The Changemaker

By Pickle  July 13, 2020

An optimist and a staunch believer in making new beginnings, Gaurav Banerjee, President (Hindi and English Entertainment), Star India, who takes creative calls at the network , sees some great opportunities to turnaround the Indian M&E industry during and post COVID-19 while following his Dharma of keeping the fans entertained

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the M&E industry in many ways. How has been your experience of work from home during this time?

It’s been interesting and extremely productive. Honestly, I personally feel that I’m more productive than I used to be in normal times. Having lived in Mumbai since 2004, spending at least two hours commuting to work from home had been one of the major challenges. Now I can spend those two hours far more effectively.

The second thing that has kind of helped is that when you go to office, you end up wasting a lot of other people’s time as well. So, if someone needs to pitch an idea to you, they have to travel distances and then there are security protocols, etc, that take further time.

I personally feel that one must spend time in listening and debating an idea. But often you feel that you can get to the crux of an idea and understand it better and do it faster. So, if it is a video call and you can finish it in half an hour and not 45 minutes then you don’t feel any guilt.

But in a physical meeting there are considerations like the person coming in for a meeting has travelled a long distance, and you feel that you should spend some more time to do justice, whereas in a video meeting, you don’t need to. So, I think it has its set of advantages.

But there are limitations too. I spend most of my time in the creative pursuit of great scripts and you sometimes miss the energy in the room. A lot of people, you know, brainstorming together. We’re trying to get that sort of feeling going on, on Zoom calls with colleagues, but it’s not the same thing. And that’s very hard to sort of grasp. I think that is part of the challenge.

Fortunately, I have been at Star for a very long time, as you know, and that is true for a large number of my colleagues as well. So we definitely know each other really well; there is a long history that one can fall back on. And I think that is deeply helpful. At the same time, I also think that when you meet someone new in person that’s a much better opportunity to have a lot more communication and a deeper understanding. So I think that is a fair challenge. But hopefully we would find a way of connecting better and deeper as we get out of this crisis.

From your perspective where do you see the industry heading from here?

I am the person who spends all my time looking at programming and taking a lot of creative decisions. So, I think it’ll be interesting, and it will definitely be different. I don’t believe for a second that the post COVID world will be the world that used to exist before COVID happened. I think we will end up creating something new and something different.

I think the challenge for each one of us—for our companies and for the industry—is to figure out that how this new and different that we create is better. I think that’s what a lot of us are trying to solve. I think there are some challenges which are apparent. First of which is that giant scale physical production is very hard to do in this environment right now and will probably continue to be a challenge going forward. I think companies like mine where in the past we have never hesitated to have a real massive crew and huge set pieces like battles, for example, will shoot and plan it now very differently.

It will hopefully look even better to viewers. But the way we will go about making it will be powered a lot more with CGI. I think once this massive shift happens, it will really accelerate the opportunity to adopt new technology in production in a very big way.

I think the second thing that we are definitely seeing is the advantage of having a deep pipeline—how many ideas do you have in your funnel? How many creative people are you working with? How many scripts are in the mix? How many productions? We’re working together and working across different parts will become very-very important.

Thirdly, I think one of the challenges for us, as as a creative company is, can we do something so that we are not kind of get a little bit locked up in our own loop and away from the larger world and concerns and issues that our viewers face.

The issue of COVID-19 is so enormous and it has affected all of us equally and in so many different ways that perhaps it is not possible to keep it out of our stories. And, therefore, in this there is an opportunity to reduce the degree of deafness that creeps up into a creative industry which is small and is largely still in Mumbai, especially Hindi. How do we overcome that is
something that we can do better on.

As COVID-19 is going to be the new normal, how is the Indian M&E sector trying to find new ways to function in this new scenario?

We have deeply contributed to the creation of SOPs as an industry across the board. It’s something that is important, and it’s evolving every day. We are talking to the best health policy experts. We are deeply in conversation with the government and with various bodies like the producers and the artists associations. So it’s a deeply collaborative process. And it’s a process that we have created and strongly participated in.

We want to ensure that we do our level best to keep our cast and crew safe. I think more than any other responsibility, this responsibility is of paramount importance. It’s very hard to do it there. It’s a real challenge as nobody truly is fail proof. There are no textbook on it yet. But I think we can continuously learn from our experiences in order to succeed. Thankfully, we are not the first industry which is starting back again, internationally. A lot of work on this front has happened—some of it in Europe, some of it in Australia. We’ve looked at that and are learning but it’s very hard.

How do you see the Indian M&E industry doing in terms of creating world-class productions?

When people compare it to the global standards, they say that it’s much easier to shoot outside India than in India now. I come from a humble television background, and before that I was associated with news industry. All my work has been in India. All the production that we do for television is in India, which is a lovely country to shoot in. We have, of course, few challenges. But I think if you look across the board, I think those challenges are there in every industry. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that we cannot be a world class production destination. I think our ambition should be to become world class, and we need to get there as soon as possible. But the question we need to answer first is that are we learning? Are we thinking on making improvements? The answer is absolutely yes.

I think a lot of recent shows have set higher production benchmarks than what used to be before. The quality of these shows has started sort of reshaping this agenda in the last couple of years. And I think that’s a good step forward. It puts in face a couple of things—the quality of the talent has become better and a lot more time and effort is going into just writing better scripts.

New institutions, new frameworks have come in, and those are good. They will ensure over a period of time, far better quality products coming through from our country. So we are learning. I think a lot of journalists are a little impatient with us. But I keep telling everyone that this industry is roughly 20 years old. The next scale of development of investments is about three years old. So, be a little patient and we’ll hopefully turn this into something that all of us can be deeply proud of.

People have not watched any of the TV serials since March 17. But soon they will be able to watch those serials again on their TVs. How do you think they will recap and pickup the story from where they left off? What’s on your mind now?

I’m happy that you’ve asked this question when we are only four days away from resuming broadcast of TV serials. So, I don’t need to keep any secrets from you. I can tell you honestly. I think the way we have thought about it is that it’s going to be a re-launch of the shows—all the shows. So whether the shows work or they don’t, is not in our hands, that’s in the hands of our fans and we will humbly accept their verdict.

But in our minds, we were clear that we were not bringing back something that people had stopped watching in March. But we were bringing something new. And we were bringing something different. And hopefully we were bringing something better. So the way we thought about it is that this was a forced season break. And now a new season will start, where some parts are what you really like to come back, and then some new dimension is brought in, which hopefully, as a fan, you find very exciting. So let me give you a couple of examples. On Star Plus, we have this incredibly powerful show called ‘Yeh Rishta Kya Kahlata Hai’, which has run nonstop for 11 years. We launched it in January of 2009. Other than COVID, nothing has managed to stop it. So it’s the only break that the show has had in 11 years. So now when it is coming back, we said, okay, we need to do something totally different. And totally different is that the business
family has had a massive problem because of the way their business has got fully stuck with no money coming in due to COVID-19 crisis, and they don’t want to let go of their workers. So they are in a big financial crisis. And to overcome that crisis, they need to find a deal with this person who’s deeply conservative. But this person has now run into some trouble with Naira, the most loved character on the show, who now pretends to have a twin sister just to ensure that this deal doesn’t fall through. So we’re adopting our hearts to the great Shakespeare. And it’s something that has never happened on the show earlier. And it’s again contextual; it’s around what people have dealt with in the last several months.

So that’s what we are trying to do on Kasauti Zindagi Ki, which is another really big show of ours. We are bringing in Karan Patel, one of the most loved television actors of the last half decade as the new Mr. Bajaj and hopefully that casting and the rule and the new dimensions to that character that Mr. Patel will excite fans a lot more than what was happening earlier.

So, those are just two examples by which we are trying to suggest that this is not a restart. It’s a fresh start. Hopefully better than where we left off.

Will that mindset be reflected in other shows running on the network—making people connect with each other?

Hopefully, yes. The last three-four months have given us an opportunity to pause and to reflect and to think deeply about our channels, our shows and our scripts. So, we are excited. I think we have not been able to physically do any production. That has only started in the last 10 days or so. But everybody in the team has been working very hard to think about our game, and how can we improve it. So hopefully after all this net practice over the last hundred days or so, when we come out and play a few shots, some people find it exciting.

So will there be surprises of new shows?

Yes, of course. So we are launching a new show on Monday itself. Anupamaa is a show that we are very very excited about. It is the remake of a show that has done very well for us in Bengali, in Maharashtra and in Telugu as well. So we are bringing it to Hindi. We’re very proud to bring it to them. And it’s a story of a 40 plus woman who is a mother, who hasn’t got all the respect that she truly deserves in her own home, and how she now fights for her self-esteem and respect. So that’s the theme. It has sold really well. The script that I have heard has been outstanding. Let’s see, we have some fantastic actors on the show. So I hope fans really like it.

It’s a great thing in terms of reconnecting with people. People will also be looking forward to it. Not only the young audience, but also sizable fans of all these shows in every corner of the country are looking forward to it, and especially people who are above 65-70 yrs.

Yes, my mother is a really big fan and she been looking forward to this. And I know there are many people like her who keep us in business. We’re here to entertain them to take care of their evenings by telling them a story. So that’s our job. That’s what pays the bills. We’re very happy to get back to that and hopefully we get back to it in a very safe manner.

Disney Star has made the first disrupter in announcing the Disney + Hotstar Multiplex, which is a game changing decision. So, where do you think OTT heading?

I personally believe it is about fans. It is about a man’s deep desire and love for the movies. And I think for the time being, stepping out in a theater is not possible. And therefore, there is an opportunity to make movies available directly at home and you create an environment that makes people want to cherish. And I think we need to innovate and this is an interesting innovation in the crisis at hand in the movies world. There are several such innovations that have happened. So for example, international cricket has resumed in the West Indies and England, and the cricket board and the health authorities have found a way of ensuring that fans and crew are going to be safe.

I think innovation at our end which we have now been doing for the last three months is that we took the entire process of making ads and made it remote. We made making of ads work from home. That’s how we launched Disney Plus Hotstar. That’s how we launched a range of shows on the Star network on our TV business as well as on OTT. Just as the lockdown was starting, we launched Special Ops. Very recently we have launched Aria, both the shows have done really well. And that gives us confidence that we need to adapt to this new world. And a lot of rules and frameworks will need to change, keeping the new realities in mind. And I think the big Dharma for all of us is to entertain our fans, and whether it happens to OTT movies or it happens by the way of resuming content production in our TV shows, or in organizing cricket, or in making big series, by ensuring that promotion and post production have been in a safe environment. I think we’re committed to do our level best to ensure all of that gets done.

India Needs Centers of Creative Excellence

A new India is emerging that is being more ambitious around what can and should get achieved, says Gaurav Banerjee, adding that the country has the resources and the vision to become a leading player in the global M&E space. But he thinks that India would require public-private cooperation in creating a number of centres of creative excellence to achieve this goal. “I think we haven’t done enough in this area as a country and we should do better and we need to do more. We shouldn’t only have one FTI (Film and Television Institute of India) and we should figure out what do we need to do to have such schools in other parts of the country.

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