Joined: 19 October 2004
And Then There Was Jassi
Photographs by Akash Mehta, Location courtesy: The Club, the salubrious member resort in suburban Mumbai.
Published: Volume 12, September-October 2004
"We vow not to talk work but we invariably do because it's not as if he is talking about his work and I'm talking about mine. We are talking about our work." -Deeya Singh
"When a family is divided in its views over a show we know the story is right. It's like a game of chess. The audience sends in its moves. We make ours." - Tony Singh
The lead player: The offbeat turned iconic, plain Jane, Jasmeet Walia, whose every misgiving and heartbeat is followed with untiring enthusiasm, four days a week.
Her zany creators: Tele-producers, Deeya and Tony Singh, masters of casting coups and technical finesse on the idiot box. ALPANA CHOWDHURY catches up with the audacious couple on a rain-drenched morning in Mumbai
"I don't know what is better. Our marriage or our business," jokes Deeya Singh, one half of the very successful DJ's team that produces the iconoclastic Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin, the daily fix of millions of viewers, Monday to Thursday. Television buffs would also remember Deeya and her husband, Tony Singh, as producers of other much-watched soaps like Banegi Apni Baat and Just Mohabbat, both of which broke new ground like Jassi Jaisi…is currently doing on Sony. Producing programmes that go against the grain and making a success of them seems to have become a habit with the couple now. "Two people set out to dream together and were passionate about the same thing…" is how Deeya describes their journey so far. A journey they've thoroughly enjoyed.
It was in the summer of '91 that the duo began their lifetime of shared goals, on the sets of Manoranjan, a video programme produced by Aditya Kapoor, veteran actor, Shammi Kapoor's son. "I was the director of photography and Deeya was part of the creative and production team, one of a bunch of young kids on the sets. They were a little in awe of me and I would push them around quite a bit," recalls Tony with amusement. "I don't know when love happened…."
Deeya remembers how they took everybody by surprise. "Nobody guessed that while all the hard work was happening, a little romance was brewing on the side!" Sportingly, Tony reveals he made the first move. "I found her to be a very warm, bubbly, enthusiastic person who was always there for everybody. Our courtship was great fun. She changed me a lot, for the better. I was a complete introvert, and she, the absolute reverse." For Deeya, it was his specs that drew her to him. "I always wanted a man with a huge upper storey. And Tony looked the Harvard-returned type. Very cool, collected."
Within six months of their first meeting, the two got engaged, and, by the December of '91, were pronounced man and wife. Almost a decade and a half later, Deeya beams, "It is one of those love stories made in heaven." Which is not to say they didn't have their rough patches. "It has been a long time now and we've grown to understand each other's invisible space," she explains. While Tony relates how their initial enthusiasm would have them constantly bickering on the sets, "over the years, we realised where each one excels, and automatically our functions got demarcated. So, though I may have an opinion, I go along with her point of view when it comes to matters of casting and script and she accepts my call on technical issues."
"Earlier," Deeya states, "both of us would be at the same place at the same time. Now, if Tony is shooting day and night I phase out and stay at home with the children. We are lucky to have good, creative people on our team so we can delegate work." They've certainly come a long way from the time when their residence doubled up as an office and they had hordes of wannabe actors trouping in and out of their home as Deeya auditioned them for roles. Those were the days when she would run down between meetings with channel bosses to nurse her baby in the car. But she wouldn't have it any other way. "My kids," she points out, "don't have a frustrated, stay-at-home mother. It's taken a lot to reach here. We have had to prioritise our interests, letting go of six out of 12 things; but it's been worth every moment." Having mastered the art of time management, the couple slip in and out of their multiple roles with ease now. Sometimes, Tony plays both Mom and Dad to eight-year-old Jeeya and six-year-old Jassan; at other times Deeya holds fort.
Complementing each other perfectly at home and at work, they've put together a vast repertoire of programmes. Some very successful, others not quite so. "Timing plays a very important role," reasons Deeya. "Love Mein Kabhi Kabhi was a very good show we produced but it didn't work. Whereas when Kamlesh Pandey told us to make a serial for Zee TV revolving around pimples and pre-marital sex, it was a stupendous success. Banegi Apni Baat ran for six years because there was a large audience waiting for a good, identifiable programme. In every family, there is a teenager bursting with hormones. With Jassi Jaisi… too, it's been like that. People were just waiting for something different to happen on TV."
So different that viewers now treat the bespectacled, middle-class Jassi as their neighbourhood friend over whom they have proprietorial claim. Hundreds of letters pour in each week suggesting whom she should lose her heart to - her conniving boss, Armaan Sir (Apoorva Agnihotri), or the Mills-and-Boonish Purab (Sameer Soni). The heated debate at dining tables is whether Jassi should go in for an image makeover or whether she should remain a plain Jane, homilies intact. "When a family is divided in its views over a show we know the story is right," states Tony with satisfaction. "It's like a game of chess. The audience sends in its moves. We make ours. But though TRP ratings may influence our script, we try to keep it as close to reality as possible."
Amusingly, to the production team, the characters of the serial exist as just that. And so you hear Tony on the phone giving instructions that go like this: "If Billoo is coming at eight, ask Nandu to come in at…" The actors' names don't feature anywhere! And, of course, model, Mona Singh, who plays Jassi, makes all her public appearances with her braces, schoolgirlish wig, and specs intact. Won't she suffer from an identity crisis if she continues to carry on in this manner? "You'll have to ask her that," is Tony's evasive reply as he pauses to take a call from son, Jassan.
"No work pressure is more important than the family," declares Tony who, nevertheless, directed the first 100 episodes of Jassi Jaisi…, pressures and all. Having set the ball rolling, he can afford to look relaxed on a Friday despite Monday's episode yet to go. He knows he has everything under control. "Earlier I was like a raging bull but now I know it's not worthwhile getting stressed out. Production hassles will always be there. You just have to find solutions.
"Whatever time I get back from work, I have to give my sleeping children a hug before I hit the bed. They are not very demanding but if they express a desire to play tennis with me I take time out for it however tied up I may be." "He is not the Sundaywallah uncle," laughs Deeya. The kids, in turn, understand the pressures of their parents' profession. When they cannot be at home with them, Jassan and Jeeya are happily in office with them. You see their scrawls and scribbles all over, on notepads, diaries and little pieces of paper, fondly preserved by Deeya and Tony.
The duo also likes to periodically escape, with their kids, on stress-busting holidays. It could be to their house in nearby Lonavala, where Tony, who is unable to make even a cup of tea, tries his hand at barbecuing! Or for a romp on the sandy beaches of Goa. But it isn't as if Jassi and Nandu are completely
forgotten there. "We vow not to talk work but we invariably do," says Deeya, not too unhappy with the fact, "because it's not as if he is talking about his work and I'm talking about mine. We are talking about our work."
They don't just talk about their work. They tear it apart. "We are very critical. It's a learning process which never stops," believes Tony. "The biggest high is when we see an episode, smile and feel it was good."
The duo's USP, all along, has been not just conceiving characters but finding apt actors to play them. Irrfan (Khan) today has international acclaim, but, years ago, he appeared in Banegi Apni Baat as a very convincing, crusty grump. The peanut-chomping Nandu of Jassi Jaisi… did the title role in their Life Nahin Hain Laddoo. And, of course, Mona Singh as Jassi has been the ultimate discovery. "We were very sure we wanted a completely new face for the lead role," recounts Deeya. "We didn't want an over-confident Mumbaiite, with the gift of the gab. We were looking for someone untouched by the metropolis, so Mona, who is from Pune, seemed like a likely candidate when she was referred to us. Nevertheless, we had never-ending talks with her for over a month before taking the final decision." Ironically, Mona was unaware of the fact that she was being scrutinised for the lead role! Deeya is more than happy with her choice. "Jassi is everything and more," she pronounces without hesitation.
"The starting point for us is intelligence," she explains. "The actors must have the ability to understand what we want. Only then will they be able to communicate our ideas. Jassi's role is not easy. She is plain looking but confident. She is intelligent but not brash. Portraying her is a tightrope walk, but even after so many months Jassi never takes it easy. She works as hard as the rest of the team."
On September 1, it was exactly a year since the lovable Jassi invaded our homes and while the taste of success has been sweet, Deeya and Tony are not resting on their laurels. Future plans include a feature film, which they hope will be as path-breaking as their serials. "Producing serials, planning a film, bringing up our kids…we enjoy it all," smiles Deeya, contentedly.
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