Television

'I insist on getting things done in my way and have unlimited freedom' : Mukesh Sharma Mumbai DD Director

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Mukesh Sharma is not the kind of guy you would expect to find in a government job. Suave and with filmstar like good looks, Sharma has, however, been doing exactly that for the past 20-odd years. First with the Children?s Film Society from 1980 onwards and then with Doordarshan from 1992 in various capacities until he was appointed as the director of the Mumbai Kendra of Doordarshan in May 2000.

Sharma heads DD Sahyadri at an extremely difficult time. The channel is under attack from a clutch of private players: Alpha Marathi, ETV Marathi, Prabhat, and Tara Marathi.

His immediate task, when he took over, was to slash red tape, revamp the programming, give it a fresh look so that it jelled with the denizens of one of India?s most important states - Maharashtra - and Marathi speaking audiences.

There are several firsts Sharma has notched up for DD Sahyadri: today DD employees undergo performance appraisals, his office is open to respond to queries, something which is anathema in most government organisations, where babudom reigns.

Indiantelevision.com?s Anoop Wanvari spoke to Sharma who was quite candid on several issues relating to DD, the industry and television in general.

Excerpts:

How and where did you start your career in media?

After completing my graduation from Lucknow University, while I was pursuing a career in the forest services I got a call from V Shantaram to come and assist him in production. I was just 23 years old at that time, a rookie. I was given a bank account with a balance of half a million rupees. I was the only authorised signatory and I was given a free hand to complete some shooting in Kashmir. I even questioned V Shantaram as to how come you are trusting me? I could run away with the money - it was quite a big sum in those days. V Shantaram told me you will complete the work and come back. I trust you fully.

I have worked as production chief with the Children?s Film Society, from July 1980 to May 1992. During that tenure, I directed and produced several feature films. I organised children?s film festivals in India and abroad and was actively associated with the marketing of children?s films.

Who did you work with and did you win some laurels during this period?

I have worked with V.Shantarm, Jaya Bachchan and Amol Palekar when I was with the Children?s Film Society. During Jaya Bachchan?s tenure, I made the children?s feature film Anokha Aspatal for which I received a special mention award from the President of India during the 1989 Sixth International Children?s Film Festival in New Delhi. I was the winner of the best children?s film, the national award from the President of India as the producer of a joint Indo-Mauritius co-production Ankur Maina Kabutar. This was a movie about operation pink pigeon, which was on the verge of extinction.

I have worked with people like Satyam Bose to Kedar Sharma and even with some renowned south Indian producers.

My training has been ek master ke neeche (under the great master); that?s why I could do so much.

I have received calls from other DD channels, seeking advice on how to make improvements. I was even invited by the BBC to explain how could so much be achieved by an individual in a government setup.

Everybody concerned is made aware of what?s going on. Everything is so transparent. I feel if you do things with a clean heart success is bound to follow

What is your work credo and how have you achieved it?

I believe in complete transparency at the highest level, including in decision making. This is very difficult in a government organisation, but that?s what I believe in and have tried to incorporate within the Mumbai Kendra. This has really boosted employee morale and created a family atmosphere. I don?t smoke, don?t drink, don?t have any vices and all my work is completely transparent. So much so that there are no secrets anymore.

How did you go about recreating DD Sahyadri?

Earlier on this was a Marathi regional channel with no name. It was launched in April without a name; the name Sahyadri was given only last year. The viewership was only 3-4 per cent. The quality of programming was shabby, the execution was poor, minimum exposure was there in TV homes and all cable networks were not carrying this channel. It was a dead channel.

In my opinion it is easier to start a new channel in such a scenario. I was working within a particular environment for DD and had to consider several things in the revamp. We are running a mandatory public service broadcast organisation and have to always to do a balancing act. The efforts put in are different, we have to reach people and gain acceptance.

We decided to change and put in a lot of new programs as content had to be improved substantially.

New packaging and presentation were done for all the shows. It was made mandatory to get a technical okay before any programme could be telecast (something similar to ISI standards). New young talent was introduced, new five minute programme slots were created. There were daily discussions on socially relevant topics like alcoholism, dowry, law, health and women?s issues. Additionally, this was communicated to viewers at large: we held regular press meetings and conferences to boost the image of the channel.

Can you be more specific about your programming efforts?

DD Sahyadri has introduced 25 new programmes (in-house as well as out-sourced) since I took over. I have focused strongly on increasing interactivity with viewers using simple concepts such as phone-ins. There?s Saad Pratisaad. This is a dial-in programme where people can phone in live, discuss and question the invitees about what is being done. We have got a number of people coming on the show and have had episodes on cancer, alcoholics anonymous, gambling etc. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are involved in this programme.

Other programmes along these lines are: Hello Sakhi, (targeted at women pertaining to fashion, beauty, food, diet childcare, family problems etc.) Hello Doctor (online consultation with eminent doctors), Hello DD (live phone-ins with personalities from all walks of life), and a sex education programme on Saturday which is telecast live with no editing.

Game shows such as Saap Shidi, which is a snakes and ladders game with live participation, Aaj Atta Tabadtob (a phone in quiz) and Chala Banuya Roadpati (a spoof on Star Plus?s Kaun Banega Crorepati) were introduced. Some of the other programmes include Sanga Utar Sanga (quiz program), Dum dama dum (for children along the lines of Sony Entertainment?s Boogie Woogie), Kala Darpan (based on heritage, culture and music of tribal and rural folk) Spot light (Marathi film and play appreciation), Tarangan (five minute snippet on Marathi artistes), Raag Ek Raag Anek (based on Indian classical music) Padgham (channel promotions) and Chalta Bolta (a mobile camera team on the move talks to people in Maharashtra in a quiz format), talk shows like Nati Goti (a celebrity chat show) and Samora Samor (a personality based talk show).

Additionally, two news bulletins were introduced and experts were invited to review an issue for the day in a 30-minute current affairs show at 9:30 pm.

Today, DD Sahyadri has a programming mix consisting of 41 per cent information, 44 per cent entertainment, seven per cent education and eight per cent other genres.

Any particular programmes which are positioned as channel drivers?

Yes. Damini, and Gharkal, two five-day-a-week sponsored series, produced by Shri Adhikari Brothers serve as effective channel drivers for DD Sahyadri.

What did you do to improve the work culture prevailing in the Kendra?

Firstly, I have organised daily one-hour long morning meetings. Everyone has to be present. Before my taking over as director earlier on there were 15-meeting in the morning only, where nothing used to be done.

Nowadays, we discuss what was done yesterday, what targets were achieved. Why there were any reasons for success or failure. We discuss everything threadbare with the people concerned and what rectification or changes can be made. We even ask for feedback from people.

All the daily in-depth programme meetings with the staff have helped the channel overcome inherent production and technical problems.

After the meeting, I draw up a chart for what is planned for the day and the timings. This have been so well-organised that even in my absence things move on without any hitch. Everybody concerned is made aware of what?s going on. In fact even the peon knows what?s to happen and is quite miffed that there is no kichdi to pakao (no rice to cook). Everything is so transparent. I feel if you do things with a clean heart success is bound to follow

DD Sahyadri was a dead channel earlier. The quality of programming was shabby, the execution was poor... TAM TRP ratings today show that it is tops amongst all Marathi channels. Its reach has grown 739 per cent from 7.9 per cent in April 2000 to 59.65 per cent in August 2001

How much of a free hand do you have in deciding matters? Are your hands tied by politicians or bureaucrats?

I insist on getting things done in my way and have unlimited freedom to do so. I insist on complete transparency. By God?s grace I am well blessed as far as material benefits go. If I do my job correctly with complete dedication and passion with no ulterior motives, only good can come out of my hard work. The results speak for themselves. In fact I have even handed in my resignation twice when there have been hindrances against my way of working.

What results have you achieved?

The reach of the channel has seen a growth from 7.9 per cent in April 2000 to 59.65 per cent in August 2001 -- an increase of almost 739%.

More specifically how are you performing in revenue terms?

Last year revenues were Rs 185 million to 190 million. Overall the Kendra has being doing better. This year so far we have had revenues of around RS 75 million already and I have set a target of RS 300 million. Let?s see how much we can manage by the end of the (financial) year.

This expose (the alleged TRP scam) carried by CNBC is an overall loss for the television industry... this expose was unethical by all means. I feel it?s just a question of sour grapes. Ektaa Kapoor?s programs were topping all the ratings

How are you positioned against the other regional channels under the DD umbrella?

TAM TRP (viewership) ratings show that DD Sahyadri is tops amongst all Marathi channels. For Prasar Bharati, DD Malayalam and DD Bangla channel are the top earners, but we are not far behind in third place. Basically we don?t have that many Marathi movies being shown on the channel. What helps DD Malayalam, is that it has a lot of feature film content which really grabs viewership. As it is Marathi movies do not get that much importance and not many are produced. I will try to organise a programme inviting Marathi filmmakers to rectify this and strike some sort of a deal.

What is your opinion about the alleged TRP scam?

I feel it?s just a question of sour grapes. Ektaa Kapoor?s programs were topping all the ratings And unnecessarily all this came out. Advertisers need some yardstick to know which programmes are doing well. There should be some common currency to distinguish the viewership and ratings of programmes.

This expose carried by CNBC is an overall loss for the television industry. The rating agencies are doing a good job. There should be a level playing field for all the players in industry and this expose was unethical by all means.

Doordarshan Sahyadri was not affected in any way by this expose. The reach of this channel is very large and it is very well connected.

Do you think you need to be multi-skilled in a creative business like television?

Today multi-tasking knowledge is a must to survive and come up. A war tank for example, has three people one to fire one driver and one person to navigate. Each and every person must be a master of at least two of these job functions so that in case one is injured or killed in combat, the other two should be able to function without any hitch and get the tank back safe and sound. I have done so many tasks that multitasking is a way of life for me which is why I can achieve all that I do.

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