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Kutumb launched on 29 October, the same day as the ambitious love story Kasautii Zindagii Kay (Kasautii) on Star Plus. Kasautii went on air at 8.30 p.m. Monday–Thursday, and would soon complete the holy trinity of Star Plus–Balaji TRP boosters along with Kyunki and Kahaani. In contrast to Kutumb, Kasautii was a tale of cursed love. The story was about two star-crossed lovers, Anurag and Prerna, who would never be together. Unlike the massive joint family fabric of the other major Balaji soaps, Kasautii’s narrative was rather simple. It teetered on a delicate thread: the thought that two people could remain connected for a lifetime without ever being together. The conceptualization of the series occurred rather casually during one of Ekta’s creative meetings. Ekta informed her creative team that she wanted to make an intense love story. She pulled out a sheet of paper, wrote ‘Jai Mata Di!’ on the top of it, and brainstorming ensued. Weeks later, when Ekta narrated the concept of Kasautii to Star, it was shot down as many in the network could not fathom how a story about two people in love would last longer than fifty episodes. Ironically enough, the series went on to run for more than 1000 episodes, much like the other members of the Star triad Kyunki and Kahaani.

The Romeo and Juliet of this love saga were Ekta’s choices as well. Cezanne Khan, who played the charming and soft-spoken Anurag Basu, was acting in Balaji’s Doordarshan weekly Kaliren at the time. Shweta Tiwari, who played the bubbly and beautiful Prerna, was meanwhile brought into Balaji specially for the role of Prerna in Kasautii. To assimilate the actress into the studio, she was cast in a supporting role in Kaliren while Kasautii was in its preproduction phase.

Other primary and important cast members of the show consisted of Urvashi Dholakia, who played the heinous vamp Komolika, and Ronit Roy, who played the suave businessman Rishabh Bajaj. The characterizations for Komolika and Mr Bajaj were clearly etched at Balaji.

Komolika would waltz into every frame with her signature sneaky tune, sung by popular singer Sunidhi Chauhan, playing in the background. She would twirl her hair and raise her eyebrows every time she was cooking up a plan of attack.

Meanwhile, Mr Bajaj was given the charisma of Hollywood superstar Richard Gere, with the salt-and-pepper hair, threepiece suits and gentlemanly traits well in place. While Komolika was to be the villainess that everyone loved to hate, Mr Bajaj was conceived as the aristocrat whose love every mature Indian woman would contest for. As with Kyunki and Kahaani, the title montage of Kasautii became hugely popular. There were shots juxtaposed of Anurag and Prerna romancing each other yet being torn apart every instance they came close. A chiffon dupatta of red, the classic colour of love, was wafted across the screen throughout the melody.

Unlike the other members of the Star trinity, however, Kasautii was not a female-specific show. Instead of exclusively revolving around a virtuous female protagonist, the serial was about both Anurag and Prerna, and their undying love for each other.

Music Director Lalit Sen took nearly sixteen potential tunes for Kasautii to Ekta and Nivedita Basu. While he sang what would become the final piece, Nivedita began humming in the background. Ekta instantly decided that in order to underline the romantic essence of the show, the girl would hum as the boy sang his lines and the boy would hum as the girl sang her lines. This, accompanied by a light piano, would end up making the tune as popular as a romantic melody from a hit Hindi motion picture. Kyunki, Kahaani and Kasautii became major profit drivers for both Balaji and Star Plus over the eight years that followed. Balaji went on to

produce numerous other programmes for the channel, but nothing stood as strong and firm as the three ‘Ks’, as they were fondly labelled. Numero uno KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepati) also exited after some time, turning into a seasonal show. The three Ks therefore became the pillars around which other programmes were slotted and scheduled. Other Balaji shows on Star Plus with strong reigns during the three Ks phase included the thriller/saas–bahu saga Kaahin Kissii Roz (2001), a show about a wealthy woman who sets out for revenge from her mother-in-law for attempted murder.

This was followed by two successful love stories. Kahiin To Hoga (2003) propelled the prosperous careers of Rajeev Khandelwal and Aamna Shariff, while Kkavyanjali (2005) revitalized the career of veteran 1980s and ’90s film star Amrita Singh. Cementing the partnership further, Star Plus also bought out the entire library of Metro Gold’s programmes once the channel went off air in 2003. As a result, Star also re-aired the classic Balaji weekly melodrama Kundali, and daily capers Kavita and Kabhii Sautan Kabhii Sahelii. The Balaji shows had their fair share of competition. Since the time the three Ks staked their claim on primetime television, the rankings on the TRP charts followed a steadfast order: Kyunki always got the highest ratings; Kahaani was a very close second; while Kasautii always finished at the third spot. The remaining top positions in terms of TRPs were often occupied by Star Plus weekly shows such as Aruna Irani’s Des Mein Niklla Hoga Chand (2001), Cinevistaas’ Sanjivani—A Medical Boon (2001), UTV’s Kehta Hai Dil (2003) and day-time soaps such as UTV’s Shagun (2001) and Bhabhi (2002), and BAG Films’ Kumkum—Pyara Sa Bandhan (2002). Balaji’s other K-shows on Star occasionally took over some of these spots as well. In rare cases, Sony managed to grab a sliver of these ranks with Kkusum, DJ’s Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin (2003) and Miditech’s Indian Idol (2005).

In spite of being the three most watched products on Hindi television, the 3 Ks were constantly pitted against each other under the roof of Balaji Telefilms in a friendly competition. For Ekta and her team, Kyunki would always be the first child. Whenever Kahaani or Kasautii looked like they were overtaking Kyunki, the creative department and writers would be spurred to bring the show back to the top. Similarly, Kahaani was always motivated to move past its second spot and Kasautii past its third position. The powerful rivalry kept the shows intense and burning through their rule over Hindi television. At the end of the day, the mind-bogglingly high TRPs of the Balaji shows were just numbers on paper. The real proof of Balaji’s reach and popularity did not lie in these quantitative statistics. The true measure of its fame and eminence lay in the stars it fashioned out of its actors, the warmth it generated in the homes of its audiences, and the unmatched fan base it shaped amongst every segment of its viewership.

Excerpted from Kingdom Of the Soap Queen (97 pages; 299), with permission from HarperCollins

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