In a time of experimentation on-screen, Benaifer and Sanjay Kohli have been pretty much averse to following trends although they have started a few themselves. They've made a massive headway in comedy as a genre on TV and are responsible for shows like 'Family No.1', 'Sahib Biwi Aur Boss, F.I.R
, Bhabhiji Ghar Par Hai
and May I Come in Madam?
We got into a chat with Benaifer Kohli about all things comedy, original concepts, TRPs and memorable characters on-screen. Here's what she had to say about it.
Tell me about your journey, how did it all begin for you?
We have been with Zee TV
since the beginning. For me, it's like my baby and our first show, a comedy, was also for Zee TV
. Sanjay is amazing with scripts as he is a creative producer and we've done soaps like Yeh Hai Mere Apne and others also for which we have received awards. I too have written quite a few scripts. In fact, the script of the mini movie that I did for Star was written by Sanjay Poumikji and me. After Zee TV
, we did Family No. 1 on Sony TV
, the only Indian show that got an international award and it was highly recognised. It runs now also. We've done many shows on Zee TV
, Sahara One, Sony and Star, as making shows is our passion and we treat all our shows like our babies. We are very involved with our shows, it's not our business. In fact, more than money-making, I'm concerned about the creative satisfaction. I'd rather leave a show or not do if my vision is going somewhere else and I cannot catch somebody else's vision. Of course, suggestions and improvisations are always welcome because most of the people in the creative field are very experienced and also help you grow. If I close my mind to that, I will not grow. However, both Sanjay and I are very focused and if we feel that this idea will not go as planned, then we'd rather leave it than argue later for the sake of money.
So coming back, we did the second show with Sony, infact, not only this one show, but all our shows have been enjoyable experiences. Then when & TV was on the verge of launching, they called us and when we proposed the Bhabhiji... concept, they loved it right at the inception and they said that they want to do this. Nobody expected Bhabhiji... to be such a big hit. The show has got characters which are the biggest hits of television history. When it came to awards out of four nominations, three were ours. We had May I Come In Madam on Life OK
, where our actors were nominated and we took awards in the categories of Best Director, Writer, Actor and Supporting Cast as well. It makes you feel good, we have a great team and share a great vibe. Both of us are very particular in making sure that the environment on our sets is always nice and happy. We have games and amazing food for the technicians since they are such amazing people who have worked with us through thick and thin. My Tech crew comprises of people who are 20-22 years old. Even if there is waist deep water on the sets, my crew will be ready with the lights and cameras at 9 am sharp. My actors are also very professional. Infact, if they are 10 minutes late I might have to turn my watch 10 minutes behind. It is all a huge family on the sets.
I've had the luck of working with some really good people. Ofcourse, in the last 22-23 years that I've worked in the TV industry, I may have agreed to disagree with a few people, but it's all a part and parcel of working together. Somebody may like you and some may not.
is brilliant and he's great with comedy. He can exactly put his finger on points which do not work. I handle more of the contracts, dates and the artists, while he handles the technical and editing stuff and sits on every story. We take on limited shows because we are so invested. We like to limit ourselves because we love spending time with our children. Working for me is a passion and the only thing I'm iffy about is timing and dates. All my actors like Sandeep Anand
, Anup and others, who have been with me since 12 years understand my discipline issues as everybody has a life outside of work and would love to enjoy their personal time.
You have a distinct genre and it's harder to stretch it 5 days a week as compared to a daily soap. So how do you manage to keep it going?
Our writer, Manoj Santoshi is such a blessing. He writes only one show that is Bhabhiji Ghar Par Hai
. He loves to work and re-work with dedication and childlike enthusiasm. We have Shashank Bali, who directed F.I.R
and is now a part of the family. Sanjay, Manoj and Shashank vibe together so well and come up with ideas from the most absurd concepts. They did an episode on something as weird as not being able to go to the bathroom and one was about donkeys. They create fool-proof scripts and the actors make it even better. They have so much energy to put into the set and they are dedicated.
When you talk of F.I.R or Bhabhiji they have relatable and simple characters. How hard is it if you replace a character since audiences end up connecting with them on-screen?
Sanjay believes that the story has to be simple, something people want to watch after a long day. If we make the storylines complex, the whole purpose of laughter is gone. Characterization has to be very strong. For example, in Bhabhiji... I can run a scene without the major actors and with just two side characters like Happu and Kali, as even they are written so well. The character is so well etched. Lakhs of people turn out to see them in UP and there's a packet of chips named after Happu Singh. There are lines like "Sahi Padke Hai" that are used on phone cases and t-shirts now.
When we were doing F.I.R
, I had picked a well-known actor who had a strong command over Marathi and as we were planning to make Chandramukhi a Marathi character, I had retained her. Then, when Kavita Kaushik
came to do the audition, she was nice and tall, she wore the uniform and carried the danda
so well. Kavita did the scene but wasn't comfortable with Marathi, so Sanjay asked her what she was comfortable with? She said her father is a policeman and she can speak in Haryanvi. So Sanjay made her do the scene in Haryanvi and even before she had finished, he said we should sign her.
Sanjay changed the whole script to accommodate Kavita. Even Shiv Pandit
was new when we started shooting. He was playing a police inspector and was very stiff. So Sanjay suggested that we could make Shiv's character a chor
first and then make him a police inspector so that he can ease into the role. We then started shooting from episode 7 to 1, so the actors eased into their characters. When the viewers saw the first episode they were in awe of how well the actors performed from episode one itself.
Sanjay has always been very sure about the actors that he chooses. Asifji and Rohitashvji are superb, Shubhangi has been a blessing, Saumya is so professional and so is Neha and Sandeep. All are so professional.
I know you are coming to Shilpa, even Shilpa Shinde
was superb in her role and I cannot take that away from her. And you have to realise that she has done many comedy roles before this. The character was written so well by our trio, that if Shubhangi Atre Poorey
would have come first, she would have been a hit too. It takes a little time (Shubhangi being accepted as Angoori) and now we're back to where we started. The characters are that well-etched and well written. I repeat that Shilpa Shinde
performed her part very well. Our director Shashank is also very brilliant. Even in Saumya Tandon
's case, a lot of times I feel she isn't even acting! It's that easy to believe that she's like that in her personal life as well. I love Happu and Tika Malkan too.
You say you're so particular about your story and you have so many creative minds working but in our industry, it all lies with the broadcaster. How do you manage an equation with them?
It is really sad that the IPR lies with them and it feels like giving away my baby. But then they helped me create it. Had he not taken my show it would have been at home still. So, it's fair enough if these are the terms they put in and we have no right to crib. Either I don't give over my concept and put in a share of the cost and spend crores myself and take the IPR or I coordinate with them. I'll admit I wouldn't have the guts to do it. As far as & TV is concerned, with Bhabhiji.., they do not interfere with our scripts at all. They are such a pleasure to work with. They have so much confidence in us. Mr. Punit Goel is an amazing leader. I feel very comfortable around them and they trust us. They back us up. Sometimes new programmers come in and there are changes that they want us to make but they lack expertise. If they do not understand even after explaining it to them, we stand our ground that this is how we want to do it. If they still don't relent, we ask them to give us in writing that they take responsibility if it fails. Even new comers can teach you a lot though.
In terms of viewership, the TRPs are dropping probably due to digital intervention. What do think about that?
I've never seen TRPs in my entire life. I only work at bettering my shows and aim for people to like my shows. But Sanjay does follow the TRPs and looks into the ratings.
But broadcasters do take the ratings seriously and even judge the future (of the show) on it.
Sometimes I feel broadcasters panic a little too much. They see something working for another show and then they immediately want it in their shows. Next episode, it's all changed. Take an example. If I am craving Chinese food, then however nice a dosa I'm served, I won't have. The same way, I have to give the audience what they want. Sholay is a classic example. They were gonna pull it off theatres but then they decided to keep it running for another month. Now each character is iconic.
Coming back to the subject of actors, the show, Hasratein was about Savy, played by Seema Kapoor, the actress was changed to Shefali Chhaya and the show still worked. Then take the case of Saath Nibhana Saathiya. The lead face was changed and the show still worked. People follow the characters and not actors.
In terms of production, quality has come up but do you think there's a scope of doing better? Do you think there's a problem with finances because when you talk of western productions, they're far better in terms of money and quality?
When channels were launched, movies were aired too. Just like you see Madhuri Dixit and Kareena Kapoor, our people need to be dressed well and they need to be trend setters. The sets have to look better. Family No. 1 was the first show which had a title song. Previously people used to take scenes from the show, put music and run it as the title. But Family No. 1 had the family dancing in suits. The outfits weren't used anywhere apart from the title track. I also choreographed the dance at my own expense as I used to be a choreographer. Even in Yeh Hai Mere Apne, we made our own title. So the whole look gets upgraded and with technology and it's just getting better. We used to just go to bungalows and shoot. But Bhabhiji's set is iconic. They have become like landmarks in the show. If you see Nach.. and Jhalak.., they are grand but in fiction shows, the kind of budget we have, designer clothes aren't affordable. We have to work within a budget. Once Sony TV
took producers to America and we were shown the working of sets there with a lot of heavy machinery. And, we found out that the budget of one episode was a crore. Ours is so much lesser. We have men carrying lights instead of trolleys. We Indians can do things at any cost and still be on par with the global competition. So that's the way we operate.
What's the key element to a show?
For me, the writer is the hero! If you have a bad script, how much can an actor pull it off? But a superb script can be easily carried by an actor. Characters are tailor-made, the directors and actors add so much to it. But the writing is the foundation. If that is weak the over-layers will fall.
Your shows are refreshing because TV is dominated by saas-bahu sagas while yours are from a male's perspective. In other shows, they (male characters) end up becoming props. Is that a conscious effort on your behalf?
There has to be a balance. In saas-bahu dramas, it's mostly women who are watching it, so the audience is female. In a comedy, it has to be a two-way street. If you see Bhabhiji..., it has a universal audience. It's edgy and it's not cheap or sexy but realistic and naughty. It's like a childhood infatuation.
The male characters of your shows have love interests outside their marriage. Some may get offended about that and it must be challenging to portray it. You think it may glorify the idea of married men having a liking for someone else?
No, they never touch the women, they are straightforward men and it's just a child-like fantasy. Whoever feels that way, I'd say to them that my characters just keep it till passive admiration. They are fascinated with small things like "oh she speaks so well and is modern while my wife is like my mother". There's nothing cheap about it. In family No. 1, I had a very attractive character but I never let her wear low necks, we went for cuteness rather than sexiness.
What's the one principle you would never let go off?
We strongly keep the sentiments of the audience in mind. There was once a story about a bomb blast. But then Sanjay thought what if there are people watching, who have lost their loved ones in a blast? So we scrapped a week-long story. Everyone agreed that we shouldn't give pain to the audience. I wouldn't put anyone through something I myself wouldn't go through. We must have compassion and sensibility.
Any new projects or plans to switch genres?
The next is a web series for Ekta Kapoor and she is a gem of a person. We'll do a web series for Alt Balaji and I may start a thriller show but for now, there's nothing immediate.
With this, the producers wrapped up giving us much to chew on in terms of scripts, a maker's viewpoint on replacements, principles and creativity on the Indian TV screens.