‘If you can’t take people to theatre, take theatre to people:’ Shailja Kejriwal

A pioneer in the Indian media and broadcast industry, Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd chairman and Essel Group promoter Dr Subhash Chandra has been a major force to reckon with for more than two decades now. With his exemplary vision and forward thinking, he has always been a step ahead in the game.


While over the years, he has consistently demonstrated his ability to identify new businesses and lead them on the path to success; this time round too, Chandra has deftly raised the curtains on something that no one else has done before in India. In a bid to restore theatre’s glory and culture in India and give it its due, Chandra has launched a new vertical called Zee Theatre, which will not only boost the art form in the country but will also make it available across platforms.


It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that television, films, video, satellite and digital’s gain has been theatre’s loss in more ways than one. It was also the lack of facilities, infrastructure, less revenue and diminishing audience, which led to theatres being converted into movie cinema halls. And therein rose theatre artists like Nasseruddin Shah, Om Puri, Shah Rukh Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Shabana Azmi and their ilk, who then stepped into the film world.


In conversation with, Zeel chief creative - special projects Shailja Kejriwal speaks about the new vertical and the company’s plans ahead.




Was the idea behind this initiative? Why Zee is showing interest in theatre? 


Zee as a broadcaster has been known for doing new things in cable satellite television. We are constantly trying to create something new for the audience in terms of content. These days the entertainment industry is trying to outsource content from overseas and remake it. We want to change that and look in our own country for content, which has not yet been used and is ignored.


Firstly, we want to invert the cycle of importing content. Our aim is to show the world the rich traditional culture of India. Secondly, while earlier people had to travel to see and enjoy theatre, now they can watch it on the internet, mobile, DTH, television, in-flight as well as at screenings in multiplexes. If they want to watch it live, they have also the option of watching the live shows that we will be doing.


Our idea is to take theatre to the maximum number of people so that everybody can enjoy the content.


What kind of content will Zee Theatre focus on?


We will be starting with India first. We have a very rich culture in theatre with plays in multiple languages like Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali etc. With over 5000 year old traditions of Natya Shashtra, India has numerous plays right from Kalidasa to absolutely modern plays. 


Our focus will be on Indian plays first and then of course later we will open up to the rest of the world. In the beginning, we want to offer all kind of theatre content to our audiences and later we will be looking at some plays, which we can adapt in Hindi. We have classic plays like Hamida Bai Ki Kothi and Sandhya Chhaya, as well as musicals like Piya Behrupiya to modern ones like 30 Days of September.


Will plays be adapted from other languages?


Yes, absolutely! We are doing the production from the ground. We are going to take the script and translate it to Hindi, then we will cast for it, rehearse, do the whole production and then we will film it. That is the reason why we are ready to do live theatre as well as film theatre. We’ve started to make plays in Hindi first and then they can be subtitled and dubbed in all parts of the world.


How is the response from founder sponsors and advertisers?


Everybody is very positive and quite excited about the initiative. It is a new kind of content. We need to see more content, which is based in India. It boils down to the question of how long the audience will see the same kind of song and dance, chat shows and stand-up comedy. It has to change. It’s about time that the audience got something new apart from film and television. 


Theatre has new genre of content; it has new kinds of stories, which have not been told before on films and television. Plays have relevant social messages and genres include comedy, news, musicals, tragedy, psychological thriller, fillers and more. So, advertisers are showing good interest for this project. We will be rolling out in early 2016 and will collaborate with sponsors then but as of now, brands that we have spoken to, have evinced interest.


So far, Indian theatre has been under indexed and under pushed. Are you going to raise the bar for theatre production in India?


Yes, that is exactly the reason why we ventured into this area. With our investment in theatre, we want to make grand sets and beautiful costumes. The biggest names in theatre are working with us and guiding us on how theatre works.


For each play, we have two directors - a filming director and a theatre director. We are following the process involved in a film production so we will have a casting director, costume designer, set designer and every aspect to make it grand and raise the production quality. I believe audience will be happy to see a marked change in visual production quality.


Is Zee Theatre looking at starting any festival of theatre plays?


Yes, we are planning to start festivals for plays. We will be doing these on-ground and on-air too. Gradually we will be doing live theatre festivals as well as on cinema screens. Right now, we just want to make our intention in the space known and in 2016 we want to release it out on digital, cinemas, live and broadcast and take it forward.


International theatre companies provide world class production quality. What are the new innovations you will be investing in for bringing in advanced technology and better quality production?


We have a very skilled set of people who will be ideating on how to raise the bar for theatre in India. We have our crew from the movie business comprising sound recorders, set designers and fashion designers. On the other hand, most of our casting directors and actors have theatre as well as film background.


Names like Uttara Baokar, who will be seen on television after 20 years is associated with us. We have theatre doyennesses like Mahasweta Devi, Dr Vijaya Mehta and Ranjeet Kapoor on board with us. Dr Mehta is a noted Indian film and theatre director, who will be directing a play after 1993.


We sit with these stalwarts along with designers, light designers and everyone else involved while producing the plays. It has been very challenging because it is a new thing that we are trying to do.


How will the production logistics work? Will you be working with other production houses?


For now we are co-producing all the plays. We have people who will produce with us but as producers, we will take it forward.


We are working with people who are from theatre and those who produce theatre, along with a set of expertise from television, for example people like Mukud Upadhayay and Romanchak Arora.


A motley bunch of creative talent from television, theatre and films like cinematographers, editors and music directors have come together to make it possible.


Who will own the play and script rights that are produced under Zee Theatre?


We are going to take scripts from the biggest names in theatre from all parts of India and translate them it in Hindi for the production. We have acquired play rights from the likes of Vijay Tendulkar, Jaywant Dalvi, and Mahasweta Devi amongst others.


Disney recently brought Broadway to India with superior quality production. Are there any plans to bring production from abroad?


We want to take our culture abroad. Personally I don’t understand why we have to constantly look abroad to bring content here. Why can’t we take our content overseas? Our prime focus is on how we can take our content abroad. We do have a huge audience for theatre abroad, so why shouldn't we take classics like Abhigyan Shakuntalam abroad? Our culture and theatre should go abroad rather than getting their content here.


Are there any deals in place with any of the platforms - online, flights, cable etc?


The advantage for us is that we are available across all the platforms in any case. That’s the advantage of being a multi-media broadcaster. So whether it’s cinema, online or broadcast, we can do it on our own platform.


Additionally, to syndicate and distribute the content, we have offices around the world. The plays will be subtitled, dubbed and then showcased.


As of now we have not struck any deals because we have just announced our intention. The process will start soon and by next year, we will have a list.


Zee Theatre plans to have 100 productions over a span of three years. How will the releases span out? When we see the first production going live?


We will be rolling it out next year. Since our intention is to make the plays available across all platforms namely digital, cinema, television and theatre, we are looking at early 2016. 


We have stories on varied topics like internet romance, old parent left alone by their children and girl child abuse. These are very relevant plays that are about subjects in society, which is not usually discussed in cinema or on television. These subjects need to be discussed in an entertaining way and with good story telling. We want to have social relevance through entertainment.


Will you also be looking at promoting street plays and outdoor plays with Zee Theatre? Will it include college theatre? 


We have 15 plays right now, which are under various stages of production. We are very proud that we were able to manage 15 productions; it’s like having 15 films with two hour content each. Working with such scale is quite challenging. Our plan is to do 100 productions over three years and we will be experimenting all sorts of things but one after the other. Then we will focus on the outdoors. Yes, we are planning to take it to schools and colleges too; the youth needs to see it. We are tying up with schools and universities to keep screenings for them.


Will there be programming on theatre plays? For example; talk shows and behind the scenes programs.


We want to make people see the process in terms of what happens behind the scenes. We have interviewed directors, actors, set designers and will do programs capturing the process. We have also shot the rehearsals, where directors are talking about the play and how it works in the theatre production. The material is being prepared, which will definitely  be shared with the audience through programs.


What kind of audience are you targeting in India? Will you be looking at the South market too?


The content we have created is for everyone as the issues are very social and people can relate to them. We have selected topics, which are universal in nature. I believe this will be new form of entertainment; people are a bit tired of seeing the same kind of shows on all channels. As there is less variety in terms of content, it will give them a choice.


I think people will welcome this change and it will give entertainment an alternative. Theatre needs to become a viable option. It should come out as refreshing change like we did with Zindagi. People are ready to accept fresh content and that too which is from their own country. While it won’t be very easy for the audience to accept it but theatre will grow on them and the audience will become habitual to it as they did to daily soaps and comedy shows.


Is Zee Theatre a cultural move or a commercial move? Are you planning to monetise it aggressively?


These cannot be separated from each other. There’s no cost for revising our tradition and culture. We have to take it to our future generation. We invested in whatever was required.


Firstly, we want to create good content for our viewers, but then great content can get commercialised. The audience should enjoy the content first. We are trying to reach out to more people. We are not in a hurry. Our aim is to let the culture flourish and it will become great archival material sometime in the near future.


There are limited quality theatre halls in Mumbai like NCPA and Prithvi. Will Zee be investing in building infrastructure for theatre halls and auditoriums too?


Bombay still has infrastructure for theatre but to do live theatre, it needs certain amount of investment for good quality. For more investment, people need to get the investment back to make more plays. Because of the legacy of theatre in Maharashtra, we have theatres in Pune also. But as cinema came in, all the theatres were converted into movie theatres.


The vision and aim behind starting this initiative was that if we can’t take people to the theatre, then let’s take theatre to people. We will give people an option of watching quality plays from the comfort of their homes as well as theatres. 


We do plan to invest in the infrastructure but that will depend on the reaction and reach this initiative gets.


Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre has a legacy like no other and is one of the most recognized players in the space. Are there any plans to collaborate?


We are ready to collaborate with anyone who is ready to collaborate with us. We want to reach to the audience in all parts of the country. Our main focus was to finish the productions first. After that, we will get out in the market and collaborate with whoever is interested.

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