arrived in Ukraine. I’m praying fervently for the situation in that country. It’s rather frightening. I have friends and relatives there, and I keep an eye on them,” she says.
Ukrainian filmmaker and intimacy director Dar Gai, who lives in Mumbai, is worried sick about the safety of her family and friends back in the homeland. She is having a hard time concentrating on work since the attack, having lived in Kyiv for around 22 years. “Yes, it has been very hard, but what’s incredible and what gives me hope is the human spirit. I have seen videos of a grandmother standing in front of a tank to stop it, or children who are hiding in shelters, but are trying to understand what their parents are going through. The amount of resistance that Ukraine has put up is truly remarkable,” she said to Bombay Times.
‘Stop the war’
“There shouldn’t be any war,” asserts Neeraj Pandey. “Whatever the differences are, tomorrow or day after, you will come to the table and talk. So might as well do it today without the cost of the life, those innocent lives that are at stake right now and the people who are dying. I just hope that peace and sanity returns as soon as possible to this place and everything comes back to normalcy as soon as possible,” he says.
Satish Sharma, who has had a long history with the Soviet Union, says, “I went to these countries when it was a Soviet Union, and I saw the breakup of the Soviet Union in front of my eyes. But even then, when it all happened, I knew that the West was playing a bad game. And even now, I have a strong feeling that the West has played a very bad game.”