THE KINGDOM OF THE SOAP QUEEN: THE STORY OF BALAJI TELEFILMS
Many years ago in 2000, Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) became a big hit on STAR Plus. It revived the fortunes of the Rupert Murdoch-controlled STAR India after more than eight years in the country. Peter Mukerjea, then chief executive officer (CEO) of STAR India, and his programming chief, Sameer Nair, worked to plan and use the opportunity created by KBC to funnel the same audience into its shows before and after KBC. As luck would have it, Balaji Telefilms, the firm run by actor Jeetendra Kapoor's daughter Ektaa and wife Shobhaa, was on a high with Koshish and Hum Paanch on Zee TV. Ektaa conceived and sold the idea of Kyunkii Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahanii Ghar Ghar Kii. Both of these dailies, mounted on elaborate sets and with a huge cast, proved to be hugely successful on the resurging STAR Plus. They ran for a full eight years, before being pulled off air. Ektaa became a household name and Balaji the darling of the stock markets.
The year 2000 is also when yours truly first started covering media and entertainment. One of my first assignments for Businessworld magazine was to do a cover story on STAR's rebound. In the years following I met Ektaa several times, at her office and at industry-dos. There was always some paan masaala and a can of Coke on her table. She was a plump, enthusiastic, driven girl (not the svelte looker that you see on magazine covers now). Over the years she became elusive, distant and non-responsive to most media queries. The stories about her working style, only whispers then, are now legendary - she was temperamental, demanding and drove her staff to tears. You loved her or hated her, but you stuck to her because she had the Midas touch. In the business of creativity damned by hyper-competition and price cutting, she brought scale. Balaji grew to a mammoth Rs 317 crore by March 2007. In a market dominated by Rs 10-50-crore players this was unthinkable. There wasn't a film company or any other content firm at that level.
A book that promises to tell the story about "The Kingdom of the Soap Queen", then, cries out to someone who has been a huge fan of all the K serials it made and has followed its business success closely. Kovid Gupta is an American desi who is currently doing his MBA from Cornell. He has worked with Teach for India and is CEO of India Kids, a non-governmental organisation.
His love affair with Balaji shows began as a kid, a journey he lovingly traces. And he ended up writing for Balaji (Bade Acche Lagte Hain). So he had tremendous access to Ektaa and the team at Balaji for this book. He uses it to bring out nuggets on the firm's earlier days, its struggle, the way some of the earlier shows, such as Itihaas and Hum Paanch, were conceived and shot. Also the bits about how Balaji was one of the first production firms to go South and the interlinkages between its Hindi, Tamil, Telugu or Kannada shows makes for interesting reading.
Unlike most book writers who tackle Indian television, he doesn't come with the air of someone who thinks it is beneath him to comment on this. He is an unabashed fan of the stuff coming out of Mumbai's dream factories and this makes the book a delight to read, especially in the parts that deal with the shooting of the serials, what the actors were saying and so on. Its strengths are its honest, non-judgemental look at the world of television soaps.
The irritants: the material is badly put together, the chronology of events is off at times and downright wrong at others. For example, while discussing its success after Kyunkii, Mr Gupta talks of capital constraints and how Balaji decided to go public to overcome these. But the sequence of events is baffling, because he discusses events in 2001 before backtracking to 2000 and the initial public offering. In another part, he jumps to events in 2003 before going back to 2000. A good book editor, a rarity these days, would have helped.
The Kingdom of the Soap Queen does not give you a sense of who the queen really is, her personality, how she thinks and the texture of the kingdom she rules. There are nuggets - like the references to Amma, Ektaa's nanny, and how she influenced her whole idea of storytelling and stories. Then there are pieces on numerology and astrology, and how that influenced the names of serials and even a shift in offices from the plush garage of Jeetendra's bungalow to Balaji's current office in Mumbai's Andheri area.
In March 2014 Balaji's revenues, at Rs 132 crore, were less than half of its 2007 high. It has made a huge entry into feature films with The Dirty Picture and Ragini MMS, among others. Ektaa's creative journey from TV to films to TV, her learning curve and Balaji's against the backdrop of the world's second-largest TV market would have made fascinating reading. But till the end The Kingdom of the Soap Queen remains a gushing fan's tribute to a firm that gave him television joy.