Every channel has played a significant role in my life…

27 Nov,2017

 

Sony Entertainment Television will debut its much-awaited and possibly most ambitious project ever among ficition shows, Porus, later today (November 27). But writer-director Siddharth Kumar Tewary, whose production house also created the concept, says the show is not just a great story coming alive on screen, of an Indian king who stood up to Alexander of Macedon. It will also set new standards in Indian television with its content, look and treatment. And so confident is Tewary about his work, that he has bought the rights for the show. Pradyuman Maheshwari caught up with Tewary in his office in Andheri in North West Mumbai for a conversation. Excerpts:

 

Porus will be your biggest project ever, and it comes on the back of some big successes, the most recent being Mahakaali on Colors. Since we are also speaking to you as you complete a decade as an independent producer, let’s look at how it all started. Also, when you started out, was this the path you had set out to take. Did you think you would be doing what you’re doing now?

Not at all. I was born and brought up in Kolkata, which is a very passionate city. It’s passionate about sports and cinema. The idea of making movies really excited me. That’s what brought me to Mumbai; all I wanted to do was to tell a story.

Then, thanks to [Sony CEO] NP Singh, who took note of my interests and asked me to pitch ideas to producers and channels, I quit my job. I just wanted to tell a story, and the only way I could’ve done it 11 years ago, was by becoming a producer myself. I had zero experience in that area, so it took me some time to start a [production] company, pitch to Sony and then make a pilot for them. Funding was a big issue. It takes a huge investment to make a daily series. So yes, I wanted to tell a story then, and I still want to tell a story now. Only the modalities of working have changed, while the core remains the same.

 

Amber Dhara was your first show 10 years ago, right?

Yes, on September 24, 2007. I call it our birthday. We turned 10 this September.

 

Many people I have spoken about the phenomenal success you’ve seen in the last decade. Nobody has achieved so much, in terms of body of work and the kind of money you’ve made.

(Laughs) Not really. I don’t believe we’ve made a lot of money. I feel really humbled wen people even say we’ve done decently. I genuinely believe I haven’t yet achieved what I set out to do. But, yes, it’s been a great journey, a complete roller-coaster ride. If you look at our graph, we have been constantly experimenting. We have not stayed in our comfort zone. I believe that has been the most exciting part. As I kept learning, the idea was to take more risks and make something new. To try and do things in a new way. Try and tell the story in a new way. So I think those choices have kept us afloat, because we are constantly trying to better ourselves in whatever we do.

 

It’s not easy to get out of your comfort zone in a world which works on staying in comfort zones…

That’s possibly true. But I believe that if we just keep on doing the same thing the same way, it might benefit the bottomline of the company, but it doesn’t benefit me as an individual. I don’t grow if I keep doing the same thing for 20 years, and learn nothing new. I might try to follow the Mahabharata with Kali and Shani, and these three may be in the same genre, mythologicals, but they will become completely different in their making. With Porus, it is completely different because it’s a historical series.

I believe we have just one life to live. We have a lot to do, but very little time in which to do it. Straying from your comfort zone actually makes you a better creative individual because you will try a few things, and perhaps fail a few more times than everybody else, but it’s okay. There will be a certain amount of learning that you will have to go through.

 

But can you take that chance when it’s the channel’s money at stake? And in this business, you are only as good as your last work…

I agree with you on most of these points. But it’s not just the channel that puts in money. Every production house, which is making a show, puts in a lot of money as well. In fact, it is primarily the production house that puts in money. That’s how it has always been.

And, yes, of course we are in an industry where you are only as good as your last show, but it doesn’t mean that if I played it safe, it would work a hundred per cent. I don’t think anybody knows what the chances are. Playing it safe might improve your chances. But a lot of people are playing it safe across the board, and continuing to do the same thing. But is it really working?

We were No. 10 at one point, and now we’re No 2. So for us, it’s really working. When we experiment, it’s not by trying to create niche content for a mass channel, but by creating and presenting mass content in a new way for viewers. By telling the story in a way that viewers get to see something new. My intention for starting this company was not about how much money we would make, but about what we would create. So somewhere along the journey, we realised that we can’t just keep doing Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya hi Kijo kind of things, or even another village story, all the time. So just as Mata ki Chowki was different, so were Agle Janam and Phulwa. As was Ambar Dhara. We also created Begusarai and Razia Sultan, which was a historical. Bandhan, which involved shooting with a live animal, an elephant, was the most difficult show for that reason, but we a daily show out of that. I wanted also wanted to send out the message that animals should not be ill-treated in our country.

So these are things that excite all of us at Swastik. We are a very driven organisation, and have a passionate bunch of people who’ve worked with us over many years. We take a lot of pride in what we create. Also, thankfully, the broadcasters have a certain amount of trust in us. They know that if they give us work, we will leave no stone unturned to give our very best. We are not astrologers and can’t predict the future of the work we create, but we do under-promise and over-deliver all the time.

 

What would you say was  Swastik Productions’ turning point in your 10 years? Was it Mahabharat? Did people look at you differently after that?

Definitely. I realised a lot of things with Mahabharat. It changed me as a person; it took an ‘epic’ amount of time to make, five years; and I had the full support of the Star family, headed by Uday Shankar. He said, let’s make it in such a way that even before an actor speaks the dialogue, the visual should grab the viewer. I agreed, but it was only when we embarked on the journey that we found lots of issues. Everybody told me not to make it, for various various reasons. But I stuck it out and, as a result, had a tremendous amount of learning.

Normally, we are not exposed to mythology at all. But I read and learnt a lot [during the making of Mahabharat]. I realised that when you start trying to create a world which has been heard and read about, but never seen, it’s a huge creative challenge. To present a familiar story to the viewer in a new way, with a new thought, really excited me. It also completely changed my perspective towards things. It made me re-think mythology. But more than that was the exposure I got while making a series like Mahabharat. With 260 episodes, it was really, really challenging.

Given the medium we operate in, we need to be on the edge 24×7, to deliver consistently. Every mythological we worked on after Mahabharat, was all about how we made it. Then I realised that we were mostly making premium content. Today, we’re a premium-content company, and that works for us for two reasons. First is the large amount of learning that comes. If we are making Shani, we need to understand who Shani is, and convey that to the viewer too — and perhaps demystify a God that people have been scared of. So now when people tell me they understand better what Shani actually stands for, it makes me happy that I’m telling a story in an entertaining way while also sending out the right message.

 

But interpreting mythology and religion can be tricky, especially in today’s times…

At any time, actually. For instance, in a school test if I answered a question exactly as it was written in the textbook, I would only get 50% of the marks. If I asked the teacher why, I would be told that in school, they don’t want us to mug up things; we get marks to understand and interpret. The Mahabharat is an epic written 5000 years ago, but still relevant today in the values it tries to disseminate and inculcate. If you go to a bookstore, there are 20 different versions of the Gita available. Which is the right one? Indian mythology requires us to read, understand and interpret things in our own way. As for the lessons and messages – to each his own. Everyone has his or her own version of the story they believe, whether or not it makes sense to you. So I have to tell the viewer that this is ‘my’ interpretation of things, and only then will it make sense to them.

 

After Mahabharat, you did some other shows as well. For Sab TV, for instance?

Yes. I did Yam Hain Hum on Sab TV. I was very cool and fun. I had a great time doing that.

 

Will you look at doing a  love story like Navya again?

Of course we are. We are a creative company; we are not bound to anything. People keep telling me you are only making mythology series’. I have to then tell them that we are doing various kinds of shows. I’m just going with the flow and enjoying my journey. If we have a great idea, we’ll go out and make the show. It’s not a rule that we’ll only work on things with a certain budget.

 

So would you create a web series?

Why not? But again, it’s not because everybody’s making one, so we should too. For me, it’s about the story you want to tell. Luckily the stories I want to tell are require a certain scale and a premium production. But I do have some thoughts [about a web series]. I’ll tell you when we get there.

 

And would you do something for children, again?

We had done a small show on YouTube where we told stories to children. Currently, it’s mostly animation content being created for kids in India. I met with some channel folks to understand that market and what they would like. But again, it’s not about trying to understand what they want on the kids’ front; it’s about what we want to do, and see who it is relevant for. You should first know what you want to do, and then see if it fits within [peoples’] strategies, or on the platforms that are available.

 

For over 10 years, you’ve worked with various channels like Sony, Colors, Star, Zee, &TV, Sahara and Sab. Has the business changed over the years? And do you have any channel preferences?

Every channel has played a significant role in my life. I started with Sony, and then I got Sahara and Mata ki Chowki was a very big hit. It helped me sustain the big losses I suffered from the first show that we made because, at that point, we didn’t really understand production. We didn’t really know how to make a show. We just wanted to tell a story, so we didn’t consider the financial side of things, which is very basic. But Mata ki Chowki helped us get back on firm ground. Then we did Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya hi Kijo, which was our hit show on Zee TV. That’s how it happened. Then Sahara gave me Mahabharat, which was the changing point in my life. After that, I have done Phulwa, Shani and Mahakaali with Colors. All these channels have played an important role in my journey so far. So picking one out of the lot would not be right. We are all great friends. But among the heads, Uday Shankar and NP Singh have definitely played a very big role in my life – the latter because he trusted me when I was a nobody, and the former because he wanted me to make something that nobody in this country had ever made, and he trusted me as if I’d made a hundred shows before! I had done nothing of the sort. So they are definitely special.

 

While Mahabharat was big for you, I thought Begusarai on &TV would also have a special place in your body of work…

Begusarai was a different sort of series altogether. But for me, [the turning point] is definitely Mahabharat. For reasons that I can discuss over the next 10 hours!

 

A promotional still from ‘Porus’

So what made you go to Sony with Porus?

Danish Khan, who is currently the Head at Sony, was a part of Star when Mahabharat happened. So when he joined Sony, and I was working on Suryaputra Karn for them. He gave me brief saying he wanted to do something around the Golden Age of India, because that was something not yet shown on TV. He wanted me to think of a subject. I got this idea from something we had studied at school, about a king called Porus who had stood up to Alexander the Great. I had even seen a film about this years ago on Doordarshan. When I went back to Danish to with the idea, he got excited, and we decided to go for it. But I told him that we cannot make it in the way that historicals have been made for TV in the past. We’d have to present it in a much bigger way — probably on the scale of Mahabharat. But there were budget constraints. So that’s how we came to the discussions where I told him that I would like to keep the IP and invest my own money too…

I believe it’s worked because the focus is very clearly on the content. It’s a viewer-comes-first scenario. Because there is a huge amount of money to recover from the market, it will happen only if the show is a success. The channel is paying me much less than what it is supposed to.

So all things considered, it is eventually the viewer who is getting great content to watch. And that’s the only way you can improve the quality of content in television.

 

But does that mean a creative person like you has to then spend a lot of time and effort doing things other than what you possibly want to do, like marketing, looking at syndication and such?

That’s right. But I believe every content maker should undertake that journey as well, because it’s a natural progression. There’s a huge amount of production [responsibilities] that is cocooned by the channel. You don’t really know about it because you are [piggybacking] on an organisation that has tremendous amounts of exposure, learning and resources, and there are a lot of things that don’t even come to you. But you do need that exposure for the learning it brings. You need to just know I took the IP and I have reached a stage where I need to sell it. so how do you sell it. you don’t even have a great relationship with anybody in the US buying your content. So, yes, it’s been a journey. You also have to have a great team onboard. We are not just only selling Porus and the other shows that we have the rights to; we are also representing others’ content. We have 40 shows from India that we have taken. We took a stand at MIPCOM where we represented Porus there as well as other shows which we took to the world. One Life Studio, the company that we started [for the content syndication business]. It’s telling Indian stories to the world. So it’s a natural progression. And once you step into it, the real-world exposure is priceless. Content is no longer defined by geographical borders. It’s no longer true that a particular show will only work in India.

 

Today, all the networks — Sony, Star, Colors — have an international presence. For Porus, are you looking only at them or also at international networks with no Indian links?

In India, for example, we are looking at [dubbing Porus in] the regional languages in the South, so it could be on any of the south channels. We have sold Porus in Thailand, in the Thai language. Similarly, Mahabharat was a super-duper success in Indonesia. The South East Asian markets have been buying our content directly from the broadcaster so far. So they know us, and so have been quite welcoming. We also didn’t know where our content has been travelling to, so far. Now we know, and it’s been a nice learning on that front. Today, the whole world is a market. The whole of Africa watches a lot of Indian content, as does Latin America.

 

How has your experience with One Life Studio, and your effort to look at representing other producers, been?

It’s been really encouraging. It’s only been six months, and we have got some 40 shows. The whole of the TVF Library is with us as is the whole of the Arre library. For the makers down south who have their IPs, we have picked up their shows as well. So 40 shows is a good number to start off with distribution of shoot because Porus has helped us in setting up  a distribution setup. Because currently we don’t have a distribution higher up across the world. So we are building it. So it will take some time. Definitely in a years time, we will be talking.

 

Right now, your shows are dubbed in regional languages. In future — and as part of the growth of your company – would you look at made-for-regional television?

We have started doing that already, with Shani. It was launched two weeks ago and we have remade it for Colors Kannada. So it’s opened with great numbers. We shot on the same sets and with the same script, but used a different cast. We shot it in Kannada and gave it to Colors Kannada. So we are definitely looking at the south for tis.

 

What about reality shows? Today’s shows are very different from those of an earlier time, and a lot of investment is going into this genre…

We have done a couple of reality shows as part of our journey. We did a show called Saas v/s Bahu [for Sahara One] and Gyan Guru for Imagine, but the channel shut down sadly. Yes, non-fiction is great. With fiction shows, we tell the tale in such a way that we try to convince the audience that that person actually exists. In non-fiction, you take real people and create fiction around them. We will do something in non-fiction, but as of now, I don’t have anything to talk about. Saas v/s Bahu was a five-day dance reality show. It didn’t really work — maybe it was poor content, or maybe it was something else. But non-fiction is definitely something we can do.

 

What’s next for Siddharth Tewary? Are you looking at cinema?

We are a content company, so we’re platform-agnostic. We keep on creating content so we will definitely do movies too…

 

Would you turn Porus into a film?

I don’t know if anyone will pay Rs 300 to watch it. We will definitely do movies but the subjects are something we are working on. We are not doing anything right now, but we’ll talk about it when it’s closer to happening. Currently, I have a lot of television responsibilities, and my full focus right now is on Porus and the other shows that are already on air. We don’t want to take on too much; we’d rather do fewer things that are of value to us.

 

We’ve seen in the past how many successful companies have fallen by the wayside in the long run because they don’t reinvent themselves. Your views and what are you doing to ensure you don’t see the same…?

Like I said earlier, it’s all about continuing to better ourselves. If you stay in your comfort zone, you will never re-invent yourself. You need to take that next step and for us, Porus is that next step. That is the zone we want to be in. I think we should be happy about what we are creating. Every series that we do, must have something new in it. This keeps us on the edge. Trying to figure out what people like — that excites us. Currently, I’m so nervous that I feel like I’m about to take an exam. But that feeling of nervousness fuels me, and I want it to stay till the next story I tell.

 

What’s next after Porus? What is the next frontier.

There are certain projects that have we are engaged with. I can’t say anything officially, or the broadcasters will kill me. There are certain shows, but let’s just say that we will be trying to re-invent ourselves again with those…

 

 

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