Television
Report on Shemaroo

How Sony brought Punyashlok Ahilyabai to life amid a pandemic

The studio is relying on graphics and VFX to bring grandeur to crowd scenes.

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MUMBAI: Since the turn of the millennium, television may have come to be defined by saas-bahu operas, but another genre that has recently struck gold is that of historical dramas. After the success of Maharana Pratap, Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat, Porus, and Peshwa Bajirao, among others, Sony Entertainment Television (SET) is all set to create magic with its new show Punyashlok Ahilyabai.

The historical drama set in the eighteenth century is based on the life of Ahilyabai Holkar, who with the support of her father-in-law Malhar Rao Holkar, defied the pre-defined norms of a patriarchal society. Produced by Dashami Creations and directed by Jackson Sethi, the serial will bring to life the courageous tales of Ahilyabai Holkar for the first time on Indian television. Child actor Aditi Jaltare plays the role of Ahilya, while Rajesh Shringarpure is seen as Ahilya's father-in-law, Malhar Rao Holkar. The supporting cast includes Snehlata Vasaikar,  Krish Chauhan,Srijana Srj, Sukhada Khandkekar, Bhagyashree, Sameer Deshpande, Aryan Preet, James Naivedhya Ghadge, Harshit Kesharwani, Varada Patil and Sulakshana Joglekar.

The show will showcase the special bond shared between Ahilya and her father-in-law. The story traces Ahilyabai Holkar's journey from a village girl belonging to a shepherd community, to a queen of the Maratha empire who later went on to earn the title of Matoshree. It’s a little known fact that Ahilyabai Holkar was one of the finest women rulers in Indian history.  

Punyashlok Ahilyabai started airing on 4 January from Monday to Friday at 7.30 pm. It will be interesting to see how it competes with other shows in the same time slot. Star Plus airs Shaadi Mubaraak concurrently, whereas Zee TV telecasts the very popular show Humari Wali Good News starring Juhi Parmar. The latest BARC India data (week 52) shows SET ranks fifth in the (U+R) market.

The show currently does not have any title or co-powered sponsors. However, the channel has lined up advertisers across categories, right from FMCGs, health and hygiene, to automobiles.

What sets Punyashlok Ahilyabai apart from other historical dramas on television, said Sony Pictures Networks India digital business and SET content head Ashish Golwalkar is its storyline that focuses on the protagonist’s individual journey rather than her married life. It is a story of bravery, and valour of a warrior woman, and it focuses more on the historical issue that we’ve not seen on television before. Unlike Jodha Akbar or other period dramas, there is no love story or war in the spotlight. Social issues that find mention in the show are still prevalent in our time – whether it is the education of a girl child or religious dogmas. Said he: “It is a journey of a woman who became the queen of Malwa and she was very ahead of her time. During that time, she thought about equality, she was a fundamentalist and a true reformist. She kept her kingdom before herself. It’s essentially a historical drama, but within the limits of drama, it is as authentic and real as we could make it.”

Golwalkar, who belongs to Indore, wanted to make this show for a very long time. He was keen on telling stories that are relevant in today’s time and believes in being authentic in approach. He avoided glamourising the characters as it will not be relatable to the audience.

“The shows that we have done, whether it was Mere Dad Ki Dulhan, Patiala Babes, or Indiawaali Maa speaks at length about partnership. So Punyashlok Ahilyabai is a very unique story of a partnership where a father-in-law mentored and helped his daughter-in-law, he chose ability over societal norms. The norm is the son will become the king but he chooses his daughter-in-law as an heir," he elaborated.

Apparently, over 1,000 girls auditioned over eight months for the part of Ahilyabai. Later, child actor Aditi Jaltare was roped in to essay the lead character. The auditions were highly rigorous as shortlisting was performed about five or six times and then backed up by mock photoshoots by the production team. The creators had a very particular vision of how the persona of Ahilyabai would be represented on screen. The artist portraying her should at all times show a childlike innocence and playful energy when delivering intense dialogues.

The show is written by multiple writers, while Purnendu Shekhar – who also wrote Balika Vadhu and several other shows – was the script consultant. Shirish Latkar is working on the script and veteran writer Usha Dixit joined the team to pen the dialogues. There are many books which offer a glimpse into the life and times of  Matoshree Ahilyabai Holkar, but the makers sought the help of renowned researcher Sanjay Sonawane, who pitched in the scripts, dialogues, factual details, and tried to highlight intricate details about Ahilyabai.

The showrunners are going all out to ensure authenticity. Dashmi Creations partner Ninad Vaidya mentioned that the entire set replicating the Malhar Palace was created in a studio near Naigaon. Construction started in March but due to lockdown it was put on hold, and they could finally finish it in the month of August when shooting resumed. He shared, “We visited Maheshwar a couple of years back, so we have designed it keeping that in mind. It is also very similar to Shirdi. We have also re-created Chondi village, which will later be redesigned into some other village in Malwa. On the studio wall, we have mounted the exterior of the palace and inside the studio, there is a working place.”

The production house is relying on graphics, chroma and VFX to add the pomp and grandeur to crowd scenes, while also keeping budgets under control. They have created a background that could reflect that era. The graphics are done by Chirag Rajveer, who created the design even before the shooting took place to have clarity on the background. It is more like a virtual production where the background is created beforehand and then the location is decided. Most of the outdoor sequences in the background are constructed in graphics. As the worker capacity cannot go beyond 65 people, Vaidya is filming with a minimal crew.

Preparations for the show combined research with an imaginative retelling of the eighteenth century. “We got to know about how they live, what they look like, their language and other details like costumes which is very important for historical dramas,” the producer explained. The costume and the art team travelled all the way to Maheshwar, met local people, did multiple recces to understand the nuances, look, and feel. Costume designing is done by Rohini, who has in the past done six shows for the production house. Her expertise lies in making costumes for historic shows. She designs the costume layout on paper followed by getting the exact fabric before making the costume. Vaidya highlighted that it is challenging to maintain colour code and design costumes for so many people.

Music in historical shows transports audiences back to that era, so it is a very vital part of the show. For this period piece, the score has been composed by Devendra, who is also the music director for another show on the channel – Mere Sai. Besides narrating Ahilyabai and her father-in-law’s unique partnership, the historical drama not only subverts the norms but also redefines them.  

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