Bigg Boss 14 ended on 21 February and was known to be the season of comebacks. While the format of the show requires contestants to be locked up inside the house for approximately 15 weeks, season 14 began in the pandemic environment, on 3 October 2020, and seemed to have 'refuted' this format as it brought back the most number of evicted contestants into the house.
One of the major reasons for several re-entries (of contestants) during this season of Bigg Boss was the on-going pandemic. The special focus this season was on contestants' health and hygiene and a mandatory corona test for all the people entering the house.
Abhishek Rege, CEO, Endemol Shine India, in an exclusive chat with Firstpost, said, "We had X number of contestants who had quarantined and who were tested negative, and when they were evicted they were still quarantined and it was better to send the same person inside than send a fresh person because he or she might be doing some event and it could have been risky for the housemates. It was these factors that mattered to us as a broadcaster. The season therefore turned out to be very different as covid was at the back of everyone's mind."
He further added, "Typically, when I needed to get someone fresh there was a need to do two-week quarantine versus someone who was already in the 'bubble'. So when a contestant, who was already tested negative, came out and entered back within a week it didn't matter. If there was no covid situation, we wouldn't have had so much of in and out, and maybe we'd have seen more fresh faces."
Besides the safety factor, some of the 'fresh' faces and celebrities had to refuse the offer to appear in the 14th season because they were busy with other commitments and didn't have enough time to prepare for the quarantining process. Confirming the same, Gautam Gulati, Bigg Boss, season eight winner, said, "They had offered me to participate in this season but a lot of days would have been spent in quarantine, so I couldn't join them. I was busy shooting and dubbing. I was told to stay in quarantine for 14 days before entering the house which wasn't possible. I couldn't have left my work to get into the house and I had to say 'No'."
The making of a reality show in a closed-house format during the pandemic was definitely a challenge and just before the show went on air, chief content officer of Colors TV, Manisha Sharma, had told the show host Salman Khan that even if a single contestant had coronavirus symptoms, the shoot had to be stalled. "Bigg Boss is a real-time show, and we cannot take a risk. All contestants were tested and quarantined before they entered the show. The crew was also tested every weekend. We had taken all precautions and planned accordingly, but in case someone fell sick, we would have to give cameras to contestants to shoot," Sharma said.
While some of the 'promising' celebrities didn't want to risk it and they declined the offer, there were many who accepted as they found it safer being inside the house than the outside world. "We had to explain the process that we would follow. Some people were apprehensive because the selection process was happening somewhere around July-August when there was a lot more fear. There were people who refused to come on the show. In fact, we explained to a lot of them that Bigg Boss was much safer as compared to shooting regular shows where they would have to return home at night. We were creating a bubble where everyone would be inside the house. Some people understood that and accepted the offer while some didn't and hence they dropped out," said Rege.
By the time the shoot began there was a great deal of pressure mounting out of fear, and besides the standard operating protocols set by the state government and broadcasters, "the production house had its own practices learnt from international territories".
"Each project is different and especially for Bigg Boss we tried to keep bare minimum people on set. We retained all the staff just that we extended, or changed the shift in a manner that at any given point in time we don't have too many people on set. So instead of having a 10 to 12 hour shift we had a six to eight hour shift," said Rege, adding, "And the major challenge for us was to keep telling people, to keep ensuring that they wear masks, wear face shields, stay sanitised, and it did take us considerable time doing that."
Further, explaining the process, the CEO said there were completely dedicated teams looking after the pantry and tasks inside the house and these team members had to undergo covid tests on a regular basis. "All non-food items were sanitised with UV lights and all food items were cleaned with prescribed cleaners. We tried to make the house a complete bubble which ensured that the housemates were never at risk and we had absolutely no issues inside the house," said Rege.
Interestingly, this season also saw a glass partition in the house which was to ensure those who weren't quarantined enough and came to visit the contestants, including artistes, performers, and contestants' relatives (in the family week), were in a "sterile environment". "The house was kept completely detached from all the guests. Whenever we put someone inside the house we ensured that they were quarantined before they entered the house. So we followed all the basic principles to ensure that we don't bring up the risk," confirmed Rege.
When asked if the tasks were designed keeping covid in mind, Rege said, "From the perspective that we shouldn't need anything from outside, yes, but more than creatively, we had operationally kept things in mind. So, we didn't have the possible freedom of deciding today and doing something tomorrow. We would plan in advance so that we didn't have to crowd the place with carpenters and everything else. If a certain prop had to be done, it was planned in advance. It was constructed somewhere else, brought in and put together and sanitised completely by the team that was inside who were already in a bubble."
When asked about the instructions that were given to the contestants, he said, "Obviously they were told to be careful, they need to keep washing and sanitising their hands frequently. Besides that no other special instructions were given to them."
To take all the precautionary measures did add to the cost and budget of this season, "but the broadcaster had covered up for the ppe kits, sanitiser, mask and other basic stuff, but priority this year was safety and that is not something we wanted to play around with. We were also lucky that while we saw the cost going up, it provided employment for a number of people and the show kept people entertained. It was not a bad deal at all," said Rege.
To get Salman Khan (who returned to host the show for the 11th time), to say 'yes' to the show was also very critical for the show's success but Khan was very supportive, said Rege. "The first thing Salman asked us was how we would handle the covid situation and after we explained he had no issues except that he would personally check whether we followed all the protocols or not. Restarting business was also a big priority as it led to employment and that was also discussed with him. He could be at risk as well and not just the housemates but the overall aim was to get back and make the show happen. The perspective was not just entertainment but employment as well."