In the age of digitization and nostalgia for the TV shows of the past, we wondered if the current crop of TV shows will make the cut to become iconic like their predecessors. We have a bunch of change ushering in a wave of shows like Naagin and Ishqbaaaz. On the other hand, we have Sarabhai vs Sarabhai returning with a Take 2 and Beyhadh breaking generic rules and genre boundaries on screen. Amidst the TRP toppers fluctuating between The Kapil Sharma Show and Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, digitization brings in a new competitive ground for viewership.
In a time where TV goes back to the dark ages and family dramas returning to mainstream broadcasting, we caught up with one of the most brilliant writers that television has ever seen. In conversation with India Forums, Aatish Kapadia talks about the current scenario, his art of writing, passion that keeps him going and the ultimate death of television!
Here's what the director, writer, producer who went from Aankhen and Waqt to Khichdi and Baa Bahu Aur Baby has to say about all things entertaining -
Q: You have a career ranging from stage to cinema, how did it all begin for you?
It all began when I was 5 years old... it was always very clear that I would either become an actor or a writer. Then, acting bored me because as a writer, you get to create characters and enact them in your head, I can play more than one character at a time, so why act? I do it more for my pleasure than somebody else's. There's very little vanity in it, while acting makes you vain, you start doing it for the audience. Writing became my own private world, it was a given that this is what I would do, a clear path that found me.
Aankhen (2002) became his first Bollywood movie
Q: Which medium did you begin with?
I began with stage. It was my first love and it still is. I started out as an actor at the age of 10 in school plays and skits, and later in college, I directed, acted, staged musicals and sang. Then, television just happened as I was introduced to producer Shobhna Desai who asked me to write something for her to see how good I was and so I wrote and she instantly liked it. That led to me bagging a Gujarati serial, way back in 1998.
Curiously, this is my 30th year as a writer. I continued to write plays... my first play was called Andhalo Pato (Blind Man's Buff) which was made into my first film Aankhen (2002) starring Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, Paresh Rawal and Sushmita Sen. Also, in 2002 JD Majethia and I started our own TV company, Hats Off Productions. Its first show was Khichdi, then Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, then Baa Bahu Aur Baby.. I would say the path chose me, things just fell in place, there's not much that I did.
Q: You have done some really popular comedies. Is it more challenging to hold viewers in an intrigue or to make them laugh?
To make them laugh, it's a given. This is precisely why we don't have too many comedies. People try and they aren't successful. Also, it's a general perception that I have done more comedies. I've done a lot of serious stuff. My first play was a thriller, the second play was a very tragic story about a dysfunctional family. Then I did a fantasy play, then I did 'Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka' which was a proper multi-track soap and then I did 'Alpviram' a medico thriller. Ek Mahal was very popular and Alpviram was a trend setter in it's time. But, what I get remembered for and I'm not complaining, is Khichdi and Sarabhai while there's lots of stuff that doesn't fall in the periphery of comedy at all.
From top left: Alpviram, Khichdi, Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka and Baa Bahu Aur Baby
Q: The core concept of your work has been simplicity. You still bank on it while the rest go after fancy elements and current trends... How challenging is that?
It's going to get even more challenging... but the joy of the whole thing and its advantage (it may sound a little vain) but nevertheless, a lot of people try to do shows like Hats Off's but they haven't been able to, so I rest my case! I'm happy with my own little niche. All the rest start with "hum bhi aisa kuch halka phulka karenge" and they resort to Indian drama. It's an art, I may not be able to do something very successful in terms of numbers, probably because I don't know that kind of pocket book writing. I borrow a lot from life, this is why a lot of people try to ape it. It was a trend after Baa Bahu aur Baby. Just the other day we were hearing titles and characters that are similar, but I'd say why attempt that if you do not know how to? Like I shouldn't be attempting a page-turner cause I don't know how to write it.
Q: Is there any pressure in terms of the TRP or the channel?
No, I have been very fortunate that my channel doesn't pressurize me. I can just put my hands up and say "look, I cannot do this". Having said that, I am a very commercial man, I know my content is supposed to go across, however few the viewers may be, they should really enjoy it. I cannot be trippy about it and say "nobody watches it, what do I care?" Fundamentally, I'm clear I want a lot of people to view it, I will not pretend I don't. But, I will not bend down to their so-called requirements just to get those viewers because I don't know how to do that. Fortunately, no channel has told me "abhi yeh chal raha hai na toh aap aisa karo".
Talk shows, supernatural shows and onscreen romances are currently trending on TV
Q: Most shows on Indian TV aren't plot-oriented. How do you feel about the popular shows right now?
I don't watch them. I honestly don't watch TV so I don't know what they are. I keep hearing things about them though, but I have no right to comment. But, the point is whatever I've heard disturbs me! I don't know which direction they are going in. But it is disturbing because this content goes into the homes of viewers and I feel somewhere from whatever I read in papers, there is a lot of social irresponsibility and that is harmful. We may say "Oh it's just entertainment, not to be taken seriously" but if people are influenced by things like dressing of characters on TV, I'm sure they will be influenced by the mind set of those people too. And why would one want to take them back to the dark ages? We've been trying to get India out of that whole mindset... why are you dragging them back? I fail to understand it.
Q: A lot of producers are of the opinion that what works is good to go. They claim that they make such content because the audience wants to watch it...
When I did 'Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka' there was no daily soap, there was no concept of it. It was the first regional take on a Gujarati family, later we had more regional shows... otherwise they were all pan-Indian families. But I made it bi-lingual and it drew on my experience of living in a big family of Gujjus. Tabhi toh maine nahi socha ki audience yeh chahti hai... but the audience took it! So why blame the audience? Where is the effort that the makers are putting in? It's a choice- if you want to make big bucks... so be it, I'm nobody to judge you on that but please don't blame the audience. You have to educate the audience and bring them out of their comfort zone. Also, pandering to the audiences' demands and then blaming them makes no sense. When we made Khichdi, initially it didn't work but then people understood it is a radically bizarre show. We never stood up and said "kya kare audience ko yeh hi chahiye". There are ways to tailor it if you know how to design it. The audience is naive, it is the social responsibility of a film/show maker to try and bring them out of the mindset they are in, instead of saying "humara kya hai, hum social service thodi karne baithe hai". I agree social service karne nahi baithe hai but at least don't harm them or put a disclaimer- "humara content dekh ke aapka dimaag kharab ho sakta hai".
Sarabhai v/s Sarabhai Take 2 is a Hotstar Original as it makes the shift from TV
Q: The world is a much better place now that Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai is back but we wanted to know why digital? The show already had it's backing, the audience had their cords connected to the show...
You already know the current TV shows and the kind of audience that is dominating the space, where would Sarabhai v/s Sarabhai Take 2 find its place? The audience that isn't going to TV anymore is the one that likes Sarabhai so why put the show on TV? The audience that comes to Sarabhai is a little discerning. They'll come to the digital platform at their own time, they have the luxury of putting on headphones and enjoying every bit of it, it's like watching a film so why put it on TV?
Q: Are you saying that the audience for digital and TV is different? Because alot of people argue that it is the same audience and we hear the whole 'catch-up TV' concept.Also, do you think the digital wave is a threat to TV?
I don't agree, I think it's a completely different set of people, radically different! There is a little overlapping but digital wave is a huge threat to TV. The people who are stuck on TV sets are going to be redundant, they're not going to be the target audience for the advertisers at all. They will be over the hill, older people. The audience is moving towards the digital platform and that's where the advertiser's interest is. This also means the advertising revenue is going to shift because the youth has the purchasing power now and if they leave TV and go digital, who's going to advertise on TV? If that happens, just imagine the scenario! Then broadcasters will also think "dhanda toh udhar shift hogaya hai, chalo udhar!"
The digital players have quite a pull on the audiences. Channels and independent producers are stepping into the digital game.
Q: Do you think TV has a scope to evolve and eventually match up to the Digital content?
No. I think TV will die! I think in the next 10 to 15 years TV will die! The TV set will remain but the viewing patterns will change. The world is changing, people do not have the time to tune in at 8 pm with their dinner plates. Even the housewives will be redundant in the next few years because today's girls who are going to be tomorrow's housewives are not going to be like today's housewives. They will find their groove and I hope and pray they won't be sitting at home and watching TV. I strongly believe there will be an audience since we are a huge country but the tables will have turned with a majority on digital which you can also watch on your TV set (Smart TV). You get your Netflix, youtube and other digital channels so you can still watch it on the big screen... so why watch TV? Anyway it's banal; I have heard the younger generation telling their mothers that why do you want to watch TV? The older gen will become redundant and the ones who are cursing the older gen for watching this banality are going to come to the digital space, changing the whole scene. People will start buying what they want to watch in the next 15 years. In such a system a lot of factors can co-exist because you are paying directly for what you're buying, this will change the whole rating system. So if there are 10 people buying Sarabhai and 100 buying Naagin, everyone will know who is watching what and everyone gets a share of the pie. Even very regressive content will move to the digital platform, that is the way of the future, I think broadcasting is going to become redundant and I pray it does.
Q: While Bollywood is more of a director's medium, it's not the case with TV and I wonder why. TV is a producers' medium clearly, but why so? Isn't it all directorial work?
Not at all, come on the set and I will show you how it is completely dominated by the writer because it is in the confines of four walls. So eventually no matter what you do it's gonna be the writer who runs the show. I'm surprised that in our country we haven't realized it, I fight a lot for writers and I see to it that my name as a writer is in capitals otherwise I'll raise a storm. Because beyond a point of budgets you cannot do much as a director. It is the writer who can craft content in a way that it becomes budget friendly, production friendly. And, to be able to tell a story without much fanfare is not what a director does it is what a writer does. Unlike cinema where the director has to tell a story in one and a half hours in a deft manner here the director isn't telling a story in 2 hours, the technique and the craft is fine for a while but then it becomes redundant but the characters live on. You don't go to TV for direction, you go for the plot and the characters. You won't watch Sarabhai for the direction, you watch it for characters who are in turn made by the writer. Its as simple as that, the characters live in him.
Aatish Kapadia has also written dialogues for Josh and Action Replay, while he's popular for Yaadein and Waqt's screenplay.
Q: Character sketches are one of your USPs... you have written some of the most loved characters on TV be it Gattu or Hansa...is there a thought process or you just create them by fluke?
It's borrowed from real life. That's what I've been doing since childhood...watching people, little traits get embedded and on those, I base my characters. Most of the characters I write are based on real people. Praful is real, Hansa is real ofcourse, I paint and exaggerate them but they are real. As a writer, I believe you cannot write if you haven't seen pain, sorrow or even joy and understood it. If you cannot transfer your life in what you write then you're a poor writer which is why, I do not have much regard for writers who write things that are far removed from reality because even fantasy has to have a ring of truth to it. It cannot be pandering to page turner writing without rhyme or reason. That's why you don't remember characters from super-hit movies because there's no writing in it. Its just paithrebaazi (gimmicks)...so I feel sad because probably some of those writers are very good but they haven't really seen life and that's a tragedy.
Q: So Right now in what direction is your writing moving in?
I honestly want to write something very serious, something that's probably hard hitting and very close to human relations. I get extremely bored by plots that have a political ring to it and I'm not here to make social changes either. I just want to explore a society from a very personal, human level and this is why I like films like 'Taaren Zameen Par'... they'll stay with me far longer than a 3 Idiots. It haunts me that when there is a relationship at the core, I tend to lean towards the element of human relations. The problem is when I try it comes down to "arre bhai ab comedy karo". I'd probably come up with something very serious and I'm not saying it will be devoid of comedy. There will be comedy but it will be about human relations and a very in depth look into that. I would love to do a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law show but the perspective would be different. I would love to get into the inherent problem of the saas-bahu relationship, why these two women are at loggerheads. I would love to shift towards the private life of the people on TV, away from what they do in the living room. I tried a serious subject when I was much younger in Alpviram which was about a rape victim not wanting to abort the child, it digs deep. This time around, I'd like to write something in exploration of femininity. People may not understand the concept but I will not give up on it.
Q: And finally, the Nation wants to know- Is Khichdi coming back to the screen?
(Smiles) I want it back and J.D. Majethia wants it back and the viewers want it back too... so I think destiny will bring it back in time. Right now the production has other projects. And, we don't start shooting something unless the current show we're working with is complete. (The interview happened at the press-conference of Bakula Bua Ka Bhoot)
TV producers definitely need to pull up their socks if they're going to survive the new wave of viewing trends. We would love to see shocking, socially responsible and more sensitive (and taboo) content on TV. Meanwhile, you can still bank on Hats Off to bring back simplicity and the charming albeit comical daily lives of families on screen!