I wasn’t expecting anything outstanding when I sat down to watch the latest episode of Koffee with Karan, especially when I learned that the featured guests were Ekta Kapoor and three of her leading
toadies actors: a subservient Ronit Roy, a bloated Ram Kapoor and a void of blank silence named Hiten Tejwani.
If you don’t know who any of these people are then let me put it this way: the “Queen of Primetime Television” came to visit the filmmaker who’s “like a God” to her with Mihir from Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Jay from Kasamh Se (the inexplicable ‘h’ is deliberate) and Karan from Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. (You should probably know that Johar’s is one of the few original shows aired on the Rupert Murdoch-owned Star World and Kapoor pretty much owns the sister Hindi network, Star TV).
As a cynical being I straightaway expected the corn quotient to shoot through the roof but even I was taken aback by what I saw unfold – the coronation of Ekta Mata, the devi who singlehandedly feeds the starving masses of televisionland. Never heard of this almighty being before? Here’s her touching story:
In the very beginning, there was a Hell, which we shall call Malabar Hill (hey, that rhymes!). Here sat some snooty, “upper strata” women who expected something “creative” from their television set. They looked down on all those dumb slobs who watch TV and looked down even more on those who made stuff for those dumb slobs to watch. One day, however, into this land of woe and sorrow came a brave and ordinary woman called Ekta Kapoor.
Ekta Kapoor had nothing! Nothing! Nothing but a dream. A dream to entertain those poor, neglected masses, the ones who were crying out for some joy in their bleak lives. So she formed her own company and she swore on the giant pots her (star) father once danced upon to never let the masses down or fire a technician whose livelihood depended upon her. And then there was much rejoicing in the land and everyone cried, “Ekta Mata ki jai ho! Ekta Mata ki jai ho!”
Right – now here’s how this shit really goes down.
Ekta Kapoor is a hardworking young woman who made full use of every opportunity she was given. These included an actor father who managed to make the jump from 70s Bollywood to the vastly different 80s Bollywood, a fair amount of money and an innate tenacity that nobody fails to mention when they talk about her. This was a lady who knew what she wanted and struck out for it, no holds barred. Additionally, she was in the right place (Mumbai) at the right time (the 90s) and she chose the right field (television). Talent, connections, hard work and luck – she had all the ingredients for tinseltown success and she made them all count.
If reports are true, she runs a tight ship and doesn’t brook any nonsense. She’s a shark who’ll eat competitive guppies for a cocktail snack and won’t apologize for it either because that’s the way it rolls in her part of town. More power to her.
But this charge of elitism she levels at her critics is both ridiculous and arrogant.
First of all, it’s not just the Malabar Hill crowd that has a problem with the quality of her company’s work. Perhaps she ought to put down her copy of Filmfare and widen her reading material a trifle? I distinctly remember Outlook, for example, running a story about how much the “masses” can’t stand the K-laden crap Balaji has been churning out.
If you don’t like or can’t take criticism then go ahead and take the route that so many of her colleagues in the movie industry (including good friend and host, Johar) take – namely, that they are above criticism. It might be arrogant but at least it retains a modicum of the truth. They think they are above criticism or that criticism doesn’t matter to them because what they’re doing works for them and as long as the money’s pouring in, they feel perfectly entitled to overlook the outraged cries of the little people.
But a woman like Kapoor, who belongs exactly to that category of elites she sneers at, has no business portraying herself as some sort of victim of elitism. The fact that she believes these “upper strata” women form the crux of the criticism headed her way is simultaneously illuminating (because implication is that she takes the criticism as an attack on her social status) and nauseating (because the argument there is that she somehow knows things about “real India”).
Secondly, what is the other side of her Malabar-Hill-women-want-something-creative argument? That the women in, say, Dharavi are satisfied with less because creativity is too high falutin’ for the masses? Since when did creativity become elitist?
Newsflash, sweetheart: this is 21st century India. The 1980s with its overt disdain for masala is long over. These are the days when Brand Bollywood is all about the masses. As a member of Bollywood whether as the daughter of a star, the sister of an actor or the producer of movies and TV shows, Kapoor should know better than most that there is an argument for well written masala.
If nobody else, then the writing duo of Salim Javed have proven to us over the years that a well written story, no matter how implausible, will always work when performed well. If Kapoor could just bear to look away from all the snooty friends she wants to impress, she might notice that the implausibility of her shows is merely the tip of a larger structural defect.
Fact is, Balaji’s problems are manifold – slipshod writing, shoddy production values, terrible direction and a top heavy organization. And most importantly, and most unfortunately, influence as market leader. As much as they try to equate the use of red and glitter with quality sets, and exaggerated camera angles with innovation, the terrible quality of their work is painfully evident.
Indian television is about as old as I am or perhaps a little older and that’s pretty young (ahem!). It’s still the Wild West out there in televisionland in terms of regulations, format and industry standards. It is natural, therefore, that people just follow the “what works” model of business. You’ve seen this before: in the 1980s, this was the model assiduously followed by the movie industry… and we all know how well that turned out.
I suppose Kapoor can always say that it’s easy to be an armchair critic like myself – but what bugs me about Balaji is that they are in a unique position to mould the nature of Indian TV and they’re wasting their capital on recycled, drawn out, dumbed down (and that’s really, really dumb) Karan Johar movies adapted to television. I suppose she can’t help herself given the influence she says Johar has made on her as a filmmaker, but as a person who adores TV as a medium, it’s galling to see such potential go to waste.
It’s all very well to say, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.” It sounds really cool but that’s about the dumbest thing you can say as a business person. As Kapoor herself pointed out a little later in the program, she works tremendously hard to counter any and all competition. You simply cannot take the viewer for granted. And right now, in the battle for eyes, non fiction is winning out over serials on Indian TV.
The other day I was trying to think of an Indian serial that I enjoyed watching and I couldn’t think of a single one except for a series called Love Story on Sony’s Sab Channel. Made by Anurag Basu, it not only follows a script but is also limited to a set number of episodes. Too bad the genre’s not my cup of tea, but here’s the title track, which is a pretty good song by itself:
On the other hand, reality television – from Shahrukh Khan’s Kaun Banega Crorepati to
Himesh Reshammiya’s Smackdown Sa Re Ga Ma Pa – is pretty darn successful. Then there are talk shows like Johar’s and recently, Vir Sanghvi’s delightful half hour foodie show on the Travel and Living Channel called A Matter of Taste. Even news channels provide more entertainment than the pap regularly served as fiction on Indian TV.
But imagine a world in which the dailies weren’t staple fare. Say you have a weekly series (remember those?) that airs about 26 shows a year – this not only allows the actors to have a life of their own in the period that a show is on hiatus but also means that you can have regular schedules for reality based programming. Instead of new shows been programmed all higgledy-piggledy as and when they fit around existing shows, there’d be some sort of order.
This is, of course, the American model. I’m not saying we need to follow that. But some sort of order would be welcome. Kapoor says she met the head of 20th Century Fox when that lady came down to Bombay and the two bonded over production hassles (ironic because the Fox network, which airs most of TCF’s programming, has the most confused scheduling of all networks in the States).
Given that Kapoor says she not only impressed her counterpart by demonstrating how quickly the Indian crews worked as opposed to the American ones and that the two organizations are slated to work together, perhaps they could both learn from each other. She could teach the Americans how to make a season last longer and they could teach her how to plan a hiatus.
The big problem with the hiatus model, of course, is whether people will tune back in. And that depends on the cast and crew. So I guess you’d have to overhaul the whole shebang. Ha! If Kapoor can pull that off, more people than Johar might be compelled to say, “Ekta Mata ki jai ho”.