Contrary to popular belief, it's not just Ekta Kapoor who calls the shots at Balaji Telefilms. Oftentimes it is her trusted lieutenant, deputy creative director Nivedita Basu, who steps in, on Kapoor's behalf of course.
But her success at the reigning soap factory, has been the result of an arduous four-year journey."I sleep for just about 3 or 4 hours every day," she tells us.
She started her career in Balaji's non-fiction department, where she had joined as a trainee. "I was promoted to EP, then an associate creative, then a creative, and just recently the deputy creative director rather swiftly," she says.
"Time has just flown by and I think I still have lots to learn. Whatever I am today, I owe to Ekta," she says.
What gave Basu an edge over her contemporaries was her unfailing passion towards her profession, which included impressive traits like voicing her opinion, asking her seniors about various things and a burning desire to make it big.
In her new cabin on the fifth floor at Balaji House, Basu spoke to indiantelevision.com's Vickey Lalwani. Excerpts:
How does Balaji Telefilms function? Tell us the basic nitty-gritties
As you know, Ekta is the creative director, while I am the deputy creative director. Every show has one creative head. All the creative heads report to me. They in turn have associate creative heads, who help them.
Apart from being responsible for work on the sets, creative heads have to keep Ekta updated, but before that they have to sit with the writers. They have to co-ordinate with the channel and decide the cast.
Associate creative heads are assigned tasks by the creative head, who in-turn gets their brief from Ekta. But that doesn't mean that there is no interaction with the head. Ekta is hands on with projects, all the associate creative heads have to sit with her and discuss finer nuances of the characters. But the physical execution is taken care by the associate.
We have a meeting every alternate day.
But I remember that earlier one creative head handled more than one show?
That was earlier. One creative head handled two shows and sometimes more at the same time. Things have changed.
Actually, the idea behind one creative head per show is to ensure that they render full justice to the programme they have been entrusted with.
Ekta often comes up with brilliant ideas, but not all ideas are really translated onto the screen. On an average you can say that just about 80 per cent of ideas that she has visualised are expressed.
When I joined, there were three to four creative heads. Now there are about 20.
"The maid is the best person to tell whether a thing is clicking or not. These people are our real audience"
And why was that?
We are getting several offers for newer shows. But how do you move onto newer ones before ensuring that the older ones run smoothly. Plus there is so much competition nowadays, especially with a slew of new channels coming up.
Even if you have many shows in the pipeline, you cannot let the old-timers like a Kahaani… or a Kasautii… take a beating. You have to constantly churn out awesome stuff for your older shows. Let me correct it, you have to constantly innovate especially for your older shows, because you have more at stake.
Lets rewind to your executive producer days…
When I was an EP, I used to report to a creative head. But during those times EPs weren't invited for the meetings. Ekta used to sit with just the writer and creative head.
I used to get the script and make the schedule, inform the artistes, see that their work was happening (pauses).
But I wanted to rise above that. I started attending the meetings.
And you exercised your opinion?
(Laughs) Yes, but those people thought that 'yeh ladki interfere kar rahi hai (this girl is too meddlesome).' Once Ekta heard my opinion and thought that it was worth a try.
The rest, as they say, is history?
(Laughs). But nobody can beat Ekta. She is always bubbling with new ideas. Often it happens that I come up with some ideas and it is only later that I realise that they have been done earlier. But despite that, Ekta doesn't shoot them down. She fashions them in such a manner that they come out looking fresh.
She is always bubbling with brand new ideas. Often I am brain dead.
Then what do you do?
Go to Ekta, what else! Like it happened recently in Kasautii… The story had reached a virtual deadlock. I could not fathom what to do next. Ekta suggested Anurag's (Cezzane Khan) death. The results are there to see. The death has brought in a new dimension and loaded interest into the show. Now I know how to play around for the next 50 episodes.
Has Ekta ever told you that a particular portion, which you played around with, was not up to the mark?
Yes, it has happened. She does get upset sometimes then, but she won't say 'tumne aisa kaise kar liya?' (She won't admonish me). She is someone who insists that we learn from our mistakes. She will express her displeasure, but forget about it after some time. And she will end it by saying that we should be extra careful next time. She does not hold it against anybody.
"'KKR' was not a character driven show, it was a story driven show. One can't stretch the story in such cases. But since the show was doing well, nobody wanted to take it off"
How much of the story is ready when you go to the floors?
About 80 episodes at least. If there is less than 50 episodes, then yuo can't have a screenplay. Ekta doesn't let us move ahead if we don't have that.
Is this a norm at all the production houses?
I am sure that other production houses also have a broader perspective, but maybe we are ahead of the game. People tend to neglect the finer show details, but Ekta doesn't.
We had some very bad shows two years ago, and hence we insist on taking it slow and weighing all the options. If a channel demands a particular show in 15 days, we ask for a month. We want to be sure that the screenplay writer knows where he is heading. If he doesn't, then it's like 'hawa mein teer maarna'.
Did you know that I drafted 18 drafts for the upcoming MTV show? For obvious reasons, we can't afford to become soapy. Plus with so much work being done both in and outside Balaji, one cannot take the risk of including similar sub-plots in any two ventures. We all have to be original and fresh.
'Karma' has finally been launched, but why did it take so much time?
There was some delay from Star Plus' side. But the delay mainly happened because we took time to get the special effects right. Every minor action has to look supernatural. Else, we would've had people coming and telling us that the action looks so common that even Karan and Ansh can do it. Surely, we didn't want that. So we got a few people to make the look authentic, but it didn't work out. Finally, we got it right.
We got experts who we can trust. But somehow things weren't too smooth in early days either. We made the pilot, then realised that something like this had been done before. Then we brought in a bit of romance, but soon realised that it wasn't fitting in either (shrugs).
How many of the famous Balaji characters can be attributed to you?
None. So far, it has been Ekta all the way. We have tried and succeeded only to a limited extent. We take the characterisation to her, she has a look, adds a thing or two… and the effect is astounding. Maybe in the newer shows.... (smiles).
Have there been occasions where you thought that you don't agree with her?
Yes. There have been occasions. When it happens, we sit with our group of writers and thrash it out and reach a common consensus. She (Ekta) explains her point and I try to see her justification. When I explain my point and she tries to see it.
I have reached that stage where I can talk to her and express my gut feelings. Sometimes, while arguing, we even settle for a third alternative. I remember the time, in my early days, when people used to tell that such-and-such thing was tacky, but could never muster courage to forward it to her. I was scared.
How much does a channel's interference bother a creative person like you?
With us, there isn't much channel interference simply because Balaji Telefilms is run by a creative head. Sony Entertainment Television had become a little jittery about Kkusum when Jassi… was topping their charts. But pray, how can two shows be No.1 simultaneously? Every successful show has its peak. It was Jassi…'s peak time. Somehow we managed to convince them. We knew our story was strong in near future and we would be able to turn the tables on Jassi….
"Serials may be a staple diet but if the staple diet is not tasty there won't be many takers"
So, the channels know the story beforehand?
Of course! They will obviously want to be in the loop. But it is not possible to tell them about the screenplay. At times, we feel we'll have a particular track for 10 episodes. But unfortunately, if the concerned characters tend to become boring, we need to switch the characters, say bring in another strong parallel track. At times, certain sudden decisions have to be taken. After all, we have to give the public what they enjoy.
For example Kasautii… had dipped marginally, so we had to take a quick decision. That's exactly how Anurag's death was designed. Serials may be a staple diet but if the staple diet is not tasty there won't be many takers.
Yes, 'Kasautii…' had gone down…
(Interrupts) Well, not majorly in any way. But by a few decimal points, yes. So maybe those few eyeballs had shifted to Sony's Aayushman.
So, Anurag's death was a ploy to recover those eyeballs, which had shifted?
(Smiles) Well, the channel (Star Plus) kept saying, "Ekta, do something." At times, they themselves have good ideas, but this time Ekta stole a march.
What is the general modus operandi on characters that are introduced midway?
Often, new characters are introduced in small roles. We wait for them to grow and leave an impact on the audience. We give them certain scenes where they can leave an inerasable mark. If we feel they have delivered, we start building those characters; we may even try to bring them into the main story line if possible.
Why are Balaji's characters, say an Urvashi Dholakia or a Sudha Chandran or many others in such a garish make up?
Balaji characters are more colourful, no doubt. But colour is a part of creativity. Let's face it. When most viewers switch on their TV sets, they first keep flicking through almost all the channels. So, what will attract the viewers during search round? It can't be those plain characters. It has to be that add ons and the heavy make-up, it could be just her bindi.KKR was always Shaina's story, but people say that they watched it because of Ramola. Without Shaina, we went on for quite some time in the recent past. But if Ramola was away for more than one episodes, we are flooded with calls and letters 'yeh kya dikha rahe ho?' Ramola has pulled out a gun for 50 times but every time, people said 'wow'. And mind you, she committed 47 murders in the show! Even on Sony's Ye Meri Life Hai, I have heard people talking a lot about Tanaaz Currim who again is a dolled-up character. I think I have answered your question (smiles).
Your talk about Ramola prompts this question. Why did 'KKR' go haywire?KKR was a daily thriller. For that genre, one needs to have a start-to-finish story. We virtually completed the story in two years. KKR was not a character driven show, it was a story driven show. One can't stretch the story in such cases. But since the show was doing well, nobody wanted to take it off (shrugs). But believe me, even though KKR was a story driven show, we still worked equally hard on the characters.
In such a case where your characters are so strong, does it affect you guys when your leading ladies opt out, like some of them did in the recent past?
It does affect. In the case of Nausheen at least, I think it did. Even the channel (Sony) had become very panicky. Nausheen had become a household name. Kkusum may have been slightly better today if she had remained.
Do characters resist a change? Like you changed Aporna (Gitanjali Thakker) in 'Kasautii…' from a swan to a fox?
Yes. Actors resist changes. A classic case in point in Nausheen when she was asked to play mom to a 25-year old girl. On some occasions, I personally go to the sets and act out the new shade in the character. Also, I explain them the future graph of their character. When they see it from the other side, they begin to enjoy it. Else they are scared to take the plunge.
Like I believe Sujal (Rajeev Khandelwal) has reservations on certain scenes?
'Hota hai. Rishabh Bajaj (Ronit Roy of Kasautii…) ko bhi bahut hai'.
But when you enact the scenes, you leak out the story to these people?
There is no way out. Else their conviction does not show on the screen.
What if they leak it out to the media?
They won't. Balaji actors are professional enough to hold back what they shouldn't be saying. Like Parvati (Sakshi Tanwar) knew from day what the Tanwar-Seal fiasco was all about.
Being so closely associated with the story and screenplay, ideas in general, how much of television do you see?
Lots. Even Ekta watches a lot. I see lots of films too. I deliberately see bad projects too, for in creative line, you ought to be aware about the definition of bad. But there's a lesson here. The maid is the best person to tell whether a thing is clicking or not. These people are our real audience (pauses).
"We had some very bad shows two years ago, and hence we insist on taking it slow and weighing all the options"
Do you change writers when things don't work?
No. They write after consulting me. If they have gone wrong, then even I am going wrong. Throw me out too.
'King Aasman Ka Raja' on Sony was a blunder. Agree?
After Kya Haadsa… ended, we wanted to come on the same slot with a saga. But that would have taken two months. KAKR was a makeshift thing anyway. We said 'let's try a children's show'. But yes, we didn't plan it well. In that hurry, KAKR became very tacky. As I told you when we spoke about Karma, a super hero thing has to be planned very well.
It was surprising to see Kkusum's daughter having premarital sex?
Some people have said the same, but I strongly believe that we showed what does happen in real life. It has aroused some emotions simply because the girl wears salwaar kameez. If the same girl had been wearing Western clothes, no eyebrows would have been raised. I demand to know. Why can't a girl in salwaar kameez get carried away and spend some intimate moments with a man?
With Balaji Telefilms expanding its repertoire into other genres besides soaps, what is the next line of action?
We are going to take many professionals who are experienced and motivated to keep our flag flying. We wouldn't be thinking of taking amateurs in this regard.
Shows which have impressed you recently?
I used to like Des Mein... in the Aroona Irani days. I used to like Sanjivani-A Medical Boon in early days even when they had mixed romance with the medical profession. But once they boiled down to a Kasautii… when they had an Anurag, Prerna and Komolikas, it put me off.
I enjoyed Kum Kum - Pyaara Sa Bandhan in the Chanda days, but then Aman Varma was brought into the picture and I couldn't even make out between the present and the flashback which scenes. I had skipped some episodes in between and Tusshar Kapoor who also loves to see television, updated me. I am not saying that the story telling was bad, but it was not interesting.
Your ascent must have made a lot of Balaji people green with envy?
Frankly speaking, there are hardly any old-timers left. I started about four-and-half years back, and the oldest people right now are just two years old. There "were" bad vibes between some colleagues and me, but that happens in every office.
So you will always be the second lead at the soap called Balaji?
Yeah, just a second lead. But I'll always be always that second lead (laughs).
About two years away. My fiancée has gone to the US. When he comes back, we'll tie the knot.