When other kids her age were deciding what college they would enrol in, this feisty young lady was busy building an empire — Balaji Telefilms Ltd – and changing the face of entertainment on Indian television. She made equally bold moves when she ventured into film production and became an important player in the movie business. Now Ekta Kapoor is all set to revolutionise the digital entertainment space in India, with her new app ALTBalaji. In a tête-à-tête with Shweta Kulkarni, the empress of Indian entertainment talks about her new obsession with the digital medium and her strategies to tell new stories on celluloid as well as the Internet
I am in a shock. I was, like, I am going to put my best foot forward for this show because there are so many homophobic people in India. But I didn’t know how they would react. In fact, a lot of people were, like, ‘Yaar, even we won’t watch this show. Two boys, who will watch them?’ This is the kind of reaction I initially received. Now the same people have converted; they are watching the show and enjoying it too. That’s why I am so shocked. I wasn’t expecting this kind of reaction to the show. So I would say I am fortunate and lucky. Somebody once said something really beautiful to me, which was, ‘Every story creates a sympathetic ear.’ So even if one person is listening or seeing or has turned sympathetic, the show has achieved its goal. But the kind of response we are getting is amazing. Ram Kapoor and Sakshi Tanwar’s show, Karrle Tu Bhi Mohabbat, is massier, and wherever I go, people ask me, when is the next episode coming? People have gone absolutely bananas over Romil And Jugal. And with Dev DD, we are targeting the general youth of India. We also have dedicated content for kids. Kids are a big audience. There is one show, Ding Dong Bell L-O-L, which is my favourite. It is for children who can’t speak, in the 0-2 age group. I am dying to show it to my nephew Laksshya, and my brother is, like, ‘Keep the iPad away from him. I don’t want him to get addicted to the iPad, you are not bringing it next to his face, to get approval.’ So we have many sections, now let’s see how it goes, aage.
collaborated with players like Netflix or Amazon Prime, just like other production houses are doing. What prompted you to start your own digital platform?
I have films, I have TV and the world is not owned by multinationals. It’s an open society, free economy, and I wanted to tell certain stories. Clearly, television was not letting me tell them because it is right now more massy than it ever was. One thought that content would get updated due to subscription-led programming but that never happened. On the other hand, there are films, where you have to wait for dates from actors, then have writers, directors, whatever… So you never get the chance to tell the stories that you want to. I was told that this was a big medium and if viewers pick up our stories, they are going to subscribe.
Netflix also began, one day, by someone who had a vision, and they are superb. I am a big Netflix fan but I have my own vision. And we have a brand in India, people know Balaji, people know we make content, people know our films as ALT films, they know Balaji’s TV shows… So we wanted to bridge the gap and create ALTBalaji, which has all kinds of programming. It has the essence of Balaji shows and, at the same time, some clutter-breaking content. So we were, like, let’s go ahead. We made business plans, we got investments, funding and I got a chance to tell stories that I wanted to tell.
Whether with television shows or films, as a producer, you have always set benchmarks for yourself. What goals do you have for ALTBalaji?
I don’t know, this whole benchmark thing scares me. When I started with TV, I thought some shows had the potential of 2,000 episodes and they stopped at only 20, whereas there were other shows that I thought could be stretched till only 50 episodes as there was no story beyond that but the same went show went on for 1,000 episodes. So I don’t set any benchmarks, rather I have very shortterm goals.
I want to make this app into a 42-show app by the end of the first year. I want one interesting story to be picked up and loved every alternate week. Right now, every show has nine episodes. So if you download the app, you get a new show to watch every two weeks. And at the end of two years, I want to have 100 shows. Stories that can never be aired on TV because they are mini-soaps, they are 25-episode soaps. The whole story begins and ends in 25 episodes, and you don’t have to commit yourself to telling the story for 10 years. If someone tells me I have to do 25 episodes now, it puts a smile on my face; I can’t do a thousand episodes any more. I think I get more stressed than the viewer does! I have to keep you entertained for 1,000 episodes when there are so many options. How will I do it?
But that happens too, there is a thought process behind that too. Every day, the audience comes to watch this family on TV and look into their house and learn their gossip. Then you just need great characters, initially a story that works, and then in every episode, reveal tiny details that happen in that house. However, if the audience is committed to four or five shows, how much will they commit? You will enjoy that kind of entertainment a little and you have exhausted their taste for that kind of entertainment for 20 years now. Ab thak gaya aadmi.
So do you think television, too, will change gradually?
No, that’s because you and I are exhausted but there are two new people who have just bought a television set in Billai, Meerut or some other small town, and have started watching these soaps. We have a population of over 1 billion. So even through 10 per cent of the population is exhausted and is now open to this new digital medium, the rest of them have just got a TV set and have started watching television. For them, it’s all new.
While television may not undergo any drastic change, there’s no denying that digital is the future. How do you see it changing the overall face of entertainment in the coming 10 years?
I look at it this way, taste changes and every beast gives birth to another. TV has given birth to this medium because people were tired of TV and not interested in television any more. The audience wanted to shift to smaller stories, shorter formats and interesting stories. Digital is an individual viewing space; I don’t have to watch it with my father and my mother. There could be stories that could be uncomfortable to watch with my family, especially if it’s a gay love story, or an extra-marital love affair or it’s something that my mom and dad want to watch on their own. They also want to watch but they don’t want to watch it together. There are some stories that you want to watch alone. Digital gives you that freedom.
And it’s not appointment viewing. For example, if I am not getting sleep in the middle of the night, I can watch something whenever I want. Yes, with TV, you can record a programme and watch it whenever you want to but to do that, I would have to get up, go to the hall and switch on the TV. But here, I can watch it on my mobile alone in my room. So, the convenience that has given birth to this medium is huge.
How much will this platform grow? I am a local, home-grown app but I do know this, that the brand recall of Balaji to the masses is probably a little more than Netflix and Amazon. They know me, some of them hate me, some of them like me but all of them know me. If I can get them to sample all this content, because they know me, I am hoping to grow this app. I have a decent number now. It’s overwhelming and it’s made me feel happy that my masses know me.
What kind of marketing strategies are you using to entice the Indian youth, who are already hooked to platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime?
For me, it was promos. I think nothing excites the audience more than content. We have our ads on Facebook and Twitter. We have our ads on IPL, but what really matters is what you are giving out. Our Dev DD promo created havoc, it was badass, it was crazy, it got some serious downloads. The second promo we did was Romil And Jugal, a classic romance with two men who are not exaggerated or made into caricatures. So, that created its own zone.
Then there is Boygiri, which is a pure boy zone of madness. I am now coming up with a kid’s show for teenage boys and girls. It’s called Cyber Squad. It’s on the lines of the Famous Five and Secret Seven, and it’s about these five kids who create this little zone for their own school to fight cyber crime. So that’s a different age group. Young people in India who had a problem with Balaji’s shows are going to get pleasantly shocked because I am making content that they will love. The whole idea is that ALTBalaji will give you all types of entertainment.
You have worked in television and in films. How different is this process and how creatively charged are you to be involved with it?
I am like a child in a candy store. I am having a blast! I have a superb team, we go through concepts and once we approve the concepts, the teams take over. Currently, all my energies are with ALTBalaji. With both the other platforms, I have been there… I have been in films for 6-7 years, I have been in TV for 23 years. Almost 70 per cent of my life has gone into television. I started at the age of 17, like really, who starts at 17? Clearly, I had nothing else to do in life. So, I want to give more to ALT. First, these are stories that have never been told here and I am getting a chance to tell them.
You mentioned earlier too that you had never got the chance to tell stories like these. What stopped you?
Couldn’t you have made them into small features or shorts and aired them on TV or released them as smaller films? It’s the economics, yaar. There are so many films that don’t do well because they don’t have stars, and the audience doesn’t have the time on the weekend to go and watch them. Sometimes, the marketing is not big because the film costs 2 crores to make, and the marketing won’t be more than 2 crores. Some movies just come and go as they have only that one weekend to prove themselves, and for many reasons, sometimes even a good film goes by without getting noticed.
But to watch anything on this medium, I don’t have to set aside 4 hours. I can watch it in the middle of the night, I can see it when I am travelling to town, and I am not paying for it. I am only paying for the app, which is 60 bucks. So, sometimes, you don’t have the ability to market certain content. For instance, for Romil And Jugal, I don’t have to get a film made, cast two actors and then engage in marketing, spend on making the film, think of the economics and then wonder if there will be people going to cinemas to watch it. Also, content on this platform is not short-lived. Two years later, someone may log into the app and say, ‘Oh, I should watch this.’ Some guy will say, ‘Main gay nahin hoon, main nahin jaane wala dekhne gay show’. But when he is alone, he might watch it. So this gives everyone more freedom.
Do you think digital will soon impact cinema too?
I think so, I am sure small films and extremely clutter-breaking content will find its voice on the Internet but in theatres, it will have to be largerthan-life. And you will have to make the experience worth it to ensure that the audience sets aside 4 hours and is willing to spend `200 and go out and watch the film.
Talking about films, your next film Half Girlfriend is all set to release. What kind of expectations do you have?
I have stopped expecting from movies. I had five flops last year. I have decided that I will have no expectations this year. I will make the movie, ensure the content is good, I will do great pre-sales and that’s it. I can’t predict how many people will come to cinemas to watch it. Somebody once told me that death and the outcome of a film can never be predicted. Time of death and the day of collections — they are two things you can’t predict, ever. Friday ko kya hoga, you never know. Yes, there are certain sure-shots like Baahubali, but everybody can’t make them. They happen just once in a while.
We have been hearing that after Half Girlfriend, Balaji will not invest in movies…
Well, my simple belief is that I am not producing films as a producer. I am producing content. So, it’s very simple. If I get a piece of content that is worth being a film, and that has the potential that I know that people will spend `300- 400 for a ticket and `1,200 for their family, or ten people will take time out that weekend to go watch the film… If it is that type of content, then I will make it into a film. There are a few projects I have commissioned like that. But it’s not going to be, like, I am going to make 6 films a year. That concept that I have to make 6 films a year is over. I have to make a film when I get a script that has that potential to be a film instead of a digital series. Now I have all three doors open. So, if I listen to a script and think it is damn good for digital, I will produce it for my app, and if it’s great content for a film, it will be made into a film.