Andheri Link Road, where Balaji Telefilms is located, is the cacophonous heart of this Mumbai suburb. It has malls and multiplexes, TV and film production companies, a variety of restaurants, even some quaint photo studios whose windows display portraits of vintage Hindi film stars. The lane in which the Balaji office stands also has the Fun Republic multiplex, Yash Raj Films and Barry John’s acting studio—and many gaping potholes and open drains.
The day I visit the Balaji office to meet its joint managing director Ekta Kapoor—the popular face of Balaji Telefilms and Balaji Motion Pictures—the buzz is about the just-released Love, Sex aur Dhokha (LSD), a film that Balaji Motion Pictures produced and distributed. LSD was already being hailed as a “cult film”.
Money wise: Kapoor feels producing reality shows for TV would not be a smart choice for her company. Jayachandran/Mint
Kapoor apologizes as soon as she arrives, half an hour after the appointed time.
The trademark red smear of puja teeka on her forehead is missing. In harem pants, a black Tee and Osho chappals, the 34-year-old media magnate looks more LSD than the title she has ungrudgingly—and as I discover later, quite smugly—worn ever since the mid-1990s: the queen of television soap operas. “The overwhelming response to LSD is yet to sink in,” she says, before I ask what made her choose a film that so blatantly flouts all the rules of classical film-making.
The idea was to create a small but radical brand for the banner she launched LSD with: ALT Entertainment. “Just as with TV, we broke the clutter by introducing something that nobody had seen before. I wanted to introduce ALT with a small film with a large concept. The production should scream, I thought.” Dibakar Banerjee, the director of the film, had her convinced the first time he narrated the story to her. “The dog-eat-dog world that it dealt with; where the victim, as well as the victimizer are in it for something; it appealed to me a lot,” Kapoor says. Later, when she watched a rough cut, she was shell-shocked, almost hysterical: “I thought, my god, what did I get into? But I realized that for the first time a film challenged me to change my mindset. The bloody attitude got me.”
By the time I met her, LSD had done its first weekend at the box office and a new set of posters were plastered on the roads, screaming “SUPERHIT!”. Trade analysts were reporting that the film had already clocked Rs5 crore (it was made with a production budget of Rs2 crore).
But Kapoor seems flabbergasted by what she says are exaggerated reports. “The way it is going, it’s 90% likely that we will break even in the next three days,” she says, with cautious confidence (the net box office collections of LSD, inclusive of its second weekend, are around Rs8.5-9 crore).
ALT Entertainment’s next big project is Shor, a film to be directed by Raj and D.K. Nimodru, with her brother Tusshar Kapoor in the lead. Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, with Ajay Devgn and Kangana Ranaut, releases on 30 July, and later this year, Golmaal 3 goes on the floor. “You have to go radical sometimes. There are risks inherent in the most formulaic film too, but there has to be a balance to create a brand,” Kapoor says.
Kapoor’s gaze is unflinching. She gestures with her hands only occasionally, and when she does, the astrological stones she wears flash across your eyes: a garnet, a yellow sapphire, a diamond-studded white stone. She says she owes her mental balance to astrology: “Some stones attract positivity,” she says. “I also believe in some rituals; my way to connect with God, it’s not just for material gains as people perceive.” It’s common knowledge that an additional “K” was added to the titles of some soaps on the advice of her astrologer. Kapoor has a knack for pop spirituality babble: “The biggest sin you can commit is if you hurt another human being”; “You have to trust your instinct”. She believes “that everything happens for a reason”.
Her transition from being actor Jeetendra’s daughter to a television mogul in the late 1990s was propelled largely by calculated decisions. Balaji Telefilms, set up in 1994, had a shaky beginning. The first two serials, produced by the company for around Rs25 lakh, were rejected by every satellite channel; the first serial to be aired was Mano Ya Na Mano on Zee TV in 1995. The company hit the jackpot with Hum Paanch in the late 1990s. Thereafter, Kapoor and her writers hooked a generation of TV audiences—mostly women in the age group of 25-60—with family sagas that hinged on petty domestic conflicts. Towards the end of 2000, the company went public. In 2008, when Colors launched with Balika Vadhu, Balaji changed the milieu of its serials to the rural poor and the small-town middle class. Serials such as Bairi Piya (Colors), Pavitra Rishta (Zee), Pyaar Ka Bandhan (Sony) and Bandini (NDTV Imagine) have not topped the charts, but they are key drivers in the volatile TRP wars. The latest TAM ratings for these serials are 3.37, 4.75, 0.4, 1.67, respectively, all below the 5-6 average rating of Balika Vadhu in the past one year.
In the most recent quarter (October-December), Balaji’s revenues declined 22.4% to Rs39.3 crore because it made less money from projects it commissioned or outsourced to other production houses. Tax provisions allowed the company to double its net profits, but investors didn’t take too kindly to the poor numbers, despite the increase in number of programming hours. According to Bloomberg estimates, Balaji’s stock has declined 16.17% since the beginning of this year, compared with an average 3.36% fall for the broadcasting and entertainment industry in general.
Kapoor remains unabashedly proud that she changed the taste for television content in a newly globalized country (Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu thi ran for about eight years and went off air in November 2008 owing to falling popularity). “The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law conflicts are crucial to TRPs whether we like it or not. In those days, the fight was in the kitchen, now it’s outside of the kitchen, about other issues which are important in a rural setting,” she says.
The laurels crowd a shelf in her office—Telly Awards statutes she has received in the past decade. “What I am concerned with primarily is profitability. That’s why I have not got into reality TV. I have the infrastructure and the resources for making serials. Every leading entertainment channel has a successful TV serial made by us.” For reality shows, Kapoor is exploring the virtual world. “An online talent show maybe, which I am exploring very seriously at the moment,” she says. “I will also get into hyper-reality, something like what LSD is, on the Internet.”
By the time we wrapped up the interview, the bells at the office temple had started ringing. I nudged myself out on to the road, where hundreds of mosquitoes were swarming above the open drains.