Ekta Kapoor, Joint Managing Director, Balaji Telefilms.

The return of Ekta

AT BALAJI HOUSE IN Mumbai’s Andheri West, secretaries, assistants, and executives walk on eggshells as Ekta Kapoor flits in and out of rooms. Guards and doormen snap to attention. Her office on the fifth floor is an operating base of sorts, replete with a wardrobe stacked with cocktail dresses and workout outfits. Nobody speaks unless they’re spoken to. The silence is complete. “I can’t tolerate incompetence. I suppose I can’t help it,” she says.

Nivedita Basu, a former creative director with Balaji Telefilms from July 2000 to January 2009, and currently director at The House of Originals, her film-making company, remembers an incident from her early days in Kapoor’s outfit. They were shooting the first few episodes of Kasautii Zindagii Kay, a soap that became a runaway hit. One of the episodes wasn’t airworthy and it needed an immediate overhaul. Kapoor wasted no time in firing Basu’s supervisor and then looked at Basu and said, “You! You’re going to get this up and running.” Two sleepless and work-filled nights later as the episode went on air, Basu was made the new creative director. “The fact is that Balaji for anyone and anywhere means one person: Ekta,” says Basu.

There are many Ekta Kapoors. There’s the star kid, born to yesteryears superstar Jeetendra and wife Shobha. There’s the canny businesswoman who set up Balaji back in 1994 along with her parents, and turned it arguably into India’s most successful television production house. There’s Ekta Kapoor, the queen of soaps, who had an instinct about what the masses wanted. Built around women from conservative families who perpetually scrapped under the guise of convention, the over-the-top drama of serials such as Kyunki ... Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi ... (the longest running Indian TV serial on STAR Plus and also the most watched in the last decade), Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, Kkusum, Kasamh Se, Kasautii Zindagii Kay, Kkavyanjali, and Kahiin To Hoga had the cash registers ringing, even as sociologists fretted. There’s Ekta Kapoor, the operations ace, outpacing competitors: If they did two or three serials, she bested them with 13 (all for STAR Plus) with unmatched profligacy. She would use the same set for a Hindi serial in the morning, a Kannada one in the afternoon and for another Hindi show in the evening. There’s the imperious Ekta Kapoor, the one Basu encountered, and who never allowed anybody to forget who she was, even as there was the superstitious Ekta Kapoor, who named all her serials initially with a ‘K’ on the advice of astrologers. There was once also a tubby Ekta Kapoor, fond of junk food, chocolates, and ice-cream, who, in an industry of chiselled bodies, struggled with her 83 kg, later reduced under a stern regimen of exercising twice a day, three times a week.

But these days, she has two new avatars—the humbled Ekta Kapoor (or at any rate, as humbled as she can be) who is also the comeback Ekta Kapoor. Last year she delivered one of the year’s biggest hits, The Dirty Picture, even as Bade Achhe Lagte Hain, the hit soap which has completed 297 episodes as of Oct. 25, 2012, has helped Sony Entertainment Television pull in phenomenal ratings and become No. 1 among general entertainment channels.

The year ahead promises to be a huge test for Kapoor, as she continues to strike a balance between the small and big screens. “I can’t speak about a big move, but I do have a three-year plan. In fact, it’s so set in concrete, we know what we have to do in each quarter,” she says. The stock market too is waiting with bated breath. Balaji’s scrip has risen over 60% from nearly Rs 32 at the beginning of this year. Early last month the Balaji stock reached its 52-week high of Rs 58.5, which translates into a market capitalisation of Rs 330 crore. Gaurav Dua, head of research at Sharekhan, a leading broking house, says, “Balaji has picked up momentum with its movie production and one hopes that it’s a stable growth trajectory, rather than just a blip.” Going by the number of Bollywood A-listers—Anil Kapoor, John Abraham, Manoj Bajpai, Kangana Ranaut, Akshay Kumar, and Sonakshi Sinha—in Balaji’s upcoming films, Shah’s anxiety may be ill-founded.

Yet, for all her recent successes, the last few years have been tumultuous. Someday, she could even make a movie out of it. Her story.

HER ANNUS HORRIBILIS WAS 2008. The year started well. Balaji launched 14 serials and completed 1,800 episodes of Kyunki .... The average realisation per hour of content (Balaji’s soaps are mostly daily) was Rs 32.8 lakh. Its
Rs 96 crore profit in FY08 was more than four times its turnover in 2001, while Balaji’s stock was in the range of Rs 350. (It touched its all-time high of Rs 665 in April 2002, soon after listing in 2000. Indeed, so successful was Kapoor that in 2004, STAR Plus, the Rupert Murdoch-owned channel which aired her soaps took a 26% stake in Balaji.) Moreover, the baby steps into the world of cinema were comforting. Both Kyaa Kool Hain Hum and Shootout at Lokhandwala had received a thumbs up at the box office.

But, by the end of the year, things changed. What happened was eerily similar to the high-drama scenes in Balaji’s soaps: STAR took her shows off air, cancelled a joint venture for regional content in South India, and even won a public arbitration lawsuit against her. An agreement by which Balaji had the right to buy out STAR’s stake for Rs 190 a share was also terminated. Kapoor flatly refuses to talk about how the relationship unspooled. Uday Shankar, the current STAR Plus CEO, didn’t respond to multiple calls, or requests for interviews.

But industry sources, who didn’t speak for attribution, say a few things happened. STAR felt that it needed to restore some parity in its relationship with Kapoor. Balaji was billing Rs 1.2 crore a day—the average industry figure was Rs 30 lakh—and STAR Plus was paying most of it. As a soap producer, Balaji usually comes up with the script, hires the actors, shoots at its own studio or rented ones, edits, and sells it. The old hands at STAR—the likes of Sameer Nair and Peter Mukerjea—had left, and the new management felt the invoices were too large. In other words, Balaji had priced itself out of the market. There was also talk that in a business of unmanageable egos, Kapoor’s was becoming difficult to manage.

The fallout was a rude awakening for her. “There was a senior (STAR) exec who said he wouldn’t meet me … on email,” she says. “I thought this was bizarre … this guy will meet any mom-and-pop shop, and here I’ve been part of a partnership for nine years, given STAR huge bottom lines, and they don’t even have the time to
meet me?”

It was the start of what Kapoor calls the “Big Balaji slump”. By December-end 2008, the markets beat the stock to Rs 65, down 81% from the beginning of the year. By next fiscal, profits dropped to Rs 47 lakh from Rs 96.14 crore the previous year. For the highly explosive, temperamental diva, infamous for lashing out when things did not go her way, this wasn’t meant to be, though in some sections of the media, she’d said her astrologers had predicted parts of this. “I was unnerved when the losses started,” she says.

Kapoor was now standing with a mediocre movies business and shrinking TV margins, even as talent began to leave. But, like in her soaps, where the lone feisty woman often fights back against society’s machinations, Kapoor chose to fight back, instead of fading away as many had predicted.

There were two possible outcomes to the Ekta Kapoor story after the STAR fallout: Either she remained a marginalised TV content player, or provided her movies with an even bigger push. (Balaji’s business model was intended to be one where the movie business fed off TV.) She surprised everyone and chose to do both.

SHOWBIZ FOLKS, LIKE POLITICIANS, don’t make permanent friends, or permanent enemies. So, two years after their fallout, Kapoor patched up with STAR. For her, the network’s reach was unparalleled, while for STAR, she was still a producer with the Midas touch. But there were three important departures she made.

One, Balaji could now make soaps for other channels as well. In effect, she was de-risking her production house. Two, she brought down her rates to produce shows. Clearly, both sides had won. The first show she made for STAR after the patchup was Tere Liye, which was a success. The name of the soap didn’t start with ‘K’—that was the third departure. (Meanwhile, STAR is scouting around to find a buyer for its stake in Balaji.)

These days, Balaji charges nearly Rs 10 lakh for a show, a third of what it charged in 2008. But Kapoor insists that pruning costs hasn’t resulted in quality let-ups. She has team members read out TV scripts to her on an average four to five hours per day: she also has one movie script read out every week. They discuss story lines, identify potentially great moments, and mull over what the moments of catharsis for the characters could be (think of them as killer apps for a soap). There are three kinds of meetings: the overall story, characterisation, and episodes. And Kapoor can go to any lengths to get the perfect episode.

Ask actress Sakshi Tanwar, who plays the female lead in Sony’s Bade Achhe. Ten years ago, she was offered the role of Parvati in Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, India’s second longest serial. But shifting to Mumbai was proving to be a deal breaker. Kapoor created a “block date shooting system” just for her—Tanwar would be committed for 15 days a month and the script, sets, and shoots would be worked around that. Still wanting to wriggle out of the deal, Tanwar sought a fee three times more than what she would have normally asked for. “Not only did Ekta agree, but she later told me that she would have even paid five times more because she was so sure I fit the bill for Parvati,” says Tanwar. “Her kind of commitment is unbelievable.”

IN MOVIES TOO, KAPOOR has begun showing the formidable talent she has in knowing what the audience wants. The film where she first demonstrated it was LSD: Love, Sex aur Dhokha, a departure from the pretentious and hyperstylised Bollywood formula. It was about love, sex, and betrayal in urban India. Made for Rs 7 crore, it generated Rs 11 crore at the box office in 2010. Director Dibakar Banerjee’s renegade style involved stitching three stories and using varied handheld, security, and spy cameras and obscure actors. The Indian audiences warmed up to the deliciously voyeuristic treatment.

Mozez Singh, an independent film producer and director, points to the themes often revisited in Kapoor’s movies: sex (LSD), crime (Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, Shootout at Lokhandwala, Shor in the City), horror (Krishna Cottage, Raagini MMS), and gross-out humour (Kyaa Kool, Kyaa Super Kool Hain Hum). “Those are the things the youth want,” he says. “You won’t catch her taking a chance on a classical Indian romance.”

But her biggest bet yet, which played out magnificently last year, was Dirty Picture, the biopic on South Indian siren Silk Smitha. “She is a brand from which people are willing to expect the unexpected,” says actress Vidya Balan, who played the lead. Kapoor’s other big achievement was convincing Balan, a Bollywood A-lister, to play Smitha, an actress in B-grade movies who committed suicide. Balan took 10 months before she agreed to sign on. “It was a big gamble, I was getting out of my comfort zone, but Balaji gave me the confidence that Dirty Picture wouldn’t be sleazy,” she says.

She recalls the time Kapoor came on the sets for the photo shoots, which was unusual for a producer. Kapoor told her “Silk is like Draupadi [the heroine of the Indian epic The Mahabharata, who was married to all the five Pandava brothers].” The inference: many desired Smitha. That gave Balan a whole new way of looking at her character.

Made on a budget of Rs 29 crore, Dirty Picture fetched Rs 82 crore (that’s a 182% return). Kapoor had never boasted such huge returns on modest budgets for her previous movies. It was the turning point and an affirmation of a potent hedging strategy for Kapoor, especially since her switch in focus—from TV to films—had more to do with de-risking Balaji than seeking glory through cinema. Movies drove higher revenue for Balaji than TV content last fiscal, which is perhaps why she’s down to five TV serials across various channels this year from 14 in 2008.

“Actually, from a financial perspective, it’s easier to do films because you’re dealing with less risk,” she says. It’s way easier to pre-sell the movie with the right story and stars. Also, the competition isn’t as much with just five production houses—UTV, Reliance MediaWorks, Eros, Yash Raj and Viacom—other than her own. (Balaji Motion Pictures is Balaji’s movie-making subsidiary.) TV, on the other hand, is hugely fragmented, given the low entry barriers—you don’t need much capital, there’s easy availability of trained professionals, etc. But, of course, as Kapoor points out, few are able to achieve scale.

There is also the issue of intellectual property ownership. All new ideas get transferred to the broadcasters because they end up owning the software, making it difficult to be valued by an investor and, thereby, raising capital. Add unpredictable revenues, the weekly need to keep ratings up, etc, all of which makes TV a tough model for investors to figure out and back. Think of this as another lesson learnt quickly—five out of Balaji’s seven all-time top movie grossers have all come after the STAR controversy.

The usual business of movie making involves the production house, which sells the content to a distributor for release. But here too, Ramesh Sippy (not to be confused with the director of the cult hit Sholay), Kapoor’s uncle and advisor to Balaji’s motion pictures business, makes things easier. With over 40 years of experience in film distribution, he releases Balaji’s films through his company Raksha Distributors, resulting in huge savings.

Little wonder, Balaji chairman Jeetendra can again afford to sit back in his Juhu residence. “Today, a producer can make a film for Rs 50 crore and sell it for Rs 70 crore. Or, you can release it yourself and it could gross between Rs 90 crore and Rs 100 crore. So, that’s the game Balaji wants to play now,” says Jeetendra.Given Balaji’s hot streak and the promise that Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai 2, the sequel to the previous hit, and Shootout at Wadala, the prequel to Shootout at Lokhandwala, holds, potential winnings could be big.“When you make a sequel, the chances are usually good because of the recall from the first movie,” says Shobha Kapoor, Balaji’s managing director. (Kapoor has always officially been joint-managing director.)

MEANWHILE, KAPOOR’S BEEN TRYING to bring in the right professionals, perhaps another lesson post-STAR. Basu remembers what happened just after the split. “CEOs, COOs. We’d never heard of these designations before at Balaji. I was like ‘Who are all these people?’” But the new cast was a disaster. Swati Shetty, president of Balaji Motion Pictures, quit the company early this year. Puneet Kinra, a corporate finance hat from consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, who was brought in as Group CEO to streamline Balaji’s strategy, resigned in May. There have been other exits: Balaji’s COO Vikram Malhotra, vice president-marketing Neeraj Joshi, chief design officer Anku Pande, and vice presidents of production and development Shivaji Dasgupta and Sheel Nimbalkar.

“You can’t have the B-school structured CEO running a TV content business. It doesn’t work and never can,” says Kapoor, who studied in Mumbai’s Mithibhai College for a short while before dropping out. The structure as well as the mindset needs to be different, she adds.

She is hoping for better things from Tanuj Garg, the current CEO of Balaji Motion Pictures. Garg, who joined the company in 2010, was brought in to give the movie business stronger business processes and expand its overseas distribution. His experience of working for Balaji rivals such as UTV and Studio 18 might just come handy.

“Where do you look for a CEO for a film business? They aren’t growing on trees. You have to groom one,” says Jeetendra. “Tomorrow, at Balaji there will be Ekta-led shows, non-Ekta-led shows, collaborative shows, movies, on which managers will take calls. We are creating that process.” But will that diminish Kapoor’s influence? Perhaps never. A star she will continue to be.

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