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A rarity called professionalism

Menka Shivdasani

With so many soaps on air, there is a dearth of good scripts and content. But Aamrapali, on Doordarshan's National Network, boasts of good content and a storyline that cannot be accused of being influenced by the West.


A still from Aamrapali, on Doordarshan's National Network.

In an industry that so often slaps together silly soaps in a hurry for hungry channels, it is refreshing to meet people who actually care about professionalism or saying something worthwhile. Last week, I met two such people — Ravi Kemmu, director of the mega-historical Aamrapali on Doordarshan, and Benjamin Gilani, veteran actor with an English theatre background who had his first brush with TV in 1986. While Kemmu spoke of the need to convey a sensible message, Gilani waxed eloquent on falling standards.

"As actors, we have been told that the script is all you have," said Gilani, who still believes in carrying a copy of Beckett's Waiting for Godot when he performs the play that he first did 22 years ago. When Gilani does a TV show, he makes it a point to go to the sets a couple of hours before the shoot in order to familiarise himself with the scenes. Most often, he is greeted with astonishment. Script? What on earth does an actor need a script for! Once, when he insisted, he was given a script, then discovered it was only the first page. When he asked for the rest, just as the shooting was to begin, he was told the writer was still working on page two and three. Of course, these had nothing to do with what had gone before on page one; the scene began in one place, and ended somewhere else, Gilani said!

"There are so many intelligent, professional people working in the industry," explains Gilani, "but it's just that the systems are so wrong".

Kemmu, in fact, is one of the people Gilani rates highly. "That's because Kemmu has worked with Shyam Benegal and has his basics right," Gilani says. Kemmu was associated with Benegal's Bharat Ek Khoj, the mammoth historical series based on Jawaharlal Nehru's The Discovery of India nearly 13 years ago. Kemmu and Gilani have now come together for Aamrapali, in which Gilani plays Mahanaman, Aamrapali's foster father.

Aamrapali, which airs on the National Network every Sunday at 11.00 a.m., is a big-budget (Rs 10 crore) story that delves into history books to depict a world that goes back to 600 B.C — to a time when a young woman is made the property of the state, elevated to a high position but forced into entertaining men.

"What interests me is the contemporary relevance of the story," says Kemmu. "There are three things I want to emphasise — the exploitation of women, the conflict of religion and the curses of democracy. The question I want to ask is — what have we learned from our history?" It's not the sort of thing that has the TRPs soaring, or the advertisers running panting to the show, but Kemmu is convinced that the story needs to be told.

Marketing the serial has been tough; they had five days' notice from Doordarshan to begin telecast on June 23, and were hoping to be able to sell spots at the rate of Rs 60,000 per 10 seconds. "We were waiting for the TRPs and thought we could sell at our rate," Kemmu says. Now, from the September 6 episode, they have had advertisers such as Nirma, Godrej and Hindustan Lever, for far lower rates than they had envisaged. Kemmu is confident, however, that there is a huge overseas market that can be tapped in the future through re-telecasts and CDs.

Then he makes a point that certainly needs to be made. "There is a market in other countries, but most of the time, we copy their programming, so what can we market to them?" Aamrapali may be taking its time to pick up, but it can certainly not be accused of being a clone.

New serials for the festive season

For those who prefer soaps, and for a change, a bit of laughter too, there are two new shows, one on Zee TV, the other on Star Plus. Both began last week, September 9 and September 10 respectively, and both promise to be different from the usual run-of-the-mill fare. The show on Zee, Aati Rahengi Baharein, is a daily soap — Mondays to Fridays, 8.30 to 9.00 p.m. — and is a joint venture between Kaarnik Productions Pvt. Ltd and Cinevistaas Ltd. Reena Wadhwa of Kaarnik says it is different because it is the first time that a soap has a male protagonist, and Jayesh Patil, the writer, says that there is a "lot of story", unlike other soaps which go on and on about a single event.

Khichdi, from UTV and Hats Off Productions, (Star Plus, Tuesdays, 8 p.m.) is different simply because it gets you to laugh. "Soaps are our staple diet," says Manish Popat, UTV's chief operating officer, TV Content. "Comedies are like desserts. Soaps get dragged on, but comedies are heavily dependent on a good script."

Good scripts, as Benjamin Gilani might tell you, are in very short supply, so perhaps that is why there are so few comedies and so many soaps on air!

The author can be contacted at menka@shivdasani.org

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