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The rise and rise of SOL Productions

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MUMBAI: SOL: Roman god personifying our solar system’s life giving star – the sun. 

That name is more than apt for the two ladies – Fazila Allana and Kamna Menezes – who have been running top TV production house, SOL Productions, for the past 15 years. Word on the street is that they are like the goddesses of the unscripted TV genre. So much so that whenever a TV channel commissioning editor even considers a factual or unscripted show, one of the first production house’s doors they come a-knocking at is SOL’s.

With an overall turnover of more than Rs 35 crore, the big shows that have emerged from its banner are: Rakhi ka Swayamvar, Koffee with Karan, Comedy Nights with Kapil and Nach Baliye. This apart, it has been behind several years of the Star Parivaar Awards, Zee Rishtey Awards and Colors Golden Petal Awards. Amongst the first shows it line produced was Indiantelevision.com’s The Indian Telly Awards in 2002-2003.

The duo has worked with almost every channel: Discovery, Sony, Star Plus and along the way it has attracted investment from UK firm Zodiak (now acquired by global format leader Banijay). Media execs are in praise of the dynamic duo. Says Applause Entertainment CEO Sameer Nair (who has been involved in the media industry for years), “I have worked with Kamna and Fazila since the early 2000s and done many, many shows with them, both at Star and at Imagine. They’ve always been one of my favourite producers; super professional and super fun to work with. They’re now doing an exciting drama series for us at Applause.”

He goes on to add laurels to their work, “They have worked with me on a diverse variety of shows - Nach Baliye, Koffee with Karan, Star Parivaar Awards, Dhoom Machale, Nach Le Ve, Rakhi ka Swayamvar, Rahul Dulaniya le Jaayega, Ratan Ka Rishta, Meethi Chhoori No 1, and many more - and over the years, they have grown in creative capabilities and execution excellence. I guess that’s why we always picked SOL for our toughest projects.”

Acknowledging the plaudits, Allana, however, says there’s a new passion driving the team at SOL - foraying into fiction and regional programming. “There are new platforms and new technologies, and it’s a constant case for everyone and not just for SOL,” she says. “So I believe if you can stay with the time, then you can go ahead of the time in near future. The regional market is growing rapidly and we would also like to have another big non-fiction hit on the mainstream GEC space in the next two years.”

SOL has produced one show for ALTBalaji Bewafa Si Wafa and is currently working on its second season. ALTBalaji CMO Manav Sethi says, “It has been a great experience working for us. They are very professional. Balaji has liked their working manner and that’s the reason we handed them another project named Kapoors which we will launch soon.”

And its journey to drive into the fiction genre: co-produce with creative writers and smaller producers who find it challenging to handle the rigours of the daily soap and fiction show grind. Its first venture into this space using this kind of entry point was the Colors TV show Thapki Pyaar Ki, which it had co-produced. However, this is not its first fiction show. In the previous decade, SOL produced 130 episodes of the popular Disney youth show Kya Mast Hain Life, for which it won an Indian Telly Award. 

Core Team in SOL Production

40 people including Fazila and Kamna

Creative Leads are: Sanvari Alagh, Jahnvi Obhan, Meghana Badola and Ritu Shukla

Number of hit shows for TV

Rakhi Ka Syawamvar, Koffee With Karan, Star Parivaar Awards, Zara Nachke Dikha and Comedy Nights With Kapil

Big Budget show produced so far

Koffee With Karan (Season 6 releasing in the month of October)

Shows for Digital

Bewafa Si Wafa (Season 1) on ALT Balaji

Company’ overall turnover

More than Rs 35 crore

Shows in Pipeline

Bewafa Si Wafa and Kapoors for ALT Balaji, Koffee With Karan Season 6, Working on an Israel format with Applause Entertainment.

But all is not well in today’s time. Allana feels that the margins in the industry are under tremendous pressure right now. The producers are getting squeezed between channels bringing down budgets and the unions pressurising for better payments of workers as well as other inflationary pressures.

Despite proving to be successful, production houses have to battle their own stereotypes. “Television channel programming heads tend to bracket producers as fiction or non-fiction,” says a TV expert. “They further micro classify you as a thriller expert or soap expert. This is because they are so hungry for every show to be a TRP topper. They rely on those who have experience in the genre. Even if SOL understands the fiction genre the programming folks prefer to be risk-averse.”

If not broadcasters, it is the OTT players that are willing to take that risk. Case in point being ALTBalaji. Its second SOL show Kapoors –which will have 20 episodes – is under production and will be launched by end June. Plus there is a show from Israel’s Armoza Formats, which the Sameer Nair-headed Applause Entertainment has the green light for the duo called Honey Badgers. “So we are focusing on the fiction genre but more for the digital platforms,” says Allana.

Though there isn’t much difference in producing for the TV versus digital, there are some advantages for the latter. Digital shows can have pre-written scripts like a film while a daily soap is a grind kind.

SOL has earlier produced a show for kids but Allana maintains that there are no such plans to produce kids’ shows in the near future. Since kids’ channels like Nickelodeon and Sony YAY are focusing more on animation, the scope isn’t very high for live action now.

SOL is a team of 40 people. Other than the duo, it has three creative directors in the company right now. It also has supervising producers, associates producers and a developing team. Since it doesn’t have any in-house writers, freelancers are hired. Since most people have been with SOL for the last 14 years, it is called as SOL Parivaar. Externally, it works with Prime Focus for cameras. Allana handles the client servicing and the creative of the shows whereas Menezes looks after the operations and the production design.

Both of them know each other even before launching SOL from their times at UTV where Allana was the Menezes’ boss. But since they have become partners now, Allana believes that to run a company in a productive manner, both of the partners’ thought process must sync. “There aren’t too many partnerships that can last very long. So two people have to be very accommodating. In a lot of ways, it’s like a marriage. Both of the partners' basic value system, way of functioning, the way to approaching certain issues and the plans they have for the company have to sync with each other. I think it’s good that we have stayed in sync so far and we hope to continue to stay in sync.”

The struggles were many when they went forth with their idea to launch a production house, and the TV industry is definitely more challenging than others since there is a report card that comes out each week in the form of ratings. “In this industry, you are almost as good as your last couple of hits, so you constantly need to be ahead of time and be with quality production and give good content,” she says.

In 2007, SOL became part of Zodiak Media. Zodiak is one of UK’s largest independent production and distribution companies which got merged with the Banijay Group in February 2016. Talking about this collaboration Allana says, “The partnership gave us a lot of international exposure – we get access to international shows that are doing well and we get information about them. As a group, we have a part of leveraging for format purchasing. It has given us an exposure to what is going on internationally. It has also helped us a lot from the financial aspect as well. We decided to go with the international company more from the point of creativity and formatting. Finance is something one can always raise anywhere he goes. Though we have not yet produced a US-centric format but we hope that some more will come up soon.”

The partnership with Banijay has bought in a good system of monthly reporting, which she believes is very useful for a production house to keep a track of things. “There are more than 30 production companies spread over 15 countries and we do get some leverage in the acquisition of formats that appeal to more than one company.”

Former Endemol India boss Deepak Dhar is also with Banijay but Allana hasn’t got a chance to work directly with him yet. “He has recently tied up with Banijay Group and SOL has been a part since 2016. So there are two production companies in India, which are a part of Banijay Group. So we are two parallel entities. He will continue to do his own stuff and we will continue to do our own stuff. It’s just that we report to the same parent group,” she says.

Amongst all the shows that SOL has produced so far, Koffee with Karan is the one that makes her chest swell with pride. It was SOL’s first big production and Allana had a very good experience working with Karan Johar. SOL produced the first season in 2004 and now in the month of October, it will come up with its sixth season, this time rejuvenating the chat show a bit, to keep it fresh and relevant.

Production houses are definitely at loggerheads but she is willing to collaborate and co-produce which will be the way forward. “It’s a great collaboration when two creative companies come together and make a good product. We have co-produced shows like Comedy Nights With Kapil and Thapki Pyaar Ki and both were great hits and recently we are co-producing a show called Juzzbaat with Sandeep Sikand.”

The two leading ladies of one of India’s prominent production houses have a long way to go and are charting the way forward in the ever-evolving TV landscape. 

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