Shailja Kejriwal claims to have watched “almost 8,000 hours” of assorted TV plays that have ever come out of Pakistan. She would stream them online or get their DVDs from Dubai but never missed a single drama. She quickens to mention the time period during which she watched them: “between 2005 and 2014!”
But this little record of sorts isn’t why the Mumbai-based, self-professed Pak TV fanatic, with a Masters degree in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, is recognised in media circles on both sides of the border today; it’s for her vision and efforts to give the curious Indian telly viewers a taste of neighbourly culture and art in Zee TV’s landmark Zindagi channel.
As the Chief Creative Officer, Special Projects, at Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (ZEEL), Kejriwal conceived Zindagi out of her long-standing interest as well as a diverse educational background. For the viewers, routinely fed on daytime soaps, with their long-drawn-out, melodrama-rich stories about (mostly) scheming women, placed in palatial drawing room settings, the realism of Pakistan TV serials proved to be a breath of fresh air. No wonder, they leapt at Zindagi, and Pakistani actors became their newest heartthrobs.
One year on, as Zindagi continues to be the trailblazer in beaming contemporary Pakistan TV drama to Indian households, Kejriwal has already moved to an even more exclusive territory — joint ventures. Though she wouldn’t spill the beans yet, she hints at the first of these collaborations, a telefilm, titled Lala Begum, which is directed by Mehreen Jabbar and stars Marina Khan in the eponymous role.
Khan is one of Kejriwal’s pet favourites — “from Dhoop Kinare’s times,” she tells TNS, in an exclusive interview on the phone. Incidentally, their association goes back a decade and half when the two came together for Star Plus’s Tanha, in the year 1999. The serial, which was scripted by Hasina Moin, was soon pulled off air, as tension mounted on the borders at Kargil.
Fortunately for Kejriwal, Zindagi hasn’t had to face such resistance. Not so far, at least. And, she remains sanguine: “These are harmless stories that we are telling; how can these hurt anyone?”
Her confidence stems from long, successful years in leadership positions at some of India’s top media outlets. One of her earliest job assignments, at Star India, as the network’s senior vice president and programming head, saw Kejriwal introduce Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali and Rajkumar Hirani, all of whom were to become Bollywood’s most celebrated film makers. “We all began our journey together,” she recalls, fondly. “We’ve all come a long way!”
Excerpts from the interview follow.
The News on Sunday: Zee’s Zindagi TV recently completed its first successful year of airtime. As somebody who conceptualised and oversaw the channel programming, how do you see it moving forward?
Shailja Kejriwal: Well, in the capacity of CCO, Special Projects, at ZEEL, I have recently moved on to my next which is an artistic collaboration with Pakistan. I am not supposed to announce it yet. Meanwhile, there’s a whole new team which is looking after Zindagi channel’s affairs.
Having said that, I believe I grew up on Pakistani drama serials. Initially, we would watch them on videos. In 1999, when I began work as executive producer for Star TV network, I made Tanha with Marina Khan, whom I’ve been a huge fan of. She was invited to India to shoot the soap, along with Behroz Sabzwari and Sajid Hasan. Unfortunately, Kargil happened and we were asked to take the serial off air. Years later, I happened to watch Zindagi Gulzar Hai, I liked it so much that I contacted its writer Umera Ahmad. I told her I wanted to bring this and other shows to India. I wasn’t sure how the policy makers would react. But my boss Puneet Goenka [CEO and MD, Zee TV network] was quite forthcoming. So, I went to Pakistan in 2013, met Sultana [Siddiqui] aapa in Karachi. I also met Geo’s Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman and Mir Ibrahim, and the chiefs of other media groups. They were pleasantly surprised that we were trying for a TV channel dedicated to Pakistani content.
TNS: Ever thought about starting a ‘classics’ segment that would air olden PTV dramas such as Dhoop Kinare and Ankahi?
SK: Of course, I did. I even made a list of the PTV classics I wanted to air on Zindagi. Mera bohat mann tha, and I’m sure the people would love the idea, too. Sadly, the plays weren’t available in good quality prints. As these had been shot on analogue, we tried to restore and digitalise them but could not get the desired results. So we gave up on the idea.
TNS: Why the need to re-name certain Pakistani plays? For instance, Dastaan was retitled as Waqt Nai Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam and Akbari Asghari became Aaja Sajna Miliye Juliye.
SK: Well, the current team has a strategy in place about name changes and they would be able to answer this better. I was fine with some changes, where the titles were in verbose Urdu — for instance, Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishaan. But I told tell them to discuss the titles with the drama writers before changing them.
TNS: Not all these plays are soaps. Why, then, do you air them five days a week?
SK: See, there’s a thing called ‘binge viewing’; it’s a post cable television and internet phenomenon and is recognised as such all over the world. The understanding is that we’ve become used to daily soaps. People have so much choice at their disposal — internet streaming, 24/7 cable TV, DVDs, cinema etc — they have shorter attention spans; or at least they don’t have the patience to wait for an entire week for the next episode.
TNS: Heading special projects must be your most challenging assignment to date. What, according to you, did it take you to qualify for the job?
SK: Well, I’ve been around for over 15 years now. I was a part of such trendsetting shows as Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki. Earlier, I began with Star Bestsellers where we produced mature telefilms made by some of the most renowned names in Bollywood today — people like Anurag Kashyap, Anurag Basu, Imtiaz Ali and Rajkumar Hirani. They all made their first films for my segment. You can say our journeys began together.
They are all very proud that I started Zindagi TV.
TNS: Indian television’s prime-time slot is said to have a very strict censor policy. Do Pakistani shows make for complete family viewing?
SK: Oh, they do. The Indian Broadcasters’ Federation (IBF), which is a federal regulatory authority, has identified ‘Child viewing hours’ from morning till 10:30pm IST. And, Pakistani content is absolutely clean.
TNS: Do you agree that Indian TV drama has got stuck in a rut of melodrama whereas your film has become more realistic overtime?
SK: Yes, that’s a correct observation. But there’s a strong socio-psychological reason behind it. Just as Indian TV began to penetrate deeper into the society, the shape of programming changed. Initially, the private channels were available only to those who could afford a dish antenna. This was, largely, the educated, upper middle class. At that time, the pressure of TRPs wasn’t as cut-throat as it is today. So, we could afford to do things the way we wanted to. According to an estimate, in 2000, TV’s penetration was about 20 million homes in India. Earlier, it was even less. Cable and satellite revolutionised things, and today our TV’s penetration is more than 165 million homes.
As you go down, mindsets change. So, TV has started catering to the lowest common denominator. The stories became very basic, built mostly around a stereotypical saas-bahu household.
Besides, I believe that since cinema is very powerful in India, our TV drama producers are hugely influenced by it. In fact, they have not been able to develop their own language, so to say.
Today, the affluent classes in India don’t watch a lot of our soaps; they have lots to choose their content from — internet, cinema, American shows etc.
TNS: So, where does Zindagi fit in?
SK: Well, its core audience, to my mind, was the same that watched American shows. To test the waters, we took some of the [Pakistani] plays to 37 small towns, showed them to groups of people, on my laptop etc. We wanted to get the sense of how they would react. To my surprise, the response was very heart-warming.
Eventually, we picked 3,500 hours of content from almost 8,000 assorted Pakistani plays that I had watched between 2005 and 2014. Till date, we are the only Indian channel to be airing Pakistani drama.