'How soon the viewer flows into the story determines my success' : Vivek Agnihotri

Vivek Agnihotri is venturing where no Indian director has gone till date. He is taking a plunge into reality television, producing Prisoner of War for Zee Telefilms. Agnihotri hopes his POW will be able to emulate in India the success of shows like Jailbreak and Survivor - two series that have set the standard for success in this genre of television programming. Survivor 1 pulled in a 50-million audience share in its climactic episode in the US alone.

POW is more on the lines of Jailbreak and it remains to be seen how Indian audiences take to it. Whatever may be the final verdict of the public, Agnihotri is giving the show his best shot. He has shelved all other plans to concentrate fully on this project.

Agnihotri carries 12 years of ad-film experience with leading agencies like HTA and O & M. In 1994 Agnihotri took up directing tele-serials with Yeh Kahan Aa Gaye Hum (YKAGH). It was about how a young photojournalist discovers the networks behind global terrorism. Unfortunately the serial was called off air midway after the Anupam Kher-promoted Media Entertainment, which was producing the serial, went bankrupt.

Later the techno-savvy director made short telefilms like Chocolate, Sikandar and a mini-serial Neha - all suspense thrillers that aired on Zee. Critics have rated Chocolate and Sikander among the 'slickest telefilms' to have aired on Indian television.

There is a lot riding on POW, especially because it is the biggest gamble taken by Zee after the disaster that was the gameshow Sawaal Dus Crore Ka. But Agnihotri is unperturbed by the media attention and promises: "This show will be different."

Excerpts from an interview's Harsha Khot had with director Vivek Agnihotri:

How did the concept of global terrorism in YKAGH come about?

It had been on my mind from the time I was studying in Delhi. Media attention on the global terrorist was filtering into India after (former prime minister) Indira Gandhi was assassinated. It was a time when cops stopped you on the street and asked you to remove your helmet to check whether you were a Sardar (Sikh) or not. There was a lot of speculation surrounding the motives behind Gandhi's assassination and militants were interpreted as hardcore anti-social elements, which was far from the truth. Those days had a profound impact on me. So the story had been on my mind for a while.

What does directing mean to you?

When I started out, directing meant putting all available techniques together skillfully but today I feel directing is like telling a story to your child. To make a child sleep you tell a story. How soon the child sleeps lies in the success of the telling. Education is not the purpose of the story. Instead it is about taking the child into a world of fantasy. And slowly the child drifts off to sleep in that dream world. My job as a director is to tell a story and how soon the viewer flows into it and becomes a part of it determines my success.

In YKAGH, what was your contribution apart from directing it?

I wrote, directed and edited it.

Did you take suggestions from anybody or discuss the script with people?

I did it all by myself. Initially I did approach senior scriptwriters but not many of them had an idea about global terrorism as it was a new phenomenon the country was facing. Most were under the impression these people were either involved in bomb blasts or something similar to militancy.

What pulled you toward directing?

Ever since childhood I have been good at debates and elocution. Directing is only a larger canvas of communicating your thoughts and ideas.

Pallavi Joshi,Deepshikha & Vivek Agnihotri

on the sets of
What was your approach like?

At that point of time I wanted to explore and try my hand at every aspect of directing, so YKAGH was an exercise in that direction. I wanted to explore myself, whether I was a better writer or director. Editing is my passion and I love the way I edit. Since I am not comfortable with anybody else's editing, till date I've edited all my projects. And I think I am one of the best editors today.

You write, direct and edit. Where does this confidence come from?

(The confidence comes from) the nearly 12 years I have spent in advertising. At this point I have an idea about what works and what doesn't. I have an idea what good quality writing is. And I don't believe that you cannot judge your own work. I believe that you are the best judge of your own work.

After YKAGH quite a few projects must have come your way?

I don't write for anybody else. I write only for myself.

And what about directing?

I did a few projects with UTV and three or four others but eventually I decided not to work for anyone else.

Any reason for that?

When you are working for someone else then you are translating their vision onto the screen. I treat my work lavishly. I enjoy working on a big canvas. My frames are huge and I work with a certain quality and unfortunately in television there are very few people who like to treat their work like this. It doesn't cost much money but nobody wants to provide that kind of quality because their whole thinking is too set. So when I am the producer then I can do it the way I want.

What things you take into consideration while taking up a project? Primarily the project has to be challenging. If somebody approaches us to do a normal soap then we don't take that up. We take up projects that nobody has done so far. We took YKAH because nobody had done anything on those lines before. It was the first musical drama thriller on television. It had 36 songs and nobody had thought of that before. Then again we started a slot called Saturday Suspense where we did the first short series called Neha which again was dealt with differently. Neha was a psycho thriller, which in India is easily labeled horror. It was a story of a small child who falls into the clutches of a monster who nobody can see.

Are you limited to certain genres?

I'm a maker. It's like if you love cooking you try your hand and explore all kinds of delicacies. Similarly I enjoy making serials and films. We've made Sikander which is an out-and-out crime thriller. We've done musical shows as well as out- and-out melodramas. Now I am working on a reality show, which only three to four people around the world have managed to do successfully.

What kind of serials would you not do?

The Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi (the No. 1 soap on TV today) kind, I am just not cut out for those kinds of serials. I somehow cannot get myself to do something that doesn't have visual excellence. Shooting indoors in the same location, taking the same sort of shots of people in closed rooms day in and day out, over and over again, simply doesn't appeal to me.

Kumar Guarav & Deepshikha in Chocolate

What about Prisoner of War appealed to you?

The production challenge. Everybody says there is no technical know-how available in India for doing a reality show. So we said fine in that case we'll get this know-how and that is what we are presently working at.

Doesn't it appear to be on the lines of Jailbreak?

It seems so but isn't. Every love story seems to be Mughal-E-Azam, every thriller seems to be Sholay and every tragedy seems to be Pyaasa. But it isn't that way. Every individual has his or her own ways of expressing things and they are not necessarily a copy.

Any challenging project that you are working on?

Only Prisoner of War for Zee. It is mind-blowingly big and challenging. As the moment I am devoting all my attention to this project and have put on hold plans for the production of a film which was just about to take off. Only three people in the world have been able to execute this kind of programming properly and now it's being done for the first time in India. Nobody expects us to do it well. Even you have doubts about it. Don't you too doubt it?

Err, sort of, more like reservations really. There are certain apprehensions about the project. Considering this is a Zee project and comes immediately after Sawaal Dus Crore Ka, which was a disaster. Besides, not much is known about POW. Again isn't it on the lines of Jailbreak? 'One is forced to copy the last most successful programme.' Isn't that what you believe in? So how different is Zee's POW going to be from Jailbreak?

I agree SDCK wasn't good, but this one is going to be different. That's my promise. As for the similarity to Jailbreak, yes, in the sense the concept of reality television is picked up from there. But the programme itself is original. Its like yes, programmes initially were invented overseas but programmes like Buniyad and Mahabharat were made in India and were original. Similarly the reality television concept is from there but the programme is Indian.

Millions are going to watch POW closely. Won't the escape route be out of the bag once the first batch escapes?

That is where the challenge lies. So we are working on it and the manner in which the project is being carried through it will be difficult to get out even if one has watched the show. The kind of set we are working on is amazing. Nobody in the entire world would have done something like this. You'll spend your life watching it and still will not know how to get out.

When did the work begin and how far has it progressed?

It began on 3 March and in a few months it should be ready .

What are the investments in terms of equipment? How different is it going to be?

I am not supposed to talk about it. But we have some of the best people on the project team. We have Nitin Desai who has won a number of awards for set design. Then we also have Vinod Pradhan working on the project. And the equipment is brand new and still more is being imported. It is going to be different and something that will make everybody proud that it was made in India. Provided I am allowed to do the things that should be done. So far things have been fine so I have no complaints.

Which projects are close to you?

Neha and Sikandar, both suspense thrillers. These were good quality telefilms which met international standards. I am very proud of them because this kind of work generally takes a million rupees by were actually made on a shoestring budget. They are at par with what Steven Spielberg creates and at any give point of time I can walk into any Hollywood studio and after taking a look at it anybody will say. Aha! The work in Neha was on the lines of what Steven Spielberg creates. It is a suspense thriller where a small child is kidnapped by a mysterious monster. Though everybody is clueless, they come together to search and rescue the child from the monster's grip.

What is you pre-production approach?

The whole game is about production designing. Since I come from advertising where every thing is well planned, so all the production designs are ready. Even the script is ready, right from comma to full stop.

How do you communicate the character to the actor?

While explaining the general sketch of the character, it is narrated in a very simple manner and at the level the actor will understand.

Pallavi Joshi & Deepshikha in Chocolate

If things don't go according to plan on the sets, how do you deal with it?

My first reaction is how to find a creative outlet to that problem. Secondly, there are people who are answerable. Since those concerned have to realise that because of them people and work get hampered, I do let off steam at times. But we always come out with an alternative solution which often is much more creative and better than what was originally planned.

Could you relate one such instance?

Once, after reaching the set for a shoot, it wasn't even remotely close to the way I wanted it. There was a huge cast standing wondering what I would do next. I told everybody to leave and asked the production director to get a lot of paint and a spray machine. I then got all the furniture removed and painted the walls myself. It was 2 pm when I was through but the set was as I wanted it.

What expectations do you have while on the sets?

I want everybody to know whatever we are doing in totality and I don't tolerate people who are half informed.

What kind of atmosphere do you maintain on the sets?

I want people to have real fun. I can be a tough taskmaster but then we enjoy also. Everybody is active and busy all the time. The atmosphere is young and energetic, for if it isn't that way I just cannot work.

I motivate people, charge them up and see to it that nobody is sitting idle or yawning away. I keep the people involved and make sure there are no visitors on the sets. For instance people generally tend to ignore the light boys thinking they have nothing much to do apart from holding lights. But I keep asking them suggestions and see to it that they are involved. Everybody is there for a purpose. I know some people come and love to gossip but that's okay. When everybody gets involved there is a connective energy.

Do you have any mental blocks?

Yes, I have mental blocks. Whenever I switch to any channel, the programmes on air are near ditto remakes of programmes that were telecast in the 60s and 70s. Similar storylines, same old feuds within joint families. At any given time there are three to four serials on air with the same locations, the same set-ups. You can even pinpoint them. I fail to understand why they show such outdated characters. In most serials, the politician is shown wearing a dhoti kurta with a Gandhi cap. Take a look closely at the politicians attending parliament. How many of them really wear those clothes. I often see them smartly dressed. And if they have to show journalists it will be some guy wearing a khadi kurta and an ethnic jhola. So unlike the ones you see in real life.

How do you intend to overcome it?

I don't want to overcome this block.

Any Indian serials that you like watching on television?

Frankly, there aren't many. I really can't make out one from the other. Each one is on similar lines. Same soppy melodramatic soaps running on all channels.

What do you think is the reason behind it?

Actually I think the channels are the ones to be blamed for this. Each channel wants to take off on the concept that's been a hit and copy it. The directors are caught in the rigmarole and are churning out whatever the channels want. And again the channel gives a directive that the series has to be produced within a certain budget. It is like somebody handing out a five-rupee note to get you food. Obviously one tries to get the cheapest food that is satisfying also. For instance wada-pav would fit into the given amount. So within this amount one would churn out wada-pavs and the race is to dish out the best wada-pav. Most television productions are churned out in a similar manner.

What kinds of characters do you consciously try to portray?

My characters have to be today's characters. Period.

What natural qualities do you need to be a good director?

A director essentially has to be a good person by nature. He should have a good command over language, and be able to convey his ideas skillfully.

Any Indian serial that you like?

I am proud that serials like Buniyad, Mrignayani, Mahabharata have seen the light of day.

What do these serials have in common that make them stand out?

On the contrary, these serials had nothing similar in them. Each one stood out because they were different from each other. The dressing, dialogues, get-up -- all had their individual characteristics. And everything that went into these productions gelled properly.

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