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mid-day 38th anniversary: Imtiaz Ali says web series have origins in 90s television

Famed director Imtiaz Ali, who worked on Star Bestsellers and Zee Rishtey, says today's web series craze may well have its genesis in '90s television

mid-day 38th anniversary

A still from Witness, that Imtiaz Ali directed for Star Bestsellers
A still from Witness, that Imtiaz Ali directed for Star Bestsellers

All of us who grew up in the '80s, entering the '90s, had not grown up watching television. That came into our lives much later. We grew up watching movies and movies alone. So, for us, the stories that come to mind are film stories - single, compact stories, those that cannot be stretched into the serial format, because they have a definite ending. For me and others, who were directing on television in the '90s, the opportunity didn't present itself smoothly.

Imtiaz Ali

Television became the place where we found employment and in many ways, it became the school - especially for Anurag [Kashyap] and myself, who hadn't gone to film school. We found ourselves doing serials, although what we wanted to do was films. And that was not because of how gigantic the medium was, but because of the kind of stories that came to us.

The moment I realised that somebody was creating something on a short format, through single-episode stories that would not go forward, I felt that this was the in-between I had been looking for. I would do anything to be a part of it, and so I did. It was an experiment that was driven only by enthusiasm of making a stand-alone film of a certain duration that provided a detailed scope for the characters.

Before Zee Rishtey and Star Bestsellers came into play, there were attempts to make standalone pieces for television in the '80s, but those failed to gain steam. The reason for the reemergence [a decade later] was not the market, however. It was actually the people present in television programming and production at that point, who wanted it. And most of them were former students of film school. When film lovers do television, they find a way to create it like a film. They were bored of the diktats of television, so they pushed for experimenting and so did we, the filmmakers. They would try to get us the maximum budgets they could, which was anything between Rs 2 to Rs 4 lakh. Everyone was in it for the high, not so much for the money.

Since television was still new, people did not know what would work. We could do anything. The process of how to pump in more money was yet to be established, so we were not prisoners to that. And it was important to do certain things we wanted to do even though economically, the idea was stupid. I made Highway for Zee Rishtey and Witness for Star Bestsellers. Later of course, both these films were made into full-length features. While we got great reactions for the stories at that time, we remained unsuccessful on TRPs, which is why eventually these shows had to be pulled off.

But, this time, the fire did not die. The desire to tell short stories was still alive. So, the moment the opportunity presented itself on the digital format, people were ready. The rise of short films and web series in the last couple of years is proof.

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