Ekta Kapoor doesn’t like going on a holiday. Travelling to an exotic foreign destination and scuba diving, like many in the film fraternity do to unwind, isn’t her idea of taking a break.

“If I had to take a great holiday, I’d go to Los Angeles and watch all the pilots (of upcoming American shows) that are coming out. A tub of popcorn, a great American show, some diet coke and I’m sorted," said the 42-year old film and television producer, the daughter of yesteryears movie star Jeetendra and Shobha Kapoor.

Not that it seems like Kapoor, joint managing director and creative director of Balaji Telefilms Ltd, has the time for a vacation. Kapoor’s calendar is full. Seventy percent of the day—and this has happened in the past one year—is devoted to her digital ventures besides film and television projects.

Balaji Telefilms joined the OTT (over-the-top) video bandwagon with the launch in April of its streaming application, ALTBalaji. Kapoor says the runaway success of the platform—it was ranked among the top three revenue-grossing streaming apps in the country, according to the State of Video Streaming Apps in India report compiled by App Annie Intelligence, the market data provider on the app economy—has helped her get back to her feet again after Balaji’s movie business went through an especially bad patch.

In 2016, Balaji Motion Pictures’ two big sex comedies—Great Grand Masti and Kya Kool Hain Hum 3—and its superhero action film, A Flying Jatt, sank without a trace, earning Rs13.59 crore, Rs30.25 crore and Rs38.55 crore, respectively, at the box-office. Even the much-hyped Udta Punjab, a film about the drug problem in the northern Indian state, earned only Rs60.34 crore after a long-drawn battle with the censor board. The production house was reported to have decided to put its film business on hold after the setbacks. But it didn’t.

What could go wrong did

“It’s very important to understand the scenario we were in last year," Kapoor said in an interview in the plush conference room on the top floor of Balaji’s seven-storey office building in the Andheri neighbourhood of Mumbai. The building is located in the heart of the city, and the exteriors remind you of the home a wealthy tycoon would own on a Balaji television show. One step into the imposing gate and as you’re led to a white-marble temple, you know this is an organization that has its priorities clear. Up on the top floor, two idols of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god of good luck, tower over Kapoor.

“The Titanic sank because the 10 things that could go wrong, did," she recalls softly, dressed in a printed salwar and plain white kurta, her face reflecting the calm she is experiencing after the storm.

Quite a few things went wrong for Balaji. Both Great Grand Masti and Kya Kool... didn’t have pre-sales—satellite TV rights, for instance—because they were adult films. The former, a theatrically driven project that could have broken even at Rs60 crore, was leaked online 27 days before its scheduled release. The latter was mutilated by censor cuts.

“I had a lot of pressure (to shut the film business). All the investors were asking me to do that and they were right in what they were saying," she recalled.

‘Standing on my feet again’

Deciding instead to stick it out, the company invested whatever little it had in Veere Di Wedding, a Kareena Kapoor Khan and Sonam Kapoor-starrer co-produced by Anil Kapoor Films, and Abhishek Kapoor’s directorial venture Kedarnath, co-produced by KriArj Entertainment. Both are scheduled to release in 2018. Things are already looking much better with romantic drama Half Girlfriend and black comedy Lipstick Under My Burkha (the latter was distributed by Balaji) releasing this year. Half Girlfriend earned a respectable Rs60.30 crore, and the low-budget Lipstick garnered Rs19.21 crore.

“You have to wade through. I did whatever I had to do to sail through and see myself through this patch. This year has been far better and far more exciting as far as recuperation goes. I don’t know if I’ve bounced back, but I’ve just stood on my feet again," Kapoor said.

The television vertical is thriving. Kapoor’s supernatural television series Naagin on a shape-shifting snake-woman topped the charts in both its 2015 and 2016 seasons on Hindi general entertainment channel Colors. The astronomical ratings the series won were definitely not a first for Kapoor. She enjoyed unprecedented success 17 years ago with shows such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii; but in a more evolved, cluttered and competitive television market today, the reign had been more than threatened lately.

“I’ve always referred to Ekta as the Shonda Rhimes of Indian television. I think she has this great ability to understand the pulse of the viewer," said Raj Nayak, chief operating officer, Viacom18 Media Pvt. Ltd that operates the Colors general entertainment channel.

Shonda Rhimes is an American television producer best known for the TV medical drama Grey’s Anatomy and its spin-off Private Practice.

The breaking wave

“I think of it this way—when I want to see something, there are a lot of audiences like me who want to see it too," Kapoor said. “(In the early 2000s) I wanted to see the daily strip of a very interesting family drama, you get into this house, these people’s bedrooms and you’re gossiping about them everyday; the idea was that it’s almost voyeuristic, but it’s also guilt-free gossip, and I realized this was going to be fun."

It was also about right timing.

“I think (it also had to do with) the birth and rise of Star TV and the upward growth of television, starting with Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire) in 2000," said film and television actor Ronit Roy, whose career won a new lease of life with Kapoor’s soap opera Kasautii Zindagii Kay. Most of the prime-time shows on Star were Kapoor’s, Roy said; so it was like catching the breaking wave.

“Apart from that, some of the shows she put out were in line with Indian traditions, and some were the new wave, dealing with things that had always been present but never spoken about. Take a Kasautii, earlier people never spoke about divorce or extramarital affairs and she brought them to television," Roy said. “So I think, at the time, it was a fair mix of sticking to tradition and bringing things out of the closet. It’s her formula or whatever you may call it."

As channels sought more content from Balaji, Kapoor, too, needed to upgrade content and deliver. It was a question of supply and demand and, therefore, having a whole line of functioning with multiple studios and actors, to the extent that the Balaji television show became a culture and industry in itself. At one point of time, Kapoor was handling as many as 22 shows, all of which were on air simultaneously on various TV channels.

“What Balaji did most significantly was that it institutionalized the assembly line production of TV serials," said P.N. Vasanti, director at the Centre for Media Studies. “It wasn’t like serials weren’t made before or after. But Ekta brought her business acumen and instinct for creativity together and created a model that could be replicated on a large scale."

Pre- and post-Ekta

What followed was almost a change in the destiny of Indian television, to the extent that even the film industry had to wake up and take notice. After all, shows made on the same scale as a mainstream movie could be watched at home for free.

“When we talk of Indian television, there was a pre- and post-Ekta Kapoor phase," said her friend, Mushtaq Shiekh, a screenwriter. “When you write for television, it needs to be addictive and consumed at an almost machine-gun speed. She mastered that and could keep at it for years. She drives you into liking a world that she intends to create. TV is about creating that freeze point that has the whole nation wait with bated breath in unison, change their lives and dinner times and have them want to come back to that world. Ekta has always been able to pre-empt what you want, second-guess and stay not one or two but many steps ahead to keep you glued."

Seventeen years down the line, Kapoor says, the television landscape has changed.

“That format of looking into people’s homes is done," she said, fingering a ring. There are about six in one hand, besides a watch, bracelet and rudraksh. There is a need for a new format which she spells out as “10 episodes, a shorter format and binge viewing."

Going digital

Which is where ALT comes in. The advertisement-free, subscription-based service launched in April this year with 32 original shows in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Gujarati. Noticeable immediately is a biopic on Subhash Chandra Bose titled Bose: Dead/Alive starring Rajkummar Rao that started streaming on 20 November to rave reviews.

“As content creators, they (Balaji) have not been arrogant enough to believe there isn’t something else (they can explore)," Shiekh said. “They are suppliers and they seem to sense if there is a demand for something. The ability to understand that is a great quality, even if the medium is niche or small, but it still exists."

In Balaji’s own words, there were three reasons to launch ALT.

“We’ve always been successful in the B2B (business-to-business) sphere where we gave our shows to broadcasters and they had the benefit of owning the intellectual property rights for them. So we thought we should also add a B2C (business-to-consumer) layer to our business and do something that would help us connect directly with consumers," said Nachiket Pantvaidya, group chief operating officer at Balaji Telefilms and chief executive at ALTBalaji.

The second reason, Pantvaidya added, stemmed from the high cost attached to bringing out a television channel at the moment. Compared to that, the entry barriers for the over-the-top (OTT) business are not so high. Not only is it the business of the future, there is also a large gap between rural area-focused television and English-language programming today. That consumer gap, Pantvaidya says, corresponds to about 100 million people who use 3G or 4G services to watch video or 40-50 million people who spend at least Rs4,000 per month on e-commerce. Out of this 100 million market, the English-language OTT programming addresses only 10 million.

“So we thought we should target this 90 million population, focusing on the under-served male audience. The third factor is that this is a nation of families or group viewing. If you look at movies or television, both are never watched individually. So we thought we should have a medium that caters to individual viewing," Pantvaidya said.

A natural fit

Challenges remain, of course. Less than a year into ALT, coupled with the losses from the films that released last year, Balaji registered a net profit of Rs5.44 crore in the quarter ended 30 September, compared with Rs8.95 crore in the preceding quarter. But there is hope. In July, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) acquired a 24.92% stake in Balaji in a deal worth Rs413.28 crore.

It’s a natural fit. RIL wants content for its year-old, high-speed mobile phone service Jio, which already has 100 million subscribers. Balaji will use the money to speed up content development initiatives, especially for ALT, reinforcing its ability to compete with other OTT service providers—both global and Indian.

“Balaji is investing in an OTT platform where currently there’s only cost, no revenue," said Abneesh Roy, senior vice-president at Edelweiss Financial Services Ltd, adding that the company may not turn a profit in the first two years. “OTT is currently seeing huge options in India and a lot of them come from the broadcasters’ side. But ALT is clearly the most differentiated. One, of course, because it comes from the Balaji stable that understands content and they have original Indian content unlike services such as Netflix and Amazon that work on Hollywood and Indian rehashes. The cost seems affordable and now with Jio coming into the picture, that brings huge subscribers; Balaji has chances of much higher advertising and success."

Kapoor, who says digital is her favourite medium, cannot wait to dig deeper. She sits at the head of the conference room, one foot on a stool. An attendant brings in a tray of pills for the self-confessed hypochondriac.

“I feel audiences’ tastes have changed. At least people who started watching television in 2000 are done now," she says, popping one. “On TV, unfortunately, I have to create for the masses and have to have the whole world like it. And I’ve done it for too long. So, maybe, a bit of stagnation has set in. Movies work too much on economics, creativity takes a back seat. Here, (on digital) I can do what I want," she said.

Disrupting viewing habits

It all comes from the same space though. The same creative energy goes into a Naagin, a Lipstick Under My Burkha and a Romil and Jugal, the ALT take on Romeo and Juliet about a homosexual couple.

“It’s like saying: if I celebrate Diwali or go for a Ganapati visarjan, I can’t go to an EDM (electronic dance music) or rock concert. We ourselves are different people at different times," Kapoor pointed out. “I’m very intrigued when I do a Naagin, I love the mass, kitschy genre. I don’t think it’s misogynistic as it is over-the-top. Anything which is slightly massy is termed regressive, which it’s not. In fact, it’s quite uplifting. And then you do something like an Udta Punjab or a Love Sex Aur Dhokha or a Lipstick... which is entertaining, smart, sassy and informative without being pretentious. I personally think it’s no great shakes to have a mindset that thinks both sides, or more."

The plan ahead, quite clearly, is to go completely digital.

“I want to be the biggest content provider on all three media (film, television and digital). I want to bring some huge disruption in viewing patterns across the digital platform. Digital has still been catering to the early adopters, the rich, initial smartphone-owners; but now, there are the masses as well," she said. “To bring them from television to the digital medium, build a huge base there and change the whole mindset of how to consume content in the country is my next aim. If a few years ago, I had created the habit to watch a half-hour episode everyday, I need to break that habit and create a new one. It’s not just about new content; new content in new formats and consuming patterns is the big game here."

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