TV's moved from bitter times to better

  • Veenu Singh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jan 10, 2015 20:55 IST’s been two years since TV actor Ashish Sharma got married, but he still hasn’t had the time for a honeymoon. Fortunately, his partner Archana Taide is also a TV actor, so the lead star of the recently wrapped up serial Rangrasiya on Colors isn’t in the doghouse. His wife knows exactly how hectic Sharma’s life is, because hers is precisely the same.

Sharma and Taide work anything between 12 and 18 hours a day, seven days a week, including public holidays, for months on end.

That’s to keep you entertained on a daily basis with the ups, downs, rights, lefts, zigzags and occasional total stasis that compose the stories of Indian TV soaps.

Television is the largest of the Indian entertainment industries, and the most hectic. With most soaps working on the daily episode format, each one desperately trying to grab the eyeballs of as many viewers as possible, chances of actors, writers, directors, producers, technicians and support staff managing a reasonable work-life balance are close to zero.

For the actors, there’s even more work: promoting their shows on other programmes, attending industry events, participating in celebrity-driven shows for publicity (and fun), working in maha episodes and so on. So you could forgive their make-up people for being so profligate with cosmetics. The dark undereye circles must require a lot of concealer.

"The TV industry works on the principle of ‘the show must go on’," says Shashi Mittal, producer of the daily soap Punar Vivah that aired on Zee TV. "The work must continue without a break, so whether we like it or not, we just have to keep shooting." Yours, mine and hours

Here’s the interesting part. Actors like Sharma and Taide actually work fewer hours today than they would have even a year ago. Today, the TV industry is far more regulated than it used to be, thanks to CINTAA, the Cine and TV Artistes Association, which has put together guidelines for an industry that had been working almost 24/7 ever since the first TV shows began the daily episode format.

"TV actors are not covered under labour laws as they work on a contractual basis," says Sahila Chaddha, former joint secretary of CINTAA. "Actors were working 30 hours at a stretch. So we had to make sure that the actors’ contracts specify that they work no more than 12 hours a day, and that if shoots go into overtime, the actors are paid overtime too."

The effect of this rule has worked like magic. Since 2000, when the first daily soaps, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki, went on air, people in the TV industry had had to work half asleep to keep the viewers of their shows wide awake.

Many people hold soap queen Ekta Kapoor of Balaji Telefilms responsible for that state of affairs. Known to be a workaholic, Kapoor apparently insisted on shooting all day and night, axing episodes at the last minute and demanding reshoots, and keeping her writers working at the pace of a factory or sweatshop.

"Before I started Kyunki…, I was working in a weekly serial for which we shot just three or four days a week," recalls Amar Upadhayay, the actor who played the original Mihir. "But Kyunki… was a race from the start. The serial was to launch on July 3, the day Kaun Banega Crorepati was to launch, and the channel had asked for a bank of two months’ worth of episodes. We worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week!"

Working those hours, and starring in three serials simultaneously, Upadhayay says, he became irritable, cranky and unhealthy. No wonder. As Rashmi Desai, Tapasya of the Colors serial Uttaran, says, actors at that time worked 40-49 hours a week, all in a desperate hunt for TRPs (television rating points).

"I started my career with Ravi Chopra’s Pari Hoon Main in which I had a double role, and we’d shoot for three or four days continuously," she says. "Then we’d go home to shower and change, and get back to the sets."

"Even the most basic shoot in an indoor set for a 24-minute episode takes about 10-12 hours," says Akash, a cameraman who has worked in the industry for 10 years. "And outdoor shoots need more work on the set-up, depending on whether it’s a day or night shoot," he adds. "We also have to shoot every scene from different angles, and then there are maha episodes that require much detailing, not to forget, the retakes." Show me the money

Upadhayay and Desai agree that actors are paid very well, that with daily soaps, opportunities are greater and that people can become household names overnight. "But with time, I realised that you need to take care of yourself too," says Desai. "If you don’t look good, work suffers."

"Still, it’s hard for actors to give up the fame and money," says Gaurav Chaudhury, who played Parmeet in Bani – Ishq Da Kalma that aired on Colors. Chaudhury had intended to be an engineer, but moved to Mumbai when he was bitten by the acting bug.

"When I started working, I was paid on a daily basis and I was blown away by the kind of money a newcomer like me was able to make," he says. "Getting that much money, I didn’t feel too bad about the hardships, since acting was what I really wanted to do. And for me, TV is a stepping stone to films."

"Shooting for films is not as hectic as shooting for daily soaps," explains Poonam Dhillon, one of Bollywood’s leading ladies in the ’80s, and the star of the recently wrapped-up daily TV serial Ekk Nayi Pehchaan on Sony. Since film shoots take place over long periods, the schedules are seldom gruelling – or at least, are gruelling only in short bursts.

"When I accepted the part in Ekk Nayi Pehchaan, I was warned by about the demands of the TV industry," says Dhillon. "I dismissed those stories, but when I started working, I realised the industry is demanding not just physically, but mentally, too."

Though she says she soon adjusted to the pace of work, Dhillon does have a couple of regrets.

When her brother who lived abroad passed away, she couldn’t leave immediately for his last rites because she needed to shoot for episodes that had to be banked to cover her time away. "My fitness and energy levels went down because there was no time to gym," she says. "But I made sure I carried homecooked meals."

Choices, choices

Yes, the industry is demanding and physically and mentally taxing. Actors work when they’re well and unwell, they work through festivals, birthdays and anniversaries, they work through good family times and bad. But they wouldn’t do this unless they wanted to, and that’s a fact, says Rithvik Dhanjani, who starred in Pyaar Kii Ye Ek Kahaani and Pavitra Rishta and played a werewolf in MTV’s Fanaah recently.

"I’m at an age where I can manage to do more things at the same time than I perhaps could do five to seven years down the line," says Dhanjani.

"That’s why, besides working in serials, I have also worked as an anchor and participated in shows like Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa and Nach Baliye as I enjoy dancing. I would shoot the entire day for Pavitra Rishta and then rehearse for Jhalak at night, returning home at 5am or 6am for a couple of hours of sleep, and then going back to the Pavitra Rishta set. It may sound insane to most people, but that’s what I’m here for."

Every industry and profession has its demands, says Gaurav Chopra, star of Uttaran, who has just quit TV for films. "The situation here is not a secret, and if you feel it doesn’t work for you, it’s better to leave it," he says. "No one forced me to work these hours. It’s my choice. In fact, a few years ago, I was working in four serials at the same time, yet I managed to go to South Africa for a stage production and stay there for ten months."

On the other hand, Pratyusha Banerjee who played the grown-up Anandi in Balika Vadhu, quit the serial citing health issues, and also because she was needed at home by her ailing mother.

"When I was chosen to play the grown-up Anandi, I did have to shoot for long hours initially and once even fainted out of exhaustion after a week of intensive shooting," says Banerjee. "But once things settled, I shot for no longer than 12 hours a day, and in fact that has become the industry norm now."

Follow at @VeenuSingh12 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, January 11, 2015

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