"Those times are fast disappearing when producers used to sit in their offices and sign cheques":Hats Off Productions' Jamnadas Majethia

Jamnadas Majethia... better known as JD in the industry has been there, done that. JD worked with Mudra Communications for two years as marketing executive and was responsible for looking after the sponsored programmes for Mudra Video.

On stage, he has been active in Gujarati theatre for the last 12 years. He formed a company Hats Off Productions with Aatish Kapadia, which he claims is the only group to record a hat-trick of double centuries for original plays; stories which were neither lifted nor inspired from elswewhere - Thank You Kokila (210 shows), Ek Beejane Gamta Rahiye (275 shows) and Aavje Vhala Fari Malishu (230 shows).

And as if that was not enough, he has also acted in five Gujarati films in the lead role. He has also co-produced 220 episodes of the daily soap Babul Ki Duwayien Leti Ja for Zee TV. Phew!!!

Well, he is the same guy who won the ABCL Productions' Star Trek contest a while ago. But unfortunately, the promised venture by ABCL did not take off. He tried his luck with acting in the Urmila-Sanjay Dutt starrerKhoobsurat , but the film did not create even a whimper at the turnstiles.

On the way, he also kept himself busy with ads. Till date, he has modelled for more than 75 brands - Bristol Cigarettes, Suzuki Samurai No Problem Bike, LG TVs, Saridon... to name a few.

And he has a few awards in his kitty as well. Count and you will find at least twenty awards for acting in inter-collegiate drama competitions plus the Gujarat State Award for a Gujarati film titled Darya Choru.

As of now, he is headlong into Khichdi - as a producer and actor.

Excerpts from the flamboyant producer cum actor's interview with indiantelevision.com's Vickey Lalwani:

How did Aatish Kapadia and you get together?

Aatish and I have been working together for the past two decades. We know each other since our college days. We did college plays together, we even studied M.M.S together. Basically, I was an actor and he was a writer. I was always his bouncing board. One day, we decided that we should start a company to produce plays. Aatish said that since he was a writer, he had a better perception of the content and could actually visualise how it should be portrayed, and hence he would like to take on the onus of direction. So, I thought that I should divert my energies in the production segment.

How did 'Khichdi' happen?

After we started our company to produce plays, Aatish was writing and directing for others as well... like Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka for Vipul Shah. Likewise, I entered into a co-production with Shobhna Desai and we came out with a serial Babul Ki Duayen Leti Ja. Slowly but surely, we graduated from plays to serials. Then we thought we two friends should put our experience together. This is how Khichdi came about.

And then...?

We went to Star Plus with our proposal. I was very clear that I wanted Aatish to direct the show. In fact Aatish himself wasn't too sure because he has no technical background. To the channel's credit they were extremely co-operative and encouraging and I want to thank them for it.

Did you'll have any parameters that you'll worked on?

We realised that the comedy field was virtually empty. There were lots of saas bahu sagas, suspense thrillers, even horror shows- but there was hardly any show which was making people laugh. Like a sensible batsman tries to time his shot in the area where there is no fielder, we too tried something different. And it went all the way (Laughs).

"I literally know naive women like Hansaa and duffers like Praful"

Is that the only reason behind Khichdi's success?

Surely not. That was just how the programme was pitched. Of course the content mattered. We believe Khichdi is genuinely funny... as simple as that. It's characters are either believable or completely non-believable in all their stupidity. Actually, Khichdi is inspired by the first Gujarati play our company produced, the play was titled Ladakvaya. At the risk of sounding boastful, Khichdi is different from other family sitcoms.

Could you elaborate on that?

It is different in the sense that though it is set in contemporary times the setting is not too modern. Earlier we shot in an old haveli and not in a studio set which instantly gave it a nostalgic, 'back to the good old days' feel. The feel was very authentic and Indian. The genuineness and typicality of an average Gujarati household with all its quirks had been brought out. All these little touches worked. Then we had some problems of continuing our shoot at the same place. So we shifted to another place, showing that the new place had been gifted by Babuji's aunt. But we had to ensure that the original flavour was not lost, else the identification factor would have got diluted.

As a producer, what is your involvement in the project?

I have always been a hands-on producer, present on the sets. The times are fast disappearing when producers used to sit in their offices and sign cheques. Today a producer is not just a financer. I take to production as a creative art. I am involved with casting, twist-n-turn in the plot and the look of the sets. I work with my director (Aatish) as a team.

How did you do the casting?

The essence of comedy is to surprise people with as many unusual things as possible, make their eyes go wide in amazement. Nobody on television had ever thought of casting Anang Desai in a comedy. Or, Vandana Pathak has never done a grey character. Or for that matter, even Praful hasn't done comedy. You might have laughed at him in Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka, but he was not doing any comedy there - you laughed simply because he played a hen-pecked husband.

But did the channel allow you a free hand in the casting process?

They had a few names in mind. But we were firm. We had even given them the second options for the main roles. There was no autocratic method applied. I guess they saw the conviction in our eyes. Hmmm... actually they even wanted a laughter track in the serial, but we requested not to add that. We explained to them that comedy can work better in the long term if the show is not pushed as a 'in-your-face laugh riot.

"The essence of comedy is to surprise people with as many unusual things as possible & make their eyes go wide in amazement"

Earlier you said that some of the characters are real. I beg to differ...

(Interrupts) I have seen these characters in my day to day life. I have met people like Hansaa and Praful. I literally know of naive women like Hansaa and duffers like Praful. This is from where I derived the inspiration of characters in the play Ladakvaya and Khichdi.

I have a boy in my office. I sent him to Aatish at Khar, to get a signature on an important document. He went and by the time he came back to my office, I had left for the day. Next morning he tells me that he could not do the job. I demanded to know the reason. He explained: I reached Aatish's office. He was busy on the phone for 30-40 minutes, thereafter he came out of his cabin and left. I did not stop him because he looked solid busy. I was livid and told him that his antics would soon make shut my business down. He nodded and said, "mujhe bhi aisa hi lagta hai", (I too feel the same). Mind you, there was not even a grin on his face. He often does not understand what he says. Haven't you read the famous Suppandi stories in Tinkle? There are many Suppandis around you and me. Praful is one such Suppandi.

All we have done is repainted the characters to suit the needs of the plot.

But why a Gujarati set up? Is it because Aatish and you are Gujjus?

That, no doubt, is one of the reasons. One should work in a zone where the comfort levels are high. One should detect, tap and exploit his own strengths, only then he is truly creative. Think of it, why does Yash Chopra have a Punjabi flavour in almost all his movies?

There is one more reason. Check this out. Compared to other states, Gujarat records higher TRP ratings for almost all shows. Our show set in the backdrop of a Gujarati household, would definitely have an added advantage of getting still better TRPs.

How do you make sure that every particular episode or scene will make people laugh?

The characters come alive in front of us as Aatish writes and rewrites their nuances. If we are not sure that a particular scene would create laughter, Aatish even enacts the scene himself. It is bizarre and at the same a logical thing to do.

Plus we ensure that the show does not lose its freshness. We make sure that we don't repeat situations. We have enough incidents for inspiration from real life if we look closely enough.

Plus, don't forget that there is a lot of emotion in the serial. You can't make people laugh, laugh and laugh. A time will come when it will all look stale. No serial can work without emotion in India.

Like there is a character called Jackie, whose birthday comes once in four years. When he complains that he can't celebrate, his mom explains him that there are thousands of children in this poor country who don't even know when they were born. At times, we have even dealt with serious issues, though in a light manner - so it doesn't sound preachy. For instance, once we questioned why shouldn't a widow be allowed to put mehendi on her hands and lead her life as per her own wishes. Such episodes help to create the right balance.

Have you earmarked any issues that you won't try to make people laugh?

Yes, we have laid down some basic rules, if I may say so. We will not take a dig at caste, customs and traditions. Somehow we don't fancy taking potshots at different castes. It can be amusing to one section of the society, while it can be terribly hurting to the other. Plus, we don't believe in controversies pulling the serial ahead. Do we need such undesirable things? I get letters from families saying they gather around the TV on Tuesday night and invite friends over for a Khichdi session, they try and catch the repeat as they missed a couple of jokes because they were too busy laughing.

"Humour is something that you may appreciate in the mood of the moment, but it need not necessarily tickle at a later stage"

Why did you suddenly start acting in the show?

I have acting experience. Those who knew that Aatish and I were behind the show, used to keep sending feelers that I should be a part of the cast. Somehow I was not too keen. Then, sometime back, there was a slot - Raju - where Aatish insisted that I get in. However, I thought that Raju required a younger person. So we chose Amit Varma. Recently, when the Himanshu slot crept in, we thought of Deven Bhojani. He expressed his inability to do so, due to some of his commitments. Aatish suggested that I jump in. Star Plus officials endorsed the idea. Obviously, they had seen me acting in Karishma Ka Karishma. So, it happened. Of course, it saves quite a lot of money. But it's very taxing.

Do you think working for theatre has helped you guys in your work for television?

To an extent yes, but not much. Theatre and television are two entirely different media. I would say writing for theatre is far more difficult since you are catering to a live audience. You can get their reaction instantly. As far as television goes, you really can't be affected as there are millions of viewers. Also the styles and the structure varies a lot. Plus, production values for television are much higher and need to go down to the flimsiest detail.

Do you take your artistes' suggestions and give them a free hand?

We let them improvise but only if it is absolutely relevant to the plot. Sometimes, they suggest a line or two that is hilarious, but if it doesn't fit into the theme then we don't use it. We can't afford to get carried away. Humour is something that you may appreciate in the mood of the moment, but it need not necessarily tickle at a latter stage.

And when you don't get it right, what you do?

On occasions, we have shot almost the entire episode again. There have been times when we thought that it was going right, but when viewed in totality, we knew that wouldn't work.

So what's cooking after 'Khichdi'?

We are working on a couple of scripts. We hope to churn out quality stuff.

Correct me if I am wrong... but aren't you working on a soap and a thriller?

(Smiles) Oh, you knew about it. Well, recently, we dropped the idea of doing the thriller. Now we are working on a soap and a family comedy. The comedy, in particular, will be of a totally new genre. Unlike the Khichdi parivaar, this parivaar will be very sophisticated.

Where would you place both these shows?

Star Plus is our first choice. Other channels have also approached us. Let's see. But we would prefer Star Plus.

What is so special about Star Plus?

They seem to know the pulse of the audience like the back of their hand. They know what will work and what won't. At times when the chips have been down, they have come in as doctors. This is because they understand the programmes very well. They not only have a business mind but a creative mind as well. If you have a creative as well as a business mind, you are a winner.

Recently, kids' participation in 'Khichdi' has been increased. Why?

We are using children as a medium as they have an uncanny sense of what is right and wrong. I think as one grows older we tend to sketch a utopian image of the world blocking out reality and children often bust that. Now this was suggested by Star Plus. This is once example where they came in as doctors.

Plus, this way Shakalaka Boom Boom is being utilised to carry forward a spill-over audience into Khichdi. After this move, Khichdi has benefitted in terms of viewership. This is one example where they come in as shrewd businessmen. To be honest, we were quite reluctant when they suggested that kids participation in Khichdi be increased!

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