Lather, Rinse, Repeat

How to write a saas-bahu saga

Ekta Kapoor’s latest production, Naagin, remains the most watched show on Indian television, and has popularised blending of supernatural elements with the saas-bahu genre. DELHI PRESS ARCHIVE
Ekta Kapoor’s latest production, Naagin, remains the most watched show on Indian television, and has popularised blending of supernatural elements with the saas-bahu genre. DELHI PRESS ARCHIVE
01 June, 2016

ON A BRIGHT AFTERNOON IN MID APRIL, on the fifth floor of the Balaji Telefilms building in Mumbai, Rajesh Joshi, the most influential soap opera writer in the country, sat at his desk scratching his brow. His hair was a mess. Just above his chair, a small shrine jutted out from the wall, in which little idols of Hindu gods sat draped in sequined clothes. Around the desk sat three other writers, waiting for him to speak. Joshi stared at his notes.

The meeting had been called to discuss the plot of the third episode of a new serial by the production house run by Ekta Kapoor. It would be called Kawach, meaning “armour,” and would soon air on the channel Colors TV. Kawach would replace Naagin, also a Joshi-Balaji product, which popularised a formula that blended supernatural elements into the saas-bahu genre, and remains the most popular show on Indian television. Kawach, which Balaji hoped would be its new blockbuster, would have everything that Naagin had, and more: love, seduction, black magic, ghosts and even a bit of skin on show.

It would be about a rich Rajput family, the Bundelas, who are threatened by the reappearance of an old nemesis: Manjulika, an evil witch, usually dressed in strapless blouses and given to breaking into dance at regular intervals. In the first two episodes, the witch befriends the show’s hero, Rajbir Bundela, by casting a spell on him, and comes to stay with the family, in disguise. Rajbir, who’s supposed to get married in two days, starts mistreating his fiancé—Paridhi, the show’s female lead—endangering their relationship. Joshi was trying to decide what would happen next.

“Let’s discuss the highest point of the episode,” Joshi said. Paridhi would follow a possessed Rajbir into a forest near the city, he explained. She’d see him going to a lake, out of which Manjulika would emerge completely wet. Rajbir would watch Manjulika dance to a song, and then the two would embrace.

Thoda intimacyko badhaana hoga” (We need to increase the intimacy), Joshi said. He then suggested a solution: “Manjulika’s dupatta will fall off.” Paridhi, watching them from a distance, would be perturbed. “No girl will be able to bear that her fiancé is hugging another woman.” He paused for about 30 seconds as his subordinates took notes, and then clarified that Paridhi should look absolutely convinced about their affair. “Woh ullu-ki-patthi nahi lagni chahiye” (She shouldn’t look like a moron), he told the writers.

After discussing a couple of other scenes, Joshi suggested an important sequence that would bring out the essential differences between the characters of Paridhi and Manjulika—the “heroine” and the “vamp.”

“Let’s do a dinner scene,” Joshi said. Manjulika would bring mutton into the house.

“She will eat clumsily and hastily, smearing mutton all over her mouth,” Joshi said, digging his hands into an imaginary plate and shoving meat into his face. Paridhi is a vegetarian. She will wonder how “America-returned Manjulika does not have the right table manners. Paridhi would be so disgusted that she would run away and puke,” he said, contorting his face and mock-retching. “Manjulika loves non-veg. She will explain to Rajbir that mutton is her favourite dish. She could not control herself.”

About 40 minutes into the meeting, Natasha, a trainee writer, who had been quietly taking notes, spoke hesitantly. “Won’t you use anything from the draft I wrote?” she said.

Joshi smiled, and asked her to narrate one of the sequences she had suggested.

“When Manjulika does the black magic,” Natasha began, “a burning flame will enter the Bundela household. Dadi”—the grandmother—“will wake up and follow the flame. It will slowly float through the air and finally, go out of the window as Dadi watches. The flame will reach an old tree and plant itself in a woodpecker’s hole. As soon as it touches it, sensing an evil power, bats will fly out of the tree.”

Joshi pondered the idea for almost a minute, then asked, “But what is the logic behind the flame? Why is it there?” Natasha stared at him, unsure how to respond. Joshi then laid out a fine distinction for the fledgling trainee writer.

“A jyot”—a flame—is not black magic,” Joshi explained. “Rather, it signifies spirits and ghosts. There is a huge difference between the two.” He emphasised that the plot was currently focussed on black magic, and a jyot could only be used in ghost sequences. “Yeh ek aatma ka kaam hai. Jab hum aageghost sequencekarenge, tab aise plots dhoond dhoond ke laana.”(This is all ghost business. When we do a ghost sequence in the future, that’s when you should bring me such plots.)

“We cannot mix black magic with ghosts,” he told Natasha sternly.

INDIAN TELEVISION IS FLOODED with shows like Kawach right now. The most successful shows across Hindi general entertainment channels, or GECs, have a variety of supernatural elements: black magic, evil spirits, witchcraft and—perhaps the most popular of them all—the mythicalichchhadhari naagin, a shape-shifting snake-woman.

Obsessed with these tropes, television creates a bizarre, alternate reality. In one show, a seemingly innocuous daughter-in-law turns out to be a venomous, shape-shifting snake. On another, the greatest challenge in a woman IPS officer’s life is to save her husband and his family from dark powers. And in period dramas, historical figures such as Ashoka and Akbar ward off seductive naagins besides ruling their kingdoms.

But this is only the latest fad to sweep the airwaves. When Gangaa, a show about a young widow’s life, became popular, a bunch of shows with widows as protagonists were produced in quick succession. Before that, a show called Balika Vadhu set off the trend of having children as central characters. With more than 50 soap operas being aired across four big networks that run GECs, competition in the industry is fierce. Each time a new idea works, producers descend on it like vultures.

Balaji Telefilms, a production house run by Ekta Kapoor, pioneered the saas-bahu genre with its show Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. DELHI PRESS ARCHIVES

And yet, many of these mild innovations happen within the strict confines of the saas-bahu template. Balaji effectively invented this template with Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi in 2000, and has successfully tweaked the formula several times since. Naagin was not only Balaji’s biggest success since Kyunki, but it also sparked the recent mania for supernatural stories. Rajesh Joshi was head writer for both Naagin and Kyunki. Balaji’s influence thus permeates the industry—in both the shows’ content and the way they are produced.

Over the years, the industry has carefully fine-tuned the process of creating these stories to maximise viewership, and thus profits. Behind every show, a well-oiled corporate machinery performs intricate calculations about what plots or characters will or won’t draw high television rating points, or TRPs. Writers like Joshi and his team are at the frontline of a war between channels for TRPs, and have to constantly churn out plot twists and eye-catching scenes to keep viewers riveted.

“There are set formulas for writing any daily soap,” Joshi told me when I interviewed him at his office this February. “The win of good over evil is the essence of every show. Take any serial, the good will always win.”

The approach leaves little room for creativity. Cliched formulas guide the development of characters and plots, and often pander to audiences’ regressive beliefs and superstitions.

Joshi was frank about the cynical calculations writers have to make. “It is not written anywhere, in any book or research, that there is an ichchhadhari naagin,” he said. “It is all bakwaas”—nonsense—“And we cash that bakwaas-ness. And we get the TRPs.”

WHEN A NEW WRITER entersthe industry, she is gradually taught a set of rules to follow in their scripting. These rules, considered essential to generating TRPs, are implemented by different departments of a production house as the script passes through them, almost as if on an assembly line.

Gitangshu Dey, a 28-year-old television writer, started his career with Balaji in 2007, and soon became a protégé of Joshi, whom he calls “Raju bhai.” For the first three years, he worked as a ghostwriter for Joshi, without receiving any credit. Having been an aficionado before he joined the industry, some of the rules were obvious to him—a for instance, that a dropped thali, the sudden extinguishing of a diya, a thunderstorm or shattering glass were all signs that terrible things were afoot.

But there were other rules that he learnt once he became an insider. He realised that, in a soap opera, time flowed much more slowly than in films, or even books. The shows generally aim to last for several years, sometimes even over a decade. “If you wrap the story plots too soon, you won’t have anything to write after a year,” Dey told me. “So if a scene has potential to get TRPs, the writer will try to milk it fully.”

This can have absurd consequences. In the show Ek Ghar Banaunga, the hero and heroine elope and get married. When the hero brings his new wife home, his family refuses to allow her inside. A marathon of deliberations and negotiations begins within the family about whether to let her in. “For 15 episodes, the heroine kept standing at the chaukhat,” or doorstep, an executive who worked on the show told me.

One night, Joshi took Dey to a meeting at Ekta Kapoor’s bungalow in Juhu. “Meetings with Ekta are like classes,” Dey said. “She stressed on characters a lot.” Kapoor told him to continually strive to make his characters more lovable.

Rajesh Joshi was the head writer for some of Balaji Telefilms’ most popular shows, including Naagin and Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. APOORVA GUPTAY FOR THE CARAVAN

Balaji taught Dey that the heroine needed to be what they considered an “ideal” figure—an ideal daughter-in-law, an ideal wife, an ideal mother or an ideal sister. “The moment you take her out of that mould, the popularity plummets,” he said.

But what constitutes “ideal”?

Dey explained that, for one, the heroine must always be self-sacrificing. “Take any female lead from any show—extrovert, introvert, beautiful, ugly,” he told me. “She will be an epitome of sacrifice.” The heroine must give up her own joys and wishes for the sake of her family. Furthermore, her character must be submissive. “Quiet submission,” according to Dey, “is a trait appreciated by the Indian audience.”

An ideal heroine contrasts sharply with the evil vamp, who is shown wearing garish make-up, and is dressed in a way a conservative audience finds provocative. “There is little scope for grey,” Dey told me. “The characters are either white or black.”

The vamp derives sadistic pleasure from creating trouble for the protagonist. Since such characters are one-dimensional, Dey pointed out, the audience can grow bored of them easily. So, after a while, they either die or are thrown out of the family and disappear forever. Soon, fresh evil takes their place.

Dey soon realised the writers’ department had limited control over stories. Besides Joshi, he was also answerable to “creative”—executives hired to ensure the production process was oriented towards maximising TRPs. Dey was in fact interviewed by a creative, and not a writer, before he was recruited by Balaji. The production house introduced the use of creatives in the industry, and gave them a wide mandate to enforce storytelling rules. One such rule, for instance, mandated that the heroine must be present in at least 70 percent of the scenes in an episode. If she wasn’t, a creative could demand that a writer redraft the episode.

Gitangshu Dey worked as a trainee writer at Balaji Telefilms, where he gradually learnt the rules of the soap opera genre. APPORVA GUPTAY FOR THE CARAVAN

Over the years, Dey familiarised himself with formulas for plot twists. One beloved of the industry is dulhan badal jana, or the bride swap. Though the term suggests a situation where a bride other than the intended one arrives at the mandap, the industry also uses it more generally, to refer to plots where a wedding is obstructed for one or another reason. A heroine might, for instance, go missing at the last minute, or a hero who had been presumed dead might return to object to a wedding. (Dead people, of course, are never unequivocally dead in a soap. A character can be poisoned, shot in the head from close range and thrown off a cliff, and still come back within a few episodes. A temporary death is one of the most effective plot movers.)

Dey learnt other popular plot-advancing tricks, many of which were derived from old American soaps such as Days of Our Lives. In the world of soap operas, an evil double might replace a character, complicating the lives of those around them. Simple miscommunications ruin relationships forever. Streaks of horrible luck are unending. Besides all this, of course, there’s always an evil conspiracy brewing against the protagonists, possibly involving black magic.

In August 2015, after eight years of assisting other writers, Dey was hired as the head writer for the show Tashan-e-Ishq, about a love triangle set in Punjab. Apart from creatives, he now has to deal with other corporate departments. The research team, for instance, which collects audience responses through surveys, fan emails and phone calls, has a say in every matter. Recently, he strayed away from a cardinal rule by making his central female character “independent, bubbly and outgoing.” The research team soon informed him that the audience did not like her. She was too “strong-headed.”

“So I had to turn the character around a bit,” he told me. He made her “more caring,” and began making her “do things for her family.” The heroine needs to be involved in family affairs, he said. “It is expected of her to solve household problems.” She gradually became ideal again. “Just like Sita,” Dey said.

IN THE WINTER OF 1982, Vasant Sathe, then India’s information and broadcasting minister, went on a trip to Mexico. There, Sathe came across a wildly popular Mexican television series called Ven Conmigo, or Come With Me. Ven Conmigo was set in a literacy class for adults, whose students were the show’s main characters. The series was not only a huge success, but also led to a ninefold increase in enrolment in literacy programs in the country the year after it first aired.

Sathe was impressed. He met Miguel Sabido, the television executive behind the show, and invited him to India. Sabido, by then, was also associated with Population Communication International, a New York-based non-profit organisation formed with the aim of tackling global population growth. Soon, Sabido and the head of the organisation, David Poindexter, visited India and met Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. They proposed an entertaining television series for the state-owned Doordarshan—the only television channel in the country at the time—which would sell the message of family planning to the Indian audience. Gandhi took to the idea.

The character of a vamp contrasts starkly with the “ideal” heroine, particularly in the ways she dresses and wears make-up.

In September 1983, the duo, along with SS Gill, the secretary of the information and broadcasting ministry, started scouting for scriptwriters. Out of 25 short-listed candidates, they chose Manohar Shyam Joshi—a respected Hindi writer and journalist, who would go on to win a Sahitya Akademi Award in 2005 for one of his novels. Shyam Joshi readied the script for the first 12 episodes of the series, centred around the trials and tribulations of a poor family, which would air for the first time on 7 July 1984 as Hum Log, or We the People. It was India’s first soap opera.

Through the 1980s, Shyam Joshi wrote a spate of shows that would define the television of the era: BuniyaadKakaji Kahin and Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne, among others. Subsequent shows on Doordarshan such as Nukkad and Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi were also about issues concerning the middle and lower-middle classes. They were scripted by left-liberal writers, whose ideas overlapped with the Indian welfare state’s developmental agenda.

“What was interesting was the visibility of people from the lower economic strata,” Abhijit Roy, a professor of film studies at Jadavpur University, told me. “Nukkad, for example, showed beggars, vagabonds, drunkards, maids, sweepers—all part of a community.” And yet, even these shows hardly ever dealt with social hierarchies of caste and gender.

In 1991, economic liberalisation opened the door for private channels, and soon Star India and Zee Network were in competition with Doordarshan. Until then, shows were not being written for profit, but for what their makers considered a progressive agenda. Star and Zee began to instead produce shows with the intention of grabbing the most eyeballs. Televisions were still expensive commodities, found mostly in urban, elite homes. So the shows produced in the mid 1990s were directed at this audience: Hasratein was about a businessman’s wife having an extramarital affair; Banegi Apni Baat explored urban college life; and Shanti had a woman journalist as the central character.

After Ekta Kapoor, the daughter of the famous actor Jeetendra, launched Balaji Telefilms Private Limited in November 1994, she quickly found success with her show Hum Paanch, a comedy about an urban middle-class family with five daughters. Her subsequent shows in the 1990s mostly followed the dominant trend of the time, and achieved only mild success.

Through the 1990s, the global information-technology boom saw television sets become cheaper and their technology smarter. Economic liberalisation had removed barriers to multinational companies, and, according to one survey, 1,378 brands in 19 consumer goods categories (including televisions) entered the Indian market between 1990 and 1996. By the end of the millenium, colour televisions had become commonplace in even low-income households.

The year 2000 was a turning point for both Kapoor and Indian television. In July of that year, Balaji launched Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi—one of the first shows to be produced after detailed research on homes that had cable television, and one that aimed to appeal to its audience’s perceptions of society. In Kyunki, a poor Brahmin priest's daughter, Tulsi, marries the scion of a business family—a marriage of Hindu religious values with capitalism. The saas-bahu soap opera was born.

Manohar Shyam Joshi wrote India’s first Hindi soap opera, Hum Log. Shyam Joshi’s shows on Doordarshan would go on to define Indian television of the 1980s. INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVES

Though these shows depicted initial tension between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, the two eventually became allies in preserving the old cultural ways of families that had newly turned capitalist. The mutton-chomping, skin-showing vamp was portrayed as a threat to the old order. According to Roy, these serials were expressions of “Hindutva’s post-liberalisation claim to the modern state.”

Any inconvenient facts about the religion underlying these shows would be omitted. Besides the evident dominant-caste status of the main characters, soap operas constructed a caste-less world. The journalist Sadanand Menon told me that this indicated the caste and class statuses of the show-makers. “If you look for Dalits working in TV media today, you would find there probably are none.”

Kyunki’s success was unprecedented. It became the number one show on Indian television, achieving TRPs that no show has been able to match since. Kapoor soon started a number of Kyunki replicas, such as Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii and KasautiiZindagii Kay, often referred to as the K-Series. By the mid 2000s, almost half of the top ten shows on television were Balaji products. Ekta’s only competition was Ekta.

IN 2008, after having dominated the airwaves for eight years, the K-series suddenly saw a decline in its TRPs. In September of that year, as the audience’s interest in the simple saas-bahu plot was beginning to wane, Colors TV—a channel newly launched by Network 18—began a serial called Balika Vadhu. It was a massive success. The show, about the tradition of child marriage in rural Rajasthan, soon became the top rated show on television.

Manohar Shyam Joshi wrote India’s first Hindi soap opera, Hum Log. Shyam Joshi’s shows on Doordarshan would go on to define Indian television of the 1980s. DEHLI PRESS ARCHIVES

Among Balika Vadhu’s strengths was the fact that it was set in a village. According to data released by the Broadcast Audience Research Council in September 2015, out of the total 153.5 million television-watching households in India, over 50 percent are located in rural areas and small towns. Beginning in the late 2000s, the urban, educated audience was moving to laptops, and seeking entertainment online. It was this vast rural audience, then, that producers turned their attention to. Balika Vadhu’s success would spawn a number of shows set in rural households, and many more in which characters spoke in regional dialects. Its head writer was a man called Purnendu Shekhar.

The show stood out for its lack of soap opera trademarks. It was an attempt at a realistic depiction of a Rajasthani household. The protagonist was an eight-year-old girl, and there was no vamp. The plot was about the daily struggles of a young child bride. Each storyline sought to deal with a specific social issue: girls’ education, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, marital rape, and the ostracisation of child widows, among many others. Shekhar was breaking all the rules of the industry and still getting TRPs. In September 2015,Balika Vadhucompleted 2,000 episodes, becoming the longest-running show in Indian television history. It broke the record of Kyunki, which lasted 1,833 episodes.

Shekhar is unconventional in many other ways. For instance, the writing for 60 or so soap operas currently on air are divided among only about a dozen established writers, such as Rajesh Joshi, Shashi Mittal and Sonali Jaffar. With each writer handling up to five shows at a time, they often hire ghostwriters to help them out. But Shekhar told me that Balika Vadhu is the only show he is working on, and that he has never employed ghostwriters. “I like concentrating on one thing at a time,” he said when I met him at his office on Link Road, four plots away from the Balaji building.

Shekhar believes there are no formulas for writing a good show. He said his writing comes entirely from instinct. I asked him how he comes up with plots for a show that has been running for so long. “You start with the seed, it grows roots and a trunk,” he told me. “Eventually, there are different branches, or story tracks, with flowers and fruits.”

Purnendu Shekhar wrote the highly successful show Balika Vadhu, which broke several prevalent rules of the Hindi soap opera. APOORVA GUPTAY FOR THE CARAVAN

He does not follow the “heroine-vamp” pattern either. He said his negative characters never realise that they are negative. The complex Mangala in Balika Vadhu is an example. Unlike the heroine, Anandi, who speaks her mind and fights for what she thinks is right, Shekhar wrote Mangala as timid and weak—keen on enjoying simple things in life, such as playing with colours on Holi. But her cultural tradition denies her these things because she is a widow. When her brother-in-law, Akhiraj, makes sexual advances towards her, she pretends to be possessed by the spirit of a Hindu goddess. Akhiraj, a superstitious man, wouldn’t dare touch a woman possessed by the divine. This becomes a defence mechanism, and she pretends to be possessed every time she wants to do something prohibited to her, such as go out and play Holi. The problems Mangala eventually creates on the show, such as running away with Anandi’s daughter, come out of excessive love, not any straightforward negative traits.

These subtle complexities are often missed by the executives who work on the show. In 2008, before the show had started, the producers approached the actor Surekha Sikri, who would go on to play the popular character of Dadisathe ageing matriarch of the family. Sikri was briefed about the role by a creative. Later, she called up Shekhar and asked, “Purnendu-ji, why is the Dadisa character so negative?”

Shekhar, unaware of the brief the creative had given Sikri, told her that the character wasn’t negative at all. “I told her it is the conflict of beliefs that needs to be portrayed. Dadisa is a prisoner to her beliefs.” Dadisa was a child bride once and saw her grandmother-in-law mistreat her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law mistreated her, and she passed it on to her own daughters-in-law. But when Dadisa’s daughter-in-law wants to educate her own daughter-in-law, Anandi, the show’s protagonist, the tradition gets broken. “The problem lies in questioning of age-old customs,” Shekhar said.

But Dadisa is also portrayed as a caring and protective figure. The channel once requested Shekhar to make the character of Dadisa more negative to improve TRPs. Shekhar refused. “The story of each character should flow like a river,” he told me.

Dadisa’s character is based on Shekhar’s own grandmother, just as Anandi’s character is based on his mother, who was married off when she was only 15. “She”—his mother—“was never treated as a child in her in-laws’ home,” Shekhar told me. Dadisas character is especially admired for being rooted in Rajasthani culture. “In Rajasthan, we would say she has thaska—a kind of bold arrogance,” Shekhar said. Most of the material in Balika Vadhu has come from the Rajasthani household he grew up in. According to Shekhar, a writer has to understand the Hindu family ethos to do well in this industry.

But Shekhar’s writing poses only a limited challenge to the existing social order. His critique of gender is limited to attacking outright evils, and often ignores subtle biases. And the world of Balika Vadhuis as caste-less as that of any other show. But despite these issues, given the industry that he is a part of, Shekhar’s show does represent a degree of social consciousness.

Dadisa’s character is based on Shekhar’s own grandmother, just as Anandi’s character is based on his mother, who was married off when she was only 15.

Balika Vadhu’s ratings have suffered since the trend of supernatural stories began taking hold. When I checked in May, it was not on the list of the ten most viewed shows on television. Instead, Naagin occupied the top spot, with three other shows with supernatural themes for company on the list. With Naagin, Kapoor returned to the top position after almost eight years. “Indian TV is going through its lowest, dirtiest phase right now,” Shekhar told me. “Bhootpret”—a supernatural content—“is what the audience wants today.”

He finds this to be a steep decline from the 1980s, which he considers the golden era of television, when Doordarshan was the only channel, and writers such as Manohar Shyam Joshi, and directors such as Ramesh Sippy and Kundan Shah, worked in television. “They were sahityakaars”—litterateurs, Shekhar said. “Today, anybody has become a writer.”