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Everyone is hooting for his bit role on Star Plus' Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Indian television's seven-year-old prime-time soap. Only Kapse looks disgruntled, his desperation at not getting his big fat chance on Balaji Telefilms [Get Quote] etched on to his tired face.
"This production house has changed lives," he says. "I've known people who boarded local trains to reach here, to drive out in BMWs." His nano-seconds on the small screen earn him Rs 5,000. "No other production house can match Balaji's paying standards," he says.
Balaji Telefilms churns out 16 serials on a daily basis. And there are plans to plunge heavily into the south Indian territory as well as films in a big way. While its soaps and serials gather more foam, never mind their kitschy content, the bubble's not likely to burst any time soon. On the contrary, the company is ready to unleash seven more dramas by January 2008.
I find myself in an enviable position when, to the dismay of those waiting outside Balaji House, I enter the premises with a visitor's pass.
Onlookers gesticulate and offer prayers to the two Balaji idols that, dressed in fresh garlands, flank the main gate as they hang around hoping to be spotted as the next stars of Indian television. And no, not even Yash Raj Studios, barely ten steps away, fails to attract the sort of attention that Balaji House receives.
"You're lucky to have gained entry so soon," 22-year-old Nikesh Kaushik, aka Nick, tells me. Much to the displeasure of his parents, he came from Delhi's Najafgarh area to Mumbai in search of a lead role in a Balaji production. He's irritated at having failed so far to meet the one woman who he believes can change his life.
Over the next 48 hours, I realise that the world seems to wait for her because many believe she hold the keys to their aspiration for fame, success and financial security. For many like Kapse and Nick, Balaji House and its czarina, 32-year-old Ekta Kapoor, is the lady of their dreams.
That dream girl is smiling from a box labelled Ekta's Karyasiddhigrah Shanti Dhoop, a brand that's selling under the company's label and getting advertised on every show the company produces.
To meet the queen bee in flesh and blood, I'm asked to wait. "For how long?" I ask Kapoor's personal assistant. She smiles vacantly, "I don't know." I'm slowly learning the basic rule at Balaji Telefilms: to wait. Tense faces run around, a young man sporting a tilak chants deliriously, and colleagues refer to Ekta Kapoor as "Fifth Floor".
On that floor, where Kapoor has her office, she holds meetings with a core group of 40-odd creative people at different times of the night. "She records these meetings," actor Ronit Roy tells me.
Besides discussing tracks on an almost daily basis, Kapoor makes sure to look at the final tapes of most serials before they are sent to channels for airing. It's a high-pressure job because Kapoor, warn Balaji employees, is a perfectionist. Stories of Kapoor disapproving an entire episode, barely hours before it is scheduled to be aired, are grist to the Balaji mill.
Which is why Meetu, creative head for Kahanii Ghar Ghar Kii, running late on editing an episode's rushes, is nervous. She's upset about a character mouthing a wrong dialogue. "How can this pandit's character describe these days as auspicious when shraad is on?" she thinks aloud angrily.
Considering that these soaps cater to orthodox, middle-class India, this is a glaring error. A dubbing artiste is summoned to rectify the error. Meetu shouts orders for some stock footage of a plane landing ("how else do you know the characters have landed in Mumbai?") and adds "high emotional drama music" to complete the scene.
Creative heads, I gather, receive 15-20 tapes of rough footage of 10 hours every day, which is compressed into a tight 21-minute capsule. But to continue the action on the screen, and to save time, more episodes can be culled out of these tapes too.
"When was the tape bought to the editing table?" I ask. "Yesterday," she says with a guilty laugh. And when is it to be aired? "Today." Finally, waving her hands in dejection at the commotion, she proceeds to eat a quick "lunch" around 7.30 pm. I'm shocked at the production house's last-minute functioning. Witnessing an ongoing outdoor shoot of Kahanii... at Film City at midnight, I find the scenes aired at 10.00 pm the following night.
"We can't function without this pressure," assures Sanchi Bawa, associate creative head. "See these shots," she points to the editing screen, "these actors weren't present in the frame together. We took their shots separately and combined them later."
Bawa joined the company after taking a written test. "The test was essentially a two-liner: 'A girl with her little daughter meets her ex-boyfriend at the airport. What happens next?' Even I was surprised that after an hour I had already stretched the sentence to four pages," she says.
This is Balaji's perfect mantra: bifurcating a simple plot and turning it into unbelievable melodrama.
Bawa doesn't take too kindly to negative interpretations. "Ekta Ma'am," she says reverentially, "is making these serials for our mothers and grandmothers. And if they are successful then who's complaining?" she growls.
"My friends gathered around me at New Delhi airport and mocked me, saying, 'Beat up Saanchi, she's behind all these bekaar (pathetic) serials.' But they are wasting their youth," she declares.
Sonali Jaffar, a Balaji screenwriter, retaliates: "We introduced the angle of remarrying the main protagonist in Kahaani... but it was rejected. We changed the track because audiences didn't want it."
Roy, on his part, says, "I don't question Ekta. I trust her. You might think what we do here is silly but encouraging TRPs tell us a different story." If that means continuous dialogue changes in scripts, so be it.
Bawa, whose role includes interacting with "Ma'am" and coordinating the final look of not just the actors but also the sets, says most in her position are ready to slog for 18 hours at a stretch, willing to make it big. Just 22 years old, Bawa earns Rs 40,000 right now. Her next meeting with "Fifth Floor" is scheduled for 3:00 am where she'll show her the photos of shortlisted candidates whom she auditioned for another Balaji show.
"You have to be lucky," says actor Kiran Karmarkar, while his body double goes for his "over the shoulder" shot. "It's my back, not my face, that they need to shoot," Karmarkar winks; he's wearing flip flops beneath all his finery. ("It's not a long shot, so why bother," he laughs.) Saakshi Tanwar insists actors at Balaji do not have difficult lives - "I'm like a passenger on a train who never gets off, while others come and go.
After seven years, 80 per cent of Kahaani... still centres on me" - but Bawa says, "Even if they are unwell, they have to complete a shot."
Predictably, there are exaggerated stories of how clinically this production house functions. Like the one of the actor who went down on her knees, begging "Ma'am" - unsuccessfully, it appears - to let her celebrate her baby's first birthday, or another of an actor who fainted after five days of continuous shoots ("we thrust a camera at her the minute she opened her eyes," says a source).
Stories of a call centre-like atmosphere in this factory are endless, each one more bizarre than the other. And yes, surprise checks on the sets with Kapoor screaming her lungs out, are legendary.
"I'm sometimes woken up at 2 am to provide clothes," says Nim Sood, Kapoor's mausi (aunt) and the dress designer for Balaji's shows - no wonder most take the mandatory blessings of the gods after a regular round of the evening arti at Balaji House. Each saree, Nim mausi tells me, costs Rs 10,000-15,000 and in her godown 6,000-7,000 outfits are kept in 150-odd almirahs, all categorised, labelled and coded. Every month she collects around 500 sarees for one serial.
"I've got jamawar shawls for Ekta too," she laughs, adding that she imagines her niece getting married and having children, like the characters on her shows.
But she adds quickly, "What Ekta's created is beyond imagination and I can't imagine her leaving this for anything." Like others, she admits, "We have all adjusted to her time clock. She jogs in the evening, visits Siddhi Vinayak every Tuesday, works through the night."
At Killick Nixon, where seven indoor sets have been set up, I find most shootings taking place through the night, wrapping up by 7 am. A caterer brings special food for Muslims who have observed "roja" and rows of steel trunks packed with clothes greet us. There are individual make-up rooms for the main stars, marked only by their "reel" names. I meet Seema Gupta, who is the set designer for 90 per cent of Balaji's shows.
"Because we are setting trends, budgets aren't restricted," she says, leading me to another spectacular Balaji set. Everything for the sets is sourced from different parts of India or abroad. The carpets are manufactured in Hyderabad, the furnishings sourced from Dubai. "All sets are vaastu-compliant," she tells me while a giant crane fitted with cameras towers over us.
Back at Balaji House after long rounds of indoor and outdoor sets, I wait for Kapoor to meet me. On her office door is a shoddy black-and-white printout on an A4 sheet that jostles for space with the Turkish evil eye charms and other "puja stuff" wrapped in red cloth. "You don't have to be crazy to work here... but it sure helps," says a slogan, a pointer to the life led by those in this empire.
By the time I reach my hotel room at 3.30 am, I'm ready to curl up and sleep. At Balaji, however, another day has just begun.
"MEETING" EKTA KAPOOR
After two days, Kapoor is still unavailable, though she agrees to a "telephonic" while I sit outside her office. Excerpts:
Do you identify with the characters you portray on the screen?
I don't necessarily feel the need to. But most of their characteristics stem from people with whom I interact closely even today.
Having watched Zee television's soap Tara, I personally wished to watch a complete family show. So I thought of projecting shows that stressed on the social fabric of an Indian family.
What did you grow up watching?
I loved Rajni and Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. I also watched my dad's films and enjoyed watching The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara.
Any show that's very close to your heart?
We had shot a pilot for Jeans and Josh, a show for the youth which dealt with delicate aspects of sexuality, but it was too radical for Indian TV.
How did you deal with initial setbacks?
Having invested Rs 10-12 lakh, we began working from home in 1994. Initially I faced losses. I never came out of that phase but I never stopped working either. In that sense, it has been an ongoing process.
How do you react when actors leave your serials after finding fame and money?
All characters in my serials are very strong and audiences miss them, not the people who play the roles.
What's your routine like?
I have no routine. It's very erratic but I manage. Sometimes I work till 4 am; at times I sleep at 7 am.
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