Son of one of Bollywood's earliest superstars Prem Nath, Cinevistaas chairman Prem Kishen began his career as an assistant director to showman Raj Kapoor and Vijay Anand, then switched to acting in the mid 1970s. Although he did a few super-hit films like Jaan Haazir Haiand Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhaye, in which he played the lead, Prem Kishen quit acting, "because," he explains, "due to my initial training in filmmaking, I was more inclined towards production and the creative aspects of filmmaking."
To begin with, he set up Cinevista Ads in l982. Over the next three years, the company made more than 250 ad campaigns and several corporate films. In 1985, Doordarshan invited tenders from independent producers for serials for which they were required to pay the telecast fee in exchange for free commercial time. Prem Kishen was one of the first seven producers to apply. His proposal to create a series of 21 internationally renowned short stories into 28 episodes was accepted by DD. Katha Sagar was born, Cinevista had branched out into television programming and, as the cliché goes, the rest is history.
Katha Sagar was followed by Zindagi, Rishta, Merry Go Round and Gul Gulshan Gulfam, which was the highest rated programme on Doordarshan in l990 and which also gave a lot of credibility to Cinevista. The next programme from Cinevista - Junoon - established it as a premier soap production house as the serial ran for five years and 510 episodes and also set a record for the longest running programme during prime time on Doordarshan. More shows followed - Saahil, Ghuta', Hindustani, Jaane Bhi Do Paro, Nehle Pe Dehla, Noorjehan... the list is long- and Cinevista came into the reckoning as a leading software production company.
Today, he is concentrating on filmmaking but TV software remains a soft corner with him. An interview by Vickey Lalwani:
A little about your early days in television?
It's been a long time and I guess you know most of it, but I must tell you that most people who I knew were surprised that I was foraying into television. In those days, television was looked down upon. But I didn't take them seriously.
Simple. I foresaw tremendous growth for commercial television in India. I was confident that within a decade, TV would emerge as an entertainment giant. Satellite TV came to India in 1992 and within a few years, so many satellite channels were launched that the Indian cable galaxy became overcrowded, resulting in a wide spectrum of programming and a vast choice for viewers to select from. I had been proved right.
You have been a strong DD loyalist, but of late...
(interrupts) I know what you are saying. It has been a pure business decision. I am a programmer in the business of television. As a production house and content provider, we have to grow and keep pace with the rapid growth of television and cater to the huge demand for software created by satellite channels. It didn't make any sense in sticking to DD alone.
"Our prime focus will be to create shows which will become channel drivers because that's what the channels are looking for"
Tell us about the studio.
It's a one-stop studio in Kanjurmarg. It has become an obsession. I want to bring back the old golden era of filmmaking. This structure is being done to centralise the operations, the studios would house all the facilities under a single roof and have shooting floors as well. The ex-director general of Bombay Doordarshan, Mr Gurunath, is our CEO. We have been at it, since one year. It won't be long when I convert my dream into reality. Believe me, when it's all ready, no studio in Mumbai will have so many facilities. It would be one of a kind. To tell you the truth, we went public so as to collect funds for our studio.
Something more about Cinevista from your side before I get specific?
We have created an in-house team of writers, directors and technicians, we are looking forward to a high per cent growth in software generation over the next two years, cutting across all genres and time bands. But our prime focus will be to create shows which will become channel drivers because that's what the channels are looking for.
Why did you produce 'Sshhh... Koi Hai' and 'Krishna Arjun' in co-production with Contiloe Films?
Co-ventures are the need of the hour. Big production houses need good individual talent to make specialized programming in various genres. Co-productions are a part of our expansion and growth."
Let's talk about CAS. What would be the impact of CAS on production houses?
It would be impulsive to conclude anything before it is actually and fully implemented. I am a man who welcomes technologies, studies them and then decides whether they're good or bad. But even otherwise, there's no point in cribbing about a bit here and a bit there. I would happily accept it soon and want to move ahead with the times. Let me go back to what I said earlier. Wasn't I one of the first guys who embraced the technology of television? And today, am I not having the last laugh? Today, big film banners and actors are desperate to enter the TV industry.
But you are moving back to films?
I am not moving 'back' to films. I am moving 'on' to films. We came to a point on Indian television, where we could not grow anymore. My parents belonged to the industry. My uncles did. I am just touching upon my grassroots. Please do not draw your own conclusions. Cinevista would still continue to do serials.
Have you considered the risk involved in today's times when most films bite the dust?
I have never called myself the son of Prem Nath and Bina Rai. I am the son of the film industry. Let there be a huge risk. I want to die with my boots on. At this stage of my life, I want to do whatever pleases me. If I itch to make films, which I do, I would do it at any cost.
"There is a big scope to market films on TV, provided it's done in a professional manner. We are not even clear on the main prime slots which would be offered"
CAS again, but changing it slightly. What would be the impact of CAS on viewers?
The viewers would benefit in the sense that they would not get to see any trash. The content would be solid. Channels would be averse to 'kaam chaloing' (mediocre) stuff and the production houses would have to work doubly hard in order to make a mark and be accepted. So, I guess that answers you earlier question too-What would be the impact of CAS on production houses? (smiles).
Would DD benefit?
It would, provided it gets good producers. Presently, we are off DD (shrugs his shoulders).
DD knocked us out on the serial Knockout and we are terribly annoyed. Earlier, they had accepted the proposal and we had gone ahead and made it. Just two days before the telecast, they had the cheek to tell us that Knockout could not be aired. As a measure of protest, we pulled out all our shows from DD. Actually, many producers have pulled out their shows from DD. DD needs to understand that the channel-producer relationship is equivalent to that of husband-wife. Both need each other.
What was DD's objection to 'Knockout'?
They said it was gambling. But it was just a game show, on the lines of Kaun Banega Crorepati. We lost a substantial amount. If they had objections or reservations, why keep them till the eleventh hour?
What have been the revenues given by Cinevista to DD?
We have unarguably been the highest revenue givers to DD. Hence, negotiations between us have begun. We may be working together soon. It's a give-n-take relationship, I hope you understand. Through Junoon and Jai Mata Di essentially, DD earned a lot. However, later, due to the Knockout problem, we withdrew it and put it up on Star.
DD has changed its policies for producers. Right?
Right, but nothing concrete has been given to us as yet. We'll have to play the waiting game. A lot of things, they're saying, but a lot of that is still unclear. There is a big scope to market films on TV, provided it's done in a professional manner. We are not even clear on the main prime slots which would be offered.
"Get inspired, but please don't copy it from frame to frame"
Do DD producers get funding from venture capitalists?
Why do you think that DD is erring? What is the malaise in DD?
There 'is' a malaise. And they need to pull up their socks, otherwise they're losing out a lot. Apparently, they don't have sufficiently competent personnel.
Are you making shows as per the channels' demand?
Depends. It's a joint venture. You can't discount what the channels want and don't want.
Does Cinevista have any programme on DD's affiliated up-country channels?
Initially, we had- Ranchi, Bhubaneshwar... But as I told you, we have withdrawn our entire stuff from DD.
Any plans for making telefilms?
Today, there is no market for telefilms. Sponsors feel they don't get enough mileage, so things are quite bleak on that front.
Do you draw a line while budgeting?
Not really. We are quite flexible. No wonder many of our serials have been sold off to new channels. Our old serials give us revenue, even today. Like we have sold lots of stuff to Zee, Star and Sahara when they had just begun.
Content is getting diluted on television. Agree or disagree?
Agree. This is simply because a lot of filmmakers who do not have an iota of idea of how serials should be made, have forayed into television. A lot of 'kachra' has come in. Even 'paanwallahs' and 'bidiwallahs' are trying to enter television.
Five major brands that have supported you thick and thin?
Bajaj, Videocon, Brittania, Dabur, Tatas.
But don't you think you could have got more advertising support?
The other day, I was with Mr Godrej. He informed me that their latest policy says that 'they need to enter more shows but with lesser footage time and money'. So I guess we've enjoyed the best period. No complaints.
Pray, why have you converted 'Sanjivani- A Medical Boon' into a 'saas bahu' type?
Yes, I quite agree. But that has been done purely with respect to the feedback we've received. People want it that way. Tell me, who watches maximum television? Women. They want to see 'nok jhonk', 'chugli'….. If you see carefully, the medical element is still there, it has not disappeared totally.
Back to your films. What happened to the Salman Khan starrer you announced sometime back?
It's a big canvas film- Salman Khan, Shilpa Shetty, Kulbushan Kharbanda, Farida Jalal, Shivaji Satam, Amrish Puri, Sadashiv Amrapurkar and Akanksha, my daughter. It's titled Satyamev Jayate, Salman play an honest cop. It will be shot, once we are through Sshhh.... After we announced the Salman starrer, we decided to make a quickie first. Unfortunately, even this one got delayed due to Tanisha and Dino's accident.
What's happening to Akanksha's career?
Well, she is certainly open to good work. But she would not like to indulge in body exposure and bold themes. The other day she refused a Gordhan Tanwani flick, because the role required her to do lots of unnecessary kissing scenes.
There was another film you'd announced, but it didn't take off at all?
That's shelved, for the time being at least. Amir Hussain Raza had written the script and he was supposed to direct it. But the man did not seem to know what filmmaking is all about. So we nipped the project in the bud. We could not give it to some other director as the script was not ours but Raza's.
Are you pushing your directors from TV serials into films?
Nothing like that. We promote talent, not friendships and relations. Sshhh... is being directed by Pawan Kaul who brilliantly directed the conceptual episodes of our serial Sshhh... Koi Hai.Satyamev Jayate is directed by Puneet Issar (the guy who badly injured the big B on the sets ofCoolie) who beautifully directed Jai Mata Di and Hindustani for us. We are also going to give theSanjivani director, Kaushik, a film to direct in the near future; he is a very skilled guy. Importantly, we are open to outside directors and script-writers as well.
You are open to outsiders, but what if some outsider cons you by plagiarising?
So now you are indirectly asking me my opinion on the Karishma... fiasco. Well, here it is. Get inspired, but please don't copy it frame to frame.
What are the opportunities on television?
Can a 50-year old man or woman make it in films? No, they cannot. I think I have answered your question! (smiles).
Highlights of the first half of 2003?
Stock results might not paint a rosy picture but the market is down all over. Our studio, the two films on hand, can certainly be termed as our highlights.