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Balika Vadhu on Colors takes the number one slot.
"My colleague," he says, "remarked sarcastically that even the re-run of Balika Vadhu has adversly impacted other shows." Launched on Colors, a general entertainment channel barely two months ago, Balika Vadhu, aired Monday-Friday at 8 pm, revolves around Anandi, a 12-year-old village girl from Rajasthan, a child bride, and how she copes as a victim of child marriage.
It's a serial which has spread largely by word-of-mouth publicity, attracting not just critical acclaim but also commercial success. The latest TVRs put it in the top slot (6.7), far ahead of competing shows, and even the show's reruns are grabbing high TRPs. Budgets for episodes have upped in the last two months and, like most successful soaps, each episode of the show now costs Rs 6-8 lakh to make.
Not just advertisers, even celebs are promoting their forthcoming films on the show. A recent appearance was by Abhishek Bachchan, who joined the cast to promote his film Drona. In fact, Shekhar says that director Karan Johar has already requested the channel to pass on videos of all the episodes that have been aired so far. Besides, the Bachchan parivar has also begun tuning in to Colors to make an appearance on the show.
Satish Kaushik, whose forthcoming film Karzzz is all set to hit the silver screen, is a fan, and Aatish Kapadia, one of the best writers on Indian television today, has been sending congratulatory SMSes "every second day", as Shekhar tells us. And that's not all, for artistes from other soaps are also turning into ardent fans and not shying away from praising the serial. Neha Bamb, one of the lead actors on Zee TV's Maayka, watches Balika Vadhu regularly and agrees that it is the current flavour in the Hindi entertainment space. "To get good TRPs, it's not necessary to have high drama; a good story line is important, and Balika Vadhu has just that," she says.
Shekhar is obviously stumped at the overwhelming response that his story on child marriage has got from audiences. He had this story written way back in 1992, under the title Ehsaas ("That's what it was called when I wrote it years ago"), but in the meantime he worked with Zee TV on some of its acclaimed shows, like Astitva — Ek Prem Kahani and Saat Phere, as a writer. Now, he agrees, Balika Vadhu has put him in the big league.
Shekhar sits with his group of writers — Gajra Kootary, Rajesh Dubey, Usha Dixit and Raghuvir Shekhawat — for four hours every day (he writes an average of eight to 10 episodes every week), claims that he rarely discussed the story of Balika Vadhu with anyone because it was so close to his heart, and because he wanted it to get the right launchpad.
"I'm from Jaipur and I know that child marriages, despite being illegal, still exist. Even today, child marriage processions are openly taken out on Akha Teej," he says.
Avika Gor, the child artiste whose on-screen avatar is Anandi, says, "I rarely use glycerin, it's easy to cry once you read the script. Imagine not studying, not playing and getting married so early," wonders this 11-year-old actor, admitting that no matter how hard she tries, she won't ever be able to "really understand Anandi".
Gor spends seven or eight hours every day on the sets, often with her school textbooks. Her father Samir Gor insists that "It was a role that Avika wanted to essay seriously, and I couldn't refuse."
But is showing off this subject of child marriage on television also glamorising it in a way? After all, it is reaching audiences in towns and villages, who might find it satisfactory to see Anandi married into a family which is not only well off but also has in-laws who, despite being mute spectators, are largely aware of her needs and emotions?
Smita Bansal, who plays the role of Anandi's understanding mother-in-law, argues: "There's not a single episode where we show Anandi 'happy' as a child bride. She may belong to a moneyed family, wear fancy clothes and have the support of her in-laws but we don't really speak up for her, even though we're silently on her side. That doesn't make our on-screen family perfect… far from it."
Shekhar defends himself: "I'm surprised that no one even thought of this storyline in all these years. You can't shut your eyes to it, Rajasthan cannot hide the fact that the maximum number of child marriages continue to take place in the state. I'm sure Balika Vadhu is making a positive difference, touching the emotional chords of the people not just in metros but also in those places where this pratha still exists."
He's right. Whatever the debate, it's a well-made serial ("without any jerky movements of cameras that otherwise take away so much from the actor", as Anoup Soni, one of the lead characters of the soap tells us) with a taut script; it is for these and other reasons that so many people are getting hooked to the show.
Says Sunjoy Waddhwa of Sphere Origins, the production company behind the serial, "Never has any show, to my knowledge, seen such a fast ride to the top."
Will Balika Vadhu resort to the same commercial tactics as most of the other daily soaps, or continue to stick to its original story? It is too early to predict. But, as Bansal says: "I know for a fact that Purnendu's domestic help was planning to marry off her under-aged daughter illegally. After watching the show, she promised Purnendu she wouldn't go ahead with those plans. So Balika Vadhu has helped save one life, helped change some perception at ground level. If that isn't success, what is?"
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