TV serials in India are made keeping in mind the lowest common denominator. That’s why television programming is what it is today,” says filmmaker Abhinay Deo. But that’s not his biggest grouse: “What really gets my goat is that we do nothing to raise the bar. We refuse to challenge audiences, we don’t want to make them aspire to anything better.” That’s exactly what he set out to do with the path-breaking TV series 24.
A new courseSon of veteran film and television actors Ramesh and Seema Deo, Abhinay began his professional life as an ad filmmaker. Even there, he thought differently; he created the award-winning Nike ad where people play cricket on top of buses. Then he surprised audiences by directing the ‘risky’ comedy Delhi Belly. “I don’t believe in box office numbers or TRP ratings,” he says. “If I did, I would have never made a film like Delhi Belly.”
That’s the belief that guided him when he turned to TV. Two years ago, actor Anil Kapoor approached him to direct an Indian adaptation of the American series 24. The show follows 24 hours in the life of the chief of an anti-terrorism unit and his attempts to foil an assassination attempt on the Prime Minister-in-waiting and save his own family which has been abducted. Not quite your domestic drama about saris, sindoor, glycerine and petty dynamics.
With it, Deo saw an opportunity to take Indian TV miles ahead in one giant leap. The only challenge was possible interference by the TV channel that would back the project. “I had to make sure that the channel didn’t expect us to follow the TRP route.”
It took endless meetings with various channels, Anil Kapoor and Fox (makers of the original American 24) to finally reach an understanding with Colors that 24 would be nothing like anything on TV.
As Deo says, “I refused to dumb down the content and presentation to suit anybody’s sensibilities. I have been a big fan of the original 24 and one thing was very clear: If I had to make an Indian adaptation, it had to be as close to the original as possible. In look, feel and storytelling.”
And that meant no melodrama, no climax that went on for seven episodes. 24 was to be racy, gripping, full of twists and turns, with a climax in every episode. The show offers no breathing time. Blink and you miss a crucial clue. Viewers don’t even have time for a toilet break! “Yes, that’s quite true,” laughs Deo. “24 is a series where, if you miss even five minutes, you will miss an entire thread of a parallel story line.” But wasn’t that playing havoc with the audience’s sensibilities? “Who decides what is someone’s capability or comprehension ability?” he asks. “My agenda is to generate new and different content and present it to viewers. Let them try it and see them ask for more. Why do we believe that viewers are duffers?” he asks.
Matching the pace
The official ratings of 24 suggest the show has made an impact in metros like Delhi and Mumbai but not so much in the other parts of the country. But for Deo, it’s only a matter of adjusting to something new. “When you get something dramatically different from your regular meal, you do take time to develop a taste for it. But eventually, you will,” he says.
The only thing that’s necessary, says Deo, is that the show has to be interesting enough. And 24 has caught everybody’s attention. “Not just that, it has got back viewers who had more or less stopped watching Indian TV – urban residents and males,” he says. “Now it’s just about getting used to the incredibly fast pace.” But doesn’t he run the risk of outrunning his audience? “That’s the challenge. That is the aspiration that I want the lowest common denominator to have. To catch up with this pace,” says Deo, who firmly believes that 24 will be the next generation of TV programming.
With this show, Deo has brought TV and films closer – right from the casting and crew to the look and feel of the show. But though films may be bigger and grander, TV is far more gruelling, says Deo. “Technically, a film is just 120 minutes of edited footage. But TV is nearly 18-20 hours of edited footage. You can wrap up a film in a few months. We have been working for over two years on 24. It takes us 20 days to shoot and edit just one episode,” he says. But the bigger challenge is to keep turning out content that will keep viewers hooked week after week. “After all, you are just a click away from moving on to the next channel. You haven’t really bought a ticket to see the programme, right?” he points out.
24 with a twist
Deo has added plenty of elements to keep you glued, even if you’ve watched the US version. He features a political family uncannily similar to the Gandhis on the show, and has thrown unexpected twists into the storyline “While the main story is the same as the American 24, there are differences. From the seventh episode on, the story will take turns that are not there in the original. One thing will lead to another and you will see a brand new end. And thankfully, you won’t have to wait years to see that end. It’ll be over in 24 episodes,” Deo says, smiling.
“I am playing an interesting character”
The casting of 24 is one of the most attractive aspects of the show. There’s Anil Kapoor of course in the title role; but there’s also Shabana Azmi, Anupam Kher, Tisca Chopra, Mandira Bedi. And there’s Anita Raaj, a popular heroine of the ’80s, who quit at the peak of her career when she married director Sunil Hingorani. She’s back in the role of the ambitious, calculating Naina Singhania, mother to the Prime Minister-in-waiting. Excerpts from a chat with Anita Raaj:
Your comeback seems perfectly timed with 24...
It was pure luck. Anil [Kapoor] and I have worked together earlier. It was in one of those random conversations where I mentioned to him that I would be happy to work again. He was pleasantly surprised and asked if I would work on 24. A few days later, I got a call from the production house. Honestly, I didn’t even think about it. I just had to take up the offer.
Were you apprehensive about TV?
No. I had done a serial called Eena Meena Dika in 2000. It worked very well, but somehow the timings and the chaos didn’t suit me at the time. My son was still young. But now things are changing fast. Also, 24 as a production is very meticulous and organised. There is nothing like it on Indian TV. The deal clincher though was my role. Naina Singhania is shrewd and has shades of grey. It’s a very interesting character with several layers. It’s a challenge.
Are you open to films again?
Absolutely. And with Hindi cinema becoming so exciting in terms of genres and stories, it would be foolish not to be a part of this brand-new creative world.
From HT Brunch, November 10
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