Drawn into TV production at the young age of 19, how Ekta Kapoor became India’s ‘Soap Rani’

The secret of Ekta Kapoor’s success: she ate, drank, slept and married television

A conversation with television czarina Ekta Kapoor about her entrepreneurial journey is quite like an episode from one of the daily soaps she is so well-known for. There’s a seemingly simple character put in an unforeseen situation, who makes winning against all odds her sole mission. The fact that our chat lasted for exactly the half hour I was slotted for — on the schedule proudly displayed at the reception to her office — drives home this point. You cannot escape Ekta Kapoor at the Balaji Telefilms office in suburban Mumbai — her face and her imprint are everywhere. This is why it is not hard to believe a source when she tells me there is an alarm at the office exclusively to warn people to clear the path when Kapoor is around. But it’s also not hard to believe that even as her worker bees get down to some hard work, the Queen Bee works twice as hard. After all, uneasy rests the head that wears the crown.

In Kapoor’s case, adjusting took a while. “At 17, my father [yesteryears actor Jeetendra] told me to either get married or go work instead of partying like I wanted to. He told me that I won’t get anything other than my pocket money and to earn some extra cash, I worked with an ad agency. I was perfectly fine with the situation and thought I would live a very mediocre life, get married at 22 and settle down to a life of enjoyment. Unfortunately, or fortunately, nothing we plan ever happens.” By the time she was 19, her father was offered a chance to create software for a London-based channel TV Asia by his friend Ketan Somaia. The offer was handed off to a reluctant Kapoor, who then came up with concepts for new shows.

Opening up the idiot box

Kapoor’s love for American sitcoms such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and television in general motivated her to take up the offer, especially now that she thought she had a ready buyer in the form of a channel. “I decided to make five or six pilots with the concepts I had in mind. Meanwhile, the channel got sold to Zee TV. Here, I was trying to sell software that no one was ready to buy and there, our partnership had fallen to pieces. We lost all of our investments and were down to our last Rs.2 lakh. I decided to shoot the pilot for a show called Hum Paanch and sold it to Zee. By the time I was 19, it was on air.”

Hum Paanch, the story of a family of five oddball sisters, took off out of nowhere and became a runaway hit. With its rerun still hitting the TV screens on select channels to date, the timeless comedy can be credited with bringing Balaji Telefilms and Kapoor into the limelight. Speaking of that time, she says, “I started enjoying production. Some shows were making a lot of money and some were not. But once I started enjoying the challenges, I became obsessed about production. I ate, drank, slept and married television. It was not for the money — I was just pleased with the content that I was making.”

As the number of outlets for her content was limited owing to the limited number of Hindi GECs, she decided to take her shows down south. As luck would have it, none other than superstar Rajinikanth came to her rescue. “When we met him at a party, he told my dad that I was very bright and that I would go a long way. When I was travelling to Tamil Nadu for a slot, I realised that there was a bias against north Indians, which made it very difficult for me to get the slot. But when Rajinikanth calls, people listen.” The call earned her a non-prime time slot on Sun TV, with Kapoor writing the dialogues and making her accounts head scout for a translator. Once on air, the show became an instant hit despite its unfortunate slotting on the schedule. The show — Kudumbbam — was remade in Hindi in 1999 as Sony’s hit show Ghar Ek Mandir.

Hard climb to the top

Despite these initial wins, success was slow to come for Kapoor, who says she wanted to give up many times during the course of building the company. She recalls one such instance when she had just released TV show Itihaas on Zee TV in 1997. “We were Rs.1 crore down in our business. The show was losing Rs.2 lakh-6 lakh per day. We were told by our advisors that we would break even by selling the show at #8,000 for 10 seconds. With over 20,000 seconds to sell, we found an agency that wanted to buy at Rs.2,000 per 10 seconds. But we decided to hold on and mom asked us to wait. We ended up selling at Rs.25,000 per second. I remember thinking then that I might as well quit before I put my family in a similar position again.”

With the 21st century gradually making its way in, Kapoor found path-breaking success in her partnership with Hindi general entertainment channel Star Plus. Their several shows — Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii — became an integral part of Indian television history: the saas-bahu drama had arrived as a genre completely by itself. Those two shows and many more spread across networks made Kapoor the queen of Indian television. After a seven-year-long run, Balaji’s partnership with Star ended, and quite sourly at that, with a legal battle ensuing. By 2008, Kapoor was starting to slip from her pedestal. “We became machines. There was a time when I went home after five days. I was just creating content and I was loving it. I had a great time but there was no balance in the proceedings. After our partnership with Star became wonky, I became aware that I am not invincible. A TV boom came in and there were new channels telecasting new shows with new concepts. People hadn’t watched our shows in five years.” The race for Indian television had just begun and Kapoor decided to slow things down for a bit. While the company didn’t stop pushing popular shows such as Pavitra Rishta in 2009 and Bade Achche Lagte Hai in 2011, she wasn’t all over the airwaves as she used to be in the past. That was the time when Kapoor decided to venture into films. She explains, “My failures have been great contributors to my success. I would never have got into films if I never got that shock. I realised that we didn’t own any intellectual properties (IPs). I realised that over-dependency on one medium was not healthy for a company like ours and that we needed to broaden our focus. Films became that avenue for us. I have since learnt to delegate work and create new talent on TV as well. But you need to find balance and your company needs to be more important than you.”

Her production house ALT Entertainment was launched in 2010 as a youth-connect brand, whose first product was Dibakar Banerjee’s critically acclaimed Love, Sex aur Dhokha. Kapoor laughs and adds, “It doesn’t get more shocking than that. I was constantly told, ‘this is not television’. When someone from TV tries making movies, they are respected but not taken seriously.” ALT is not just restricted to film-making — it has also produced TV shows such as Channel V’s Gumrah. Today, Balaji Telefilms is ready to take up popular reality show brands such as Nach Baliye and Balaji Motion Pictures is releasing eight to 10 films each year. If this wasn’t enough, Kapoor has also taken a dive into retail and recently launched television fashion brand EK to sell clothes based on the fashion seen on her television shows.

One of the reasons she has stuck around for so long is her mother and Balaji Telefilms MD Shobha Kapoor. “From the beginning, mom would handle production and the finances, and I, the creative end, right from looks and designs to set management and the scene break-up. I can’t do the things that she does. Her perception of people is very good. She has always been good at things such as managing budgets and being hard-nosed about money. These are things that I am absolutely terrible at. I am creative so I tend to open my wings a little too much. There is a lot of friction between us. She wants money, I want TRPs,” says Kapoor. Slowing down but not really stopping — this has been a good learning curve post 2008. “I realised it’s not about being No. 1 but about getting your viewers back. I am not entirely satisfied with the current run, we can always do better. But I am happy.”

Final act

Surely enough, she says she is now ready to pass on this wisdom to the next generation of entrepreneurs and creators, referring to them as her kids and beaming with pride when she does. “I think I am now moving on from becoming an entrepreneur. I am immodest about the fact that I have encouraged some of the best talent in the industry as far as writers, producers and directors go. One of my kids is one of the top producers when it comes to fiction — that is a big joy. Today, I would rather set up six new companies with six new entrepreneurs and mentor them. I think that’s how our company will grow — by partnerships and by mentoring.” So, what really goes on in these masterclasses with Kapoor? “I never advise by word but always by example. I don’t believe in telling people to go ahead and do things. They see how I work and that work ethic gets instilled in their DNA. For example, I never take anyone else’s show. And none of my kids will do that, even if they’re top producers. These kids later become mentors — we empower others. We will not stop till we’re number one. Sure, that means we’re never polite. But we’re never unfair.” She does this because she realises the importance of the contribution of her seniors to her life.

“People probably saw some spark in me and have been mentors to me as well. People such as Makarand Adhikari and Rajinikanth have been important to my success. Sameer Nair and Uday Shankar, who gave me a chance to come back to Star; Subhash Chandra, who gave me Pavitra Rishta in 2009 when even I didn’t believe in myself… there are so many people I could be grateful for. To give back is to mentor. If you see a spark, give it a chance.”

She’s also pretty sure her gender is not her crutch. “There are big-boys’ clubs everywhere. We have to lead by example. I won’t say I am here in spite of being a woman — I am here because I am a woman. We can multi-task and we have agile minds. Anytime there is resistance because of your gender, turn it into an opportunity. Today, all the top producers are women — whether it is Shashi Mittal, Rashmi Sharma or even me. All these women have a lot of women employees; you have a lot of chances to hire women. If there’s a big-boys’ club in movies, there’s a big-girls’ club in TV — the ‘Cashmere mafia.’ If there’s a gender bias, it’s not going to last,” she laughs, just as dramatically as a character on her show.

The half an hour of time allotted to me comes to an end and it is now time for the next show on the schedule, both for Kapoor and for me. It is safe to say that the television throne is still hers, and she happens to love the crown now.

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