• Ekta Kapoor

There are stories about Ekta Kapoor and there is the story of Ekta Kapoor. Here, in a chapter from her book Death in Mumbai, Meenal Baghel profiles India’s most well-known TV producer like never before.

 

‘The young, especially those from small towns and middle class families, like Neeraj, join because they want quick money, they want expression—their names and faces on TV.’

—Ekta Kapoor

 

Ekta Kapoor walked into the meeting late, and within ten seconds, like a tearaway bully on the beach, she dismantled all the castles the others had been building. ‘I want Crash,’ she said, referring to Paul Haggis’s multiple-Oscar winning film.

 

The meeting had been convened to discuss her newest project, a movie ‘inspired’ by Neeraj Grover’s killing. Ten films, Ekta informed everyone, had already been announced on the subject. Since Neeraj was a Balaji product and Maria had come to Mumbai aspiring to work with Ekta, it only made logical sense that they should stake ownership. ‘If there has to be a film on the TV industry then why shouldn’t we be the ones making the story?’

 

Except, at this point, there was no story.

 

The executives of Balaji’s fledgling film division, and the actor Rohit Roy, who had been signed on to direct his first full-length feature film, were in a massive conference room, brainstorming. ‘I have the opening sequence all ready in my head—it begins with a woman’s audition tape running… ’ Rohit said to the young assistant who had joined the company two days ago; the assistant looked suitably impressed. Someone suggested a Madhur Bhandarkar-style voyeuristic drama, while another executive came up with the idea of an ‘intense love story’. The consensus was veering in that direction when Crash landed.

 

‘It blew my mind,’ Ekta said. ‘Let’s also have the plot set over one night featuring several characters and their stories… Your budget,’ she said, turning towards Rohit, who was beginning to lose some of his good cheer, ‘would be Rs. two to three crore.’

 

I met Ekta, India’s most successful television producer—and an astute mind—to get an insider’s perspective on the world that Neeraj and Maria aspired to. At which she suggested I sit in on her meetings to see how she works and creates.

 

In the US, a single episode of a television show like Sex and the City or The Wire costs more than the budget she was offering Rohit for his film. But television in India works on simple volume—the more episodes you produce the more money you make. ‘It’s not amazing talent that makes me special,’ Ekta explained without any hint of self-deprecation, ‘but the sheer volume of work I have done.’ In its fourteen years, her company has produced over seventy shows, which have defined Indian television. Her approach to movies is similar. ‘I’d like to produce quickies made on a tight budget.’

 

The quick turnover demands a constant feed of actors, technicians, and scriptwriters, making Balaji Telefilms one of the largest employers in Bollywood. ‘Every day about a hundred people come to us looking for jobs. I know, because I have to deal with them.’ Like Muammar Gaddafi’s battalion of women bodyguards, a brisk bevy of bejewelled, tilak-sporting women that included a writer, a head of production, and an assistant, insulate Ekta from the pressures of her own celebrity status. Tanushree Dasgupta, who has been with her for nine years, is at their head.

 

When Ekta, famously and publicly devout, goes jogging every Tuesday from Mahim to Siddhivinayak Temple at Prabhadevi, she is often waylaid by people on the road wanting roles for themselves, their children; she hands them Tanushree’s number. Others get in touch with acquaintances working at Balaji Telefilms while trying for a break, as Maria Susairaj did. Maria befriended Balaji employee Jyoti Jhanavi on Orkut, who in turn introduced her to Neeraj, who was in charge of auditions there. Most recently, Ekta’s Facebook account had been overrun with pictures of young men baring their six-packs. ‘They think that’s their show-reel,’ she said, quite tickled.

 

Last year, a twenty-eight-year-old aspiring scriptwriter from Naini, Uttar Pradesh, Akshay Shivam Shukla, having exhausted all avenues of meeting the Boss Lady, came up with a most ingenuous plan. On August 4, the day of Shravan Puja, he infiltrated the Balaji Telefilms office disguised as a priest.

 

Unfortunately for him, the staff soon realized that instead of mantras, Panditji was mumbling mumbo-jumbo. Shukla was pulled aside, questioned, and thrown out. In protest, he spent the night outside Balaji House, and when morning came he tried to immolate himself with a litre and a half of kerosene. The watchmen, desperate to douse the flames, pushed him into the open sewer that runs alongside the building. Cops were called in, a case was registered, and Shukla—finally deterred from his mission to meet Ekta—was admitted to Cooper Hospital.

 

‘Eighty per cent of people in TV today have gone through Balaji,’ she told me, with pride. ‘The young, especially those from small towns and middle class families, like Neeraj, join because they want quick money, they want a platform to express themselves, to see their names and faces on TV. In their hometowns, TV is the primary source of entertainment, and to have their families see their name and face on TV is a big power trip.’

 

Her own creative head, Vikas Gupta, was a loose-limbed, floppy-haired twenty-one-year-old from Uttarakhand who leapfrogged up the hierarchy one evening when he saw Ekta struggling to figure out what had gone wrong with one of her episodes. ‘My mother would not buy the logic of the lead character,’ he told her casually.

 

‘On instinct,’ she said snapping her fingers, ‘I decided to make him Balaji’s creative head. It’s a big job, and I’ve made him sign a tough contract, but he understands the audience consists of women like his mother. Also, I liked his attitude.’

 

That was also what had first brought Neeraj to her attention. As she waited for her private lift to take her up to her fifth floor office, one of the aspirants hanging around on the ground floor saw Ekta and flicked an impertinent salute. ‘It was a really arrogant gesture, but I liked it,’ she said, letting me into the secret of how she creates stars. ‘There are only two things we look for in our lead actors: the man should have attitude, and the woman should look innocent. Between you and me,’ she said with a wink, ‘virginal.’ This has led to some peculiar casting problems—‘It’s become difficult to find young urban women who meet this criterion.’ Ekta bypassed this problem by casting schoolgirls. Her youngest heroine has been a sixteen-year-old.

 

As television boomed into a Rs 27,000 crore industry in just over ten years, Oshiwara transformed from the dump Ekta first came to in 2000 into one of Mumbai’s most fashionable neighbourhoods. Young television stars and technicians, who spent upwards of twelve hours a day in near-squalid studios at Goregaon, Saki Naka, and Malad, going weeks without a break, invested heavily in plush homes here. The skyline is dotted with Singapore-style condominiums with hard-to-pronounce French-sounding names. (The illusion of a First World lifestyle is reinforced with easy access to fancy cold cuts, cheese and wines, the latest Almodovar DVD, and 24/7 air-conditioned houses. This lasts only until one steps outside, and is rudely brought down to potholed earth.) Real estate expansion has been matched by a thriving nightlife, forcing even frou-frou South Mumbai restaurateurs like Rahul Akerkar, the owner of Indigo, to open branches here.

 

The idea and attitude of Oshiwara now pushes beyond the reclaimed marsh. It is in the vanity of little-known designers housed in glass-plated buildings announcing their genius tersely, like Giorgio Armani, or Jimmy Choo, and without a smidgen of irony: Rahul Agasti, Turakhia Dhaval, Roopa Vora, Babita Malkani.

 

It is implicit in the flashy EMI-driven lifestyle prevalent here. But most of all it lies, said Jaideep Sahni, in the ‘severe ambition’ that crackles in the air. His is the classic story of the outsider who made it big in Mumbai. The forty-one-year-old from Delhi is the most sought after scriptwriter in the film industry. ‘Just sit at the Yari Road Barista for half an hour and you will know what it’s about. The atmosphere is electric,’ he said referring to another coffee shop not far from where Neeraj and his friends hung out each evening. ‘Those men and women who look like Conan or Barbie behave as if they are out not for a cup of coffee, but for a screen test. Everything is about getting face time with the right people,’ said the writer of hit films like Company, Bunty Aur Babli, Khosla Ka Ghosla, and Chak De.

 

Jaideep himself is often accosted at film premieres, where a glass wall cuts the Bollywood hierarchy off from the hoi polloi. Such is the premium on these opening nights that cinema chains like PVR have introduced the idea of ‘paid premiere’ tickets. ‘A well-dressed stranger will persistently catch your eye and since it would be rude to not respond, and one may be unsure of having met them, you go across. That’s all they need. After small talk about how they admire your work, or similar fawning attentiveness, they’ll follow you back into the enclosure, past the usher, as if that’s their natural destination.’ He laughed half-admiringly. ‘Once in, the person will drop you to go mingle with other directors and producers. Mission accomplished.’

 

~

 

‘Every nation has a defining characteristic. If it is confidence for the American, for the Australian it’s his appetite for fun. In India, what defines us is striving,’ Rajesh Kamat told me. A Mumbai boy, Rajesh was the CEO of Viacom 18, the company that owns the entertainment channel Colors, at the age of thirty-seven. He has left that job since we last spoke. Colors had raced to the top of the Television Rating Point (TRP) chart within a year of its launch, forcing others, including Ekta, to modify their formula. ‘It’s our striving for a better life, a better lifestyle. There is, even in these tough times, a disproportionate amount of money to be made in TV, which is why it’s so seductive for the young.’

 

Having worked previously with Endemol, a Dutch company that licenses reality show formats—they produced two of the biggest shows on Colors, Fear Factor and Big Boss 2—Rajesh has closely watched this young workforce turn around the country’s television habits—television’s eternal saas–bahu sagas ceding ground to starlet Dolly Bindra getting foul-mouthed on camera.

 

Over the course of an interview that stretched past midnight, Ekta, who is now routinely counted among India’s wealthiest women, recounted how she started her own career as an eighteen-year-old producer. ‘I was in class twelve when my parents shifted from Bandra to their bungalow in Juhu, which I hated. I’d run away to Bandra every day to hang out at the Otters’ Club with my friends Anupam and Parvin Dabas, who went on to become an actor, and to walk around Joggers’ Park with Aunty Neetu [Singh-Kapoor].’

 

Additionally, three days of the week were scheduled for partying, which caught the attention of the ever-vigilant Stardust. ‘I was just excited about doing nothing. I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t smoke, I rarely drank, but Stardust ran a piece saying Jeetendra’s daughter was running wild.’ Her father, a man of modest and conservative upbringing—his family ran a small business selling artificial jewellery before he went on to become a big star, was appalled. ‘He couldn’t understand why I needed to be out of the house every second day… Not long after I turned eighteen he came into my room one evening and gave me an ultimatum— either I start working, or get married.’

 

Ekta grew up watching endless hours of television and devouring tubs of ice cream while her father was busy shooting three shifts a day, and her mother stayed away either travelling with him or at kitty parties. She decided to make television serials. ‘I loved TV, it gave me great joy.’ Her friend Ratna Rajiah wrote a plot outline, which her cousin Gattu (better known as Abhishek Kapoor, the director of the Farhan Akhtar starrer Rock On) would direct. ‘Our pilot was called Jeans ‘n’ Josh and I must confess that the title was the only colourful thing about it; the serial was a grim look at things like peer pressure, AIDS, bisexuality, parental hypocrisy. We wanted to be dark and meaningful,’ she said, letting out an ironic little giggle. ‘It was our equivalent of a Madhur Bhandarkar movie, and both Gattu and I were very proud of it. But when we showed it to Ravina Raj Kohli at Star TV, she took one look at it and dismissed us, saying no channel would commission something so dark, and which dealt with suicide and all. “Give me something happy and family oriented,” she said. We were crushed. I remember getting out of the Star office and shaking my head to Gattu: “What’s the world come to, I say!”’

 

But she imbibed Ravina Raj Kohli’s instructions well. ‘I am not saying we are ashamed of what we do… We did create Kyunki, Kanyadaan, Kkavyanjali, Kasautii, which have been about the urban middle class, but you are not my audience. You can go home and see Desperate Housewives just like I do.’

 

Her serials are a volatile mix of traditional Indian motifs, often featuring joint families with all their stereotypes, clashing modern values, and are as formulaic as a Bollywood film. When Peter Chernin, then COO of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (which owns Star TV in India), came to Ekta’s home for a meal he asked her what was wrong with one of their new launches, and why it wasn’t doing well. ‘Even then I told him that his new channel was trying to be a niche channel, and that could never be profitable in India.’

 

A few years after this well-meaning advice, Star TV terminated their decade-long exclusive partnership with Ekta, axed three of her daily soaps, and divested their 25.99 per cent share in her company. Balaji Telefilms’ stock went into a tailspin, sparking a shiver of excitement among Bollywood’s obituary writers.

 

We met again on the day her company lost its arbitration case against Star TV. She had just emerged from a marathon meeting with her creative team, but was still smarting from the judgment. ‘I gave Star the best eight, nine years of my life, I took them at face value, but they f***** me over… ’

 

‘Then again,’ she lowered her pitch by a notch or two, ‘my Rahu mahadasha has begun, and I’ve been told my secret enemies will start to surface.’

 

I asked with curiosity: ‘For how long will the mahadasha go on?’

 

‘Eighteen years, man!’

 

Early propagators of astrology, the Babylonians and the Mayans would read chicken liver for as many as six thousand warning signs. The greater the fear of uncertainty, and the less assurance there is of certitude, leaves the diviner and the follower to try every possible form of propitiation.

 

Such was the case with Ekta, who wore a stone on every finger, even two on some. Over the many doors of the seven-storeyed Balaji House, horseshoes, clutches of fresh neon-green chillies and lemon are tied along with coconuts wrapped in an auspicious red, dangling like the breasts of a baboon. On Ekta’s fifth floor domain as well as at her Juhu house the Gayatri mantra, sung in a fast-paced tinny-voice, as if on a worn-out tape, plays round the clock working like a force field against any possible evil eyes.

 

A former employee clued me in, ‘Whenever you meet her, take a close look at her shoes.’ The woman who could easily afford the latest Manolos and Louboutins only ever wore a pair of worn-out platform slip-ons, straps in tatters, with the clunky rubber heels roughened. ‘She considers them her lucky shoes and won’t trade them for another pair.’

 

Not long after hearing this, I read an interview with Ekta in Hindustan Times in which, speaking about her shows on Colors, Ekta said her association with the channel would be fruitful, she knew, because when its creative head first called she’d been in a puja, and as soon as their conversation ended a flower dropped from the head of the idol. It was, Ekta said, a divine seal of approval.
~~

 

I sat in on one of her meetings, hoping to catch some of the action—it was rumoured that in fits of rage she threw slippers (the lucky ones?) at errant employees; but while I was there, she remained regrettably in control.

 

Of the ten serials that are in production at any given time, Ekta only looks after three—the rest are taken care of by associates—but she decides the look and casting for each of the shows. ‘I remember we shortlisted a girl for our serial Kasturi, but when I came back from out of town and saw the hoardings, I realized her face did not reflect the innocence demanded by the character. Overnight the hoardings were brought down, a fake story about how pressure had made the actress ill was circulated in the media, and a new girl was found.’

 

Ekta talked from behind a presidential-size desk as Vikas showed her auditions of aspirants—this is what Neeraj Grover used to do at Balaji Telefilms. Also present were seven or eight young women, all under thirty. Ekta stared hard at the computer screen, and pressed the enter key with the speed and concentration of a tabla player beating a riff on the dagga. Though the air conditioner remote was lying next to her, she passed it to one of the girls every few minutes: ‘On karoab off karo. Switch it on… ab off… ’

 

Mothers, sisters—‘kindly faces’, buas and sisters-in-law—‘nice bitchy faces’ were swiftly cast before trouble erupted. ‘Where’s the father? The Marathi actor I asked you guys to locate, the one who looks like an older Ajay Devgn?’ There was a shuffle of confusion, and Vikas pressed ahead trying to show her other options, but she refused to be appeased.

 

‘WHERE IS THE GUY I WANT?’

 

The entire group involuntarily moved back a step. Was I about to witness a famous Ekta blowout? Instead, she abruptly switched her tone and turned to me. ‘I got the idea for the film on Neeraj from something you said. General wisdom is that creative directors like him have no clout, they merely audition… but I got thinking, and it struck me that I get to see only what they choose to show me. They actually have the power to make or break someone’s career. If my staff shows me the photograph of an actor just as I am leaving for home, getting into the car, ninety per cent chances are I’ll say okay. That’s the time I am exhausted and not as hawk-eyed… This power and what they choose to do with it is what I want to explore in the film.’

 

She then got up, and with a gesture intended to be theatrical, pulled me into the corridor. ‘If you’re doing a book on Neeraj Grover, you must speak to Smita Patil,’ she said sotto voce. ‘She’s a spook, man!’

 

Though Neeraj had quit working for Ekta Kapoor several months earlier, when he went missing Ekta got one of her colleagues to contact a clairvoyant for his whereabouts. It was a far more reliable source of information for her than any detective could offer. ‘I knew Neeraj was dead even before the police announced it. This woman had told us that his girlfriend, along with two other men, had killed him, and she also gave details of where his body could be found.’

 

Two days later she texted me the mobile number of her clairvoyant, Smita Patil.

 

The phone beeped, and Narendra Chanchal’s ‘Chalo bulawaa aaya hai, maata ne bulaya hai… ’ rang in my ear. Mid-crescendo, Smita Patil cut him short and answered the phone. She had been a Goregaon girl who got her degree in textile designing from Sophia Polytechnic, and married an assistant geologist in ONGC. For several years she taught art in various schools, all the while nursing political ambitions. In 1999 she was jailed during a political agitation, and was featured in the Bombay Times as ‘Star of the Week’.

 

A devotee of Durga from her early days, she did the punishing nine-day nirjala vrat every Navratri to invoke the goddess. ‘People started making fun of my bhakti so I prayed hard to Mata Rani, saying she needed to manifest herself and save me from such humiliation. In 2005, Mata Rani housed herself in my body and she has stayed on since, constantly showing herchamatkar.’

 

Every Tuesday at her home, which is right next to a teeming mall at Bhayander, she holds a durbar where Mata Rani—and here Smita Patil referred to herself in the third person—gives darshan seated on her high chair, doling out individual benedictions after the prayers. From healing invalids to blessing the childless, Mata Rani’s bounty, she says, knows no limit.

 

‘In May last year one of my bhakts, a girl called Rasika, came in with her boyfriend Kushal who works at Balaji, he wanted to know the whereabouts of his friend Neeraj. I took one look at Neeraj’s picture and said, “The boy is no more, his girlfriend and two men are responsible, and the body can be found near water.” Kushal told me no one would kidnap Neeraj, and that he didn’t think that’s what had happened. So I closed my eyes again and told him that Mata Rani had spoken and that the girlfriend should be taken to the CBI and she would confess.’

 

‘This Kushal called me one evening some days later and said, “Mata Rani, please switch on the TV. Whatever you said has come true.”’ She has guided several celebrities in addition to Ekta, even telling a powerful Shiv Sena politician that he was going to die soon.

 

And, did he? It was impossible to resist the question.

 

‘Within three days of my informing him this, he had an accident and died.’

 

But it’s not easy being Mata Rani, taking care of bhoot–balaayein,and dialoguing with the spirits. ‘If it’s a shaitani shaktiI have to counter, I suffer tremendously, my feet get crooked, I start yelling and then my body starts to get heavier and heavier. Mata Rani needs to be in a pure environment and you can imagine what that means in a filthy city like Mumbai… It’s difficult to walk on roads, travel by train, I can’t clean my house, wash utensils, normal life is not possible with Mata Rani constantly living in my body. The family life is affected too.’ But her children, one of whom studies aeronautical engineering in Nashik while the other is in class XI, have come to accept the new presence in their mother’s life.

 

‘My dream is to serve the people and have a temple built in Mata Rani’s name at my residence, for that’s where her shrine stood four hundred years ago, and which was later buried under rubble. Mata Rani needs to be brought out from under the earth and allowed to breathe.’
~~~

 

Superstitions and clinging to totems sit oddly with the woman I’ve been interviewing. Ekta is bright, humorous, and in possession of a combative streak. I mentioned this to a television insider who has dealt closely with Balaji Telefilms, and who agreed to speak provided I kept his identity concealed. ‘To understand the Ekta phenomenon,’ he said chuckling quietly, ‘you must also know the father and the mother. Brand Ekta is the three of them operating as a unit.’

 

Shobha Kapoor, a former flight attendant, is the canny dowager whose business deals are as sharp as her diamonds. Her rough cuts are offset by Ekta’s father. Jeetendra was India’s original dancing star who, when thirty was thought of as middle age, famously endorsed a brand of virility capsules called ‘Thirty Plus’. ‘Jeetendra is charm and gentleness personified,’ my informer explained.

 

The final member of the troika is Ekta, the unpredictable, superstitious diva with a famous temper, who creates amidst chaos. ‘The mother will play hardball with a channel in the morning, but blame Ekta’s working style when executives complain of schedules going awry or tapes coming in late. If the channel ever suggests dropping a Balaji show that may be faring poorly, Jeetendra will take the executives out for a drink by the evening and get emotional and apologetic, saying: “You know just how eccentric Ekta is, all the shows are like her babies, I understand your problem but if you drop one of the shows, she may get upset, that in turn may affect her creativity, and impact the rest of the serials on the channel…”’ The insider laughed, putting aside his masalachai. ‘It’s a brilliant strategy.’

 

I got the drift of her mercurial style one evening when she called me over to her house. ‘I’ll be relaxed there and we can chat at leisure.’ But the meeting was rescheduled four times before she sent a message saying that she would definitely be home by 11 pm. These days Amitabh Bachchan might woefully blog about waterlogging at his house each time it rains heavily, but until recently, the Juhu Vile-Parle Development Scheme was one of the most elegant addresses in Mumbai. A generation of movie stars—Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Rakesh Roshan, Shatrughan Sinha, and Hema Malini—live in plush fenced-off bungalows there. A few years ago, when Hema Malini decided to reconstruct her home, she looked around for a temporary apartment in the vicinity—but quickly dropped the idea when she discovered she was expected to share the elevator with the other residents of the building.

 

Her contemporary, and one-time suitor, Jeetendra has a house, which stands out, in the neighbourhood as one of the largest. It also resembles a Jain temple, built as it is in blinding-white marble. But the presiding deity was not in.

 

Instead, I was ushered in with my Mumbai Mirror colleague Vickey Lalwani into a high-ceilinged room so large that it looked unused. In a far corner, Ekta’s photographs in various poses lined the shelf—she has a sweet face and a lovely smile, but the hauteur in the eyes is unmistakable. A sprawling chandelier hung over a bare dining table; Grecian-style pillars and a forlorn-looking marble nymph added to the mausoleum-like feel. The same tinny-voiced Gayatri mantra was playing here too, though there didn’t seem to be a soul around. As the minutes elapsed, Vickey and I silently stared at Ekta’s black pug desperately humping a velvet sofa cushion.

 

Suddenly, Jeetendra glided noiselessly into the room, looking dressed for a night out. After solicitous small talk he called out, conjuring a flurry of liveried attendants, as he did Ekta who arrived within seconds. It was past midnight, but she had been out jogging. ‘The three most important things in my day are: exercise, prayer, meetings, in that order of priority.’ She would jog anywhere, any time, which explained her perennial uniform of T-shirts and track pants. Very different from her growing-up years, when she favoured hip clothing.

 

‘I was 84 kilos when I was eighteen, that’s the heaviest I’ve ever been. That happened because when I’d be at home, I would do nothing but sit in front of the TV or talk to my friends on the phone, and eat tubs of ice cream. That too full cream—there were none of the 96 percent fat-free gelatos in those days.’ She laughed. ‘One of the reasons I partied so hard was to get slim. It was my way of keeping away from junk. I wanted to get into “fashionable” clothes,’ she rolls her eyes and makes the quote sign, ‘dance like crazy, and just hang. By the time I was twenty, I was drinking hot water twenty times a day and my weight had come down to 51 kilos.’

 

That must have made her happy.

 

‘I can’t say about that but I do know I looked ill. I remember my friend, the former actress Neelam, was hospitalized with meningitis; when I went to see her at the hospital her mother was berating her for not eating properly, and then she whipped around to stare at me and said, “You’re falling sick next.”’

 

The partying and the skimpy clothes, Ekta said, were a passing phase. Recently, she tried to stop her friend’s sixteen-year-old daughter from going off with a television actor after a late night party, and was snubbed for her efforts. ‘The young these days are so at ease with their sexuality, and they know what they want in life. They have the drive and the ambition, but I find many of them are so happy with their limited forty-thousand-rupee-a-month lifestyle that they will not work harder to get into the one- lakh-rupee bracket. They need to inculcate the value of hard work.’

 

Her own strong work ethic and her faith guide her life. Apart from visiting Siddhivinayak Temple every Tuesday, a Shani temple every Saturday, and the Tirupati Balaji temple before launching a show, Ekta said she needed to pray for ‘just seven minutes’ every day.

 

Ekta puts in sixteen hours a day—her friend, the Bollywood scriptwriter Mushtaq Shaikh, is writing a book on her called Holidays Not Allowed—working through the night, and very often clearing an episode that’s scheduled for telecast later that evening at 4 am. When Balaji Telefilms became a public listed company, the joke in the Star TV office was that the risk factor in the share prospectus should mention ‘Possibility of Ekta getting married’. Neeraj, who often complained to his roommate Haresh Sondarva about the ‘inhuman working conditions at Balaji’, and fretted about the long and irregular hours, nonetheless greatly admired Ekta’s drive and success.

 

‘I have no family time,’ she admitted. Four years ago she built herself a multi-storey bungalow a few hundred metres away from her parents’ home. ‘I wanted to know what it was like to live by myself.’ She shifted into the house with three household helpers, but didn’t last beyond a few days. ‘It was beautiful, but awfully quiet. . . Here, I know that I have my space but also the knowledge that my parents are floating about somewhere.’

 

At thirty-six, she is in a ‘happy space: I have satisfying work, friends, my own time, I lead a cocooned life.’ But things at Balaji have been getting worrisome. News came in that their ambitious show Mahabharat on 9X channel (for which Maria had auditioned) would go off the air mid-narrative. The expensive period sets erected cannot be used for any other show, and the money owed to them is unlikely to be paid.

 

Elsewhere, reality TV shows were flourishing, contributing about 25 percent of the total programming. During a trip to Mysore I met Maria Susairaj’s journalism teacher Shabana Mansoor, who has since quit teaching to pursue research on the ‘Priming Effect of Television on Young Female Adults’. The research was inspired by a train conversation with a young woman who said she would never want to marry a man whose mother was alive. She had been convinced that mothers-in-law were terrible creatures after growing up on a staple of Ekta Kapoor’s trademark ‘K’-serials. ‘But when I went for my fieldwork I found that most young women now watch the soaps mainly for fashion and interior tips, and their real interest lies elsewhere.’ In the villages of Kerala and Karnataka, Shabana was repeatedly asked why she had omitted asking questions about Roadies and Splitsvilla, the two most popular reality shows on television.

 

Balaji had been unable to cash in on this brash new phenomenon, still stuck with heavy duty drama. But Ekta had a plan to expand her business, which was soon revealed. As a first step she made up with Star TV, producing new shows for them. After parting ways with her mamaji, Shobha Kapoor’s brother and the well-known film distributor Ramesh Sippy, Ekta became firmly in charge of the family’s film business. A new CEO was hired, and five films had already been green lit. Three of these were based on real-life incidents, trying for a touch of realism that Ekta could not bring to her television programmes. The film on Neeraj Grover’s death never got made, though Ekta produced one of the most celebrated movies of 2009, Love, Sex Aur Dhoka, an edgy triptych about sexual betrayal, cinematic aspirations, and parental disapproval—themes that deeply resonated with Neeraj’s killing.
~~~~
But none of the stress from the dwindling bottom line was evident at the party the day after Diwali. It was the annual card fixture the Kapoors hosted to celebrate the festival. Invites had been texted that morning, but it was expected to be a full house. At 1 am the road leading to Ekta’s house was crammed with gleaming Mercedes and Beemers. In that darkened lane, Ekta’s bungalow was lit up like a piece of jewellery. The lift inside the house carried us to the third floor, and into a hall marked by its quietness. On a cluster of large round tables, Jeetendra, Rakesh Roshan, Sunita Menon, Saawan Kumar Tak, and Manish Malhotra were playing cards with serious intent.

 

Nobody looked up as other guests walked in and went past. The only sound was the clink of ice in the glasses of single malt and the rueful phew! of a substantial loss. In the adjoining hall, dominated by a stunning chandelier that descended from a dome at least fifty feet high, the scene resembled a Las Vegas casino more than a Mumbai house party. Certainly the décor bore out the excesses of Las Vegas. The room I was in favoured the ladies—Rakesh Roshan’s wife Pinky, Karan Johar’s mother Hiroo, Dimple Kapadia (stunning in green), and the actor Akashdeep were dealing with wads of thousand and five hundred rupee notes. Currency was spread out like a tablecloth.

 

A sudden shriek from the corner of the room had the others rushing over—Dimple had won her first big hand—Rs 50,000. The Juhu film aristocracy was out to play.

 

I spotted the now-familiar faces of Ekta’s associates Tanushree, Vikas, and some of the other girls—her young team was always invited to her parties—not participating yet, but absorbing the opportunities their new world offered; relishing the idea.

 

In the centre of the third enclosure, Shobha Kapoor presided over a mammoth table in white make-up, a white sari, and gothic lipstick. She wore rubies and emeralds the size of some exotic animal’s eggs. But there was something troublingly familiar about her. An attendant stood patiently behind her holding a crystal bowl of black grapes that she absent-mindedly picked at every few minutes. At one point she stretched out her hand and frowned when she couldn’t reach him, and suddenly I knew why she looked so familiar—all the vamps in Ekta’s shows, from their clothes down to their intricate bindis—looked remarkably like her mother.

 

There was no sign yet of Ekta. I was told she liked to make dramatic appearances. Familiar faces from television serials were killing time playing for far lower stakes near the bar. The scalloped ecru curtains had been drawn back, and from across the French windows there was a curious sight. In the adjoining building, standing at the window of their unremarkable two-bedroom flat through which the mussed-up bed and drying towels were visible, Ekta’s neighbours were lined up and looking in, stargazing.

 

At around 2 am a little buzz went around the party. Belying her reputation, Ekta had slipped shyly into the room, dressed in a zardozi lehenga with a pouch dangling from her wrist. For the television crowd, many of whom were there to mark their presence rather than play the great stakes, the party had just gotten underway.

 

‘This is my parents’ party, I am just being dutiful here… the bashes I throw are more fun, I assure you!’

 

‘But surely this was not going to last long,’ I suggested.

 

‘Oh, I don’t know, the last time round, because there was no place for me here, I went to my own house and when I returned at eleven the next morning these guys were straggling out.’

 

She then made her way around the room, stopping at the various tables, asking her friends whether they were winning or losing. When someone made a little pout signalling loss, she took out a fat wad of notes from her batua and gave it to them with a benevolent command, ‘Come on, play.’ Another wad was similarly offered at another table. Irrespective of losses, the party must continue.

 

Excerpted from ‘Death in Mumbai’, by Meenal Baghel, courtesy of Vintage/ Random House India. You can buy the book here.

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Drama Queen

Article
October 2013
By Meenal Baghel

Meenal Baghel is Group Editor of the Mirror group of compact newspapers in India, that has the Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Pune Mirrors in its fold. Her first book Death in Mumbai, which traces the Neeraj Grover murder case as well as the socio-cultural universe it inhabits, has received much critical acclaim