In second coming, Ajay Bhalwankar attempts renaissance of Marathi TV

Sony Marathi was launched on 19 August 2018

You either get it right, or you don’t. And if you’re Ajay Bhalwankar, you tend to get it right more often than not. Or at least that’s what his past record suggests. “Let’s not talk about my past,” he quips. But his past is not just important but also relevant in the context of his current job – business head Sony Marathi. Bhalwankar’s past was perhaps a determining factor in his boss and Sony Pictures Networks (SPN) India topper NP Singh handing him the daunting task of spearheading Sony Marathi as the latest entrant in the regional general entertainment television sweepstakes.

In a sense, it is impossible to delink Bhalwankar’s past from his present for two reasons. He built the Zeel juggernaut in this sphere; a consistent domination of the likes is virtually unmatched across regions. Bhalwankar and his band of merry programmers helped craft a brand that commands over 60 per cent of the viewership today. Much of what he accomplished with Zee Marathi has shaped popular culture for the genre and set a benchmark.

Yet, it is this standard Bhalwankar no longer strives to match or raise. In his second coming, the bearded executive intends to break stereotypes through clever and disruptive programming. His 10-year self-imposed exile from Marathi television was a catalyst in Bhalwankar propagating the idea of launching a GEC to his bosses. “Marathi television was at the same place I had left it at,” he says. The opportunity and potential to push the envelope in the Rs 1000 crore market in terms of the content play excited SPN, ultimately leading to the birth of its newest entity.

Marathi television is solely driven and dependent on content. Hence, taking a bet on a new channel involved identifying consumption patterns and preferences purely from a storytelling perspective. Bhalwankar seems convinced that there exists a definite mismatch between the content on offer and consumer expectations. He believes there is a gap between what society is and what television is currently portraying society as. Addressing that gap is Sony Marathi's raison d'etre.

The resurgence of Marathi cinema as a force to be reckoned with appears to have played its part too. Bhalwankar, who leads a team of around 26 people at Sony Marathi, is now bidding to deliver unique yet mass content (that works commercially too) for the audience.

The former journalist, however, has his task cut out as he attempts to shake up the business with sensibilities that he believes are in sync with the present. Fresh on the back of the channel launch on 19 August, we caught up with Bhalwankar at SPN's Malad headquarters to decode his process and philosophy as he mounts an audacious challenge to the existing Marathi GEC order.

What was the rationale behind launching the channel and why were you picked for the job? Can you give us a sense of what the conversation behind closed doors was like?

We at SPN were looking at launching a Marathi channel for some time and I part of my responsibilities (SET chief creative director) I was looking at what we should be doing as a network. And this came naturally to me. This space has great potential with maximum number of television households in the entire country. 23.7 million households have a television in the state. So, cable and satellite have grown vastly in the state. Secondly, the number of channels are very few. There are just three GECs here. So there is a huge amount of scope - three-player market, which is dominated by one player. So it's almost like a single player market. Thirdly, we have always stood for progressive, sophisticated and contemporary content. That’s something that wasn’t happening on Marathi television. So it was the right time for us to make this move.

Why was I picked for it? My boss should be answering this. I have been involved with the Marathi genre right since its inception. Also, this was an idea propagated by me as part of my network portfolio responsibility.

How has the landscape changed since your last tryst with Marathi television?

I was away from Marathi television for 10 years. Despite that, it feels like I'm starting from the same point again. While films have witnessed a renaissance, television somewhere has been time warped. The faces have changed, artists have changed, but the content hasn't. And that’s where I saw an opportunity. Hence there is a certain degree of freshness to the content on Sony Marathi.  We are creating content that is contemporary.

Content on Marathi television isn't escapist. It's rooted and relatable. Is it possible to redefine the nature of storytelling in such a scenario?

Our competitors are doing a good job. However, the content is stereotypical. Look at the themes that are being treated in Marathi cinema, that hasn’t happened on television. Breaking stereotypes is our objective. That's what we stand for. Our shows will deal with newer themes. Our female protagonists will be strong. We will go beyond the spectrum of Marathi content that is being dished out to audiences currently. We are exploring spaces that haven’t been explored so far.

Why should we watch Sony Marathi? What makes you different?

Weaving unbreakable bonds is what we stand for. Breaking stereotypes will be our differentiation. And I'm happy consumers have welcomed our content thought. We are focussed on creating a clear-cut brand proposition instead of indulging in a TRP slugfest. A brand proposition that reflects positivity, togetherness and inspiration. We want to highlight today’s time instead of an age-old world. We are about today and tomorrow.

What can you tell us from the early feedback? Is any particular show working?

Early feedback is more on the channel than a particular show. They are talking about the colours, freshness, themes – this is what is being picked up by our consumers. As a channel proposition, people are excited about it. That’s the large picture.

Ultimately, running a channel is about business goals and milestones. You know the challenges on offer. What would you say is a realistic target?

If we manage to create a distinct identity and brand for ourselves in one year, I think that would define success for us. The brand imagery will matter more than anything else to us. Numbers and money follow with a clear-cut audience set. 

When you started out on your Marathi television journey, you didn't have reference points. Today you seem to influenced by the content on Marathi cinema. Are you limiting yourself in any way?

The creative aspects of television and films are absolutely different. If you see any of my shows, they have no influence of films. But it is a good reference point for us to understand how audiences are receiving that content and the kind of hunger they are showing. Film content on TV has never worked, even internationally. What is comforting for us is that this new-age content has been commercially successful for the film industry. Films and TV are two different worlds and I have realised that in my long career. I have dabbled in film production as well, successfully. Both worlds are different.

You've found yourself in this place before. What's at stake for you?

This is the first step that we are taking in the Marathi GEC world. Creating a remarkable brand and an impact on minds of people is what's at stake for me. That is the critical part. Culturally enriching the audience is something that has always been my endeavour. If that happens, I'll be very glad.

As someone who has a deep understanding of content creation in this domain, what is your vision for this genre?

I have largely been independent in terms of thought process. If people start following our ideas and I start seeing copies of our shows, I will be happy.

You have nine fiction and two non-fiction shows on air. Why didn't you introduce them in phases?

Nine to two isn't the real ratio. It is 20 hours to four hours. That's a very healthy ratio. People come together bit by bit. I don’t expect them to watch Sony Marathi from the first day. I have to invite them on each and every second of the day. Beyond this, there will also be films and events. I want to bring in people in every way possible. We don't want to take the audience for granted. Audiences will come by their own choice. I’m just widening their options.

How are you acquiring movie content? How big is your movie library?

Nearly 100-125 Marathi films get made every year. Not many people are buying them. There was enough inventory available in the industry. We have around 100 films in our library. Currently, we have a film every day on the channel and on Sunday we'll have the bigger ones of course. Library content will go up in the afternoons, late afternoons.

What do films and events bring to the table?

Films and events bring in people other than those who regularly consume GEC content. These are the additional people that come and if they find your shows interesting, they end up converting into your loyal audience.

What about dubbed content?

We won’t have a lot of dubbed content except the few experiments we have been doing with Hollywood films. It is predominantly going to be original content.

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