There’s a new daily Hindi TV show in town. It’s called POW – Bandi Yudh Ke, and as the name suggests, hardly your standard issue saas-bau soap. Can it dislodge the iron rule of the saas? Or finish off the nagin, the new supernatural avatar of the bahu?
Viewers certainly hope so. It may seem odd that the show is on Star Plus, an ardent advocate of saas-bahu soaps, but perhaps we should remember that it was Star Plus that telecast Aamir Khan’s show on social issues, Satyamev Jayate, in 2012. This time round Star Plus is experimenting with a fiction show that’s far removed from its regular fare -- yet has enough family-emotion elements so as not to completely alienate traditional viewers.
POW is the Hindi adaptation of Israeli show Hatufim (remade into the popular American show Homeland), about the return of two Indian prisoners of war after a 17-year absence, and is the passion project of Star Plus editor Saugata Mukherjee, who joined the network from the rarified world of publishing. Filmmaker Nikhil Advani, who directed the action thriller D-Day, was roped into directing the project.
“I loved the show when I saw it,” says Advani who believes that the time has come for creative people to be platform agnostic. The fact that the show works on two levels – the personal (how the families of the men cope with what are essentially two strangers coming back into their lives) and the political (have they actually escaped from the enemy or have they been sent back?) – appealed to him. “I wondered if Star would allow me to make the show the way I wanted to,” he says. “But I never got one phone call from them telling me do this, don’t do this. Saugata stood like a wall beside me. It was sone pe suhaga.”
When Advani gathered his team of ten years standing around him, rolled up his sleeves and got to work, he was aware that he was carrying a heavy burden – of being seen as a game changer for Hindi television, albeit with certain safety nets in place. Now that TV audiences are so used to the daily show format, Star thought it would be risky to go with a once-a-week format as viewer interest may flag. And 60 of the total 126 episodes of POW have been canned even before the first episode goes on air this Monday.
The initial reactions to the show have been positive. It received good reviews when it was premiered recently at the Mami film festival in Mumbai.
POW is by no means the first high-profile adaptation of a foreign show on Hindi TV screens. Way back in 2003, Sony showed Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin, which was based on a Colombian show, Yo soy Betty, la fea. “Audiences loved Jassi,” says television writer Venita Coelho. “But then Tarun Katial joined [as executive vice-president, programming] and he converted a top-ranking show into a saas-bahu soap.”
But the more recent example is Anil Kapoor’s 24, based on the American show of the same name -- a racy, action-packed thriller – which has already had two seasons on Colors. Though 24 got critical acclaim, ratings have been less than impressive. But producer and lead star Anil Kapoor looks at his debut television outing in a different way. “I’m here for the long haul, not for short-term gains,” he says. “That’s how I’ve always handled my career. 24 may not be easily understandable or relatable today, and it may take time, but it will find a home some day. Just wait for two or three years.”
But the inevitable question is: why foreign adaptations? Why can’t we have original content?
Kapoor answers the query by looking back at his film debut. Around the time he began his career in the early Eighties, quite a few star-sons made their debuts in lavish productions – such as Sunny Deol in Betaab, Kumar Gaurav in Love Story. “But we didn’t have the wherewithal to do that,” says Kapoor. “My brother and I decided we would find content.” So they found a Tamil film Andha 7 Naatkaal and remade it into Woh Saat Din. The advantage was that they got a readymade story and characters. After the film became a hit, Kapoor says they acquired enough confidence to do an original story -- and Mr India was made.
“At this point in time, they [the American television industry] have the knowledge and expertise,” says Kapoor. “So why should we not use it? We still don’t have that culture. We’re still learning. Once we do, we will also make our own shows.” Kapoor has already decided to adapt Modern Family (about the lives of an American suburban family) and crime series Prison Break into Hindi shows before he thinks of homegrown content.
Advani too insists he’s committed to making original shows.“It’s not that I haven’t wanted to do one,” he says. “In fact, I was in advanced talks about two such shows but at the last minute we pulled back because we thought they would be too controversial. But if POW works, fingers crossed, I can see so many filmmakers coming back to the medium.” Star Plus has no illusions that POW will get the kind of ratings top shows such as Saathiya and Naagin get. “That would be like comparing apples and oranges,” says a Star spokesperson. “But we want the show to generate a good buzz around it, and we’re hoping for the return of those viewers who had abandoned Hindi TV. We feel there can be space for both a Naagin and a POW.”
Directors who tried their hand at ‘different’ programming some years ago, like Atul Sabharwal -- who made the excellent crime drama Powder in 2010 (unfortunately it rated so poorly it was pulled out) -- say that if POW does decently, it could well become a model for the future. “If the audience warms up to the idea, it can pave the way for other such programmes,” he says.
And as Shailaja Kejriwal, who curated Zee’s Zindagi channel which launched in 2014, points out, “Remember, even the people who work in channels get frustrated by what they’re putting out. They have to do something for their sanity too. But when they think of a different idea, it helps if they can rope in a big Bollywood director, or adapt a big foreign show which has a proven track record of success. It becomes like a tentpole property for the channel. Advertisers also get excited.”
The foreign angle is safer in other ways too -- perhaps because the handful of experiments with homegrown, ‘different’ content so far haven’t been exactly trailblazing successes. Because different doesn’t automatically mean good. For instance, two years ago Sony showed Yudh – helmed by Anurag Kashyap and starring none other than Amitabh Bachchan. But the slow-paced show with its depressing storyline didn’t even get decent reviews, forget ratings. Filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker’s ambitious show Everest, which he made for Star Plus, about a young girl’s mountaineering dream, also sank.
Even so, TV channels have shown extreme timidity in attempting to break out of the rut. As to why this is so, we have to go back in time – 16 years back, that is.
Ever since Ekta Kapoor introduced daily saas-bahu soaps in 2000, Hindi television changed. The serials swept through the TV landscape like wildfire, consuming everything in their way. All the pre-2000 shows, which were far more diverse in terms of their stories, themes and treatment, faded into oblivion. The TV industry, constantly on the lookout for success, eager to clone winning ideas, latched on to the formula. At first, the shows tapped into a longing for the disappearing Indian joint family by creating a dream-like ideal of three generations living together cosily, doing puja and dressing up for festivals and weddings. But then they morphed into a foundation-and-lipstick-caked exposition of petty, vicious kitchen politics. Over the next 16 years, this formula has done some shape-shifting, but in the end, it always came back to the same blueprint.
Secondly, the daily format meant that episodes had to be wrapped up at breakneck speed since you had to telecast one every day. Quality was an obvious casualty.
In fact, pandering to audiences used to the formulaic shows has only grown over the years. Profits are made by advertisers who flock to the most popular shows and these are measured by TV ratings. (According to a FICCI KPMG Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report 2015, the television industry was estimated at Rs 475 billion in 2014. The entertainment production accounts for about Rs 30 billion, with Hindi content accounting for two-thirds of the pie). In 2013, ratings agency BARC began including towns with a population of less than one lakh. This meant that shows began catering even more aggressively to the lowest common denominator. “The truth is that these audiences can’t manage complicated characters and stories,” says Purnendu Shekhar, who wrote the successful show Balika Vadhu.
Close monitoring of research data by marketing executives and “MBA types” dominates all writing. “Marketing executives track audience research in the minutest detail,” says Shailaja Kejriwal. “They will tell the writers that research in, say, Banaras, shows that you need to create an SECA woman character between 15-25. This is Excel sheet-driven writing.” TV writer Venita Coelho remembers the last show she did for a Hindi entertainment channel where she was not allowed to decide on the size of the heroine’s bindi. “I was told that only a channel executive would do it,” says Coelho. “I’ve been approached by channels to develop different kinds of shows for them, I’ve worked on the ideas for two years, but when it comes to actually launching the shows, they get cold feet.”
Will channels that are prisoners of their formula shows find a sliver of hope to cling on to with POW? We’ll know soon.