'A serial is a brand. When it's doing well, make all the efforts to prolong that success' Shyamsunder - Yantra Media head

 His name is synonymous with 'soap operas' in the Malayalam southern regional language space. Shyamsunder is the man who heads one of South India's topnotch production houses Yantra Media Private Limited. Shyamsunder, who introduced the soap genre to Malayalam audiences with the highly successful show Sthree on Asianet, is now a household-name across television homes in South India. Having worked in all the South Indian languages, Shyam is now looking to get into the Hindi space with an interactive thriller.

During a hectic schedule in Mumbai recently, this media-shy creative whiz spoke to indiantelevision.com's Bijoy A K. Excerpts:

Tell us about the launch of Yantra.

I started my career acting in films at the age of 24. I launched Yantra Software while I was producing my first venture on television, a Kannada weekly serial Bisilu Kudure (The Mirage) for DD Kannada.

My maiden venture for satellite television was for Asianet in '93 - a weekly serial Adheham Alla Idheham. After our highly successful Asianet show Sthree, Yantra Software was re-launched as Yantra Media Private Limited.

What makes Yantra tick?

We are a trendsetter down South. We always try to be ahead of our competitors creatively, visually, content-wise and production-wise.

"Quality-wise, Southern shows are at par with Hindi shows. Here, you are able to cut the cost and still deliver your best"

Which are the new projects coming up?

We are planning an interactive thriller in Hindi which would mark Yantra's foray in this space. It will be a weekend show which we hope to launch in February. We haven't finalized on the channels, but we will be announcing details shortly. The production will be based in Mumbai and we will start our work in a month's time.

In Malayalam, we have two shows in mind: One a regular drama-based serial based on a published work. The show will be launched after three months. The second one is a comedy programme, a political satire.

In Tamil, we are launching a mythological serial on Lord Subramanya titled Murugan Arul for Sun TV. In Kannada for Udaya TV, we will be launching a daily soap in two months. In Telugu, we are launching a crime-based show Crime File.

In Telugu, for Gemini's soon-to-be-launched 24-hour music channel Aditya, we will be doing a couple of shows. One will be a youth-based sitcom while the other one will be a political satire show.

How tough is juggling with all the four South Indian languages like this?

I have to be on my toes. I have to speak all the South Indian languages [laughs].

How do you rate South Indian channels compared to Hindi channels?

Taking into account the kind of returns one gets from South Indian channels, they are better managed. Here, the shows are made on a fraction of the budgets while in Hindi it is not the case. But quality-wise, Southern shows are on par with Hindi shows. Here, you are able to cut the cost and still deliver your best.

Which is your favourite South Indian channel in terms of creative resources?

The Sun Network, which holds 70 per cent of the revenue share. They dominate because of good quality programmes. The management is 100 per cent professional and that makes the difference.

Why did you move out of Asianet and Vijay TV and join Sun?

Sun has an extensive network which covers the whole South India. When I do shows for Asianet, I can't work for any other network. That is a clause in the deals made here. So I left Asianet to join a wider network as it offered more opportunities. Apart from its reach, the management is also very professional. Then comes the brand factor. When you do a show for the Sun Network, that programme becomes a brand altogether. That is what we are looking at.

"Churning out comedy on a daily basis is tough. The team has to be innovative. Once they get into the pulse of the viewer, it becomes easier"

How crucial is the crime genre on television?

The genre re-creates crime in front of you. Here you get an opportunity to see things which otherwise you wouldn't believe. It manipulates the human interest factor to the core. The crime genre is very popular in Kannada. Udaya and ETV are having very popular crime shows on air. That is what inspired me to launch crime shows in Tamil and Malayalam.

What is your opinion on remakes and dubbed shows?

Personally, I prefer not to dub shows. I prefer to do shows from that respective region and in that regional language. Remakes will do as it is taking success to another language. It is a formula that works.

Is your Malayalam comedy show Ettu Sundarikalum Njanum [ESN] going to be taken off? Creatively, the show seems to have lost its initial glory.

No.The daily is doing pretty well in terms of numbers. Since a story is completed in a couple of episodes in ESN, there is scope for revamp any time. We have already revamped the show last month. I agree, churning out comedy on a daily basis is tough. The team has to be innovative. Once they get into the pulse of the viewer, it becomes easier. Your formula should be right.

Tell us about your core team in Yantra.

Yantra doesn't have a complex set-up. The core team is very small: me and my brother. Then we hire the creative, production teams project-to-project basis. Retaining the same team for all the projects makes the proceedings bit dull.

Can you take up the challenge of producing a family soap sans mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in central roles?

We made a soap Snehanjali with this idea in mind. It had a hero-central structure. That was an experimental project. But it didn't deliver. After 50 episodes, we had to revamp the show and make the subject female-oriented. Even the third version of Sthree which narrated the story of three women and the professional challenges they face didn't work. Melodrama didn't deliver there and we had to add family elements to the story to make it deliver.

"Retaining the same team for all the projects makes things a bit dull. So, while retaining the core team we hire the creative team project wise"

According to you, which is the genre that is easier to attempt on?

Each genre has its own USP. That should be delivered to the core. You should be very clear about what you are doing. The basic game is in black & white. You should be clear about what is white and what is black. There shouldn't be any grey areas.

Which one of your productions impressed you most in recent times?

Ettu Sundarikalum Njanum. From a weekender, it went on to become a daily because of sheer popularity. As a daily, it even beat Asianet's Kathanar's ratings. ESN broke the myth that Kerala TV audiences won't react to comedy. Male dominated comedy didn't work on Malayalam television. The TG is woman and the show should be packaged accordingly. So I decided to do a subject packed with women characters [laughs].

What is your opinion on fixed-duration serials? Asianet recently aired one, which got completed in 44 episodes.

These are all games of branding, telling the viewer that my product is different. The genre is the same. The same director would have done that show in 100 episodes if the soap had been alloted 100 episodes.

The success of a soap lies in making your audience watch the show without complaints. A Kyunki… hits its all-time high after four years, that is called success. A serial is a brand. When it is doing well, make all the efforts to prolong that success. It is possible and we have done it many times.

Who do you consider as your toughest competitor in the South?

Radaan and Cine Times. Once we start dominating in Tamil, we will reach the number one position.

Why don't you direct these days?

One can't do everything. I have to run this company. I quit acting to take up direction. Then I gave up direction to manage this firm.

"The success of a soap lies in making your audience watch the show without complaints. Kyunki… hits its all-time high after four years, that is called success."

Any plans to launch a channel?

No. We tried to launch a Kannada channel Kaveri with Asianet and Zee. But the project didn't click. The funds didn't flow in as planned. Today I realize that we lost about three valuable years on that project. My aim is to make Yantra a very strong production house in India.

Comment on the evolution of soaps. Has the audience changed too?

Nothing much has changed in content. What is new is the visual slickness. The drama element is the same. But there are a few things you feel to be bold about. Today's youngsters talk in a different language. Women characters have become bolder in all aspects.

Nowadays people don't go to cinema just for entertainment. It is teenagers who watch films in theatres nowadays. Film and TV co-exist, but not for everyone. Also, housewives prefer television to cinema.

Any plans to get into film production? What is the next big idea?

No plans at the moment. The next big idea is telefilms which will exploit television's film slots. Everything is in the planning stage at the moment. We are planning to form international tie-ups for co-production of this project.

Tell us about Yantra's financial plans.

We have plans for disinvestment. We are also seeking strategic partnerships.

What is Yantra's turnover for 2003 - 2004? What is the projected turnover for 2004 - 2005?

We recorded a turnover of Rs 80 million in 2003 - 04. Rs 110 million is our projection for 2004-05.

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