Ekta Kapoor is getting her brain mapped. Without getting into the specifics of neuroscience, it's a process by which doctors use imaging to observe the brain as it performs various tasks. "I apparently have many addictions and anxiety issues," she says with a bright smile, almost proud of the findings. A peek into Kapoor's brain would be undeniably fascinating. This is the mind that brought Udta Punjab, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, and Kya Kool Hain Hum into this world.
Ekta successfully runs a company that has 8 TV soaps on air, which includes the infamous Naagin. There's also a Daayan. Then there's Balaji Motion Pictures, that has four upcoming film releases. Her youngest baby is ALTBalaji, a digital streaming app that already has 30 shows in less than 2 years and another 30 or more expected in 2019. She has amassed 9 million subscribers on the app. That said, Ekta insists that of all her ventures she has the least command over digital – a new world she's still learning about. A world she describes as one that lies between Netflix and Naagin.
In this interview she throws light into what it takes to drive ALTBalaji, why a show like Gandii Baat must exist, and being a victim of the 'anti-populist propaganda'.
Excerpts from the interview:
You've said that on digital you started as a struggler. Less than 2 years in you have 9 million subscribers. What has it taken to get it right?
Before working on the content I tried to understand the simple psychology of Indian viewers. What's happening is that television is becoming more and more small town, so the urban audience is getting free. Every time one urban kid stops watching television, one rural kid takes over. The urban audience is not being catered to. Everyone thinks the new audience will move to the new medium because we don't have subscription TV like Showtime and HBO like America does. But what we're not understanding is that even the rural audience has three different viewing patterns. One is the communal viewing pattern which going to films with family and friends. Then is family viewing, which is content that the elders in the family allow you to watch or what is acceptable for you in front of them. Then comes the time you spend with yourself – which is your individual viewing pattern. This has come into play with digital. And it's not only sex. Take Mirzapur or Apharan – it's abusive, it's entertaining, it's masala. I don't want to watch this with my daughter and mother in the room.
With almost 30 OTT platforms in the country, do you worry about getting lost in a sea of content? How do you stand out?
I agree. It's a huge fear. If you're not clear about the content you're making and just creating a library, there won't be much of an impact. What is not available is individual taste content. There isn't much for the Indian who wants to watch mid-sized content which is 10-12 episodes and yet wants a sticky story. That is still less and requires a little bit of finance. It will take the big players to create that content. But yes, it is scary. Every time you get up in the morning a new show has launched.
I was reading an article about ALTBalaji in Fortune and it said that while other platforms such as Netflix and Hotstar cater to a more urban audience, the edge you have is that your content is focussed on rural India. Is that the audience you're specifically targeting?
Between rural and urban is a huge audience called the urban mass which is what I'm actually catering to. Urban mass is the world between Netflix and Naagin, which is a lot of people. This means I'm not the Naagin audience but I can't watch Narcos either because I've not learnt English in the best school. This used to be the earlier TV viewer who should have got a updated TV show. From Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi they should have gone into a Desperate Housewives, then a Boston Legal, then maybe the earlier crime dramas and then Narcos. But they got Sasural Simar Ka and Naagin instead. This is a huge 30-40, maybe 60 million base. And they're from cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Mumbai is not south Bombay only – it's also Vashi, Andheri, little bit of Nagpur. In movies I'd say it's not a Rohit Shetty film, not Anurag Kashyap, it's a Karan Johar film.
But I have to understand what you were going for with your show Gandii Baat. The press release called it "urban stories from rural India". Its synopsis says: "In these stories you will see how people from rural India are deeply affected by their dark fantasies." And then I saw a tweet from you calling it India's Black Mirror. What does this mean?
That's not what I meant. Basically the person I was writing to had a conversation with me earlier about Black Mirror. Now Black Mirror is a futuristic world which is made alive with fresh stories. We look at them and think this is probably what will happen in the future. Gandii Baat was taking the most bizarre tales out of an Indian family that could have the possibility of happening. So apparently once a whole village committed suicide together on Mahashivratri thinking they will meet Shivji. It's insane!
The last story was about this group of women who say they are sleeping with a snake. The whole village is angry because they want to know which man is coming and sleeping with the women. They can't do anything because it's a snake that turns into a man and makes love to them. And it's not one woman, but 20 of them. So when I heard this story, more than the sexual part of it, I just went 'are you serious?!' Eventually it was found out that these women wanted to have sex and their husbands had moved out for work. They knew they would be completely marginalised by society so they got together and made this story that they're being violated by this snake man. I thought it was bizarre but interesting. So what Black Mirror does is that it opens your mind a little more to the possibility of something happening in the future. This is about the possibility of something happening in a village. So that's the whole idea!
I'm not sure this was how it was interpreted. Maybe it needed context. Did you read the reviews?
You know what, giving context makes it look apologetic. Like you're making excuses. It's out there, if you can't get the second layer, that's your fault… or mine. I have no problem with sex. I think we make a mistake when we say sex is bad when it's actually sexual crime that's bad. I scrapped a whole episode because it had rape and it was not done in the right way.
Do you need to like everything you make?
If I had got Gandii Baat done by someone with a high critique appeal it would have had a total different impression. But I think it's a fantastic show. It's slightly too mass for me to watch but I love going through the stories. Like Vardi Wala Gunda is a great novel which every rickshawallah has read and has been sold at every railway station. But it's not something I would sit and watch. Most of TV I don't watch myself but I have the ability to curate. If there's an audience for something, I can make it.
On at least two shows that I looked at, I saw you were credited with the concept as well. What do you actively do to stay connected to what people want to watch, given that your life can be insulated?
You have to constantly make content and see what works. That's how you realise how their taste and palette is constantly changing. We have an entire team going through data analysis, we are pretty thread bare about it. We are never judgmental about our audience's taste. The data is amazing. I look at the highest time spent on videos – sometimes it's 8 mins, 11 mins, sometimes it's 27 mins! We also have a sexually motivated population who have skipped two-three episodes just to see one sex scene. I can see the sudden bump in the viewing patterns! It happened apparently with Netflix also. Whenever it says nudity, there's a huge bump in viewership.
You started in April 2017, by the end of 2018 you have about 30 shows. For 2019 you have about 40 more in production and 30 more ready and cleared. How are you achieving this?
I'm constantly hearing people. I have about 20 curators with me and they are constantly finding new people. We never say no to anyone. We hear everybody's story. I keep saying I don't care about bio datas – keep them aside.
My development team has been given a mandate that you have to get 20 shows. I mean 20 approved by me. So you have to open the fulcrum – it has to be 50 or 100 shows. If you don't play volume you wont be able to know what is working for what type of audience. If I came with an international library behind me it would be different. But I have to start from scratch. So I'm playing catch up!
A common criticism that one reads of Indian web shows and ALT is that it's a rehash of older ideas on TV with a lot of sex, riskier language… Are we really reinventing the wheel on digital?
I saw Mirzapur yesterday and I loved it. I called up the writer and said you have made a fantastic soap opera. And he said thank you because I actually believe it was. I suffer from what is called the anti-populist propaganda. I read a review recently about a show of mine which actually described what I must have thought and what I must have told my team before making it. It said that I must have told my team 'aaj kal women empowerment ka topic chal raha hai. Let's make a show on it'. You would have never been able to give me credit because it comes from someone from television. When actually setting up a show (The Test Case) in 2016 about something that was spoken about in 2018, reading up about women in combat roles, would have been a fairly new thing for someone to do. It got me the response, audiences came on, but someone has decided to instead look at what I must have said in a meeting. That reeks of so much bias! I wanted to send it back to the reviewer and say first stop talking about me, talk bout the show.
What are you bingeing on? And is there show made internationally or here that you're jealous of?
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It's fantastic. It's exactly what I want to do one day – make a show about our conditioning about what a perfect life is and when that breaks, how you have to find your individuality. I want to write a story on that basic germ. I wish I could do something that's even one-tenth as empowering and uplifting as that.