Television

'For any successful TV project 60% of the credit should go to the writer' : Ashok Pandit

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Ashok Pandit shot into prominence with Filmi Chakkar - one of the more successful comedies on satellite TV. Soon after he made Tere Mere Sapne, a serial that depicted the story of a joint family set in today's milieu. He also has to his credit one of the most successful countdown shows on satellite TV - Colgate Top 10.

However the projects that are closest to Pandit's heart are the ones he is currently working on - a serial called Muqammal for Star Plus which is "a woman's search for a complete man".

Pandit is also fiercely passionate about his first movie Meri Zameen. The movie is set in the backdrop of the Kashmir problem and brings to light the plight of the Kashmiri Pandit community to which he belongs. In fact it was this passion and anger that made him shoot a documentary 'Sharnarthi Apne Desh Mein' which won the RAPA awards for the best documentary last year.

Today, Pandit along with wife Neerja, who is a playback singer, and their two children constitute a happy family but one meeting with this talented film-maker makes it clear that Kashmir is very much a part of his sensibilities.

Indiantelevision.com's Amar met the man who wears his love for his homeland on his sleeve. Excerpts:

What brought you into direction?

Well, I have always participated in extra-curricular activities in school and college. At Narsee Monjee College, Mumbai, I was actively into theatre, though as an actor. Even after passing out, I was so fascinated by the medium that I started directing plays as that was the only way I could remain associated with it because we were not allowed to act in plays once we had passed out. Thereafter, for my contribution to the college theatre I got a sponsorship from IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Academy). Raman Kumar, who is associated with IPTA, then took me as his assistant for a movie called Saath Saath. I found the whole process of filmmaking such a thrilling and enriching experience that I finally decided that direction was what I wanted to be in. Soon after, I assisted Kundan Shah and Manjul Sinha in Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. In fact I assisted Manjul Sinha for more than 10 years before I did my first independent project.

What are the qualities required to be an effective director? Utmost sincerity and conviction in what one is working on. Everything else such as imagination, man-management, creativity or whatever is co-related to the first two factors.

"The biggest challenge for a director is not to get typecast into a particular category."

What does it take to make a successful comedy?

Nothing much. Just that one has to be fantastically observant and keep his eyes and ears open all the time, because India is such an interesting country that there is a vast scope for humour in our daily lives.

What are the factors you take into consideration before starting a project?

My foremost concern is the writer because the writer is the star on TV. See, if you observe carefully, TV is a medium where you can do without too much of technical finesse and sometimes even average performances. But the story telling is one aspect which can never be compromised on. In fact, I believe for any successful project 60 per cent of the credit should go to the writer. I have been very selective about the writers I've worked with. Earlier, Sanjay Chhel used to write for me. My forthcoming projects, Muqammal and the film, Meri Zameen are written by Raman Kumar.

Does any particular subject appeal to you?

No. In fact, the biggest challenge for a director is not to get typecast into a particular category. I take up whatever comes to me at a given time.

Okay, let us rewind to the turbulent phase of 89-90 when the militancy problem in Kashmir is said to have unsettled your career.

Yes, that's right. My career was virtually on hold for three years. But then, I'm the sort of person who does not believe in individualistic existence. My community was suffering and at that point of time, being with my people and helping them was more important than my career.

Tell us about your documentary Sharnarthi Apne Desh Mein which won the RAPA awards for the best documentary last year.

Well, it so happened that I had done some work for Srinagar Doordarshan and had gone there to collect my payment. As a filmmaker, I carry my VHS camera with me all the time. I still remember that dreadful night - 19 January 1990. There was a sudden announcement from a nearby mosque telling all Hindus to leave the valley forthwith, leaving behind our womenfolk. This announcement was then repeated several times and within minutes, thousands of people had assembled on the streets and there was complete chaos all around. I was so taken aback by the whole thing that believe me, it took me quite a while to make out whether such a thing was actually happening or was it just a bad dream. Soon after, I took my camera and started shooting the scenes on the streets. This mass exodus continued for three days and I've captured the whole of it. Then, even in the refugee camps in Jammu, I interviewed several people.

This documentary gives you an on-the-spot account of what is probably the most shameful night in independent India's history. Of course, no TV channel will have the guts to telecast it. But yes, cable operators in Delhi and Mumbai have telecast this documentary.

"I'm still a learner and I try to grasp as many positive things as I can from different people."

Right after you came out of the turmoil of Kashmir, your next serial was an out-and-out comedy - Filmi Chakkar. Now isn't that somewhat paradoxical?

You've asked me a very pertinent question. Filmi Chakkar happened at a time when I was still trying to recover from the tragedy. In fact, initially I felt I was not in the right frame of mind to direct it. But then I spoke to Kundanji who I treat as my guru and he emphasised that it would be a challenge for me to create something which was so different from the situation I was in. After a lot of thought, I finally decided to direct it.

How was Filmi Chakkar conceived?

Filmi Chakkar was a depiction of the madness that Hindi cinema can generate among its viewers. It's just that some people openly admit it and show it, others are subconsciously affected by the spell cast by it. There was an episode where this kid develops a massive crush for his tuition teacher which is similar to the situation in Mera Naam Joker. I mean such a thing is so common. In school, I fell in love with one of my teachers.

How has comedy on TV evolved over the years? Do you feel there is a surfeit of slapstick?

I don't really see much change between the type of comedy now and 15 years ago or have probably not got myself to analyze this deeply. But one thing is for sure, comedy on TV has to be loud if it has to generate an immediate response from the viewers. Also, slapstick and situational are not watertight categories. In most comedies, in fact, we see a little of both. But slapstick should not be confused with buffoonery which is something else altogether.

You are one of the few independent filmmakers who have maintained their identity and been selective about your work. But does the current fixation on daily soaps leave you idle?

This is just a passing phase. I strongly believe that in the next six months, the trend of quality weeklies will re-emerge. In fact I have already shot eight episodes of my new weekly, Muqammal, which I am doing for Star Plus. But yes, due to shortage of time slots I have had to wait for an unusually long period. But then, I have engaged myself in this film of mine. In fact, if you are capable of making quality stuff, you need not worry about a lean phase.

What is Muqammal all about?

Muqammal is "a woman's search for a complete man". It will be trend-setting stuff because for the first time a serial will justify a woman's rejection of her husband because she feels that her husband does not deserve her. I don't want to reveal anything beyond that. For that you'll just have to wait and watch.

Have you ever thought of directing a daily soap?

No. For me, the quality of my product is very important. In fact, I watch each of my episodes several times even after the telecast so that the scope for error is minimized in future. I don't want to direct a daily soap because I wouldn't like to work on a project where the director has little idea about the characterization, hardly knows what direction the story is going to take and hardly gets the time to see his own work.

How much of an actor does a director have to be? Do you act out scenes to your actors?

I do that because I've been an actor myself, but I don't think that is important. What matters is how well you can communicate what you want from your actors.

Many actor-directors have used their directorial ventures to relaunch themselves as actors. Wouldn't you like to do that?

(Laughs) No, no. I've left the actor in me somewhere behind. Now direction is what evokes passion in me.

You worked with Manjul Sinha for 10 years. Can you pinpoint what is it that marks Sinha in terms of style?

It would be difficult for me to pinpoint something exclusively possessed by Manjul. But I would rather say that there are three directors who have influenced me deeply- Manjul Sinha, Kundan Shah and Raman Kumar. And the things that I found common in all of them are - discipline, honesty and conviction towards the subject they worked on and honesty towards the viewers which never allowed them to compromise on any aspect of their work.

After whom have you moulded yourself as a director?

Nobody in particular. Actually I'm still a learner and I try to grasp as many positive things as I can from different people. Apart from the people I've worked and been inspired by - that is Kundan Shah, Manjul Sinha and Raman Kumar, I have great admiration and respect for Yash Chopra and Mahesh Bhatt. I find both to be indefatigable workaholics.

And if you were to take someone under your wing, what would you require from that person?

Discipline, loyalty and intelligence besides a basic technical knowledge of the work.

"I believe in doing proper homework, so every minute detail of the shoot is taken care of in advance."

Who are your favourite actors on TV?

Without a doubt, Irfan Khan. Invariably, I have found that, thanks to his improvisation, many scenes have come out 50 per cent better than how I visualised them. And to top it all he does it so effortlessly. I like actors who can perform effortlessly and that's the reason I like Satish Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah also.

The script is very important to you. Have you had to work on any project where you had to cope with a weak script?

Yes, to an extent this happened with Tere Mere Sapne. I felt the writer was not supporting me enough on my ideas. As a result, the first few episodes suffered. But later, I started spending more with him, interacted a lot more with him and ensured that he was able to deliver what I wanted.

Kashmir is a very strong element in your thought process. How has your cultural history shaped you as a director?

See, Kashmir has always had a rich artistic culture and even today many famous painters, writers, historians happen to be Kashmiris. So I guess the inclination to embark on an artistic field came from within. As far as my projects go, Tere Mere Sapne was inspired from the joint family culture we lived in during my childhood days. I tried to depict in the serial the family values we so strongly believe in.

What sort of mood do you prefer on the sets? Is there a lot of debate while shooting or is that taken care of before actual shoot begins?

I like to be as relaxed on the sets as possible and maintain a good rapport with my actors. I believe in doing proper homework, so every minute detail of the shoot is taken care of in advance. Even the script reaches the actors' homes much before the day of the shoot and if they have queries suggestions, that again is taken care of before the shoot.

What are your views on the production factory process of TV that Balaji Telefilms has initiated? Does it allow a director to have a say?

See, what Balaji Telefilms has achieved is something all of us need to be proud of. But yes, that is their way of working. Like I've said before, as a director I cannot work in a system where I hardly get the time to see my own work.

Do you think programming is evolving in India? Or are we having more of the same?

Programming in India has moved in phases. When Humlog became successful in the mid-eighties, it inspired a whole lot of similar family dramas, when Tara hit the bull's eye in the mid-nineties, it inspired similar stories revolving around adultery. Now when the saas-bahu sagas have tasted success, similar serials are endlessly being churned out. But yes all that we are seeing today is old wine in new bottles and in my opinion, I won't say programming is evolving in India.

Which of your works is closest to your heart?

Film Chakkar and Sharnarthi Apne Desh Mein.

Which has been the happiest moment of your career?

It's yet to come. I guess it will be the release of my film?

Finally, with all your outbursts against the 'powers that be', don't you feel threatened?

(Laughs) No. I just fear one person and that is God.

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