Missing the masala

You would think that someone on the writing team of Bade Achhe Lagte Hain (a much talked about daily soap which went off air on Sony Entertainment TV after a three-year run in July) would make the narrative of a book on Balaji Telefilms entertaining, palatable, and full of never-heard-before anecdotes. But the author, Kovid Gupta, despite speaking to “hundreds of actors, directors and technicians", just does not manage to pen the pulse of Ekta and Shobha Kapoor’s television and film production house, in a way that may engage the reader.

Kingdom Of the Soap Queen: The Story Of Balaji Telefilms is a chronological account of the rise of the production house and meanders through the life and times of some of its most popular soaps, including Ekta Kapoor’s first real success, Hum Paanch, which went on air on 5 April 1995 on Zee TV. Hum Paanch was a story of five teenage girls and their wild adventures that drive their father, stepmother and their mother, who is in heaven, mad.

Not only was this Balaji’s “first brush with the masses", according to Gupta, it was a pop culture icon in the 1990s and “played a crucial role in strengthening Zee TV’s position as a premium General Entertainment Channel". There is very little information about how the script of that show developed, why Ekta or Shobha think it was popular, none of the cast members have any anecdotes to share. Yes Kajal Bhai, one of the characters, wore actor Jeetendra’s (Ekta’s father) old clothes, and Vidya Balan played a nerdy character, Radhika—but so what? Those bits are common knowledge anyway.

Perhaps one of the more interesting chapters in the book is the one about “Kastle of the Kingdom" or Balaji House in Andheri, Mumbai. The Kapoor mother-daughter duo moved their office from the basement of Jeetendra’s bungalow to this building in 2000 and Gupta paints a sharp image of how things proceeded in this seemingly always-busy madhouse. On any given day, as many as 10 serials are shot, some at Balaji House and others at Balalji studio, there is always a mad juggle to get actors, many of whom work in multiple in-house serials, from one place to the other, screenplay writers are busy typing away last-minute scenes.

Kingdom Of The Soap Queen: HarperCollins, 197 pages, 299.
Kingdom Of The Soap Queen: HarperCollins, 197 pages, 299.

In case you are wondering what the “Krown Jewel" is, you will be surprised to know that Gupta saves that spot for The Dirty Picture, a film produced by Balaji Telefilms, and not Kyunki... Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi..., the show that ran for eight years on Star Plus and defined Balaji as the mother of all saas-bahu serials on prime time.

Smartly enough, he does reserve the “Katastrophe" chapter for Balaji’s ill-fated venture Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki with 9X channel. Gupta takes pains to explain why this venture was different from the assembly-line productions Balaji was used to producing and then very bravely tries to analyse why the show failed. The reasons he cites are 9X being a new channel with limited viewership and the styling, casting and shooting being too similar to saas-bahu soaps.

If you are picking up this book to get the dope on Ekta’s eccentricities, the inside gossip of Balaji Telefilms or even trace the rise, fall, and rise of India’s most influential television company, don’t bother. The book has been written by a self-confessed fanboy (he keeps Ekta’s photograph in his wallet). In his acknowledgments, Gupta mentions that for the book, Ekta “spared" time for a 15-minute interview, the “audio footage" of which continues to inspire him, while Shobha gave him an hour. So, between them, the two women whose achievements the 197-page book sets out to list, spared only an hour and 15 minutes.

Surely, the story of Balaji Telefilms deserved more.

For an excerpt from the book click here.

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