Television

"You may be full of ideas & storylines but you rather not forget that you're making the show for the channel":Cinevistaas' creative director Namit Sharma

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 It all began with a brief affair with journalism. After doing freelance writing on entertainment for E-Times, The Metropolis on Saturday (both no more), Bombay Times, the Sunday Times of India, Sunday Review, Mid-day, The Asian Age, Screen, Cosmopolitan, Femina, Zee Premier and Raga to Rock, television beckoned. And this first class graduate in Physics went whole hog for it.

He began as a production executive on The Bournvita Quiz Contest (Zee TV), went on to become assistant director on a weekly talk show Point Blank (In Mumbai) and worked as host-cum-director of Adaraniya Pradhan Mantri (Zee TV). He again got back to Bournvita Quiz Contest, this time as a production manager, where he designed the look of the production for a brand new season.

Assistant director and scriptwriter on Duniya Gol Hai (Home TV), India's answer to America's funniest home videos, he went on to script 13 episodes of Superhit Muqabla (DD Metro), scripted 13 episodes of Bakeman's Ooh La La (Star Plus), developed and contributed to scripting of about 15 episodes of Movers and Shakers (Sony Entertainment Television) and Uncensored (Sony Entertainment Television), wrote and directed one MTV Filmi Funda, directed the introductory spot segments for Femina Miss India- 1998, edited an audiovisual on 75 years of Hindi cinema for Filmfare Awards 1999... and worked on many live events.

Oh, what a list!

It's about time he did some talking. Meet Cinevistaas' creative director Namit Sharma, in conversation with indiantelevision.com's Vickey Lalwani.

Why did you try your hand at so many things?

You may call me an experience junkie (smiles). At that point of time, I thought it was necessary to explore as many avenues as possible in this huge field of media. I wanted to settle down in one of the better ones. Also, I believe if you latch on to a profession, you should know all its aspects. Like if you are a journalist, you should know how channels function, how TV production houses work, how acting fraternity joins in the fray. You should meet as many people as possible, you should not only know how to file stories but, if you have the time, you should also try and understand how the layouts are done; you should try to get as much knowledge of the entire 360-degree churn as possible. And what better way, if age is on your side and you get the opportunity, than to get the first-hand experience.

You opting out of Sony and joining Cinevistaas had raised many eyebrows?

It was the extension of my own strategy that I joined Sony Entertainment Television (Set) as an executive producer in 1999 (and worked till 2002). At Set, I focused mainly on non-fiction and events; it was a great experience to be in the midst of Raveena Raj Kohli and Sunil Lulla. It may have raised eyebrows, because, I had been there for three years but nothing had gone wrong when I decided to leave Sony.

What really happened was that I was offered an opportunity where I could grow and I went for it. I had been associated with Cinevistaas in a small way before. I had written a musical game show for them which was hosted by Talat Aziz and Archana Puransingh and aired on UTV but withdrawn after a few episodes. However, we had a wonderful relationship going. Siddharth Malhotra and I had become good friends and were frequently in touch. One day Siddharth called and asked if I was interested in taking up the post of a creative director in Cinevistaas. At that point of time, I had pretty much done whatever I could at Sony. I wanted to move on to the next possible level and grow further. So, I joined Cinevistaas in November '02.

First I was associated with the making of three pilots Saathiya, Zaroorat Hai, Zaroorat Hai (coming up on Sahara from August in all probability) and Jeevan Mrityu (now titled as Saaksshi). From January '03, I was asked to take over Sanjivanis.

But you opted out of 'Sanjivani' in October '03. Why?

I did it out of choice. In fact, I myself told Sunil Mehta that I wanted to do some other show. If you go on doing the same thing, creativity starts taking a back seat at some point of time. You start stagnating. Every show needs new blood to be pumped in at regular intervals which would help it look fresh.

I even took a two-month sabbatical from being involved in the storylines. I got involved in the marketing of Saathiya and Jeevan Mrityu. Sahara bought the former, Sony bought the latter.

What are the creative challenges you face?

Several, actually. It's a funny situation which Indian television finds itself in today's times. Production houses have one vision while the channels have another. A creative professional is constantly asking himself - Should I stick to my guns or should I give in? But as a creative person, you can't just prefer one over the other. At the end of the day, you cannot kill your talent. You are inherently full of ideas, storylines, among other things. But at the same time, you cannot or rather not forget that you are making the show for the channel. So, you have to make the two visions meet at a very amicable point.

In a nutshell, a creative professional has to meet the channel's expectations and yet deliver something that he is convinced about. As for me, since I have worked on both sides of the fence -- production house and broadcast channel -- it's relatively easy for me to connect the two.

But doesn't it happen sometimes that you deliver something that you are not convinced about?

It happens, but it is a part of our job. This happens in every profession. Let's take journalism. An interviewer may not be convinced of interviewing a particular person but if his editor wants it, he has to do it. Let's take films. Don't filmmakers make films deviating from their forte just to tell the world that they don't make only one type of cinema? Don't filmmakers bow down to the demands of the distributors and add scenes which they aren't very comfy with?

Does the interference of channels irritate your sensibilities at times?

It does. But as a creative professional you ought to go back to the bottom-line of creativity.

Which is?

Creativity does not work in isolation (pauses).

Go on...

If I sit in this room, write a story and manage to put it on air, what are the chances that it will work? But if I have a bouncing board, the success probability is definitely higher. We 'creatives' ought to discuss or even argue our ideas with any and every person available. Even a peon for that matter will do, because, he and his family is our audience. We make television for other people, not for ourselves. So we need inputs on how they think, what they want and what they don't want.

How important is it for you to get along with writers? What happens if your final creative product (designed by you and the channel) is eventually challenged by the director or actor on the sets?

This does happen but not in a major way. If the director or the actor wants a line or two changed, we consider the proposal and take a call. Sometimes I comply, that is if and when I am convinced totally. But sometimes, I put my foot down, I tell them that I know my head is on the line but please go ahead as I am more than sure what I am doing.

How do you develop the characters?

From real life, like there is a lot of my college friends in Amar Upadhyay and Sanjit Bedi of the recent Saathiya. There is a lot of my own mother in Mouli Ganguly's mom Shilpa Tulaskar in Saaksshi. Even Arjun Punj of Sanjivani was as spunky as some of my friends. Importantly, I sit with my writers and take the incidents from their personal lives as well. Television is a medium where you need characters that the viewers identify with, not make-believe characters.

Punj was dropped, but now we hear you'll are contemplating to bring him back?

I won't be able to endorse that, because, I am not involved with Sanjivani. At this point of time, I am doing Saathiya and Zaroorat Hai, Zaroorat Hai. Recently, I also did Saaksshi but for just the first eight episodes.

"Television is a medium where you need characters that the viewers identify with, not make-believe characters"

After which it underwent changes?

Yes, I had launched the show and done the first eight episodes. Originally, the show was planned as a linear story. Set took a call that they needed to try another formula and gauge the audience response; they made it episodic. They said that their research showed that weekend shows generate newer audiences in contrast to dailies which are habit forming and have a loyal following. With this format, the story does not go too much ahead in every episode.

Back to creativity aspects. Do you think creativity is really encouraged on Indian television? Or is it mediocrity?

I know why you ask this. But please understand. Today, television is big business. You can't experiment much. You can't experiment as M F Hussain did by making films like Meenaxi and Gajagamini.

But there are higher stakes involved in films?

Yes and no. If you are looking at it singularly with respect to one show, it's yes. But it's wrong to look at a TV show in that manner. Let's consider an example. For Sony, 'Saaksshi' is not just one show but a part of the larger business plan. Sony in turn is a part of the larger plan of Columbia Tristar Television. You can't look at TV shows microscopically. Similarly, our Sanjivani is not just one show for Star Plus. It is a part of the larger plan of Star India which in turn is a part of the larger strategy of Rupert Murdoch. You ought to understand television that way.

There is no larger godfather in film business. Mind well, the huge set-up of television is not a dampener on creativity. If a creative person understands how television functions, he can still find several nuances where he can offer valuable inputs to the final product. It is just the question of how innovative you can get within the parameters.

All shows don't click. Can you spot a winner beforehand?

To start with, every creative person feels that his project will be a winner. Then comes the 'kismat and 'karma'. By 'kismat' and 'karma', I mean how aggressively your product will be promoted in a unique way to click with the audience. For that, the channel should be able to detect the USP of the show. Plus the channel should be able to give great ideas. Like I remember we didn't start off Sanjivani very well, but Star Plus came up with the idea that we need to add melodrama into the story. The ratings almost doubled instantly. So, winners are made and never born. Like we are very happy with the way Sahara Manoranjan is promoting Saathiya.

But doesn't it worry you that 'Saathiya' is on Sahara where the TRPs of the channel per se are not high? Wouldn't it have been better if it had been on Star or Sony?

There are production houses which take a show and pass it around. They tell those channels as to who others they have offered.

Isn't it possible that some other production house lays its hands on the project while it is lying with some channel?

There is that risk element. It used to happen in the past, but now it's decreasing. More fair play has come into the system. The culture has changed. Professionalism has increased. Earlier there were lots of 'filmi guys' in television. Now a lot many people have come from advertising industry and media schools. It has become cooperative and systemised to a large degree. In the West, the system is, however, much better. There are screenings where the channels bid for the show. After six or seven years, I believe our markets will also open up in that manner.

You said you don't work on all shows. This is quite unlike Balaji Telefilms where…

(Interrupts) Yeah. In Balaji, Ekta Kapoor looks into each and every show. Our's is more of how UTV functions. We have a few creatives who report to Sunil Mehta and Prem Kishen.

You earlier said that you sit a lot with your scriptwriters. Are you seriously satisfied with the scriptwriters' lot in today's times?

Quality wise, we aren't too short. But quantity wise, yes. Importantly, I feel seriously satisfied with a scriptwriter only if I can interact with him on personal level. I find time to sit with them at coffee outlets or even at my home, where we sometimes just chat and have fun. Sometimes we work even at their home. They need to feel comfortable. You can't force someone to write beautifully, you first need to create the conditions for that. It is very important for a creative director and a scriptwriter to gel with each other so that they work in absolute harmony.

Can creative people become good business people?

Of course! Yash Chopra and Subhash Ghai are living examples.

Who are the TV producers you admire apart from Cinevistaas?

Tony and Deeya Singh. And Ekta's success story is mind blowing, though I may not agree with all her serial stories per se. I don't miss Kasautii Zindagi Kay and Kahiin To Hoga. She has redefined television in the minds of the viewers and is in absolute control. If one could get even 1/50th of that, it would mean a lot.

Now that your 'Saathiya' locks horns with 'Kasautii…', which one will you see?

(Laughs) Obviously Saathiya.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

Directing a film. If Cinevistaas would give me that break, I would really appreciate. Otherwise, I'll look around, although I really look up to them in awe. I can walk into Mr Mehta's room and say that I want to make a pilot. I may tell him the story in three lines and he would not refuse.

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