From their home in the centre of New Delhi, documentary filmmakers Prashun and Suyash had begun to hear murmurs of a devastating and unpredictable new virus. They did exactly what any eager filmmaker does when they sense a story, they headed to the streets to talk to people.
It was March 2020 and as the coronavirus was beginning to sink its claws into their city, the filmmakers found themselves on the front line of a story that would consume them for the next 14 months.
Their moving documentary, India’s COVID Warriors, broadcast internationally on Al Jazeera 101 East to thousands of viewers in June 2021. The film documents how India’s front line workers battled with the surge in COVID infections and deaths amid dire shortages of hospital beds and oxygen.
It’s a hard watch, offering a harrowing insight into the devastation the virus caused over the first year of the outbreak. But for Suyash, who was behind the camera, it was even harder to film, “Mostly I’m not affected when I’m shooting [a documentary], but sometimes there were just so many people crying and in distress. I would cry, not knowing whether to film or try to help.”
It was relentless during the year-long shoot. Both filmmakers had to move out of their family homes to protect their more vulnerable relatives and they wore head to toe PPE whenever they left their apartment to film. They were often sleep-deprived, haunted by the increasingly desperate situation their country faced, and Prashun contracted the virus himself during one especially difficult period.
“We could see everyone around us struggling with it all. It was hard … In the day I was filming, at night I was trying to find oxygen for my friends and family.”
Working with a production company was a lifeline, helping them to navigate the endless logistical challenges and secure higher budgets when Al Jazeera eventually came on board. “It doesn’t come naturally to us to think about those things. We’re more focused on the story. And the production house has an established relationship with the platforms, so has more leverage when it comes to negotiating.”
Though originally pitched as an observational feature documentary, as the shoot and the pandemic developed, so did the film’s format. By the time the second wave of the virus hit in 2021, it was clear that their story needed to reach audiences with more immediacy than a feature documentary would allow.
With the help of the Global Short Docs Forum, their production company and the Al Jazeera 101 East team, they revised their film’s structure to suit 101 East’s current affairs style: focusing on fewer characters and even incorporating a new presenter.
Though this reformatting required overcoming plenty of logistical hurdles and reshoots, Prashun and Suyash were careful to maintain their creative control and original vision.
“We were always juggling with what was our priority: the story or the money? There will always be options around you to sell your story. So we chose the story.”
At the heart of their film is still a character-led narrative, allowing audiences to grasp what was happening in India through the eyes of relatable and engaging characters: a doctor, a nurse, a grave-digger and a community worker. To do this successfully, it was crucial for them to really connect with the individuals they were filming.
“Yes, it’s important to find interesting people, but the most important thing is to find people who are comfortable working with you. If you don’t have that bond. That clarity of relationship. You may not get the documentary that you’re hoping for. We still meet up with the people in this film.”
The film struck a chord with its viewers both in India and worldwide, with Prashun and Suyash receiving countless messages of support after it was released. They have left the door open to one day re-edit the film into its originally intended feature documentary format by agreeing with Al Jazeera that the filmmakers can retain footage ownership.
However, for now, Suyash says that won’t be on the cards, “there’s a feeling of burnout on this project. We want to move on. Move on to a new project.”