Harvard, age and experience have changed Ekta Kapoor in ways that will stand her in good stead as she attempts the biggest transformation Balaji Telefilms has seen.
Vanita Kohli Khandekar meets the empress of soaps.
Ekta Kapoor was worried. It was 2013 and she was attending an 18-day owner/presidents management programme designed for family-run businesses at Harvard University.
The prospect of being in a class with billionaires had pushed her to take lessons in economics just before leaving for Harvard. Once the programme began, however, she found herself enjoying it. There was so much she could relate to in the case studies and the discussions around them. It was the first time in more than 20 years that Kapoor had taken time to sit back and reflect on where she could take the business she founded when she was all of 19.
"Fixed costs, cash conversion ratios, economies of scale were all words for me till then. I had no worldview except TV till then," says Kapoor, who turned 40 last year.
It was at Harvard that the idea of institutionalising Balaji Telefilms, her production house, took root in Kapoor's head. The first thing she did after she came back was set up an advisory board and ask for its honest opinion. "I got an hour's worth of walloping on scalability, on costs," smiles Kapoor.
The joint managing director of and the creative brain behind the Rs 347 crore (Rs 3.47 billion) Balaji Telefilms looks exhausted. Our meeting begins at 6 pm on the dot at the Balaji Telefilms office in Mumbai. Kapoor has meetings lined up till 9 pm, going by the board outside her office.
It has been more than 14 years since I last entered her office. It seems larger, crammed with pictures and idols of scores of gods and goddesses, each sparkling clean and each decorated with marigold flowers. There are sealed perfume bottles, teas and all sorts of things that have probably been gifted to her.
But it is not just the room -- the person occupying it has changed too. She seems to have made some connection in her head on creative prowess and how it can be scaled up. One part of it could simply be about growing older and wiser. It perhaps explains the other part -- how earnestly she seems to have internalised the lessons from Harvard.
Soon after the workshop, in 2014, the advisory board chose a group CEO in Sameer Nair, the former Star and NDTV Imagine CEO. Balaji acquired a film company and formed an events firm and a regional production outfit. In February this year, it raised Rs 150 crore (Rs 1.5 billion) to fund ALT Digital Media Entertainment, its subscription-driven video-on-demand service. Even its annual report last year is all about "institutionalising Balaji", and how it is being done.
Kapoor is attempting to scale up by pushing the traditional TV content business and by going direct to the consumer online. Much of what she is doing is what almost every major content firm in the world is attempting. The big difference is the texture of the Indian market, the fact that Balaji is the biggest TV content player and that "Ekta Kapoor" is trying it.
Could she end up changing the rules of the content game?
Kapoor is quite confident. "The day we own IPR (intellectual property rights), the business will change," says Kapoor. India's Rs 47,500 crore (Rs 475 billion) television industry has been a buyer's paradise so far. A bulk of the programming is commissioned by broadcasters who own the IPR, while thousands of small firms undercut each other.
Balaji, the largest of the lot, makes 1,200 hours of TV content a year on an average. Almost all of it is owned by broadcasters who monetise it on TV, online and in the overseas market.
Globally, IPR ownership has always been the game changer -- for margins and scale. With ALT, Balaji will be producing 300 hours of original content that it will own completely.
"Balaji knows the pulse of the audience and going on its own will give it complete creative and pricing freedom (online)," reckons Mihir Shah, vice-president of Singapore-based consulting firm Media Partners Asia.
Then there is the Ekta Kapoor factor. She has been the successful face of television production in India for more than two decades now. Kapoor's understanding of what works on Indian television -- from Hum Paanch (1995) and Kyunkii Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (2000) to Bade Acche Lagte Hain (2011) and Naagin (2015) -- is legendary.
When Balaji got into film production, her rather edgy choices -- Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (2010) or Ek Villain (2014) -- startled critics who associate Balaji with kitchen politics. "With the very first film, LSD (Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, a satirical tale of honour killings, sting operations and news media), we wanted to do something completely different from what Balaji stood for," says Kapoor. Five years later, films bring one-third of Balaji's revenues.
The creative hats she wears for films and TV are different, says Kapoor. "For films it is what I want to watch: more urban stories about different people," she says. TV, however, is a different ball game, largely because India remains a country with predominantly single TV homes and watching TV is a family pastime.
"TV is very mass, especially now that boxes are shifting to small towns. The net is more about the youth and the urban audience that has been marginalised (by mass TV)," she says.
This is the audience that watches Scandal, Narcos, Empire or Shameless, the shows she is binging on these days. "As a producer, I am dying to explore psychology and urban dilemmas -- say, fatigue, in a marriage," she says, warming up to her real interest. The Net and the explosion in online video offer her that chance.
How has her creative instinct changed? "It hasn't," she says. "It has just sharpened." Kapoor claims to have read 150,000 scripts over the years. So, her experience runs across a gamut of stuff.
This is when I come to the "ahem" question: In spite of being listed on the stock market, Balaji has the reputation of being a family-run firm. Kapoor's mother, Shobha, is the operational brains and reputedly a genius at understanding the cost side of things. Although Kapoor's creative chops have been wonderful for Balaji, she does have the reputation of being temperamental. Has she changed? "Why get into gossip?" she says.
What's her working style now? She thinks about this one. "Creative instinct is personal. I am very reactive and malleable," she says. "I have to figure out when to be hands on and hands off. If I am hands on all the time, I can't do too much. But my attitude works in a certain way. So the idea is to spread your personality, your attitude. The creative team at Balaji is very hands on, empowered and aggressive. An episode does not go on air if they are not satisfied. Not just you, but the guy who wrote the episode should be convinced."
This sounds like the girl I met several times at the beginning of Balaji's journey into the big time -- she's totally into her work.
It is time for her next meeting. As she sees me out, Kapoor offers me prasad (there is an aarti at Balaji every day). Harvard was a life-changing experience and "I want to do the second and third part of the course," she says. This time, Kapoor won't be as worried, though.
Photograph: Abhijit Mhamunkar