TV Writers Struggle With Depression, Anxiety During COVID Lockdown
With locations changing & actors testing COVID positive, TV show writers struggle to keep up with the pressure.
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, we have been reading about how film and TV actors who have been shooting are regularly contracting the virus while at work. In an attempt to keep the shows running during the current lockdown, many TV producers have shifted base from Mumbai to other states. At a time when India is grappling with the second wave of COVID-19, the television industry is taking risks and pushing their crew to perform under tremendous pressure to meet deadlines in order to ensure that General Entertainment Channels keep their shows running.
The Quint got in touch with a few writers of popular daily shows, who spoke about the kind of work pressure they are currently facing.
- Age: 38
- Screenplay writer
- Currently working on Anupama, Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai and Pinjara Khubsurati Ka
Bhavna Vyas, who is currently writing the screenplay for Anupama, Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai (Star Plus) and Pinjara Khubsurati Ka (Colors), hasn't been able to take a break. For her there are no weekends, and holidays too are spent working. Initially she didn't have any complaints, but the past couple of months have left her exhausted. She tells The Quint what actually drained her out.
“As a writer, I faced this level of madness at work after ages. Everyday, I used to wake up with 20 calls and 100 WhatsApp messages that ‘so and so’ is unwell. Or someone has lost a loved one. Episodes would have to be rewritten immediately for that day’s shoot. Every single day we wrote and rewrote multiple times. Every story has a certain pace and flow and things go for a toss even with the slightest change.”Bhavna Vyas, Screenplay Writer
Following the Maharashtra government's order in April to halt shoots in the state in an attempt to curb the steep spike in cases, TV shows moved their cast and crew to places such as Goa, Hyderabad and Silvasa. This put pressure not only on their technical teams in terms of logistics but also the writers.
Bhavna says, "Generally we have a few hours to make changes. Sometimes just half an hour because the shoot is on, and it cannot be cancelled as we can't afford to miss a telecast."
“Everything changes when the location shifts. Living in your house versus putting up in a hotel room - they can’t be the same. In the current circumstances, we had to add that characters are going to a resort and staying there for some time. They get stuck and can’t return. Or a character goes missing and the family reaches a resort while searching. In some other cases, characters say they are going to their ancestral villages for some ‘puja’ and stay there. Some shows have even added destination weddings.”Bhavna Vyas, Screenplay Writer
Bhavna, who has been a writer for 16 years, tells The Quint that this has been the toughest and most painful phase in her career. Working long hours and non-stop typing in the current situation has led to her developing severe wrist pain and tennis elbow.
Explaining how writing for daily shows is all about timely delivery, Bhavna says, “I am sure all the writers of TV shows are going through the same turmoil. People have families, young kids. You are emotionally drained, but TV is all about delivering on time. If you are not in the right frame of mind, it’s very difficult to pull off a job as creative as writing. In the TV business you have to perform, no matter what.”
Bhavna adds that her team has always stood by her. "It’s no one's fault and my team has always stood by me. Thankfully, things have been much better lately. But it’s still a long battle. We don’t know when all this will end. All of us are giving our best shot and holding on. I want to salute all my writer friends for dealing with this pressure. You are true rockstars."
- Age: 39
- Episodic story writer
- Currently writing for Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai
Bandana, Bhavna's colleague and a part of the team writing for Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, has a 6-year-old daughter and stays with her husband and in-laws. Her challenges have been different during the lockdown.
She tells The Quint how both her professional and personal lives are suffering. "The past few months have been very hectic. As a writer, as a creative person it has been really difficult because we are not being able to be productive over Zoom calls. For us writers it's always better to physically meet and chat. Location and environment play huge roles on your mood and productivity. Sitting at home and constantly relying on Zoom and phone is really stressful."
Talking about how the situation has taken a toll on her personal life Bandana says, "My personal life has also been affected. Because of productivity being less, I am having to put in long hours. That in turn leads to me not being able to spend time with my daughter, who needs my attention. So, what is happening is I am ignoring her and because of that she is constantly glued to the phone. There is no way to stop her."
“You don’t get to spend time with your family also because you are constantly stressing about not being able to deliver on time or whether what you have delivered is not good enough or the ideas you have come up with are not that great. Work stress has definitely increased.”Bandana Tiwari, Screenplay Writer
But unlike other writers, changing the location hasn't given Bandana sleepless nights. Her show Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai had an advantage. There was a wedding that was supposed to happen, so when the location changed, they could easily convert it to a destination wedding. However, the team had little time to write new scenes.
Bandana says that the biggest challenge at present has been that actors or their family members are falling sick, thus forcing them to take a break. Then the writers have to add multiple twists and turns to keep the show running without those characters.
“If the character is not very important to the storyline, we ignore it. But in our case, when there is a wedding taking place, we need all family members to be present. Once, an important actor was faced with a personal crisis, so we created a big fight between that actor and his son. The father said he wasn’t going to attend the ceremony and he walked out. We kept heightening the tension, and when the actor was in a position to come back we staged the patch-up scene. That is how we have been managing.”Bandana Tiwari, Screenplay Writer
Before the lockdown was imposed Bandana was working on two shows - Chotti Sardarni on ColorsTV and Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai on Star Plus. But this crisis forced her to take a tough decision.
“I had a wedding in my house and I was managing two shows at the same time. We were constantly on Zoom calls, and I don’t have house-helps to take care of chores. I felt very helpless. It was really depressing and finally I had to opt out of ‘Choti Sardarni’. It’s not a good move professionally to leave a show mid-way, but I had to figure out my priorities.”Bandana Tiwari, Screenplay Writer
While the production, camera, direction and edit teams are working out of Silvasa, Bandana and the other writers are coordinating from their respective homes. "After the shoot wraps up, we meet over Zoom every night from 10pm to 12am. We discuss the challenges, current problems and accordingly make changes to the script. We don't have much time to make changes," she says.
“We mostly get an hour or so. Generally, we write from 10pm to 7am, when the shoot isn’t taking place. So when the unit is sleeping, we have to work. It is also our only time to sleep but we can’t.”Bandana Tiwari, Screenplay Writer
Bandana reveals that the current workload has affected her mental health, but she has her own way of dealing with it.
“Sometimes I get depressed and feel hopeless. At times I also question myself as to why I am doing this. But then yoga, or watching my favourite movie or show, playing with my child, talking to somebody helps me a lot. I calm down, but it’s difficult. It’s an everyday struggle”.Bandana Tiwari, Screenplay Writer
Bandana is hoping some day things will start looking up. She says she tries to focus on good things and keep reminding herself that at least she and her family are safe. She adds, "I always hope that one day I am going to see light at the end of the tunnel."
Abhijit & Tanya Sinha
Age: 40 & 38 respectively
Story & Screenplay writers
Currently writing for Saath Nibhaana Saathiya and Apna Time Bhi Aayega
Abhijit and wife Tanya Sinha are writers and they work as a team on the same shows. They also divide their household chores.
While Abhijit communicates with the channel, Tanya takes care of most of their kids' responsibilities. Talking about his partner Abhijit says "My wife and I met during our theatre days, so we have known each other for years and have a very good understanding."
When it comes to work Abhijit has a different approach to the pressure. He says, "It's been tough, but it's engaging and entertaining also at the same time. I feel that we are still blessed because we are being able to work from home."
“Creating a story itself is a tough job, and when you have to change the plot because an actor has fallen sick or something like that then the pressure is intense. However, it also gives you an opportunity to think out of the box and try something new. It’s more challenging and I definitely enjoy challenges”.Abhijit Sinha, Screenplay Writer
Again, changing locations has not been an issue for Abhijit and Tanya when it comes to their show Saath Nibhaana Saathiya. They explain that they don't tell the viewers that the location is different.
"The production house shares pictures of the location with us. For example, if we have to shoot on a terrace or garden, we write scenes accordingly. When it comes to Saathiya, we have been lucky that no actor has fallen sick till date," Abhijit says.
Abhijit is also quick to point out that the lockdown hasn't been a cakewalk for him.
“For me the most difficult part as a writer was the last two weeks, when my friend died in Delhi of COVID. I was traumatised but at the same time I had to write episodes because my team was going to Goa and they needed a story bank. I wrote around three episodes in a day. I needed to crack them, draft them and finally send them across. It was very tough for me”.Abhijit Sinha, Screenplay Writer
But Abhijit has learnt to handle the pressure, “One thing I can say about myself is that I am very positive. COVID hasn’t affected my mental health that much. We don’t get time to think about all these things because all the time we are thinking about story ideas, narrating and then getting on group calls. I am actually working 16 hours a day. It’s a tough job,” he adds.
Currently writing for Shakti
Unlike Abhijit, this 34-year-old writer is struggling with his mental health. The past few months have been extremely stressful for Sharad Tripathi, not just as a writer but also as a human being.
"The situation around was so grim, sad and scary that it led to me developing severe anxiety. Added to that a number of shows were being shelved. The sense of insecurity at the work front has crept in as well," he says.
“Because of the COVID crisis and then the pressure at work, I get really restless if someone calls me in a state of urgency and asks about instant delivery of scripts. The production house makes frantic calls saying that the shoot would be put on hold if the script isn’t delivered on time. A lot is at stake.”Sharad Tripathi, Dialogue Writer
Sharad, who has been actively advocating about mental health, tells The Quint that he is seeking help. "I dropped out of medicine, so I am consulting a colleague of mine who is a renowned psychiatrist in Kanpur. It's all under control for me as of now. Good and healthy food as well as yoga have kept me sane".
Sharad, who has been in the industry for 16 years, says that TV writing is not stressful but it's these unfortunate events like COVID, unavailability of actors or disruption in locations that add to the pressure. "Sometimes, we have to change the entire plot in less than three hours and then have the episodes shot and telecast."
Recently, the lead actor of Shakti, Rubina Dilaik, tested COVID positive, because of which the existing track was put on hold and the whole storyline had to be re-worked.
“Let me share a trade secret with you. Whenever someone goes missing or is kidnapped out of nowhere, that means the particular actor is unavailable. For example, our protagonist Rubina Dilaik unfortunately contracted COVID, so we had to device a new way to involve our other artists and proceed with our story without compromising on the thrill and entertainment. Thus, we brought back a villain from jail and showed that Rubina has been kidnapped.”Sharad Tripathi, Dialogue Writer
Sharad adds, "People say 'TV mein kuchh bhi chalta hai', but trust me we have to move mountains to deliver the daily episodes."
With states like Goa now putting a hold on shoots for TV shows due to the rise in COVID cases, writers are now going to face the challenge of yet another location change.
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