"Out of lack of choice, television is a 'close ups' oriented medium" : Qaeed Kuwajerwala

A mischievous twinkle greets you when you suggest that he would have made a good looking actor. Pat comes the response that probably he should have been as that would have made his life easier. With his new show on Star Plus, Saara Akaash earning rave reviews, Qaeed Kuwajerwala is ready and raring to go.
For one belonging to the new school of thought, life hasn't been easy. After a back surgery, doctors had warned him off the production jobs forever. But the spunky man couldn't let go off his dreams easily. Despite a decade of struggle, the guy did not give up and soon enough had a couple of serials behind him like
Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka and Yeh Nazdikiyaan (Sony), Balaji productions Kabhi Souten Kabhi Saheli (DD), Kohi Apna Sa (Zee) and Kasautii Zindagii Kay (Star Plus). Then came Taurus Video's Kyun Hota Hai Pyarrr, again on Star Plus.

In a freewheeling interview with's Trupti Ghag, he spoke about his life, direction and more.

How and why did a commerce student think about turning to direction?
I landed in the commerce stream by sheer default. At that point of time, all I wanted to do was to complete my basic education. Coming from a business family, graduating from the commerce stream was a viable and working option. But I wasn't really academically inclined.

I was an active participant in theatre during college days, usually as a director. I guess that is when the thought of making a career as a director germinated. Plus I am an avid film buff and a great fan of Amitabh Bachchan movies.

Later, after completing my graduation, I enrolled with the Xavier Institute of Communications (XIC) for a film making course.Then I joined ad film maker Pooh Sayani's production Shunyata Films as a third assistant. It was with this stint that I got hands on training with the camera. I was confident enough of handling it all on my own, but guess it wasn't destined at that point of time.


Why, what happened?
I lost my father. Since I was the eldest son, the family responsibilities shifted to me. It was then that I took over the family business as a wholesaler for general medicine. Least to say, I loathed the job, plus it wasn't rewarding enough. We could just about manage to sustain. I did that for almost four years and then I decided that I could do it no more. In 1992, I joined Ram Madhvani's Equinox as an assistant director followed by a stint with Enterprise Advertising. Later, I joined a friend's company Videomagic. It was a small company making ad films. I tried my hand at directing ad films and corporate videos. But it was difficult to get good work in advertising. During that time, I got an offer as an associate producer of Swabhimaan being made by Plus Channel. Though I wasn't handling direction, I was pretty much the chief on the sets.

With that started my period of struggle, I struggled in the industry for almost five years trying to get a break as a director without any success. Then I literally ran off to Dubai to join a production house in December 2000. I was involved in making ad films and corporate videos. But things really didn't work there either, so I hopped on to a plane seven months later with too many questions and doubts, back to India.


You sound so pained when you say that...
Can you blame me! I thought I was jinxed. Every production I joined closed soon after and work wasn't easy to come by. I had been out of the loop for far too long and I knew that work wouldn't come that easily to me. Fortunately an opportunity came my way to direct few sporadic episodes of Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka and Yeh Nazdikiyaan on Sony.


With your training in film making, there should have been some work coming in, if not a lot. What happened?
Well, it wasn't as if jobs weren't coming my way. But I did not want to do a job; I wanted to create something on my own...put forth my vision. I guess, I wasn't good at taking orders either as I am with giving. (laughs)


Was it that you were way too ambitious?
I don't think I was too ambitious. I didn't bag the deals because I wasn't at the right place at the right time. My initial profile was brilliant; I had worked with one of the biggest productions then,Swabhimaan.


After working with the ad fraternity, why is that you turned towards television?
After initial tryst with ad-film making, there was a time when the work wasn't coming my way. Fortunately enough, I got an offer from television. Since, as a medium it had lot of potential I decided to try my luck.


You started your career during the DD age. What is the difference that you find in the system then and now?
Television was a modest medium then, unlike now. But the modus operandi hasn't changed much. But with the onset of satellite television, there is definitely a rise in competition. Deadlines have become more and more stringent. The production values have definitely risen.

During the DD times, there was limited choice that the viewers had, and the onus of bagging the advertisement was on the production house, unlike now when the channel is an active participant. The competition is stiff, neck-to-neck and what sells is the entire package, channels like Star Plus have realised that and therefore are definitely more involved in the production.

"During the DD times there was limited choice that the viewers had, and the onus of bagging the advertisement was on the production house, unlike now when the channel is an active participant"

But isn't that meddlesome?
No, Channels have an image to maintain. Liabilities are higher. Earlier, when Mahabharat was airing, you hardly had people stepping out of the house. In recent times, you can't demand that kind of focused viewership. There is a viewership pie that a channel has to cash in on. At the end of the day they are running a business and there are many people that they are responsible for.


When you joined the industry, you must have been amongst the younger lot. Did you ever find the environment hostile?
Of course not, the times were lean and the work was definitely less but there was work for people who were willing to go that extra mile. But more often than not, it was the question of your luck... you either get it or don't.

It is often heard that even though the programmes were scant, there was definitely more quality output. What do you have to say about that?
I doubt it. There was obviously a lack of choice and there was quite less variety. Viewing time was restricted to a few hours in the evening and on Sundays, but look at the scenario now. The viewing band is from 11 am in the morning to 6 pm in the evening, then from 8 pm to way past midnight.

But there is a major grouse that the television shows mainly deal with the 'saas-bahu' genre. There are two good shows and rest are all rehashes of the same?
I completely disagree with that statement. For every Kyunki... there is a Krisshna Arjun, for everyKahaani... there is Shhhh...koi hai and for every Kasautii... there is Kucch kar dikhana hai.

All said and done, the main target audience is the housewife and family drama is a genre that they can relate too. Look at us; we could lap up The Bold and the Beautiful, which is essentially a family drama, but brand Hindi television family dramas as retrogressive.


But that was years ago, why are we following trends set abroad? Where is the creativity?
There are stories and there are people who make it. Tomorrow if I were to make a Titanic, my treatment would be different. I have different sensibilities and my vision is different. Look at the three big soaps, Kyunki..., Kahaani, and Kasautii..., apart from the superficial similarities that they are all portray big families, Kyunki... is one woman's story, Kahaani ... is about a family feud essentially a love story. I think despite the limitations, we are doing a damn good job.


What limitations?
Mainly the budget, the technical facility. It might be easier to make a Matrix abroad because they have the technical finesse. It is difficult to do that for Indian cinema simply because we lack the budgets, but in television the situation is even worse. It might be difficult to call for an extra dolly or crane, which are nothing but the bare necessities.

Be it out of lack of choice, but television is a close up oriented medium.

"With the killing competition, there is a great risk of the concept leaking out"

Getting back to your work. According to the latest TAM ratings, the 'Saara Akaash' debut episode was rated 7.3 in the C&S 4+ category on the TRP scale. It was the no 15 programme in the first week. Were you expecting this kind of popularity?
At the risk of sounding pompous, I was expecting at least eight. Looking at the popularity of the channel and the publicity campaigns that the channel held, I hoped that we would have fetched at least nine. Had it been six months ago, I wouldn't have expected that kind popularity.

Wasn't the original concept of 'Saara Akaash' changed?
I wouldn't call it changed. Yes it was definitely tweaked a little basically because both the channel and the producers thought that it was getting too technical. But like I said, the audience for the prime time band is a housewife, so rather than making something that would have to be shelved sooner we thought of going in for a facelift. My mother, wife or bhabhi do not care about the details about the emergency landings, they need to know how much of a trauma it caused. The human interest, so to speak.
For this project, all the four lead actors are Balaji actors. Isn't there some kind of contract they sign for exclusivity? How did you manage to sign them?
It is a myth. There is no such contract at Balaji. I signed them because I thought they were right for the part. In fact, I think most of them were already working with other production houses. Instead of branding people as Balaji actors, I think we should look at the fact that Balaji is offering them a plethora of avenues to explore their talents. Why Balaji, UTV, Miditech… in fact, television has opened up so many opportunities for youngsters.
Speaking about the various production houses, weren't you the director for Taurus films' 'Kyun Hota Hai Pyarrr'. Why did you opt out of it?
There is nothing really into it. Since a lot is riding on the show, the channel needed my undivided attention on one project.
Of late, besides actors being replaced another phenomenon is rampant that of the directors being replaced. Doesn't this affect the production?
Don't think so. May be if the person appointed is incompetent, but otherwise I think it might offer the show a certain freshness. Look at Kasautii Zindagii Kay; I directed the story for the good 150 + episodes. Till that time we had already introduced the three main characters of the story Prerna, Anurag and Komolika. After the character was established all that my successor had to do was ensure its smooth run.

Speaking of 'Kasautii…', isn't Prerna an unlikely heroine?
Why Prerna? Just because she is an unwed mother. I don't think she has done anything wrong. The child is a symbol of her love; although it is not common, it does happen in recent times. Why should it not be portrayed on the screen? Personally, I think Anurag is an out and out fictional character; you do not have as white a guy as Anurag. I was in fact more worried about it. The challenge I faced was to convert a complete fairy tale character like Anurag into a believable one. I managed to successfully pull it off.


One of the major grudges in recent times is that shows resort to twists and turns too many a times for comfort. Why do you think that the show makers resort to such trickery?
I don't think it is unjustified. They have to make sure that their show is watched and not just sporadically. In recent times with the kind of stiff competition¸ you have to make sure that people tune into your show. It's a simple business strategy. We are definitely promoting the art, but at the end of the day everybody has to take a look at the business aspect. Nobody is doing a charity business and let's be very clear about that.


What about a working proposition like a 'saas-bahu' saga, spawning ten others of its ilk? Does nobody care about plagiarism any more?
Hell no! We are experimental as we should be. The main grouse is I think directed towards Star Plus. But let me tell you something, I think the channel offers too many options; it covers most of the genres of programming. I said before, we have been as experimental as our budgets permit. Do you thing it will be impossible for us to make a film like Titanic or Matrix or say the recentPhone Booth? Of course not, but I did say I would be able to do a better job.

Just because we cannot relate to the concept, it doesn't give us the right to shoot it down. Plus there could be ten shows based on the same concept but they aren't same. If you look at it what was so different about Titanic, but let's not write it off as a masala movie. Only James Cameron could have pulled it off, just because it was based on an actual concept doesn't make it easy. The movie was written off before its launch as an ill- fated movie but it rattled the box office with its unique treatment.

I know it's no excuse, but if you are comparing television in India and America, you have to realize that abroad they have seasons. It gives the makers time to strategise, come up with newer story ideas and think it through.

But why can't we write and execute shows well in advance?
I think this is mainly because of the competition. With the killing competition, there is a great risk of the concept leaking out and you might have another production house making a show based on an identical concept. If you have already canned 20 episodes, you can't do anything but air it.

Television has become far too serious, why don't we have more comedies?
We have to understand that television is business. Until and unless there is a demand for the project you cannot go ahead. But there are few programmes like Sab TV's Office Office, which is going well.

There is a need for intelligent comedies but it is a very difficult proposition.

"If they expect me to make a Devdas then them better come up with 50 crores"
What do you look in a project before signing it?
I don't really know, but my main prerogative is that it should excite me. I look out for projects which are different from what I have done before. If you look at my profile, I started off withKabhi Souten Kabhi Saheli, a story about two friends and their dilemma when they realise that they are married to the say man, then came Kohi Apna Sa, which was a story of three best freinds married to three first cousins. Later I took up Kasautii Zindagii Kay, which is a love story, followed by a campus caper Kyun Hota Hai Pyarrr.

What according to you are the essential requisites of an actor?
They should be able to remember their lines. Nothing irks me more than actor who cannot memorize his lines. I think most important for an actor is dialogue delivery.


What is it that you cannot compromise on as a director?
I am a very demanding director. Personally I think actors are a spoilt lot, so I do not believe in giving them any concessions. Plus I cannot cave into producers' demands, if they expect me to make a Devdas then they better come up with 50 crores (Rs 500 million).


What is your modus operandi as a director?
In our field, when you spend 15-20 hours per day on the sets I think it is important that we relate with the actors on a personal level. I make sure that my actors are so comfortable that they can talk to me about anything.

As far as explaining the shot goes, I ask them to visualise that scene and then go ahead with the shot.


So you essentially mean you ask them to be a method actor?
Frankly, I think either you are an actor or not. Acting is not an acquired taste, you need to have an aptitude for it. As far as method acting goes, I find it extremely irritating when actors insist on getting drunk to portray scenes where they have a drunkard's role. What will you do when you have to shoot a scene where you are shown shot, get a bullet in you arm? Get real, this isn't acting.

There was a famous instance when Dustin Hoffman, in his early days, had to portray a fatigued man, as soon as the shot was about to get ready he went for a 10 mile jog. Back huffing puffing, he gave the shot. The director patted him on his back and said 'good job, but next time, act'.


Why haven't you worked with your brother, the well known actor Hussain? Is it by choice?
No. It is destiny. I think he was offered Saara Akaash but things didn't work out. But I think it is great to have a sibling in the business, there is so much that we can learn from each other.

In this industry, family support is extremely crucial. Hadn't it been for my wife and my family's support, I wouldn't have been here.


What next after 'Saara Akaash'?
Currently I am just concentrating on Saara Akaash, but I would like to direct films. Not because of its reach, frankly becasuse I think television has a better reach but because the canvas is larger.

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