It was the beginning of the year 2000. Satellite TV had arrived in India just under 10 years ago and was already charting unconventional territory with serials such as Hasratein, Tara, Swabhimaan etc, which dealt with women friends, working women, forbidden love and other such themes. It was all quite different from what TV audiences were used to – but they were loving it. That’s when Ekta Kapoor walked into the Star Plus office with her "different" story ideas.
"Different" is a mild term. Ekta’s serials were traditional, melodramatic and a throwback to another era altogether, when mothers-in-law were nasty and wicked and daughters-in-law cringe-makingly subservient. "So out of sync with the nation’s modern, progressive psyche," cried the critics. There was overall consensus that with sagas like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahani Ghar Ghar Kii, TV had regressed by 20 years.
But that was then. Today, Ekta still does TV but she has shifted her focus to movies. And her 70mm avatar is nothing like her small screen persona. As a film producer, she has some very unconventional, interesting films to her credit. Be it the racy Love, Sex Aur Dhoka with its experimental theme and format, the unusual Shor In The City, the gritty gangster film Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai, or the just released, bold The Dirty Picture, her foray into films has revealed a new, improved Ekta. A no-holds barred interview with the new Ms Kapoor.
From soap queen on television to a movie czarina, you seem to have made the transition quite effortlessly.
Wow! Does it look like that? (laughs). Quite the contrary, actually. Though I have to confess that I had great fun on TV and am beginning to have fun in films too. I say ‘beginning,’ because in films I am still a newbie. We are just about starting up and it is rather tough. We are the newest studio, with no background of filmmaking, no money, no international associations and not too much to talk about – except for a couple of small budget films. So really, why would anybody risk working with us?
That’s not really true. After all, you were the biggest TV production house. And when it comes to films, there is always your father’s name, Jeetendra, that works, right?
I knew you would say that! Of course, dad’s name counts, and that gets a lot of respect. But the fact of that respect turning into work is not a given. Having said that, work comes and people are ready to risk working with you if you are established in some ways. For me, there really was nothing. I had done TV but had no experience in films. I had done films but they were a one-off or in collaboration with other production houses. Till of course Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD) happened. I call that my beginning.
How did LSD happen?
I met Dibakar (Bannerjee, the director of LSD) and he wanted to make a film that was somewhat commercial in nature but also experimental. He didn’t require a big budget, but he wanted a producer who would understand the storyline and not interfere too much with the creative aspect. He had done some good films earlier, but both Khosla Ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye were modest in nature and appeal. With LSD, he wanted to push the envelope. We were happy to do that. So in a way, LSD was also a good start for me.
That it was. The kind of films that you have made, whether it’s LSD, Shor In The City, Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai or even Ragini MMS and now The Dirty Picture, they are all so contemporary. In fact, they seem to be taking the film industry years ahead. That, coming from a production house blamed for taking television 20 years into the past is quite a change.
I really don’t believe that I set TV back by 20 years. People, well, critics to be specific, said so. I never did. In fact, I love the work I did on TV. And going by the TRPs, so did the masses. Yes, it was populist in nature, so it just didn’t suit the elite. But it did what it was meant to do – reach out to the masses. It isn’t anything new. In fact, it is rather common to pull down anything populist. My serials created icons. Tell me, can anybody deny what a Kahani or a Kyunki did to regular households? Suddenly every Gujarati home sat up and started acknowledging the Ba (grandmother) in their home who had otherwise been neglected as just another old person at home. Most houses in Gujarat and UP or Bihar still start their day with ‘Jai Shri Krishna.’ So how can something that completely takes over the psyche of almost the entire nation be so wrong? I really feel that if I justify them, I demean them. I think Kyunki and Kahani were just brilliant.
Does that mean that the nation doesn’t get moved by more intelligent stuff?
I agree that my serials were not the most intellectual or intelligent in nature. But you cannot deny that they were ‘thinking’ dramas. They were thought-provoking yet very simplistic. And it was perhaps the simplicity of the situations and the characters that connected.
Coming back from the dead, going to bed in full makeup and jewellery... really simple?
Look, I tell stories. It is the stories that connect. The rest is the paraphernalia. Daily serials are your daily dose of entertainment. They need to be a mix of drama, sometimes high energy. The jewellery and the costumes add to the aspirational touch. It is essentially like your regular homemade food, with added tadka once in a while.
You know, there were many times when people came up to me on the road and in airports and told me their opinions about some character in a serial and how they felt that he/she should behave. A lot of times, I took the feedback and I remember I would call Ashwani Yardi, who was the creative head with Star Plus then, and discuss any possible plot change or necessary drama.
And what of those headache-inducing jerky camera movements during important scenes?
But that was the TV style of the time! There really was no great technique available. And don’t forget we were catering to an audience that was a mix of a mother who was perhaps also cooking for the family, a father who could have switched to a news channel, kids who were busy with other things and grandparents who just may have dozed off in the middle. So when you needed to grab the attention of all these people, you had to use ways and means that would get them hooked. You needed to make sure that every person, even the one who had just walked in, waited for the climax.
But didn’t the drama become a bit too much? If you say you started realistically, didn’t it all go haywire with so many new characters, silly plots like the mother killing the son, extramarital affairs etc?
By the end of it, around 2008 or so, I agree, we somewhere lost the plot. And that was because I honestly was threatened. I was scared of Colors being launched and I started doing what others told me to do. My storylines and plots were more according what other people thought they should be. I guess I stopped thinking. I stopped being myself. So obviously things did go a bit haywire.
And then came the famous low point of Ekta Kapoor…
That’s the point, it wasn’t my low point. Yes, professionally things did go awry, but what I did not understand was why were people writing me off completely. Critics, rivals, everybody seemed to be having a field day at my cost. Rivals claimed I was paying money to actors to give up acting in their serials. Tabloids wrote that my brother and I were fighting over property and other personal issues, leading to the downfall of Balaji. A lot of machinations happened. It wasn’t nice.
What did you do?
After a point, I stopped reading the papers. I still don’t read them. And that was the phase when I learnt to disassociate myself at a personal level from everything. Now I treat my profession as just that. I don’t get affected by what people say. I do exactly what I feel is right. I just believe in one thing, I came into the industry in spite of huge resistance. I survived and made it to the top, in spite of all the criticism and I will make it work again.
You talk of catering to the audience but isnt the audience the same for films? Then, how are your films so different?
(Laughs) Movies, unlike TV, are like hotel food. You pick and choose what you order and eat. So in movies, I do exactly what I want to do. Here also, my basic premise is a good storyline, but the presentation is more my way. Also, in a film, you have to pack every element in two-and-a-half hours. So whatever is shown needs to be packaged perfectly. The impact has to be made in one go.
But your films have also been brave.
I have always believed that whatever be the creative outlook, commerce is very important in any business. And that has to be kept in mind. My films have been different, but honestly I wouldn’t call them very brave. Not LSD, nor Shor In The City, for example. They were different films, made with a certain mindset, for a certain audience, and they worked. Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai was your regular commercial film. For me, what is brave is The Dirty Picture. I have tried to mix the two – the classes and the masses – for the first time. On one side, I have made a film about a soft porn superstar. She was all skin and sex. And on the other side, I am claiming that hey, this is not a film about her skin and sex show. Also, it isn’t a sob story either. She wasn’t a victim. Yet, this is her story. It is about a woman, who was bold, in your face and completely unapologetic. She celebrated her sexuality. She became a force to reckon with.
So it is really quite tricky (laughs). To make a movie about a sex siren that is not a documentary and make it in such a way that it is not titillating, is definitely a brave attempt. I have taken a risk with this one. A big gamble. This can swing any way.
Your casting too has been very unconventional. Who would have thought of Vidya Balan as Silk Smitha?
That’s the fun. You get people who are not known for what you want to cast them as. It’s a challenge but it works wonderfully. The surprise element is great. For me, this entire film has been a gamble. I started The Dirty Picture with a loss of R10 crore. People told me not to take it up. I did. People told me not to cast Vidya in this role. I did. The same people today are stunned.
Talking of casting, why haven’t you cast any of the Khans in your films?
Well, I would love to, if only they agree to work with me (laughs). Like I said, I am still a newbie and it will take a while maybe for big stars to have confidence in me and my films. I would love to work with Shah Rukh Khan. He’s a big favourite.
Going back to the ‘people’ or ‘critics,’ they seem to have always been on your case. You are panned endlessly. Doesn’t it hurt?
Really, I couldn’t care less. I am quite stubborn that way. I do exactly what I wish to do. And as long as I connect with the people I want to connect with – my audience in this case – I don’t care about anyone else.
It is perhaps this “couldn’t care less” and aggressive attitude of yours that also gets people talking. You are known to bulldoze over your colleagues. There are also stories that you have slapped people.
Oh pleeeeeeaasse! No personal questions…
Clarify what? There are a lot of things that are said about me. I really don’t want to talk about it at all. I feel that it gives the matter unnecessary credence. But yes, if you ask, then I will agree that I do have a temper. And when you are working on something that caters to the livelihood of some 200 people, you really don’t want to mess with it. So yes, there have been times when I have lost my temper and have got angry, but that’s natural. I take my work very seriously and I expect others to do the same. Has anybody ever realised that the anger outburst could be out of sheer helplessness?
Having said that, I don’t justify anything. And I am working hard on keeping my temper in control. Not because I feel it is wrong, but because if you are in a certain position and there is an outburst, people view it negatively. Then even a helpless expression of emotion becomes a tantrum.
That apart, tell me, if I was such a nutcase, why would people work with me for years together? Most of my people have been with me for years. You ask Chloe, (she points to her assistant who is sitting with us) she has been with me for 10 years. There has to be some merit, right?
And what of those famous 2am meetings?
Oh! I don’t have them any more. I can’t. It was different when I was younger, in my 20s. Now, I can’t do it. My health doesn’t permit it. I miss them though.
I am sure your colleagues don’t miss them!
Oh, you are mistaken – they miss it more than me. Those who worked in Balaji in the initial years crib and rant about the fact that now it isn’t the same. The creative energy and the madness of those days was just magic. And the people involved really didn’t mind or care about time schedules. In fact, they now feel that Balaji is very corporatised and sanitised. They sometimes call it boring!
You are also known to be very religious?
I am a very spiritual, karmic person. But I am not stupidly religious, as is commonly believed. I am a lot into colour therapy. I think astrology is a wonderful science and I am not unnecessarily superstitious.
So what was all that ‘K’ factor all about?
That was more of a brand exercise than anything else. We wanted the audience to identify our work instantly. The ‘K’ factor helped.
Why so many rings and threads on your wrists?
Just like that. These rings are for various things – health, love, communication, prosperity etc., and the threads – they are from the many temples that I keep visiting. They tie these there and I just don’t take them off. I like wearing them and to all those fashionistas who cry foul, I just ask, ‘why should I do what you expect me to do?’
In an interview to this newspaper nearly a decade ago, you had described yourself as a psycho, crackpot kid. You seem to have matured...
(Laughs) Yes, now I am a psycho, crackpot woman! No, seriously, you do grow with age, no? And your actions and reactions become more sorted. But I still remain an impulsive, temperamental person. I deal with people on an emotional level. You either love me or hate me. You cannot ignore me! Your Best work?
Bade Achche Lagte Hain on Sony (currently on air)
Kasamh Se on Zee (2006 - 2009)
Kasauti Zindagi Kii on Star Plus (2001 - 2008)
Your Best films?
Love, Sex Aur Dhoka
Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai
The Dirty Picture
Favourite serials ever on TV?
Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi
Des Mein Nikla Hoga Chaand
Banegi Apni Baat
Maine Pyaar Kiya
Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham
No One Killed Jessica
As Good As It Gets
Shah Rukh Khan
Directors you want to work with?
Sanjay Leela Bhansali
From HT Brunch, December 4
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