On a Saturday evening 20 years ago, Sriram Raghavan called his friends and asked them to switch on their televisions to Star Plus at 9 pm. First Kill, an episode he wrote and directed for the anthology series Star Bestsellers, was about to air. He was nervous. "Half of them were busy with other things," he says. "It was a pain asking them to watch at a specific time and then waiting for their feedback."
The episode stars Abhimanyu Singh as a rookie cop who can't shake off the suspicion that he's killed his intended target's doppelganger. Among its inspirations were Raghavan's love of NYPD Blues and an article he'd read about a couple who refused to claim the body of their son killed in a police shootout. Shot in and around Mumbai, the episode's tight budget of Rs 5 lakh meant that the cast and crew's earnings would be whatever they saved on the cost. Since they overshot the three-day schedule by an extra day, they didn't take home much. "TV taught me to work fast," he says.
Raghavan was among one of many directors and actors who got their start on Star Bestsellers between 1999 and 2000. The show's 45-minute-long episodes aired once a week, a fresh story, director and cast each time. Many of them have now found an afterlife on streaming, with 21 available on DisneyPlus Hotstar and 15 more on YouTube, cut up into 15-minute-long segments.
The show was one of many pitched by then executive producer Shailja Kejriwal. She had two rules — that it would give newcomers the chance to showcase their talent and that the episodes would span different genres so as not to get repetitive. The idea was approved and she got a budget of Rs 2.6 crore for 52 episodes.
Hansal Mehta was the first to direct one. At the time, he was "in a state of despair" as his first film, Jayate, hadn't released and he was trying to raise funds for a second. In between, he was filming episodes of Khana Khazana, the popular cooking show that made Sanjeev Kapoor a household name. One of its producers, Merlin Joseph, came up with the idea of a woman who opens her door to a mysterious stranger. She took it to Star, they developed it into The Frog and The Scorpion and asked Mehta to direct it.
To keep costs low, he set the episode at a single location, a Madh Island bungalow called White House that came cheaply as it wasn't furnished. All its furniture, particularly the kitchen decor, came from the sets of Khana Khazana. "I used all of this training when I made Shahid (2013). We had a budget of Rs 70 to 75 lakhs and that didn't shake me at all," says Mehta.
Several other directors came on board through word-of-mouth. A "very hyper" Anurag Kashyap, who Kejriwal had met on the sets of Shool (1999), came into the office and rapidly pitched multiple ideas. "They were all a little edgy. He was like, 'Main train mein aise hi ghus jaunga, bina permission leke. Aise hi shoot karunga. Grainy lagega.' He was going on and on and on and finally I was like, 'Kar le, baba.' He still has that energy," she says. Kashyap's episode, Last Train To Mahakali, about a prisoner convinced that he's invented the cure to every virus, is one of the series' standout episodes.
Meanwhile, story submissions began to pour in from directors, producers and writers from across the Hindi, Marathi, and Bengali film industries. Some came from cinematographers and editors who wanted to make their first short. Kejriwal's tiny cabin at the Star office soon began to overflow. "There weren't many computers so we'd get hard copies of stories. We got thousands. At one point, I had around 40 of those thick, fat files just filled with stories."
Inspiration came from the unlikeliest of places. On a smoke break one day, director Gaurab Pandey told Kejriwal that he'd visited someone from the mafia while on vacation in Italy. "I half believed him, half didn't," she says. "He said that man's house was on the beach and was covered on all sides with bulletproof glass because he was so afraid of being shot anytime, anywhere." That conversation became Chaudvin Ka Chand, an episode about a Guru Dutt-loving underworld don who's so afraid of death, he surrounds himself with people. Sayaji Shinde was so impressed by the script, adds Kejriwal, that he did the role for free.
Other episodes borrowed from Hollywood, like Tigmanshu Dhulia's Fursat Mein, a reworking of Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport (1996). He wrote the short with the late Irrfan in mind, casting him as an elderly man who uses fake visiting cards to impersonate officials and carry out good deeds. The actor starred in two more of Dhulia's five episodes. In Bhoron Ne Khilaya Phool he plays a man whose beautiful daughter attracts all the neighbourhood men. In Ek Shyam Ki Mulaquat, Irrfan is a married man struggling with complicated feelings for his neighbour.
Ankush Mohla and Glen Barretto, who had 'Indianized' Stephen King's IT into Zee TV series Woh in 1998, adapted Edward Norton-starrer Primal Fear (1996) into an episode titled Masoom. Actor Yogesh Pagare was cast in Norton's role of a boy feigning multiple personality disorder. The lack of budget meant that he didn't get costumes and so wore his own clothes for the episode.
"Everyone brought props from their homes for the house scenes. The DoP was a friend so he didn't charge us his market rate," says Mohla, who starred in another episode, Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechara. Since the script included a scene in which his co-actor had to drive towards him, he suggested that his car be used for the shoot. "He wound up driving my brand-new car straight into a tree, which got caught on camera," Mohla laughs.
Word of the show spread quickly and soon, more established directors began pitching ideas, undaunted by the lack of budget. Santosh Sivan, who had released his feature Halo three years earlier, stopped by the Star office with two stories and an offer to do them for free. Calls from Yash Chopra and Adoor Gopalakrishnan followed. "Even David Dhawan wanted to do one, but we said no to all as we wanted to give newcomers a platform. I think what excited these directors was that there were no pressures of either the box office or of TRPs and they got to make whatever they wanted," says Kejriwal.
This lack of studio interference helped shape some of television's most progressive episodes of that time. In Rajit Kapur's Tripti, a woman escapes from an abusive marriage with the help of her mother and sister. Shuruat, which he also directed, revolves around divorcee who has an abortion. "Tripti and Shuruat were told from the women's point of view, which wasn't common at all 20 years ago. If I'd tried to make them as films, people would've asked me if I was mad," says Kapur. "Even on the show, we didn't get good feedback initially. People were like: Hello, what are these?"
By mid-2000, shows such as Kaun Banega Crorepati and Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi had begun to air, netting much higher TRPs. "This was a 0.6 in the ratings and Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi was a 19," says Kejriwal. "A lot of like-minded people liked Star Bestsellers, but it really wasn't a money spinner for the network." The show was halted abruptly. Fifty episodes had been shot, but only 46 aired.
Among the many that aren't available on streaming is Irrfan's first and only directorial venture, Alvida, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Kejriwal doesn't remember much about the episode, only that when she asked Irrfan why he wasn't playing the protagonist himself, he spoke highly of Siddiqui's talent. Years later, when the two starred in The Lunchbox (2013) together, he reminded her how accurate his original assessment was.
Other episodes that haven't been aired since the show concluded include Rajkumar Hirani's "Readers' Digest-type" romance, a The Shining-inspired episode starring Aditya Shrivastava and Kapur's kidnapping drama Net Escape.
Twenty years on, the show's rich legacy is the many great directors it produced. "All of us, after a year or two, made our first film," says Dhulia. "The show was a turning point in my life."