Saturday, June 24, 2006

The small life

This appeared in the Tehelka issue dated 24 June 2006.

There’s no need to turn that on, Ishrat said, looking at the voice recorder on my palm. She chewed gum and rarely made eye contact and, when she spoke, flicked the gum to one side in a polished maneuver so it remained hidden. But with the recorder, she made eye contact and forgot to flick. “Is it really necessary?” she asked uneasily, her voice nearly lost in the mall’s din. When I told her that it was, she stiffened and gave the device a frown that looked like a smile. “You should use your memory instead of this thing. Why me? I don’t know why you find me interesting.”

Ishrat was starting out in the television industry with a bit role in a daily serial. As a child, she was the movie star while her friends played doctors and nurses. Three months ago she arrived in Mumbai from Bareilly hoping to act. Her father, an army man, was dead. At some point, after performing theatre endlessly in Delhi, she told her mother what the mother had always expected. It was her first visit to the city. “I was scared, but then my friends who had come here helped me with phone numbers and a place to live.” She visited producers’ offices for a few months, and while no clear offer was forthcoming, she claims to have known that things would work out. I asked her how she knew this. “I just knew.” Until the offer was finally made, she said, you can’t imagine what it was like. When I asked her what it was like, she waved her arms but could not find the words. She denied immediately, emphatically, that producers had made physical overtures. “My friends had advised me not to meet producers at their homes or in cars, only in public places and their offices. In any case, when I sensed something was wrong, I ran the other way.”

Many others don’t. They turn around to run and find others clamoring for the opportunity they considered giving up. So they take a deep breath and stay. The small screen’s the big picture, and everything that comes with it is manageable, probably more manageable than where they came from. It may have started with a glorious dream, but then most things in television start that way. In the end it all comes down to a rational decision.

I met Kamlesh Pandey at his home. Barely had we begun talking when his phone rang. Hindi books lined his shelf, a series of them broken by Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace of Desire. Trophies from advertising and film lined one wall, interspersed with pictures alongside Rajiv Gandhi when his hair was a good deal less wispy. A little later he ended the conversation, slouched on his sofa and, running one hand through his hair, declared, “The problem is the good actors are busy while the others are bad.” He said there were too many people who came from small towns knowing nothing about how the camera worked, how television operated. Too much mediocrity. Pandey is now known as the writer of Rang De Basanti, but once left advertising to become creative head at Zee Television in the early 90s, against the advice of friends like Shekhar Kapur and Alyque Padamsee. “There are too many people. My advice to them is, if they can do anything besides acting, they should take it up.”

Pandey had probably seen Lokhandwala. It is a suburb of shops and no trees, of dug up roads and no pavements, of limitless cars and no signals. There is little inspiration in the architecture here, old buildings are built from the same template of repetition and boxy thinking, and new structures are made of glass and boxy thinking. You could say it’s the suburb most suited to television’s ways. It is unavoidable for anyone connected to TV serials. Television stars work and live and eat and talk over coffee. So aspirers swarm to the area. They can be found in the main marketplace. They are the worked-out kind, the ones with a practiced walk and look, wearing their finest clothes while purchasing pudina and baingan. Everyday they flirt with discovery in this mass screen test. They leave their portfolio shots with serial producers and wait by the phone. Going by Pandey’s belief, they’re sure to find employment. Going by Ishrat, it’s not easy. But going by Ashish Nayyar, a dream fulfilled doesn’t make for an entirely fulfilling dream.

Nayyar was lying down on a narrow bed in a room the size of a large wardrobe, waiting for his scenes in the serial Tumhari Disha, when I met him at Future Studios. He played the lead, DK, a man with a fine peppery French beard and a wicked limp. A cluster of papers lay on the bed, a small frosted glass window above permitted minimal daylight, and naked bulbs bordered a mirror on one wall. The fluorescent tube’s white light muted the room, imparting a studious feel to it.

“Sometimes you get really frustrated and think, ‘What is this? What am I doing here?’ because you come into a makeup room which is, as you can see, 4 x 4,” Nayyar said. “It’s like a cell. I sit here the whole day and wait for the shots to happen. I don’t know for how many days I haven’t seen sunshine. And I don’t know what it feels like to be outside at noon.” He keeps aside two hours every night for himself. “My escape hours are from ten to twelve. I’ve adjusted my life to that”.

Not everybody in television has a life outside it. For instance, staff at Balaji Telefilms, Ekta Kapoor’s production house, often coincide their working hours with Kapoor’s, and she starts late in the evening. So people try to keep up but fail and leave, and join elsewhere and realize it’s all the same. Episodes need to be completed in one or two shifts wherever they go. Directors receive the day’s script minutes before the shoot commences. Actors receive their lines minutes before they are on camera. During the talk with Nayyar, the door opened three times in half an hour. The first time, the line prompter popped in to ask if he had prepared his lines. Ten minutes before Nayyar was due on the sets, the prompter returned with a new dialogue sheet. “See?” Nayyar said. “This is how things work.” Minutes later, as the actor settled down to learn his lines, the prompter came back to announce that they were going with the original lines.

Like this, like the story of many other actors, directors, writers, and technical men, Nayyar worked 14 hours a day for 25 days every month. Work blurred the line between Sundays and Mondays, and more dangerously, it made the distinction between DK and Nayyar less clear. “When you involve your mind on something and focus your conscious on it, you gradually begin to live that life subconsciously too,” Nayyar said. “This definitely takes a toll on your family and personal life, because you are not the person they know. You are a different person. I argue with my wife and friends. They ask me why I’m behaving a certain way. They say, ‘You’re not DK, you’re not shooting anymore’. I tell them I can’t help it. Two hours is not enough time for me to get out of the character that I’ve been living for two and a half years.

“So it is taxing, but it is fulfilling because I enjoy myself. But there are people who are not enjoying what they do. They are killing themselves inside. I see these newcomers do roles that they really don’t want to do. I’m sure they must be in bad shape mentally.”

Some get lucky. In Lokhandwala, I met a young actor, Sushmita Daan, who found success early in the serial Saans, in which she played Neena Gupta’s daughter, a teenager who had passed her tenth grade. Her own life was similar, and she clearly enjoyed being a known face. “Just imagine. Everybody in your college knows you. You’re a celebrity!”

While it is celebrity and the accompanying finances that attract people to television now, a decade ago it was likely to be only celebrity. Estimates vary, but top actors are said to earn over 10 lakhs a month. Other serial actors are routinely paid over 40,000 for a day’s work whereas once the going rate was 5-7,000 for an episode. The downside then was that if your role in that particular episode was editable, it was very likely to be cut. But the number of channels has grown, there are more jobs now, and even dialogue writers are paid around 5,000 an episode. It is a viable career option, preferable for many to films where careers are built and demolished on a single Friday. And the recognition is heady. Television stars are more easily identifiable and, given their daily appearance in our homes, have an audience less demanding about acting ability. Some actors I spoke to admitted that they switched off on some days without worry because they could raise their level the next. Directors often recognize this but are themselves caught up in the relentless cycle of producing an episode a day, and therefore sacrifice quality for speed.

Television serials rely less on art or craft than on productivity. Shifts, in general, go on for longer than half a day, and the emphasis is on churning out episodes keeping in mind the current trends of viewers. At TAM, the market research company set up to monitor television ratings, an employee explained that with their ability to monitor ratings every minute could bring up interesting insights. For example, was a particular monologue not interesting enough? This instant observation could be conveyed to the production house and they, in turn, make changes to the script immediately. With everything in such flux, the director – not the most important man in television these days – often sees the day’s script for the first time only minutes before filming begins.

When I visited the sets of Miilee at Kamal studios, the unit director was slumped in his chair, devoid of any energy. The simplest movement placed great strain on him, and when things went wrong he would close his eyes and yell out resignedly. Phones went off in the middle of scenes, extras giggled during serious shots, lines went missing from the script, rain threatened to ruin expensive equipment, and aluminum reflectors with serious razor edges were blown across the sets by the monsoon wind. But whatever happened, he remained rooted to his chair, as if the job’s weight had pinned him physically, crushing his spirit. I had not met a heavier man before. Watching the scenes that unfolded, it was easy to empathize with him. His assistant shouted lines at extras meant to be reporters. “Bolo, ‘woh dekho, Miilee”. The four extras looked this way and that at each other and repeated the line. “Bolo, ‘itni aasaani se apne aap ko police ke hawaale kar diya?’”. They did as instructed, attempting it earnestly but failing miserably. It seemed a joke on reality. Both lines were approved in one go. It is a particular, and often peculiar, kind of person who truly believes in the television he creates these days. This thing is not in his hands. It is not at all grounded.

Ajai Sinha was caught between two ways of thinking when I met him at his Lokhandwala home. He was guarded at first but after sipping a cup of steamy tea he warmed to the conversation. Sinha was the director and producer of Astitva, a serial that gathered a small but intelligent fan following in its three years on air. It came to be regarded as one of the best ever on Indian television, and one of the show’s writers believed that the circumstances and conditions that came together to make Astitva would be difficult to replicate. Sinha himself was pretty certain that “seeing today’s scenario and the audience we have, I don’t think anything like Astitva will ever be made. It’s a negative thought, but, you know, it never rated more than 2.5 ratings points, and in general from 1 to 2.” Pause. “I feel that television is beginning to focus on ordinary things, nothing above the intelligence of the ordinary man.” Astitva did not appeal to many, it was not strictly family-oriented – as was and is the norm – and the issues it dealt with were not everyday serial scenarios which are derived from mythology. It was, in every sense, a rare show. So when it concluded in early 2006, Sinha came to a crossroads. For a while, without my prompting, he spoke about the lopsided relation between intelligence and rewards in television. A lot came from fact, but then a lot also came from somewhere deeply personal.

“It has become difficult to do that kind of work,” Sinha said. “Who will do it? Neither is there anyone left to produce it, nor does anyone have the courage to broadcast it.” The dilemma was this: on the one hand, creating popular programming meant sacrificing a loyal audience eager for thoughtful television. On the other, it meant making money for the people “who had supported me during Astitva”. He alluded to Zee TV. “It has become difficult. When the audience of Astitva sees my next serial, they will be dejected. They will wonder where the Ajaiji they knew has gone.”

A large number of people I spoke to were critical of TAM’s ratings system. Vinta Nanda, who wrote Tara, a unique serial in the mid-90s, called it “a complete sham”, citing the sample size as too small. How could 4,000-odd families with people meters charting every channel change on their television sets possibly represent the entire country’s viewing habits? “Everybody I met told me they liked Astitva,” Sinha said. “So there’s either something wrong with the program, or with the ratings.” But he also believed that a deeper malaise lay behind the ratings. “There isn’t a problem with the watcher. It is a social and political problem. I might be going a little off-track, but look at the country’s leaders. I don’t mean politicians, but all the people who are responsible for the nation’s growth – they’ve not found it important to help people think for themselves. It’s like, if people stay stupid, they will always listen to you.”

This view was, in part, agreed to by Nanda who left Zee Television ingloriously and returned as creative head in 2001 before leaving it soon after. We met at her Versova office, a small but considerably cluttered space with cracked walls and peeling paint, a place she called “Beirut”. She settled on a couch that had shape-shifted to accommodate her over time, and produced a talk – that outlasted her cigarette – on the damaging effects of modern popular soaps. “If somebody asked me right now whether I wanted to do television, I would say no.” At the time she moved from theatre, “television was Hum Log, television was Buniyaad, it was Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi.” Quality had dive-bombed since. “Cinema picked up when television filled audiences with superstition, double-standards, and regressive behavior.” Nanda says that channels grew too big too soon, and this in turn brought in a wave of the less talented who took the place of genuine talent, and so mediocrity became the norm. Then there was the money, which took center stage on television. “No harm done because it drives the economy, but what happens on screen, one has to realize, has a huge impact on the population which is struggling to survive and change. That impact has been terrifying in the last five or six years because instead of progressing, it has brought about a regressive impact on every upwardly mobile individual.” I asked her how should could tell. “I do see proof of it around me,” she said slowly, explaining that while women strove for economical independence, television, from where they received most of their messages, presented a regressive view. “Hypocrisies and double-standards are underlined as your strengths. Then you’re in big trouble.”

The saas-bahu serials Nanda is referring to are currently the most popular shows on air, rating anywhere between 10 and 15 ratings points. What keeps them going is a combination of enticing hooks, intriguing turns in plot, and sometimes, the scarcely believable. For instance, at a press conference by Balaji, the production house behind Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, we were informed that the show would take a 20-year leap, that Smriti Irani’s 55-year-old character Tulsi would die, that a talent search would be conducted for Tulsi’s replacement Krishnatulsi, and that Irani herself would return as a 70-year-old character named Baa. Irani, in reality, is under 30.

The developments keep watchers occupied, but in Irani’s case, the risk taken by killing her off and then reincarnating her is driven by the audience’s attachment with her. In 2005, when it was rumored that Tulsi would be eliminated, a newspaper hit the streets to gauge general reactions, and this is what they heard:

“The serial should be stopped if Tulsi is taken away from the show”; “She’s like an idol for us. How can she simply die like that?”; “It will be a great shock for the entire country if Tulsi dies on the show”; “She epitomises the perfect daughter, wife, mother, mother-in-law and grandparent. Indian television cannot live without her”; “The serial will lose its essence. Tulsi should not die.”

Even then, audiences are attuned to suspending logic. Actors are changed routinely when things come up: a new role, a new career, a falling out with the producer. “It happens in film all the time,” a television analyst said. “Ram Gopal Varma has a fight with Urmila and never again uses her in his films. But you don’t notice it because films have a narrative three hours long. In television, they go on for so long that things are bound to happen.”

But often, the familiarity that television watchers have with characters is often so intense, the distinction between the actors and their life blurs. Gajra Kothari, a writer for the serial Astitva, recalled how Niki Aneja, who played Dr. Simran on the show, was often approached by strangers who glowingly told her they approved of her medical decisions.

I met Alok Nath, who suffered from an extreme case of this recognition. Nath was recognized for his portrayal of Haveliram, an old man, in the serial Buniyaad. So he was disturbed when producers and directors came to him with similar roles. Had he said no, he explained, it would mean discomfort, for he had married after Buniyaad, and money was certainly important. describes his roles since then: Pooja’s dad (2005), Tarun’s dad (2005), Father (2005), Ramchand’s dad (2003), Esha’s granddad (2003), Rohit’s dad (2002), Bauji (2001), Rohan’s grandfather (1999), Priya’s dad (1995), Raja’s dad (1993) – Raja, in real life, was only 13 years younger than Nath at the time.

Taken in by Nath’s frail characters on television, I was surprised by his physical presence when I paid him a visit. He filled half a large sofa comfortably, and remained seated through the conversation, moving only his fingers from his knee to his mouth for a quick drag, and then for a drink. His other hand he used imaginatively to gesture and explain. “I’m always doing a goody-goody kind of role, a good friend, a good teacher, a police officer or a good father, a good grandfather now, the babuji, the pitaji. It’s been happening for the last 30 years. Nobody wants to take a risk because there’s huge money involved. Nobody wants to disturb the applecart. They just want things to remain the way they are. Let’s say, just for the heck of it, that they want me to play the role of an evil doctor. Their boss would say no straightaway, and say that Alok Nath might be a good doctor, but this audience of ours is not receptive to it.

“One major thing that I’ve noticed is that when you’re working on television and are in the audience’s midst, they watch you lying down, they watch you eating. They feel they can reach out and touch you. That you’re a part of their being. If you’re a bad guy and you get a good guy’s role, people appreciate it. But if a good man does a bad man’s role, they’ll say ‘yaar, achcha khaasa role tha, why is he doing a villain’s role?’ So you have to literally play to the gallery.”

Nath says there was no other way. With a young family and increasing pressure from competitors, turning down offers would have meant facing difficulties in an expensive city and returning to the precarious financial state he had known before three days of work in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi brought him Rs 20,000. He seemed aware that the decision was his alone to make, and the repercussions were his alone to bear. Between idealism and reality he chose to live comfortably, if not comfortably with himself.

“You become like this. You can’t settle for lesser, and in not doing so, you have to accept the kind of work you are getting. Ten years earlier you could have said no to a certain kind of work because your demands were lesser. But you reconcile to the fact that you need the money to survive. And if you’re not working, there are fifty people who will jump at that role, and at a lower price. So there is a huge amount of disillusionment, you sometimes do work that doesn’t give you pleasure, which doesn’t satiate your creativity. But you work compulsively because you know that there will be a paycheck for you at the end of the day, and this makes survival easier.”

What went unsaid in this and other conversations was Ekta Kapoor’s influence on an actor’s survival. Her Balaji Telefilms was an employment machine. Actors routinely found themselves in and out of favour, and in and out of a job. Being out of the Ekta camp, as the newspapers put it, you find yourself in a hostile wilderness.

At the end of my first round of meetings with scriptwriters, actors, and directors, it was clear that several of them had chosen a living in television because it was lucrative. It had attracted people from everywhere, including those who had nothing to do with it, Nanda had said in ‘Beirut’. “The requirements for being a writer these days,” said Kothari, the writer of Astitva, were not an ability to write well or understand the language, but “how many hindi movies you have seen. Because that’s where they lift from.”

“Anybody can be a writer in this industry,” a young but depressingly cynical Hindi writer said during a conversation, “and usually they do. Even you could become one.” While it demanded people’s time and took away their life outside television, it left them wealthy; a fair trade for most people I had met. “Very early in life I knew I’d have to choose between theatre and money,” the writer said, “and I knew the life I wanted.” He then proceeded to recite dialogues loudly from his historical serial over coffee in a crowded cafe, demonstrating that while he had abandoned drama, his instinct for drama had not left him.

This cynicism was present in varying degrees from the young to the more experienced. It seemed an acquired thing, the result of fresh ideas and dreams checked by a sour dose of reality. Half expecting her answer, I anyway asked Kothari whether she had any advice for newcomers with dreams of effecting social change on television. She laughed and recommended an urgent reality check.

This is not to say that the state of television always brought on the blues. Kamlesh Pandey, who wrote Rang De Basanti, said, “Satellite television was like the new girl in the neighborhood, and I wanted to know what she was all about.” Later he described the helplessness of a television writer’s job with a brutal metaphor about TRPs: “It’s like making love to a gorilla; you don’t stop when you want to, you stop when it wants to.”

In the years since his departure from Zee it became clear that everyone in television was dating the same gorilla. Pandey left because he couldn’t relate to the new ideals of television. Not left, he corrected me, but did a few things. But his time at Zee, and Zee at the time, he says, was brilliant. “Being young had its advantages. We didn’t know what we couldn’t do, we had no idea. The whole world was wide open. We could take risks. I had a small team, a young team, full of girls, and we had the advantage of no satellite competition, so it was not very difficult. We were not bogged down by the idea of TRPs. And the only competition was Doordarshan, who were in any case in a disastrous situation because of corruption and other things.” Several memorable programs were commissioned: “Campus, Banegi Apni Baat, Tara, Philips Top Ten, Daak Ghar, The Zee Horror Show.” It was the only Indian satellite channel on air, and people loved them, Pandey said. They received over 300,000 letters a week and kept a record of letter-writers for future reference until the idea collapsed under an avalanche of mail.

Doordarshan had fallen from grace quickly. In the 1980s, Doordarshan, free from rivals, ran programs that, Pandey said, represented the best of Indian television. Some attributed it to the high quality of writers and actors, some to directors like Ramesh Sippy and Shyam Benegal, and some reasoned that because the decade was a particularly torrid one for cinema, talent found an outlet on television. “I think that was the golden age of television. What we have right now on satellite television are me-too shows. If one guy does something, the other guy immediately duplicates it under another name. It’s sad, but if you remove the channel’s logo, you wouldn’t know which network you were watching.” But gradually, Pandey said, things were changing. Recently approached by Ekta Kapoor – whose first serial Hum Paanch was commissioned by him – to work on a serial called Sati, he mentioned that Kapoor was anxious to change and try things other than the usual family dramas.

This view was countered by a serial writer who had been in the business long enough. “They always start off wanting something new, but gradually they try and mould you to fit their style, and then you’re left with the same old thing.” While the inclination is there, it is the market that finally decides what stays on air.

It is for this reason that blame can’t be found either with channel heads or with production houses. The tastes they cater to are diverse, competition is intense, and marketers are sensitive to the slightest rise and fall in a channel’s fortunes. So things remain steady, and innovations remain rare. Pandey himself mentioned how difficult the task of deciphering audiences was: “It’s like that American saying.” Pause. “No one knows anything.”


Anonymous said...

A very very insightful commentary on the ways of television and the strange world of the people that inhabit it.

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