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Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah: A Special Brand Of Humour

By Anirban Roy Choudhury , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Publishing | September 12, 2016
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With the 2,000 episode mark firmly behind it, SAB TV's popular sitcom takes a well deserved bow. A look at what makes the show tick.

From its cast being invited to promote the Prime Minister's Swachh Bharat initiative to crossing the 2000-episode milestone and finding a spot in the list of top three programmes while taking SAB into the top five channels, Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah (TMKOC) - produced by Asit Kumarr Modi's Neela Telefilms - has hit the headlines frequently. Recently, it became only the third - and the first comedy show on television to cross the 2,000-episode mark following Colors' Balika Vadhu and Star Plus' Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai.

It all started when Modi discovered a column by Gujarati humourist Tarak Mehta in Chitralekha, the Gujarati magazine. He found Mehta's weekly column, Duniya Ne Oondha Chashma, immensely interesting. It struck him that it had the potential of being turned into a television show.

Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah

TMKOC is the tale of six families in a neighbourhood society where people from many cultures live in harmony, getting into the occasional trouble. The series also focuses upon social issues with a message in each episode. And not to forget - all of these happen with a dash of humour.

Back in 2001 when the daily soap era had just established itself, there was the initial hue and cry about a daily phenomenon not working. Many thought that viewer fatigue would kill it, but Modi backed his gut-feel. "I knew the daily phenomenon was here to stay and that is why we decided to pitch TMKOC as a daily comedy show," he informs. The rest is history.

THE QUEST...

When the search for a broadcaster for TMKOC began in 2002, Neela Telefilms (founded in 1996) had created a few shows, the first being Hum Sab Ek Hai. Sony commissioned this in 1998. "It ran for a long time, it was the first comedy show aired in Sony and Neela Telefilms' first Hindi show. Before this we had made a few shows in Gujarati," recalls Modi.

Having shared a cordial relationship with Sony, he first went to the broadcaster with the script only to face rejection. His quest took him to Star Plus and Zee but the response was the same. "There was no kitchen politics, no tragic deaths, neither was there a story of conflict between in-laws. What was considered to be TV material those days was not there in my story. So nobody showed interest," he says.

Jetha Lal and Taarak Mehta

In 2004-05, Disney came into the picture. "This was the first time that I was having so many sittings with a channel," remembers Modi. However, a late fallout put paid to the deal. "The philosophies weren't matching. They wanted us to make too many changes which, had we agreed, would have turned out to be something different. The creator and broadcaster have to be on the same page," postulates Modi.

Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah

L-R: Anooj Kapoor, Asit Modi and NP Singh wearing Ooltah Chashmah

In 2007, Modi got a call from NP Singh, who was then chief operating officer of Multi Screen Media (MSM) under which came all of Sony's media businesses. Singh, who is now CEO, Sony Pictures Network India (SPN) asked Modi to do something for SAB TV, a channel which was still trying to find a firm footing. Not one to let a chance go, Modi immediately narrated the TMKOC story, and Singh greeted him with a smiling yes.

SAB TV is a general entertainment channel (GEC) owned by SPN. The channel was launched in April 2000 by Sri Adhikari Brothers (founded by the brothers Gautam and Markand Adhikari in 1985) as a Hindi GEC. In 2003, the channel was repositioned as a comedy-centric channel. In March 2005, SAB was acquired by Sony Entertainment Television, and was transformed into a youth-centric channel. It did not work and in June 2008, the channel announced that it would return to comedy.

Modi's close associates and friends in the industry advised him not to go ahead with the deal as SAB was not a major GEC, and also did not have a robust distribution. SAB TV's distribution is believed to 40 per cent less than any other mainstream GEC. But Modi was not to be dissuaded. He agreed and in late July 2008 TMKOC was aired on SAB TV, Monday to Friday in the prime time 8.30 PM slot. "People go to a theatre to see a movie. It is the movie that gets them there, not the theatre. If the show is good, people will tune in to the channel," says Modi.

UNUSUAL APPROACH...

In India, the production house pitches an idea that, if the broadcaster likes, gets commissioned. There is a per-episode cost which the commissioning broadcaster pays to the production house and in return owns the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). This gives broadcasters the right to syndicate the content, and not share the syndication revenue with the production house. TMKOC is the only daily show within GECs, where the IPR belongs to the production house, and not the channel.

This gave Neela Telefilms the right to move to any other channel. "The reason for us holding the IPR is our respect for creativity. The show is our creative idea and I am happy to own the rights of a 2000-episode-old brand," he says. "Yes many channels who denied us back then, now approach us with premium cheques, but we are happy to be where we are. SAB TV and the show grew together. Also, the respect I get from Sony as a conglomerate is immense," he points out.

With only one show under its belt, the fortunes of Neela Telefilms ride on TMKOC. Since the cast is not associated with any other show, their fortunes too rest on this show's ability to keep people laughing. As do SAB TV's. According to week 32 ratings, the channel's next most popular show Chidiya Ghar managed to fetch 2082 TVTs (Urban market) compared to TMKOC's 6287 TVTs.

Says Anooj Kapoor, business head, SAB TV, who calls TMKOC the flagship show of the channel, "Many shows came and went at the 8.30 PM prime time slot in GECs, but none managed to entertain people in the manner that Taarak Mehta... did, and that's one of the biggest achievements of the show," he opines.

Remembering his reactions after watching the pilot of the show, he says, "I was clear that this show is going to be a long-distance runner. Looking back now, I tell myself I wasn't wrong." Never has Kapoor felt the need to interfere or bring in innovation. "You don't change the diet of a horse which is winning you one Derby after another," he declares. But there has been the odd hiccup.

The show was faced with declining numbers when the Broadcast Audience Research Council India (BARC) took over. Kapoor feels it was because of the high rural representation in BARC's universe. "Most of SAB's - and TMKOC's - viewership comes from the urban market, and we saw a decline in numbers, but now we have regained our position, and I am very happy to see where we are placed," says Kapoor.

MARATHON RUN...

So what keeps TMKOC ticking? Modi's theory is this: "When all other shows had a 'Haveli' set we went for society. The lead hero was usually shown as business tycoon; we did not follow that. When everyone thought comedy was only a weekly affair, we made it daily. And, lastly, when all are busy showing sorrow and conspiracy we focus on making people smile." Simple.

Kapoor, however, feels that SAB's decision to not make another show 'like' TMKOC despite the latter's success has worked for both the channel and the show. "The writing and SAB's positioning as a comedy channel is what keeps it going," he says. JD Majethia, founder of Hatsoff Production, and creator of comedy shows like Sarabhai vs Sarabhai and Khichdi, agrees. According to him, the way SAB treated the show too made a big difference.

"Taarak Mehta... created a new space called neighbourhood. The cast is already a part of viewers' lives, and that happened only because of their exceptional talent. Two thousand episodes for a comedy show is a matter of immense pride and satisfaction. If it does not morph itself to something different, I don't see it stopping anytime soon," says Majethia.

Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah vs other shows on SAB

If sources are to be believed, SAB pays close to 15 lakh rupees per episode to Neela Telefilms. "Despite us holding the IPR, the deal between us and SAB is same as any other production house-broadcaster," says Modi. In comparison, the production cost of Colors' rating ruler Naagin produced by Balaji Telefilms was between 20 and 25 lakh rupees per episode. The serial 24 costs Rs 1.5 crore per episode. The sponsors too seem satisfied. Smartphone maker Oppo, the lead sponsor, will stay on till September 28. In the past, sponsors came from categories that included FMCG, automobiles and consumer technology. Brands such as Surf Excel, LIC, Lifebuoy, Ariel, Mahindra Gusto, Wheel (detergent) and Ford are among the recent associates.

"Advertisers get to target the engine of a family. The male in the family steers everyone to watch the show, and families enjoy it together. I think, the male is the engine and Taarak Mehta... is a great medium to reach them with the family," says Kapoor. There are no outdoor promotions since TMKOC is a daily. Kapoor is not in favour of brand integration and product placement either. "We tried it, but to me it looked like a forced attempt interrupting the story. I don't plan to move in that direction," he adds quite emphatically.

Mallikarjun Das

Mallikarjun Das, group chief executive officer, Starcom India, feels that the show has broad-based itself, and that has made it more robust. According to him, the Gujarati skew does no harm. "What makes it special is its sustenance in a television market where comedy is not the discourse," he says. Das feels that any brand that wants to target the mass can associate with the show but it might work better for brands that associate themselves with a quirky humorous mindset.

LOOKING GLASSES...

Kapoor's next target is the No. 1 position for TMKOC in the GEC space. According to him, people are moving out of kitchen politics, Saas Bahus and superstition. "SAB made Taarak Mehta... a brand with the treatment it gave and they certainly know how to keep it going," puts in Das.

Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah ratings

Currently, the show is in fifth position (urban Hindi GECs) with 5,401 impressions (in '000s). Zee TV's Kumkum Bhagya leads with 6697. The show is not among the top five programmes in either rural or rural+urban ratings. Kumkum Bhagya tops the urban+rural programme leaderboard with 11297 (impressions in '000s). "All GECs are our competition, and every viewer at the 8:30 PM slot is a possible consumer of the show. Our target is all of them and even the ones watching news," says Kapoor.

It remains to be seen if TMKOC gets to the No. 1 slot. But there is no denying that it has given the audience, the channel and the production house enough to keep smiling. Kapoor and Modi expect those smiles to become broader.

CAST IN STONE

A change in the cast of long-running TV serials is de rigueur. Such shows introduce a 'leap' in the story to break the monotony and that results in a change of cast. Tiffs between stars and the makers are another reason. TMKOC, however, has had the same cast for eight years.

"There is no tiff neither is there monotony. We offer freshness with our script and we stay as a family. I keep everyone happy, as I believe in spreading happiness. When you stay together you do end up having differences, but we sit together and sort it out among ourselves," explains Modi. Dilip Joshi (left) had moved out of the show temporarily, but Modi eventually got him back. "That is the only time there was a change of sorts which I can recall," he points out.

Taarak Mehta... is a story of six families in a society. Joshi plays Jethalal Champaklal Gada, head of the Gada family and someone who gets into trouble more often than not. Each family stands by the other when there is trouble. Sailesh Lodha, who plays Mehta, is not the lead of the show. That honour goes to Joshi's character Jethalal. Mehta provides the moral commentary in each episode.

This story was first published on September 01, 2016 in afaqs! Reporter. The show has now completed 2020 episodes.

A Note From the Editor

If you are looking for persistence-leads-to-success stories, they don't come better than this. Fourteen years ago, when he first set out visiting broadcasters with script in hand, Asit Kumarr Modi, head of production house Neela Telefilms, was laughed out of the studios. They wouldn't touch a script - that did not have television's staple diet of family intrigue or tragedy - with a barge pole. What made it worse - from their point of view - was Modi's insistence on a daily comedy show. Undaunted the man continued his search.

The TV show based on newspaper columns first written in 1971 by a satirist finally found a taker when Sony head N P Singh accepted Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah (TMKOC) for SAB TV in 2008. Exactly eight years later, TMKOC is laughing its way into the record books and into urban Hindi audiences' hearts.

Two thousand episodes is a good landmark to take stock of a serial's longevity and understand what makes it tick. In Mario Puzo's bestselling Godfather, Don Vito Corleone's consigliere Tom Hagen has a memorable retort when, on a mission for the Godfather, he tells a producer: "I have a special practice. I handle one client."

Modi and Neela Telefilms could tweak that line to suit them. Neela Telefilms has just one show under its belt and have made comedy a special art backed by a long-serving cast of actors. Neither Sony-SAB nor the sponsors would mind that exclusivity because TMKOC has made a habit of making the audience laugh every evening. For SAB too, TMKOC is a one-show show. It is streets ahead of the next popular show on the channel.

Now with the 2000-mark milestone firmly behind it, both production house and broadcaster will be figuring out ways to get the rural audiences into its fold. Will rural India humour Taarak Mehta?

M Venkatesh

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