A fiercely independent lady, Shristi Arya never believed in taking life easy. Even as a young girl of 15, she took up a marketing job to get some pocket money. Arya has been in the industry for over 16 years now, and her production house Rose Movies has finally come of age with its shift to television software from films. Along with her brother Goldie Behl, Arya took up the responsibility of their father's production house after his sudden demise in 1990. Since then, the 31-year-old Shristi and her younger brother, have been battling it out. Neither of their big screen ventures worked great guns, but with her TV debut, Lipstick on Zee TV, came a round of reckoning. Today, the lady isn't bitter at all but is gearing up for her next move.
Rose Movies has just launched Jeet on Star Plus and has a couple of pilots ready to be pitched to the channels. Indiantelevision.com's Trupti Ghag meets up with the lady and gets chatting about her shows, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
When and how did you take up the responsibility of Rose Movies?
Rose is our father's company. He passed away in 1990, so the responsibility shifted to us. But since we were minors, our mother stepped in, even if only to sign the cheques. The rest of the job was ours. We made two films - Angarey and Bas Itna Sa Khwab Hai - after our father's death. Bas... was my brother Goldie's directorial debut.
However, in time we realised that while we were looking out for film scripts, we had to do something to generate revenue. We had the entire infrastructure in place; people working since our father's time were still with us. I knew we had to generate some work, but didn't want to push Goldie into his next film just to keep the office running either. So television was a natural progression… Then Zee's Lipstick happened.
I am told that 'Lipstick' was the channel's concept. What was your input to the show? Did the channel give you a line-by-line break up?
Yes, Lipstick was the channel's concept. But all that the channel gave us was a brief outline; we started from scratch. Both our ideation department and Zee's creative department worked on it and built it up.
We sat down and worked out all the characters and the back stories. And since it was our first show and we had the luxury of time, we sketched out the story in detail, though we knew we wouldn't need all the details at any point of time.
For example, we have worked out Suniti and her sister Suman's age difference in the serial. While these points are not an obvious part of the story line, they are portrayed in the attitude of the characters.
After this, I added certain nuances to the story (from a woman's perspective, that is). I think, I made a show that I would like to watch.
A Still from Zee's Lipstick
"I guess it is mandatory to include a love story"
When 'Lipstick' started off, its story line was quite bold. Now it seems to be shifting gears to being a family drama. Why?
We had several tracks that were bold. Even now, Suniti's family is the same; and we have not added any new family or created new characters to 'shift gears'. Kahin se nai buaji nahi aagai hai (No aunt has sprouted from somewhere). We are working within the same parameters, but we also take into consideration audience feedback.
People used to enjoy Lipstick's family moments, so we developed it. After all, it's all about what the consumers want to watch.
Were you convinced about it? The peg that you worked on was about two women in a magazine business. Now it seems to have translated into a family feud.
It is still that. They are still bickering over the business. It is still a power struggle. It is still about the control over the company. Suniti marries Tarun knowing that only if she is a Singhania, can she have control over the company.
What about the casting? Did you have any hand in it?
Yes. We went through video tapes and auditioned a number of people and finally zeroed in on the actors. In fact, most of them were rank newcomers.
Just recently, you revamped the show and changed the lead characters. Isn't it likely to affect the show's viewership?
Shweta Salve (who played Suniti earlier) had to take a break for 20 days. We could not bank so many episodes before she left. Lipstick being a daily show, the pressure was building up even more.
Since we couldn't run a show without the chief protagonist, the other option was to change the actor. So we had an intensive meeting with the channel.
Zee had earlier succeeded in changing the main character and still running a show well (Hasratein - in which Seema Kapoor was replaced by Shefali Shetty). We also needed somebody who the audience was already familiar with and could identify with. So we got in Gautami Kapoor. Vishal Singh was also brought in for star value. Fortunately, we have noticed a slight upward trend in our TRPs, so we have been lucky.
As for repackaging the show, we had already done about 198 episodes and thought a new look would be a value-add. So we repackaged it and made it a 200th episode special.
Now Lipstick has a little more gloss, a little more of human interest. Earlier, we used to skim a lot of issues, but now, based on viewers' feedback, we improvise on them. I am in constant touch with the viewers via e-mail.
Yet, the content seems to have diluted now. Earlier the show was very crisp.
Most television shows battle for attention. Our show was going very fast. On the other side of the TV screen, viewers wait for commercial breaks to get chapattis or run out of the room to switch off the gas. We realised that if they return a few seconds after the serial starts, they should not miss out on a lot.
Now, in Lipstick, the story moves a trifle slowly, so that the audience don't lose track. Having done films in the past, we often got too pacy while making serials. There are those nitty-gritties about a television show that we are now getting the hang of.
Now that you have mentioned it, how different is doing a TV series from a feature film?
Well, with film you can manipulate the budget but a television show has to be shot within budget constraints. TV has been a wonderful learning experience for me in terms of production. If film shooting is delayed by a day or a week, it's okay. But you can't have a blank half-hour on TV. Though it seems a little tough, I think it enforces discipline.
Plus, I think you have far more professional people in television. Sometimes, you have to shoot even if it is not an ideal circumstance.
Also, with films you have your story in place, the same cannot be said of television.
So 'Lipstick' doesn't have a finite story.
No it doesn't. Initially when we started, Lipstick was a battle for power between two women. In soaps, when you do a character driven story, viewers get involved in their lives. The characters continue and they do not have a finite story (being so close to real life), so how can the show?
"Production is a thankless job"
A still from Star Plus' Jeet
You have canned a couple of episodes of 'Shakalaka Boom Boom' (on Star Plus). How was it shooting a kid's show? What kind of problems did you face?
We have shot a few episodes, but it is yet to be aired. As far as kids go, they are better actors than adults. But you have to bribe them a lot (laughs).
On the downside, kids are not full-time actors, so you cannot expect them to work round the clock. Plus, with the harsh environment, they are susceptible to fall ill often.
On the programming front, you have to do a mind shift. You have to get into the child's mindset to make a children's show.
'Shakalaka... ' is otherwise being produced by UTV. Didn't it bother you that you were replacing them?
It is not a replacement, it's simply a different story and a different treatment. Star Plus has worked a new angle around it and that's why we were roped in.
As for UTV, I am much in awe of their work; they have and are still doing a great job. Hats off to them!
Do you think we need more shows catering to kids?
I think the trend has already started; we have a lot of shows for kids.
Do you know a lot of children watch Lipstick! Once we had a kids' picnic next to the shooting site and we heard kids whispering Nigar Khan's screen name (Sheetal). Some tykes even started singing the title track.
What do you think is Sheetal 's USP?
Nigar, who does Sheetal, is a great actor. We never saw her as a vamp. We always believed that we have two main protagonists in the show. We don't think she is negative, just that she has grey shades.
Sheetal is an aggressive woman who gets what she wants. In her mind, she isn't doing any wrong. She genuinely thinks that Suniti is wrong. Sheetal is a dramatised version, fighting for attention.
How did 'Jeet' come about? Was it your idea or the channel's?
A bit of both, actually. We generally got talking on the spheres of life that are identifiable, but haven't yet been exploited on the screen. We then decided to do a campus show, but for a change decided to go beyond the canteen. We took teachers' life as the mainstay.
Isn't it a 'Boston Public' kind of a format?
No. Boston Public can't be done in India. The issues are very different. If you do a Boston Public here, then you got to start with a premise that the principal represents a minority because in Boston Public, you have an African-American as the principal. That itself raises quite a lot of issues.
Then again, you will have to have a Jewish vice principal. Also, in India, we don't have students who take out a gun in the classroom. That's not how we conceptualise our colleges.
We still have a guru-shisya parampara in India. I've never heard of kids slapping the teacher here.
The only reason why Jeet resembles Boston Public is because at the basic premise, it deals with teachers. That's about it.
What is 'Jeet' about?
Professors. You never think of them as people with emotions - they are just teachers.
Professors in India face various problems - they don't have a highly paid job, to begin with. Monetary issues often bother college teachers, but nobody pays any attention to that. Plus, they have to face a class full of students every day, of which almost 90 per cent don't think they are learning anything productive.
The show deliberately focuses on junior college because we believe that there are plenty of issues to be tackled in this arena. The show also has a great love story woven into it.
What issues would you be dealing with in the serial?
We will deal with issues like class differences, students' interests, under-performance pressure, sibling rivalry, college elections, and so on. But the issues won't make the show preachy, it will be entertaining.
How different is the production treatment in 'Jeet' vis-à-vis 'Lipstick'?
Since Jeet is a weekly, there has to be a lot of content. In the 45 minutes airtime, a lot many issues are dealt with. In a weekly, you can take a little more time, the scenes can be slightly longer.
On the other hand, in Lipstick, if you get into a long scene, the audience interest drops and it becomes boring. Production-wise, the amount of time we spend working on four episodes of Jeet is the same as the time spent on 12-15 episodes of Lipstick. Then again, Lipstick is a more set format - actors are far more clued in.
What is 'Jeet's budget?
I can't tell you that. We have a 40,000 sq feet set in Kamalistan. We did shoot some scenes in another house, but predominantly it is studio shot.
Was the love angle mandatory in 'Jeet'?
You need a lot of layers to run a one-hour show, plus we didn't want to be too preachy. I guess at some level, it is mandatory. It is a human emotion - you need love, jealousy, and one-upmanship to portray a complete character. Unless you want to show that teachers are beyond all this.
A hypothetical question. If you are asked to put 'Jeet' in a family drama mould, what would you do?
If that's what the audience wants, I will try and work out something, keeping the dignity of my show intact.
Did you think that the main concept remained intact, when Star Plus' changed its hospital drama into a family drama?
If you are talking about Sanjivani, we cannot do a show like ER in India. It's too depressing, you cannot watch it while you are having your dinner. As it is, you are fatigued, you would rather see something entertaining. Television still is the largest form of entertainment and the second cheapest form of entertainment
after sex (laughs).
Whatever happened to realism and creative stories? Does everything have to go the 'saas-bahu' way?
When you get completely pay TV, probably then can you get an idea of what people want to watch. Most people say that they don't watch saas bahu soaps, then why are they running? It's a business like any other, channels aren't stupid trying to dish out something that has no demand.
What is the main grouse of producers?
Production is a thankless job. You'll appreciate a scriptwriter, a director, a set director or even the canteen boy, but not the producer.
What is the production fraternity's reaction to CAS?
The production fraternity is a paranoid lot, anyway. Whereas earlier it was Bollwood rejected producers who shifted to television software, these days more serious players are making their entry. In my opinion, the implementation of CAS will really tell us what it is that viewers are actually watching. It's that simple.