Hindi GECs are known to insert outlandish twists and turns in their storylines. Here's the latest one... The protagonist in Sasural Simar Ka -- (the same soap that had a ghost as a character!) -- has turned into a fly. A look at a three-year-old story on afaqs! around such crazy twists and the purpose they serve.
Last year, a handful of fiction dailies, completed a staggering 1,000 episodes. Names like Uttaran (1,000 episodes in November 2012) and Balika Vadhu (1,000 episodes in May 2012) on Colors, Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai (1,000 episodes in October, 2012) on Star Plus and Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah (1,000 episodes in October 2012) on Sab TV, will ring a bell even if you are not a regular serial watcher. Pavitra Rishta on Zee is the latest one that went past the 1,000 mark in March 2013.
For many others, the journey ended anywhere between the 7th and the 33rd week - which could mean episodes that range from 35 (if telecast five days a week) to 165. Teri Meri Love Stories on Star Plus stayed for 7 weeks, Shubh Vivaah on Sony for 16 weeks, Chaal, Sheh aur Maat for 18 weeks and Kairi - Rishta Khatta Meetha for 33, both on Colors.
The difference in the striking gap in longevity can be explained by a simple fact - smart survival strategies. Since not everyone has the canny ability to prolong the life of a show to phenomenal heights, what are those tricky components that not just keep a show alive but also keep the audience hooked?
Conflict and separation
Stories of conflict are somehow supposed to be the best kind of amusement to satisfy an average Indian family's quintessential existence. Conflicts generate discussions. In a show, the conflict could be between couples, siblings, parents and children, in-laws, neighbours and best friends or rift-loving relatives.
Top TRP generators like Bade Achche Lagte Hai (on Sony), Pavitra Rishta, Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai or Balika Vadhu lean heavily on the conflicts between the 'so much in love' couples.
Like the 'lost-and-found' formula of the Hindi cinema industry of yore, conflict and separation is the most tried and tested formula on TV soaps today. "Since audiences are convinced that the couple will be together at the end anyway, they look forward to the separation and enjoy the dose," says Rajan Shahi, founder, Director's Cut Productions. Some of the shows produced under the banner include Sapna Babul Ka... Bidaai (Star Plus), Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai (Star Plus), Amrit Manthan (Life OK), Kuch Toh Log Kahenge (Sony) and Havan (Colors).
Observe this. Star Plus' top rated show, Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, used conflict between the married couple Akshara and Naitik, the lead protagonists, as one of the big tricks to gain audience attention (Week 11, 2010). The issues and arguments that separated the couple were built up in about three months. When the two finally resolved their issues and came together, the episode had garnered 7 TVRs.
Marriages on TV involve the highest budgets (costumes, set, people) and are used to build traction to ensure stickiness and, eventually, a spike in the ratings. "Audiences like to see richness, grandeur and many people in marriages, probably because these are the kind of marriages that they aspire for but cannot afford. Those who can afford it, copy it. Wedding planners get ideas from it. A marriage can push up even the weakest show, while shows that perform well, come out with very high TRPs," says Sandiip Sikcand, actor, writer and creative director. Some of the shows that he has worked on include Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, Kkusum and Kasamh Se.
In an ideal Indian family, consummation is something that should follow marriage. But since an early consummation would also mean that the love story has reached a happy ending, why not delay it and prolong the pleasure of the audience? The ploy generates love, longing and lust between the lovers and, therefore, amongst the audience. A common joke that the industry gets to crack when discussing scripting tricks is this: "Consummation will get you the requisite TRPs but a delayed consummation will make you the tallest in the hierarchy."
However, this may backfire too. Remember Ekta Kapoor's decision to introduce a touch of 'Dirty Picture' sensuality on Sony's Bade Achche Lagte Hai to generate fresh audiences for the show? The consistent 'sensuous' promos of the March 2012 episode on Sony (for a week or more) led to universal anticipation that the 'move' could crown Bade Achche Lagte Hai as the No 1 property in the Hindi GEC space for the given week.
The consummation card, if played well, could push TRPs to stratospheric levels. Quite a few writers believe that consummation as a trick works even better when one of the two is not in love with the other. "Audiences like to see couples wherein one does not wish to get into a physical relationship if the other in the party is not romantically attracted. That keeps the story floating for a long, long time until love finally happens, followed by delayed consummation," says Sukesh Motwani, the former fiction head for Zee TV who now works as a consultant.
The strategy of creating curiosity and deception for the audience (within the current storyline) pays off in the long run. It could germinate in any form with the most common ones lying within the outline of a thriller, a misunderstanding, a blast from the past, a secret of a family member (works even better if he or she is 'holier than thou'), the return of the dead, plastic surgery, entry of a lookalike and/or the other woman and the existence of an illegitimate child. These gimmicks were used time and again by Kapoor of Balaji Films for shows such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, Kasautii Zindagii Kay and Kkusum.
Interestingly, one of the most successful creative strategies used well by many long running shows including Saath Phere (2005-2009), Sapna Babul Ka... Bidaai (2007-2010) and Ghar Ki Lakshmi Betiyaan (2006-2009), is 'the mystery behind that door'. Ghar Ki Lakshmi - Betiyaan, for example, showcased a 10-day-10-night track around January 2008, wherein Bhavishya's (the protagonist) wife kept hearing voices behind the door only to realise later that her husband is psychotic and would talk to the dead body of his ex-girlfriend.
The little twists introduced in regular doses lead to high points, which in turn give birth to maha-episodes. Usually hour-long sessions, maha-episodes attract special attention from both the audience and the channel, which comes up with specific marketing and promo plans.
The strategy for introducing maha-episodes is simple: pull in the most loyal audience set for a show even on a weekend, which otherwise stays low on ratings.
"Shows such as Balika Vadhu, Uttaran, Bade Achche Lagte Hai or even a Mahadev run on a fifth or a tenth of the budget of a big fat reality show. Yet they perform in the range of 3-6 TRPs, compared to the reality show numbers (about 2-3 TRPs). Therefore, it makes sense to bring in that loyal set of people on a weekend through a maha-episode that intends to reveal the intrigue or suspense which kept the viewers hooked on to that show for so long," says a top channel executive.
Taking the leap
This strategy involves introducing new thoughts, characters and tracks to the show. It brings in new dynamics wherein the same story can be retold in a completely new fashion. However, while a few may agree that taking a leap is almost like making a new show, most feel that a leap takes a show back to its basics.
And then some more...
Item numbers (Kashmira Shah performing on Amrit Manthan to celebrate Agam's bachelor's party in May 2012), a special song and dance sequence, getting film actors on the show for an episode, sudden poverty and sickness and/or merging two or three shows of the channel into one to create a 'Mahasangam' episode are a few other tricks that channels and show producers use to design short plots and high points.
"Item numbers, song and dance sequence or getting film actors on a show can lead to sampling and audience stickiness, but only for a very short period. They will return only if the content is good. Mahasangam, on the other hand, is used to pull in the loyal set of viewers of an already established show to sample a new show or a show which has not been performing very well," says Sneha Rajani, senior associate vice-president and business head, Sony Entertainment.
Why change track?
When a soap runs for long, it is chiefly because people have fallen in love with the characters of that show. Sure, the show starts off with a certain premise but the storyline quickly takes it to a place where it departs from that premise significantly. And because it is not possible to predict, say 1,000 episodes, in the single concept that started the show, it is the characters that bring in the continuity. Consequently, it becomes the journey of that character through a variety of situations that lead to interesting storylines.
The audience comprises two kinds of viewers - the ones who are still watching and the lapsed viewers, who have dropped out. One of the objectives of bringing in such twists is to bring back those lapsed viewers.
Says Prem Kamath, head, channel V & STAR Pravah, "They know the character, they know the storyline but somewhere they stopped watching it. With a twist, there is a good possibility that the audiences who were watching the show will come back."
Can a show keep churning out plots? It can, if the plot fits into the DNA of the show. Take Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Hi Kijo (2009-2011) on Zee TV or Na Aana Is Des Laado (2009-2012) on Colors. These shows allowed larger-than-life storytelling because of the worlds they represented. In the dramatic feudal set up, there could be dacoits, murders, closet mistresses and illegitimate children to create a lot of credible twists within the shows.
However, the use of similar plots in shows like Pavitra Rishta or Uttaran could make the shows lose it all. Since such shows are so dependent on love stories, the pain of that story is what would keep it afloat for a long time. Shows also need to develop the role of the supporting characters and not just the protagonist to extend its life.
Selling the story
The cost of producing an average episode of fiction in Hindi is approximately Rs. 7 lakh. In a maha-episode, the costs would double.
A twist in the tale may not always incur additional investments, but if the change in the track means new sets with new faces, the initial expense of that transition could go up to as much as Rs. 1 crore. Therefore, the twist had better get in additional eyeballs and for that, the channel needs to create awareness through extended marketing and promotions. Word of mouth too plays a very significant role.
"The success of every show is finally measured by the TRP that it generates and changing the track of a story is always a double-edged sword," says Sonali Jaffar, story and screenplay writer. Some of the shows for which she has written are Kya Huaa Tera Vaada (Sony), Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Hi Kijo (Zee TV), Navya (Star Plus), Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behna Hai (Star Plus) and Sasural Simar Ka (Colors).
Here are some sub-plots we dreamed up. How about a handsome husband turning out to be an alien, the illegitimate child of an inter-species consummation? What if the young, sexy vamp proves to be 180 years old and needs to drink blood to stay young? The docile housewife of the show is actually a sexy, smart spy who knows kung fu?
After all it's all about ideas and imagination. Laugh at your own peril - if the writer and the channel have their vision right, the plot could add 1,000 more lives to an already powerful show.
A Note From the Editor
If you watch television serials, or read about them, it is hard not to laugh at the desperate attempts made to prolong their natural life. And that is what this week's cover story is all about: about the skilful and not-so-clever machinations employed to keep the story moving. Viewers who can see through this begin to curse the show, the producers, the channel - and yet can't stop watching it.
There is compelling business logic in keeping a serial alive even when the signals say that it is running out of steam. To appreciate the true glory of the Indian television business, look closely at Hindi general entertainment channels. At their heart lies the Hindi serial.
Several things make the serial attractive. One, it draws large audiences. Two, it gets them to the channel every day, month after month - and sometimes, year after year. Three, serials demand appointment viewing - every day, at the same time. Four, they provide a steady stream of revenue. Five, a hit serial is an immensely profitable property.
In that sense, nothing compares with the serial business on Indian television. Sports, reality shows and even films pale in front of the the serial when it comes to viewership.
If something seems so attractive, there has to be a catch. In this case, it is the fact that it is extremely difficult to create a popular serial - about as difficult as it is to make a hit feature film. So, before they get that elusive success, channels have to take many chances and lose a lot of money. When they do find the hit they have searched for so hard, they are reluctant to let go of it - and hence the attempts at longevity through myriad twists and turns. No wonder everyone involved watches the weekly ratings like a hawk and makes changes in the plot whenever there is a marked drop in viewership.