The proliferation of general entertainment channels helped Chhavvi Pandey realize her acting dreams
Growing up in a socially conservative family in Patna, a city then synonymous with crime, poverty and all manners of exclusion, Chhavvi Pandey might never have made it as an actor.
History intervened: Today, you might know Pandey, 24, as Kajal Tewari from the daily soap Silsila Pyaar Ka (aired on Star Plus)—one of the dozens of family dramas that dominate Indian television.
Fortuitously, Pandey was born a year after India embraced economic reforms, something that can be linked to her success.
Back then, Pandey grew up among multiple restrictions and in a family with limited financial resources. Her father Umesh Kumar Pandey is a retired government employee and a staunch patriarch.
“We studied in a girls’ convent and went to a girls’ college in the city. There was fear in people’s minds when it came to Patna. Our family didn’t want us to go alone anywhere especially if boys were likely to be present there; we were not allowed to talk to them or be friends with them while we were studying and growing up," recalls Pandey.
But dreams are dreams even if you are growing up in crime-ridden Patna. Pandey was a talented singer and made an appearance in the reality TV show India’s Got Talent on Colors in 2008. She didn’t win a prize, but one of the judges on the show, Bollywood star Sonali Bendre, encouraged her to explore options beyond singing.
And so, in 2010, Pandey left her government job to pursue a career in acting. There was a one-year deadline, mutually agreed with her father, in which to make it.
Over the two decades before Pandey left for Mumbai in 2010, the Indian entertainment industry had been undergoing a sea change, propelled by perhaps the most important aspect of a chaotic newness—the spread of the media and electronic communication.
Following the economic reforms of 1991, India began allowing foreign TV channels to start satellite broadcasts in the country.
These channels fuelled a culture of consumerism with aspirational programmes that were very different from the content put out by Doordarshan, the staid state broadcaster.
Since liberalization, the size of the television media industry has grown from an estimated ₹ 800 crore to more than ₹ 20,000 crore in 2016.
This was the time when Balaji Telefilms joint managing director Ekta Kapoor—the queen of Indian soap operas—changed the face of Indian television. She altered television-watching behaviour—perhaps forever—with melodramatic soap operas on family feuds and scheming women.
Reality TV shows opened the doors for a generation of rich and diverse voices from across the country while innovations like Coke Studio, a YouTube-based channel for South Asian fusion music, changed the perception that folk or classical music was only for old connoisseurs.
Another, albeit recent, entrant into India’s middle-class milieu gained prominence—modelling. This was the time when attitudes to acting—conservative at best—were undergoing a sea change.
“Definitely more people are coming into the profession now. Be it Miss India or anything, small-town girls also go and perform," says Pandey.
Pandey’s journey to Mumbai first in 2008 for a brief stint in a reality show and then two years later to pursue her dream of being in the limelight is riddled with all the elements of a Bollywood movie—father’s opposition, the one-year deadline, failures at work initially and then finding her feet as the main lead in a daily soap on one of India’s largest television networks.
Pandey credits her mother Geeta with being instrumental in changing her family’s mindset towards acting. She stayed with her daughter in Mumbai till she bagged her first contract—a part in the soap Ek Boond Ishq on Life OK channel.
“She helped me build the confidence and trust to make everyone back home understand how actors work in Mumbai. And I made sure I kept my communication with them very transparent. I used to call everyday, I used to discuss everything in great detail. I used to tell my father to come visit me on the set and also come and talk to my crew members and others on the set," says Pandey.
Her father did eventually visit the sets of Ek Boond Ishq and fell in love with the magic of the silver screen somewhere between the cue calls for action and cut. “He was there for around two-three hours and he didn’t want to leave," she says.
Across the country, parents have evolved to accept acting as a career option for their children.
Now, Pandey’s parents visit her regularly—once in three months—and are comfortable that she’s moving in the right career direction. They are ready to support her if she wants to try acting in movies.
Patna too has progressed—both in terms of social indicators and economic prosperity—from 2000 onwards. “Corporates are not scared to invest (here) anymore, brands are available, crime rates have gone down drastically," explains Pandey.
For Pandey, the change in attitude towards acting is perhaps the biggest triumph of liberalization, one that is not controlled by the government.
This is the 38th part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization. Read the previous parts here.
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