Reading Hour Sep-Oct 2014: The Life Beautiful - with Shailja Kejriwal

Shailja Kejriwal, Chief Creative - Special Projects at Zee Entertainment Enterprise Ltd (ZEEL), has been involved with television for the past sixteen years. She spent nine years with Star India, and three with NDTV Imagine before switching to ZEEL. She holds an MA, Comparative Literature, from Jadavpur University.

She began at Star India with commissioning, then went on to Executive Producer for several successful shows and serials, then to Creative Director and Senior Vice-President. Always hungry for the creative high, she then sought new opportunities at NDTV Imagine, and later with ZEEL.

The Zindagi channel, ZEEL’s first ‘special project’ is off to a promising start and slowly building a loyal fan following, eager for limited episode, meaningful, gimmick-free television serials.

Here, Shailja chats with Reading Hour in a free-wheeling interview about her career thus far, and Zindagi.

INTERVIEW

First the promos caught our interest, and then before we knew it, our lives were inextricably tangled with those of Kashaf and Zaroon in Zindagi Gulzar Hai… it reminds me of the days when the delightful characters of Buniyaad, Kachchi Dhoop, Trishna would light up our evenings! What has the early viewer response been to the Zindagi channel, and how do you feel, Shailja?

The early response has been overwhelming, much more than we expected, and even the younger generation has lapped it up. That is a great feeling. It proves that good and simple storytelling cuts across all age groups and across time.

I feel especially happy because there has been so much positivity towards these stories from Pakistan. People have loved their artists, their creative talent as well as their stories. It has created in its own small way a feeling of warmth and positivity between ordinary people across borders. In Pakistan, there is a tremendous sense of pride that their creations are being accepted here… it had thus far been a one way street with our Hindi films getting a huge fan following there, but now they have something to offer in return.

I see young viewers from both countries on our Zindagi page messaging and exchanging appreciation. Sometimes, they squabble over ‘my Fawad’ and ‘your Salman’ but there is a dialogue between people one on one. I think this is the greatest achievement of Zindagi.

From a Kolkata schooling to an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Jadhavpur University to the world of showbiz. What was your earliest inspiration for the line of work you chose?

Very early on, even in school, I was always fascinated by story telling, drama classes and loved the teachers who would bring alive stories for us.

Once when I was in the 7th standard, I visited Mumbai. I was a great fan of Amitabh Bachchan and wanted to visit a film shoot he was doing. It was a late night shoot and I watched with awe as Mr. Bachchan sat on a chair near the sea, the waves lashing behind him… it was high tide and quite dark. Then an HMI light came on and illuminated Mr Bachchan and the waves… it was magical. I knew that this was where I wanted to be, for ever.

I was fortunate to get an opportunity to work with Mr. Bachchan as soon as I came to Mumbai, and to Star India. We launched Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) and I was home!

Hailing from a traditional business community, what was the support / opposition you got from family towards pursuing this career?

I guess my parents had a tough time with me. They wanted me to get a home science degree, or not go to college at all. Stay home, and get married. But I chose to go to Jadavpur university which was a radically different place from Modern High School where I studied, a school for the hugely privileged section of society.

My father disapproved completely, but my mother was a huge support. And I loved the energy and intellect at Jadavpur… it was a completely new world for me. It played a huge role in shaping my ideologies and life thereafter.

Post that, when I decided to join this industry, it was a huge shock again. Not just for my father, but this time for my mother too. Studying in a university, working towards a doctorate was noble and acceptable. But going off to Mumbai, and into the big bad world of films!

At the time, media was equated to films. But after the initial shock, my mother as usual was supportive. She came down to Mumbai, armed with a car, driver, maid and provisions, and set up my sparse home in 2 days. So my struggle lasted only a few weeks! Today I believe they are reasonably proud of me. It’s a good feeling.

How did you begin at Star India? What is the importance of a mentor in your area of work?

I had done some writing work for Doordarshan while in college. So I had met Mr. Rathikant Basu. He was then director general of Doordarshan and yet, approachable, even by a college student out of nowhere.

A couple of years later when I came to Mumbai, Mr Basu had become the CEO of Star Network. I wasn’t sure whether he would remember me, since I hadn’t met him in the interim. But he did… I went to him asking for a writing assignment, but he offered me a job in the commissioning department. And I was over the moon. A new and exciting journey was about to start. It was a brand new world, and I was in it.

So many things have to fall in place. Had I not known him, or had he not remembered me, I wouldn’t be here. But he did and I am. So it is important to be passionate about what you want to do, but it’s also important to have a guide to succeed.

My mentor I found in Sameer Nair, who was my boss for the next 12 years. I learnt most of what I know, working with him.

From 1998 to 2007 at Star India, you must have seen so many changes in television programming. Do share some memorable moments from your journey?

So many memorable moments they could fill a whole book, it was such a ride! But my favourite time was doing Star Best Sellers – working with talent like Raju Hirani, Anurag Kashyap, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Sriram Raghavan, Irrfan Khan, Imtiaz Ali… they are very successful today, but back in those days, we were all just starting out, and together, they were great times.

And then I remember the day the first ratings of Kaun Banega Crorepati were to come out. It was the 7th of July, it was pouring, and a few of us were at a roof top restaurant waiting with bated breath. I also banged my car that day and had to go to the police station! That was easily the most exciting day of my life – we hit the ball out of the park with KBC and never looked back.

“Chief Creative – Special Projects, ZEEL” – an exciting designation! What does it involve? What prompted the switch from Star India to NDTV Imagine and on to Zee?

I was lucky to grow with the growth of the television cable and satellite industry in India. At Star, everything was a first, Best Sellers was a first, KBC, as well as the daily soaps. The weeklies, the dailies, then trying to launch another GEC, the song and dance reality shows… everything was happening for the first time and on such a scale.

Post 2006, it all got repetitive as far as I was concerned. The daily soaps had now been on for 6 years, many seasons of KBC had happened, the dance shows had gone into various seasons. TV was maturing and with that, it became more commerce driven and less idea or experiment driven. So it became a bit tedious for me.

As a creative person, you always want the high of trying out something new. I thought Imagine would provide that opportunity, so I went there. For the first time, we launched a mythological show in the prime time slot – that has now become a staple for all channels. But post that, we were just doing variants of the same things. It was target driven: revenue and returns. Which is good sense, but also stifling at times. From biweekly ratings, we had moved to weekly, to daily, to minute by minute – I just couldn’t handle it. Story telling cannot happen with so much micro analysis.

So I took a break and thought about what to do next. I realised that for my own personal growth, I needed to do something which would have an impact beyond simple entertainment. The idea of Zindagi slowly took shape. Getting shows from Pakistan was a hugely exciting prospect, also fraught with all sorts of resistance. But the idea was new, never been done before and full of possibility. So I worked on it relentlessly, for more than a year and then I approached Mr. Punit Goenka, MD and CEO of ZEEL and presented it to him.

Punit is an instinctive man. And he agreed to do it within a few minutes. I had worked on a couple of more ideas, and he agreed to those too. So I came on board ‘special projects’. And Zindagi is the first of the special projects for ZEEL.

On the genesis of Zindagi. And of the tag line ‘jodey dilon ko’…

Zindagi happened because of the search for something new for the Hindi speaking audiences. I wanted to do something that was entertaining, but with a larger purpose. TV is such a powerful medium. It enters people’s drawing rooms and has the power to change thought processes for better or for worse.

We are constantly fed with a particular kind of news about our neighbour and that shapes our attitudes… it doesn’t allow for a free and fair impression of our neighbouring country.

An alternate view would, I felt, give a more unbiased picture. Hence we decided to use TV to bring in stories of everyday life from Pakistan. Emotional stories, stories about the day to day lives of people and their day to day problems.

Viewing these stories, I discovered we had more things in common than differences, and hence it made sense to bring them to the people of India to allow for empathy, and people to people contact.

And from this thought came the tag line “jodey dilon ko”. Using stories to promote a meeting of minds and hearts, a better understanding of each other, and eventual friendship.

Armed with this thought, I travelled to various parts of our country to try and see how the common person would react to these shows… and it was gratifying to see that the person on the street was very receptive, and mature. This gave me the courage to approach Punit Goenka.

Once he agreed, work started in full force. Teams were formed, shows were sourced. I had the privilege of travelling to Pakistan with our Chairman and met all the broadcasters and producers of Pakistan. It was a wonderfully enriching experience. It took the hard work of an entire team to put this project together and within one year, we launched Zindagi.

All our apprehensions were put to rest as we did not face any obstacles in acquiring or even launching the channel. People were supportive and lauded the venture.

Apart from serials, what are the other types of programs you plan to air on Zindagi?

For the time being, it will be serials. In future, we may have some other entertainment shows like talent shows and chat shows. We also hope to be able to telecast their movies. But all of that post the channel settling down a bit.

The serials on Zindagi – one notices that they don’t run shy of long conversations in the script. The dialogues are a treat – natural but not over-anglicised, the characters are believable and the filming is refreshingly gimmick-free! Why do you think our serials – both Hindi and regional – have moved so far away from this kind of programming?

I think we also started this way. We had some amazing shows on Doordarshan as well as Zee in the early days. But sadly as TV grew, it became a huge capital intensive medium driven by statistics and research that did not allow any room for failure. Each channel had to cater to everyone everywhere. Story telling became more about numbers and statistics rather than emotions.

Also, we’re greatly influenced by our film industry. Hence we went the bigger and flashier route. More emphasis was laid on form than on content, on props than on narrative, and the marketeers took over from the story tellers.

But times are changing. People’s response to Zindagi will alert our own producers; soon, you may see a plethora of shows with limited episodes, focussing on story and emotions.

In the heyday of Doordarshan, television drew heavily on literature for content. Apart from mythology and history, this trend seems a thing of the past…?

I think with Zindagi setting a new trend, we may get to see a return to literature and the telling of those stories on TV.

We’ve been watching American and British programming for decades now. Why did it take this long to get TV shows from next doors?!

I guess someone had to make the first move. I am glad we did. Perhaps people were apprehensive of a potential backlash. It took the vision of Punit Goenka to allow Zindagi to happen.

The decision to limit the number of episodes per serial has ensured there’s a freshness and variety to the programming. How easy is it going to be to keep up this? Is there an adequate bank of programming to feed this freshness?

Yes there is an adequate bank and we will keep our promise of limited episodes and finite series.

What obstacles did you face from idea to launch?

It’s amazing, there were no external obstacles at all. I think the potential of obstacles was more in the minds of people and we were happily proved wrong.

There are strong women characters in the Zindagi serials… is this conscious? What do you look for, while making your selection?

The selection definitely reflects the sensibility of the person who is making it. I am humbled by the faith reposed in me by the ZEEL management, who gave me an absolutely free hand to select whatever I wanted. I have been in the television industry for more than 15 years now… so it is a mix of some gut feel, some audience understanding that drives the selection.

Who / Where is your target audience?

It is a premium mass channel, that will start with the premium audiences taking to these shows. Female 15-45 is our core audience from the upper socio-economic brackets (SEC A and B). But gradually, I think it will go deeper, and get a mass audience as well.

You were, we hear, a girl who loved to read stories and write stories… tell us a little about your writing?

That’s a long time ago. Yes, I absolutely loved reading and writing stories. Hence I took comparative literature for my graduation and post grad. My father used to joke, why do you need to go to college to read story books. But it was a passion and I learnt a lot during my time at Jadavpur university.

I began writing scripts while still in college. I wrote some docu-dramas and a few short films. I had approached Star for a writing assignment really, but they hired me in commissioning instead. So from a writer, I became an executive producer, and had the opportunity to listen to different stories an a daily basis… what could have been better? It’s the advantage when you make your passion your profession.

Whom do you look up to, who is your inspiration?

I look up to a one time teacher, and now friend from Jadavpur University called Shibaji Bandyopadhyay. He is my guru. He taught me how to read a text, be it a story, a novel, a film, a play or a piece of music. I cannot thank him enough. He has been the single greatest influence in my life.

What are your hopes from the Zindagi channel, and from your career, in the near and long term?

It has been an achievement for me to be able to launch a channel like Zindagi. To be able to find someone who believed in my idea and to get affirmation from audiences. Zindagi will take a few months to settle down. Post that, there is a great team at ZEEL who will take it forward. I will hopefully move on to my next dream project! Work has already started on the second project and I will be able to talk about it soon.

The last year has been a dream run. I hope I can come up with new ideas that find takers for the rest of my life. What more can one ask for in this line of work, but to remain passionate and relevant.

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