Television

"It would be foolish if I switched to some other track and allowed my competitors to perform a dance of victory on an empty field" : Ekta Kapoor Balaji Telefilms' creative director

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Late into her teens, she was only known as Jeetendra's daughter. Today, she has her own identity - as Ekta Kapoor, the creative head of Balaji Telefilms. She started off when she was just 17. Since then, she has worked, eaten and slept only television - thinking of concepts, casting, styling, selecting technicians, shooting and scheduling, marketing and acquiring the new skills required to succeed.

This 27-year old entrepreneur is a Jeetendra-Shobha product biologically and a Bombay Scottish School one academically. Later, she joined Mithibai College, but lazed around aimlessly. She did not believe in hard work and excellence in academics, unlike her brother Tusshar who wept even when he secured 96 per cent marks! Trying her luck, she hung around the shoots of Kailash Surendranath, the ad and feature filmmaker - but to no avail. Seeing his daughter's predicament, papa Jeetendra came to his daughter's rescue. Men are more attached to their daughters than sons, and Jeetendra is no exception.

Jeetendra advised TV-serial production and offered her money for the same. Realising the worth of her father's contribution and concern, she got down to business. She made six pilots and three episodes for each pilot, running up a bill of nearly Rs 5 million. All of them were rejected. His daughter being the most prized possession in his world, the doting father asked her not to lose heart and offered her more money to try again. And then? Hum Paanch happened.

Success changed her completely. She began craving for more, open to improvement and determined to make it to the top. Today, Balaji is no more a private limited enterprise but a public limited company. And no prizes for guessing how much sweat, toil and labour the largest and youngest single producer of television software in the history of India's entertainment industry has put in! You can definitely put a few bucks on her dream of making Balaji the biggest content provider in India!

Not so long ago, she was chosen to head the Confederation of Indian Industries' (CII) entertainment committee. She is a Society achiever and The Best Entrepreneur of the Year 2001, apart from being the proud recepient of quite a few Indian Telly Awards in the last two years.

My gut feeling tells me that she has her real life role all sewn up. Despite being in the thick controversies off and on, she has never been at a loss of words - at least with me.

The calm and collected spirit has always been evident in her since I first set eyes on this neat little brown-haired girl. One word from her secretary to her that Vickey Lalwani is waiting to meet her and she comes almost running out to welcome me in. Dressed in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, she does not change my impression of her. I am, to say the least, glad. No prizes for guessing why! This time too, she is not going to be at a loss of words! Excerpts from our chatathon-

Where have you been? Long time no interviews, no quotes from your side in any section of the media?

Oh, just around (smiles). You know how it is when you decide to make a movie. My third production (untitled as yet) directed by Santaram Varma is just completed. It stars Sohail Khan, Isha Koppikar, Anita (Natasha) and Rati Agnihotri.

Why no Tusshar in it?

You couldn?t avoid that one, could you (grins)? If I take him in every movie, people will say that he is there because it is his home production. If I don't take him in every movie, people start floating shitty stories against us. It is amusing. To tell you the truth, my last film Kucch To Hai was a thriller. This one also has some similar elements of thrill. Is there any sense in giving him a similar role again? Tusshar is an ocean of talent. His best is yet to come. Shortly, I am going to announce one or two awesome projects with him. That would silence the wagging tongues, I hope.

Why are most of your serials in keeping with "the country's cultural values"?

Most of the rich people do not need values, most of the poor do not have time for them. Hence, middle class values are what my serials are about. These middle-class values are incidentally in keeping with the cultural ethos of the country. As far as I am concerned, economically I belong to the high class, but morally to the middle class. If I know you correctly, you may be prompted to ask me why I made Kyunki... trotting out quotable quotes faster than popcorn from a popcorn machine. At that time, there were a lot of extramarital serials coming on air.

I wanted to make a serial about a family that lived together. I wanted to make a serial around what I do not have. There are four of us in the house - we saw our cousins only on holidays. I missed us all living together. I created realism by creating real life characters, I created idealism by creating a family. And of course, I kept my flag of middle-class values flying.

What about the soaps such as Kabhi Souten Kabhie Saheli (Star Plus), Kutumb (Sony), Kuch Jhuki Palkein (Sony) and Kohi Apna Sa (Zee) which went off the air some time back?

Big deal! If I keep a serial on for long, you will say that I am dragging it. If I terminate it after an appropriate length, you will ask why. How can any serial go on endlessly for that matter? If I know you correctly again, you may be prompted to ask why Kyunki is going on and on and on... Tell me, why should I withdraw a hot cake from the market? Kyunki continues to be amongst the first three slots in the TRP ratings almost every week. Its characters have become like family members to everybody. Recently, Ba was almost dead, and the whole Virani parivar prayed and brought her back to life.

Before you say that was a drag, do you know how many letters we got asking us to keep her alive? I was flooded with calls, emails, SMSs. People didn't want Ba to die. And when she came back to life, I was again flooded with calls, emails, SMSs - this time people were thanking me that I had let her live. Kyunki... in fact is one serial which has never given me any worry.

"Why do people say that we are not trying anything different? Hasn't Kaahin Kissi Roz had its fair share of suspense? Wasn't myHum Paanch hilarious from the first word to the last?"

Ekta with the Balaji team at the Indian Telly Awards 2002

There is a school of thought that your serials tend to focus on transgressing women...

(interrupts) It is not necessary that those who care for their family are the backward type of women. There are some mischief-mongers who want to run down my serials - for reasons best known to them. People are jealous that I have detected the pulse of the Indian audience. I realised that one subject which holds eternal interest for us Indians is the family - every Indian family is bound by traditions, festivals, etc, and every family tends to celebrate occasions with relatives, every family has certain characters who are good and bad, or rather, have particular habits.

Then, I weaved all this realisation together. That's it! And I don't understand why people say that we are not trying anything different. Hasn't Kaahin Kissi Roz had its fair share of suspense? Wasn't my Hum Paanch hilarious from the first word to the last?

Before I forget, do you know that Hum Paanch is coming back with Raakhee Tandon as the producer?

(raises her eyebrows). Well, I have heard something like this. But that?s unethical.

Why not a bit of promiscuity and violence at least sometimes?

My serials are seen by families sitting together at the dinner table. When I say families, it obviously includes all the children. I surely don't want to propagate wrong messages to the youth.

"Kyunki... in fact is one serial which has never given me any worry.."

Ekta with Star's Tarun Katial, and Kyunki's Smriti Malhotra Irani and Kahaani's Kiran Karmarkar at the Indian Telly Awards 2002

Then how come you showed violence against a woman in the form of a heinous rape in one of your ongoing serials Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii some time back?

Good you asked me this. Rape is the worst crime. It leaves a woman completely in shambles. Today, even infants are not safe in our country. In this perspective, I wanted to show rape and give a clarion call to all parents that they ought to make their daughters aware of this crime as soon as possible.

According to me, a six-year-old girl child should be told about the possible dangers to her. That would make her wise and careful. Importantly, I have not shown any wrong camera angles or crude dialogues. The underlying meaning in that depicted rape is that rape is more rampant on the domestic front, and we must be cautious.

Shobha Kapoor has declared that Balaji plans to release a series of mega serials in the coming quarter. Could you tell us about these?

I have three shows coming up. One for Sahara, two for Star Plus. One is Kahin To Hoga. Earlier it was titled as Kashish. It is being directed by Anil V Kumar. Another one is Koi Aa Raha Hai Waqt Badal Ne (earlier titled Kalki). KARHWBN has been delayed a bit, because it has lots of special effects of Superman etc. Both these are for Star Plus. The Sahara serial is untitled as yet.

"The revamped 'Kutumb' on Sony TV flopped simply because people were not aware that the serial had been revamped. On the other hand, the revamped 'Kyunki....' worked simply because Star Plus had done massive propaganda in this matter"

Did Bansilal Jumaani give you the ?K? factor?

No. Sunita Menon did. She told me that ?K? will always bring success into your life, do not desert it. Still, I consult Jumaani. His role is restricted to see whether the title assigned is numerologically lucky or not.

You seem to have a blind faith in astrologers, tarot card readers, numerologists.

There is no question of blind faith. After consulting them, I just feel psychologically satisfied. There have been a few cases where the calculations have not worked.

Coming to the ongoing tussle with the National Commission for Women which alleged that an episode of ?Kyunki?? used gender-testing of a foetus in favour of testing as a punishment and asked it to air at least 20 times before the serial. Balaji has said that you?ll will air it three times. What?s the status on that?

I am not sure how many times we will air it. You will have to ask the production team. But I think a mountain has been made out of a molehill. In the episode before Prachee Shah goes to her gynaecologist, Smriti Malhotra had given birth to a daughter. We had shown the Virani parivar celebrating to the hilt. Nobody complimented me on that.

At the Prachee incident stage, the serial was undergoing a 20-year leap. I wanted to project the arrival of Prachee?s son to inculcate a faith in Ba who was feeling despondent due to Babuji?s demise, that her husband was on his return journey. You know how Hindu families believe in rebirth in the same family. Besides, Prachee and her husband were not shown to be inquiring about the child?s sex. The doc just happened to say it.

Then, is this a punishment meted out to you?

(smiles) You tell me!

"I would love to make some more horror. I love horror....But I think that I'll stay focused on soaps. Soaps will always have a h-u-g-e audience in India; they will never become a has-been.. "

Ekta with the trophies garnered by her soaps at the Indian Telly Awards 2002

How come recently ?Des Mein Niklla Hoga Chand? shot up to No.1 in TRP ratings?.

That was only for one week, that is the week before the last one. Again last week, my Kasautii Zindagi Kay is at the top and Kyunki is at No.2. That week, Sony went off and Star was on. Sony has a stronger base in Mumbai than anywhere else. So even Kkusum which eats into a fair share of TRPs went off. Then even Star went off; the cable problem gained momentum, nearly 50 per cent Mumbai was not getting the cable services. In cities, the prime time is 10-11 while in interiors the prime time is 8.15-9.15. Mumbai contributes to a large chunk of my TRPs. Thus, a small switch resulted in the TRPs. But you know our people. Without going into the details, they started shooting ?Are Ektaa?s serials losing grease??

Has Mandira been re-introduced in Kyunki? because Tulsi?s popularity is failing?

Are you kidding? If Tulsi (Smriti Malhotra) does not appear in one episode, I start getting tons of enquiries. Ditto for Ba (Sudha Shivpuri). Recently, Ganga (Shilpa Saklani) and Karan (Hiten Tejwani) are catching up. Anyway, a new character is coming up in Kyunki very soon; Mandira is going to have a shocking twist in her life! Aren?t you going to ask me my favourite character in the serial? It?s Karan.

What?s the next big idea? I mean, aren?t you keen to exploit new genres? First it was KBCthat shook television, then came Kyunki.... Wouldn?t you like to be a visionary and love to continue riding on the crest of the wave?

Thanks for your concern. I would love to make some more horror. I love horror. I quite like my serialKya Haadsa Kya Haqeeqat. But I think that I?ll stay focused on soaps. Soaps will always have a h-u-g-e audience in India; they will never become a has-been. Soaps are like ?dal chawal?, the rest of the genres form the tidbits on your plate. Face it. Indian television mainly caters to women. The television is on when the man leaves in the morning for his office, and often, remains so even after he is snoring in the night!

Women like to see ?saas-bahu?, ?bhai-bhabhi?, ?ma-beti?, ?nanand-devrani? relationships, the gossip, the misunderstandings, the jealousy, and above all, the unity in times of adversity. KBC was a stray case. Even before KBC it was soaps all the way. Weren?t Hum Log and Buniyaad soaps? Please don?t get misguided by the look of those programmes. Keeping with times, only the look has changed, a few new permutations and combinations have come in but the gist remains the same. It will be foolish if I switch over to some other track and allow my competitors to perform a dance of victory on an empty field!

How about trying some comedy? .

I don?t like comedy nowadays
You have grown up. Right? .

Maybe (laughs). No, I have become old (laughs again).
Kaahin Kissi Roz seemed to be nearing an end? when it resurrected magically? How?

(Smiles triumphantly). Bingo! But you?ll have to give that credit to two of the guys from my creative team - Prashant and Minaal.

Soaps by UTV, Cinevistaas, BAG Films among others have increased their presence on Star Plus. Has Star Plus reduced its dependence on Balaji Telefilms?

If other companies have filtered in, it does not imply that Balaji Telefilms, which has always been the chunk, goes out. Star Plus have always been supportive of my stuff. They even helped me a lot in promoting my film Kucch To Hai. No amount of thanks will be sufficient.

Why did your revamped Kutumb flop?

The revamped Kutumb on Sony TV flopped simply because people were not aware that the serial had been revamped. On the other hand, the revamped Kyunki worked simply because Star Plus had done massive propaganda in this matter. The Star Plus-Balaji combo spells magic. Even otherwise, Star Plus has better promotional campaigns. They have a very creative team. They make it a point to see that the show works. Once in a way they may have failed, but look at their success rate! That?s also one of the reasons why some of my serials haven?t done well on other channels. People are glued to Star Plus from 8:30 to 11 pm. How do I make them take a remote in their hands and switch over?

"Blame 'Kahaani Terri Merri' on me. For once, I chose the wrong story"

Is the bombing of Kahanii Terri Merri still reverberating?

Blame it on me. For once, I chose the wrong story. It was slightly off-beat. Nobody wanted to see so much of a drunk man in a depressed state of mind.

With the CAS deadline barely two months away, there is a lot of apprehension in the industry about the ad spend heading for a sharp decline, thus forcing the broadcasters to slash the high fees paid to producers/production houses. Your views on this?

I don?t think this will happen. The subscriber will pay for the channel if he trusts the channel to give him quality stuff. If the channel wants quality stuff (and therefore his decent quota of advertisers), he cannot make the production house suffer. So there is no fear of the quality going down either. Also, no situation will arise where the production house will hassle on rates with the artistes.

I can at vouch for at least my production house. Money with Star Plus is just a six-minute discussion for Balaji Telefilms. Even otherwise, Star Plus has lots of advertisers moving into their fold everyday and a lot of financial back-up from abroad.

In fact, other channels will be more hard-pressed to pay than Star Plus. These other channels have just one or two great programmes going. So they will have to bow down to the demands of those production houses. In turn, the other production houses on those channels will demand uniformity.

Are you in favour of CAS?

It?s drastic a step alright, but a lot of possibilities open up. If a production house is not paid well by a pay channel (just in case), he goes to Sahara or Doordarshan. Simultaneously, the audience of the non-pay channels will certainly increase by some amount. That works for the benefit of the channel and the production house both. If rightly implemented, CAS is a step in the right direction. By right implementation I mean it should be first tried and tested in one city, then gradually move on to more cities, and so on. Secondly nobody is going to spend Rs 3,000-6,000 to buy the box upfront, a scheme must be implemented wherein no subscriber pays more than Rs 150 a month.

Do you make sure with your writers that the scripts have not been plagiarised? .

It?s happening everywhere and you can?t do anything about it. At times, you may not have plagiarised, but since it exists in some book, someone springs up and you find yourself in a soup. I think that the Karishma? people got caught because they admitted to it.

An actress told me that she gets a lot of recognition left, right and centre due to her appearance in just one serial, but the TRPs of her programme are very low? Can TRPs be manipulated?

That actress has a very defeatist attitude. She should not get bowled over by a few praises. Even a TRP of 1 means five to six lakh (5-600,000) people. She is not aware of how many people can actually see a programme at a given instant. If TRPs could be manipulated, every producer would have been on a song off and on.

Don?t you get upset by criticism, grueling questions?.

In my early days, I used to. But then one day, my dad explained to me that you got to pay a price for being famous (smiles).

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