Behind every show is a producer. Ekta Kapoor and Ritesh Sidhwani tell us how we’re entertained by Udita Jhunjhunwala.
She redefined television viewing and created a new genre of saas-bahu soaps in India. He was one half of the team that marked the entry of Next-Gen Indian cinema. Both Ekta Kapoor and Ritesh Sidhwani are hugely successful producers in their own domains – television and film.
While Ritesh and Farhan Akhtar’s debut film Dil Chahta Hai firmly established Excel Productions as a team to watch out for, Ekta has persevered with her family soap operas in spite of critical opposition and rising competition while also diversifying into film production.
Have you seen each other’s work?
Ekta: Of course. Their work is amazing. I reconnected with Ritesh after watching Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd which I thought was unbelievably funny. I didn’t dig Don at all but I absolutely loved Honeymoon Travels. That’s when I thought – it’s time to make different films. Then my cousin (Abhishek Kapoor) got signed by them and I told him it was the best decision to do a film with Farhan and Ritesh. They know their sensibilities and the audience they are catering to. I like the work they have done, especially Rock On!!
Ritesh: Honestly, I have not watched her shows. I don’t watch TV.
Ekta: I’d be very scared if he watched my shows!
Ritesh: I have known Ekta since college. Then, nobody could imagine she would reach where she has. She was not focused at all and very spoilt.
Ekta: I was happily spoilt. At that time I knew Ritesh as a smart alec Sindhi boy; son of the owner of Marlex pressure cookers. We used to sing the jingle when we were with him. We were around 16 years old.
Ritesh: We would meet at Dollops, an ice-cream place in Bandra, in a big group every evening. To support our spoilt, aimless lifestyles, we had to start working with our fathers. But not Ekta. She had a very sweet dad who kept pampering her.
Ekta: Yet I made money after that. At 18 my mindset changed completely.
Ritesh: She never told anyone her plans and just took off. She got her focus before us. I was still working to get money to party. But the work was very boring. Sure, she had backing from her parents, but she got the audience at the right time and knew exactly what she was pitching and to whom. And no one has achieved the level that she achieved. She is responsible for where Balaji Telefilms has reached.
Brunch: Ekta, do you watch your own shows?
Ekta: That’s a tough one! I do watch them, but not really a lot because I am not the one we are catering to either. I take creative supervision of two to three shows as I need to do other things now. I do a dipstick for a quality check on those I do not watch. I have creative teams on all the shows. Personally I watch a lot of American shows.
Brunch: How different are your roles as producers?
Ekta: In films so far we have done mainly co-productions and been financiers. Now we pick up projects we believe in and are involved in financing and marketing. We are creatively responsible for our films. I was never personally involved before. TV is under Balaji Telefilms which has a different team with different sensibilities. ALT is a new, young and edgy brand which makes smaller films, hitting at different markets. ALT also has a TV division which is doing edgy TV shows.
Ritesh: It used to be thankless but now people have started understanding. But the public only looks at actors. They will say ‘Aamir ne hit diya’ or ‘Aamir ki film flop hui’. The producer’s and director’s job is not fully understood by the audience.
Ekta: In television it is not that way. It’s always my name that goes with a show.
Ritesh: Earlier, stars did not want to work with new directors. Now they look at a banner that they know will make and market a film in the correct way. The younger generation wants to watch an Excel film.
Ekta: Films and TV are different. I am the captain of the ship in TV. In TV people work on a per-day basis. They are freelancers and honestly, many work in television only for the money and not for creative satisfaction. There is no glory on TV – it is a mass product. In films you take a creative backseat. You don’t interfere with the director once the script is approved. Then your responsibility is taking the product out to the world. You financially support the film; you know which marketing buttons to push and hope to break even at least.
Ritesh: That’s her way of working. She’s doing both. We work differently. First, I will not accept a director or writer who says a part has been written with this actor in mind. For me, it’s important to cast an actor to the character. We work mostly with new directors, so for me there is the excitement to nurture new talent and learn from them. Most important, besides the producer and director, is to get a good director of photography, production designer, sound, costume designer. I set up the film with all the ingredients required by the director. Once on set, he is the captain of the ship. If you come to me, you don’t come to me only for the money. Of course, on Dil Chahta Hai and Lakshya I was the executive producer, production manger, location manager, everything.
Brunch: You also have different ways of working...
Ritesh: Ekta works on LA time! We are in an industry where you don’t need to work to a clock. It’s a creative medium driven by passion where you must be comfortable and enjoy yourself. It’s not a 9 to 7 desk job.
Ekta: Film and TV work differently. For instance, if we work with Dibakar Banerjee, of course we work with a bound script. We are already scheduling now for Neeraj Pandey’s film Special Chabbis in September. You don’t have that luxury in television. Once you are on air, you are on air, delivering five episodes a week. In film, you can make changes even two months before release. I don’t want to compromise on quality so I would rather have irregular timings to make sure that the quality is maintained. I sleep 4-5 hours a day.
Ritesh: When we did Dil Chahta Hai, people were surprised that we were working in a single schedule with a bound script. I remember Saif Ali Khan saying then: ‘You are going to start on 1 August and finish on 14 December after shooting in Australia, Goa, India. In my entire career I have never done something like this.’ And I said it’s about time he did it.
Brunch: Do you think the audience has changed?
Ekta: It is changing every day.
Ritesh: It is definitely far more evolved. I don’t know about the television audience. I understand it is still mainly 40-plus women. The film audience is more evolved and aware than 10 years ago. There is so much more exposure to cinema. As a filmmaker, your promise and delivery have to match.
Ekta: The metros are more evolved because of their exposure but the rest of India is still conservative. They want to remain traditional and there’s nothing wrong with that. The biggest movie hit caters to three billion people and the most average TV show does that in one day! So you have to be more conservative and mass in your thinking. But he is right that the film audience is much more modern. They are far more quality conscious.
Brunch: Who is the audience for your films?
Ekta: It depends on which company is making the film. If ALT, then it’s more of a multiplex movie. If a Balaji film then it will have a certain sensibility which will be more mass, like Kya Kool Hai Hum. I do not want Balaji to be confused with Love Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD) because we make mass television. I don’t want a family to see LSD because Balaji has made it and come out with culture shock!
Ritesh: And switch channels away from Balaji.
Ekta: I don’t want to ruin my core audience at all.
Ritesh: After this year’s run of three crazy films it might be advisable for us to start a division to do smaller, more focused films. Right now we are targeting a global audience. A good story, made well, will do the numbers, despite budget.
Brunch: Which actors have you enjoyed working with most?
Ritesh: I have enjoyed working with all, but mostly with Shah Rukh Khan because he was a friend before he came on set. I knew Hrithik Roshan from school, but not in the same way.
Ekta: I have not worked with any stars really. Even now we are working with new actors. But I have enjoyed working with Dibakar, Neeraj and Milan Luthria – directors whose passion for what they are doing mirrors the passion I had for TV.