The name Rajan Shahi reckons with Star Plus' longest running daily soap 'Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai'. We at India Forums, sat down to chit chat with the producer who holds the credentials for running a daily soap successfully for more than 9 years. With his landmark shows like 'Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai' and 'Sapna Babul Ka Bidaai' having broken the records and set a benchmark in terms of viewership, Rajan Shahi spills some beans on his journey so far in the industry and where he thinks the industry is headed.
"A show is not merely a project but a child that a producer nurtures and grows up with, with each passing day," believes Rajan Shahi. Here's the producer's candid conversation about his journey, challenges and growth from once being a production boy to now helming a production house himself.
You are credited with one of the longest running and successful shows in the country. You started very young and stand as one of the strongest producers today. How has the journey been?
I laid the first stone of Director's Kut Productions in 2007. And thanks to my experience of more than 15 years, where I started as a production boy to then becoming a director, those 15 years of initial experience gave me a grass root level knowledge of the way the industry functions, not only in terms of economics but also in terms of day to day functioning. The whole insight convinced me to take a decision in 2007 to become a producer and take control because in TV today, producers have control and a say in the creative department as well.
Then came the next big challenge in the form of the show 'Bidaai'. At that time, all the shows were looking very similar in terms of texture. All of them were glamorous and over the top, including the acting... everything was too glamorized. But I think we were very lucky as we came at a time when the audience wanted a change. For 'Bidaai', I give credit to Star Plus, that they agreed on a show which was very simple and very rare. It was about two simple girls. It soon turned out to be the top show and ran for 3 years successfully. And later, 'Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai' had an edge that 'Bidaai' had given to the company. The show was launched in 2009, which again became a hugely successful venture, adding the credibility and recognition to the company and to me, as a maker.
We have done many shows, some did well, some didn't. 'Bidaai' and 'Yeh Rishta...' were extremely successful and even went on to become the most talked about shows. But I am equally proud of shows like 'Kuch Toh Log Kahenge', which was again a path breaking show with a storyline of a young woman falling in love with an older man.
You are running such a long show which still manages to top the charts. How do you face the challenges of creative saturation, when you are narrating a story for that amount of time?
A major element in making a good show is selecting a good team for it. And the other factor, which even the broadcasters believe in is that we have to remain true to our texture. We refrain from creating fake high points in the show. You watch the first episode of 'Yeh Rishta...' or the recent one... the soul of the show remains the same. A few dynamics like the look, feel, and pace of storytelling keep changing and that has become one of the USPs that have evolved with time. But we have kept the basics of the story intact by not creating any false high points.
I think what has kept 'Yeh Rishta...' going from the last 9 years is the dedication and the time that the team has dedicated, towards the show. I will also give a lot of credit to the channel for making the show what it is. In 9 years of shooting the show, the channel has never brought up any competition or asked us to keep up with any other show.
Along with shows like 'Yeh Rishta...' and 'Bidaai', you have also produced shows that are high on family drama. But 'Yeh Rishta...' continues to run even after 9 years and has seen a cultural change of almost a decade. The family dynamics and beliefs have changed. How are you coping with the change since your show is culturally driven and relatability is a key factor for the success of the show?
I think it is going to grow more. You're right, when you are shooting a show for 9 years, it becomes challenging to cope with the changing times... with every decade, a nation and even an individual goes through a huge socio-economic change. I have seen a huge change. It is almost like seeing an entire shift in the industry. Also, I relate this show's growth with my daughter. The show was launched when she was 4-5 years old and now she is all grown up.
Having said that, the show is still relevant because right from the day 'Yeh Rishta...' started, it was all about the journey of a couple and their day to day life and love after marriage. Essentially, this show is about their relation and their families. We have touched very real characters. We have never really made them too over the top. So irrespective of your background, this is a very aspirational show. Hence, you relate to the characters.
One more thing that I am very proud of is whenever I travel abroad, people recognize 'Yeh Rishta...' for its values and that this is one show that can be watched with the entire family. The story has evolved with time and today's changing ways, and the soul of the show has been kept intact.
In our culture, there are some universal things that affects us in the same manner despite the cultural and geographical differences. The concern of a mother towards her child remains the same, no matter where we belong to. So these emotions are for everyone. Especially for overseas families, TV plays a vital role in understanding our culture. And with 'Yeh Rishta...', comes a fresh air of positivism. We show the true beauty of relations, along with a realism of everyday issues.
Since you are making such a culture heavy show and you have seen the impact our shows have on its viewers. Many festivals and cultures prevail just because they are shown on TV in certain way. Don't you think that television is somehow stereotyping the culture in India?
The shows are moving with time. In the long journey of 'Yeh Rishta...', the show has never looked regressive or irrelevant because people never lost relatability to it. We never shy away in bringing up worthy issues, nor are we stereotyping the saree-clad women and ghunghats. In fact, Akshara's initial days at the Singhania house, were very defining moments when she brought about a change in an overly cultured family and told them that covering your head doesn't make a perfect daughter-in-law. Then she is given the choice to whether she wants to cover her head or not. Those are the kind of defining moments we have kept in the show from the very beginning. Just because one is shown family driven, it does not mean one is regressive.
We have touched many social and personal issues. Today, if you see the character of Naira, it really symbolizes the youth of today, which embodies principles and values and has a voice of her own.
What also brought us back to numbers (charts) is the character of Naira, who is a girl of today. She is the one who makes a lot of mistakes and has aspirations, but is also sensitive towards family and relations. We don't show black and white characters and try to touch every character in a very realistic manner.
You have shared such a long relation with Star Plus, who is a leader in itself. How much does the broadcaster contribute to creative freedom and growth of creative content in your show? Star Plus has always praised for the freedom it gives. Is it so, with other broadcasters too?
I have had a very good rapport with all the broadcasters. And I think all of them contribute a lot and it is always a very enriching experience. For 'Yeh Rishta...', Star Plus has been extremely encouraging. A lot of credit goes to the channel for taking the decision to back up a show like this in the first place. The channel was very clear from the beginning, that they wanted a show like 'Yeh Rishta...' with no over the top characters and too much dramatization.
For any show to run for this duration, it requires a partnership between the producers and the channel. Our show stands for the best coordination that how a producer and a channel can work together. A show is a team work. They have stood by the show, through good and bad. 'Yeh Rishta...' has a journey of over 2300 episodes, so there are lot of experiences involved. They (the channel) contribute in terms of vision and have a very democratic way of functioning.
You have recently seen a huge cast change in your shows. The leads left the show and the new generation has now taken over the story. How did you overcome that challenge? Was it difficult to adapt the audiences to these changes?
A period came into the show about last year, when there was tiredness because as a team, we had to face a lot of challenges from certain departments. There were lots of issues and then there was this ugly blame game happening. It all became very tiring. For example, the writers would write something and that could not get executed. And if I would question the director, he would have availability issues from the actors. The team was lacking coordination. It all became a last minute business. There was no time for music or a good edit.
For me, the 9 years of this show have been a series of learning and understanding. I am even planning to pen down a book on my journey of making 'Yeh Rishta...'. Last year was the most critical and defining period for 'Yeh Rishta...' in it's entire 9 years duration. Because of major issues in certain departments and the blame game, the product started suffering. It was only due to loyal audiences that we could keep up with the show.
The foundation of the show is laid by the writers and creatives. And at that point, due to an unexpected problem, there was a sense of reluctance and missing spirit. I started my production house after directing for 14 years in the industry and the reason for producing was to be creatively involved and be proud of my show. And eventually, I also became a part of the blame game and had to ignore things because the issues got too big. I also became complacent and did not want to confront these issues because I had to take very strong decisions which I was shying away from. The entire team started disintegrating and at that time. But the most important person who played a major role in setting things straight, was Mr. Gaurav Banerjee, from Star Plus. He shook the entire team and gave us a reality check. This was my biggest learning and the reason we could bounce back.
The defining point was when Mr. Banerjee called me and told me, "The show is just not working for me. Everybody looks tired and Director's Kut doesn't stand for this quality." He asked me about the issues. I had a meeting with him and the team, a very frank conversation. We told him that we are making the show with our hands tied and the fears we had. We realized that even though we had such a big team which was equally passionate about the show for so long, the product was still not satisfactory. The frustration level was rising in the team. There were a few mediocre episodes which were made for the sake of it and this reflected in the ratings. Gaurav realised that and wanted it fixed. When I told him that I will have to take drastic steps in the show, he supported me. I credit Mr. Banerjee for this change in the show, because he supported and gave us the much needed reality check.
I was very worried that night. After the conversation with Gaurav, I called a meeting with the core team and asked them to list down the reasons why the show was not working out. I understood the drastic change that the show needed and the channel also supported us. We had to get people who believed in the show and had to keep our faith in the story. We had to start a fresh journey.
Then we started working on the new story. We got our writers, Garima Dimri, who has been the creative director since the beginning along with writers, Zamam Sir, Munisha, Bhvana, Ghazala ji and Vandana. The creative team got together to form a foundation. With the channel's creative team, we took big decisions overnight. For 2-3 months we worked on new characters, there were situations at the set that we had to handle and the possibilities of bouncing back were very thin. There came a time when we thought that the show might shut down.
Gaurav has shown the direction and that's what we expect from a broadcaster as a maker. The entire difference was made because of his reality check. The change brought back the excitement and we had no excuses to make. Some elements who did not believe in the show were asked to leave with due credit and love.
Another challenge that was there was the perception that the show won't work now (then). It was like a fresh start again. There was nervous energy and there was hope. My unit is the most important to me. I can be anything in the ranking but what is most important is that the unit you are working with, cannot be manipulated.
And as there were no excuses, my team could fly. The blame game was out and everyone had no option but to perform well. During that time the show was somewhere at 1.7-1.9 in terms of ratings. But with the new journey, the numbers got more favourable and people were loving the show. Everything got back on track and showed results.
We are still nervous to deliver the best after all the issues. The industry teaches you a lot. We will always have challenges as it is a daily soap. But today, I want to make a show with peace of mind and also enthusiasm of a unit can not be compromised. I will never compromise on the spirit of the team, no matter the money we earn or the number of shows we make. I am very grateful to the entire team.
Not only the story but the look of the show has also evolved. How much is the production value and art direction adding to the show and story telling?
Television is a visual medium and today with the kind of competition we have from the digital space, which is really growing and the quality of international products we are seeing today in India, it has become necessary to keep up. Now we cannot sit back and have mediocrity. Today, even the audience wants a complete packaging. We cannot say we have a good story, but the quality is compromised. It cannot be poor looking. Today, whether we see reality shows or daily soaps, the quality from audio to video or even the look of the show, has become equally important. Of Course, it cannot overrule content, but with the access that people have to international content, we cannot compromise. Today, with the digital content brimming all over, the youth have huge expectations. Television has to pull up its socks. The broadcasters are really encouraging for better infrastructure. They have also become very particular.
What are your plans in the digital space?
Digital has a huge scope. We have already finished 7 episodes of a digital series and we are scheduling one more. And when you see them you'll feel it is totally not my taste of content. I am not creatively involved in them, they are by far, very good creatives and I am backing them as a producer. Digital gives more freedom and chance of experimenting, but the growth in television is much higher.
Lastly, from being a director which is totally a creative job, to now stepping into the Producers' shoes. How does that work for you ?
My business head and line producers are always angry with me. They are never going to be happy. I can not think as a producer. I don't have business plans. I instinctively get into shows and make shows. I drop shows if I don't like them. For me, being happy with the show is more important. I get good reminders for keeping the business aspect in mind. But jokes apart, we have been able to achieve a very good balance between the two. We work between a good production design and creativity and that is because I have started from the grass root level. As a producer, I should know where my money is put. Today, I know how to put money in right places and not waste it.
That has been one inspiring journey. We hope Director's Kut Productions continues to soar higher!