The story of untold tales

MUMBAI: Storytelling is an art and many have mastered it. Television, which is the biggest platform after films, gives thousands of writers the perfect setting to tell a story. Some stories manage to touch a chord with the viewers and go on for hundreds of episodes while some are shelved within a few months itself.

At a glance, television in India seems to have progressed in their storytelling efforts but unfortunately, there are still many tales that are lost in the industry.

“Almost 15 years ago, I wrote a show called ‘Ab Ke Baras’. We had put in a lot of effort and almost all the paper work was done, but after three months of hard work, it got shelved,” says Balika Vadhu screenplay writer Gajra Kottary. She adds,

“Another show of mine that got dropped was ‘Ek Admee’. It was directed by Ajai Sinha and was supposed to be aired on NDTV Imagine. We had already shot a year worth of episodes before it was put on hold.”

Kottary is not alone. Balaji Telefilms creative director Nivedita Basu, who was involved in the remake of Sherlock Holmes which was slated to air on Life OK, tells us that despite having a great cast comprising film actors Arjun Rampal, Vivek Oberoi, Vir Das and Sharman Joshi, the show did not eventually take off. She explains, “We had a stellar cast and the series was going to be directed by Rohan Sippy. It was an expensive project and the show had a lot of potential. However, after doing a lot of back and forth with the channel, the show got shelved.”

In 2001, film director Imtiaz Ali had directed a light-hearted series named ‘Yeh Jeevan Hain’. The show was produced by the existing creative head of Epic, Ravina Kohli, who recalls that the programme, which was expected to air on one of the leading GECs, was unfortunately shelved due to it being “too progressive”.

She states, “We had spent almost six months shooting, editing and canned 13 episodes. At that time, however, the saas-bahu trend was on the rise so the channel shelved it.”

There are many reasons for projects not making to television screens. Broadcasters need to be sure if the proposed show will generate the desired ratings. According to Basu, another reason for series being put on hold could be a channel’s incapacity to justify the expenses involved.

Writer and producer, Ila Bedi Dutta agrees that a lot of money is involved and broadcasters need to analyse the content before giving the green signal. She asserts, “There is a lot of competition in the television industry. Channels today place a lot of emphasis on research.  Sometimes they have an annual programming plan where the pitched programmes do not fit.”

Presenting another perspective to the story, Kottary reveals that more often than not television shows get held back due to a change in programming heads of a channel.  When there is a midstream change in the programming heads, producers are almost sure that stories, which are in process, will never see the light of the day and are left in a lurch.  

Apart from these, the absence of creative elements also plays a role in shows getting shelved. Producer of Diya Aur Baati Hum, Sumeet H Mittal believes that sometimes what looks good on paper might not turn out to be that great when it is finally developed. He adds, “Although, normally it does not happen, but at times a show can even get shelved when the shoot is on, post approval. Nobody can predict TRPs, so generally channels go with their understanding and gut feeling.”

There are also unpredictable instances that can cause a hindrance. Basu recalls, “My team and I worked on Kyunki Returns for almost four to five months. The whole idea was to get the old cast back together including Smriti Irani herself. We did not want to go with a new cast as the essence of the show lied in all the characters. They had a history. Smriti had even given her dates but then she became a cabinet minister. As a result, the show did not happen.”

The amount of time that a channel takes to approve a show is in itself extensive. While Kottary explains that the entire approval process can take up to two to three months, Dutta informs that it took her nearly six to seven months to get the approval for Hitler Didi.  “The approval process is long. Some channels have an audio pilot, where the entire concept is narrated and played to a sample audience while other channels have a visual pilot. The pilot episode plays a crucial role in deciding the fate of the pitched show,” adds Dutta.   

However, there is a silver lining as well. Mittal points out that the makers, who have a good rapport with a channel, get their shows approved very fast.  Emphasizing on the same point, Basu highlights that the approval process and time differs from producer to producer. She claims, “If you are an Ekta Kapoor pitching for a show, the programme is likely to get approved within a week as channels are aware that Ekta gives her heart and soul to the story. However for a new producer, it could take anywhere between three to six months.”

So, what happens to all these untold stories? Are they chucked aside and never revived?

Dutta, who remains hopeful that one day her shelved shows will see the daylight, frankly confesses that she is clueless as to what happens to all these lost stories. Kottary, on the other hand, admits that if she passionately feels about a story, she would look at other mediums.  “Sometimes, I could take the subject of the shelved serial and put it as track in an existing serial,” she states.  

Mittal points out that if the channel is paying for the pilot episode, there is no way a producer can look at pitching to other mediums or channels. This is because the content becomes the rightful property of the channel and stays with them only till they decide to revive the show.  He, however, adds that if he shoots a pilot at his own cost and pitches it to a channel which then gets rejected; he can consider taking it other mediums such as online or making a short film out of it.

Dutta discloses that she had recently shot a pilot for Zee and is currently waiting for the feedback. She shares, “Hitler Didi was something different and Zee supported me a lot. Zee, as a channel is very forward thinking. I feel they encourage fresh stories more than other channels do.”

Well, much could be said about the television industry’s storytelling efforts. Although there are several untold stories, a show being shelved is just a part and parcel of the industry.

“While there is a tremendous sense of wasted effort, one does get used to it over a period of time,” Kottary signs off.


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