All shows on ALT Balaji have a smattering of my personality. We have started with six shows, but by this time next year, I plan to have 38," says TV doyen Ekta Kapoor, who in 2017 has completed over 23 years in the industry. "My goal was 32, but like always, I plan to be over ambitious." We are at the Balaji office, sitting with the newly svelte Kapoor, who has the trademark rings with lucky gemstones and red threads adorning her hands. She has decided to say yes to the interview despite being busy with the launch of ALT - Balaji's new digital channel - but then, she says, she hardly has a personal life. "This is it. This is me. The lines are very blurry between personal and professional."
Kapoor, veteran actor Jeetendra's daughter, is Joint Managing Director and Creative Director of ALT Balaji. The driving force behind some of the most succesful shows in Indian television history, including Hum Paanch, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, Kasautii Zindagii Kay, Bade Achhe Lagte Hain and recently Naagin, Kapoor if anything, knows what the masses want. That she'd join the web series bandwagon was only a question of when, especially considering television in India is getting stiff competition from the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime. "We Indians have a TV watching face. For example, I couldn't watch kissing scenes with my father. So, we all watch TV with our families, and that's reaching 25 million homes. Therefore content was family-friendly." But as she slots audiences into "mass, urban mass and extremely mass", she admits times have changed. So, she adds, there are around five million people in around 27 cities who want urban stories that are more relatable, not foreign, still local. "And that's why we started ALT."
Right now, its roster has a romance show, Karle Tu Bhi Mohabbat, with one of Kapoor's favourite on-screen couples Ram Kapoor and Sakshi Tanwar, the gay rom-com Romil and Jugal, Dev DD, a contemporary adaptation of the classic Bengali novel, Devdas, and The Test Case which will star Nimrat Kaur as the first combat Army officer. "On apps, it's all about individual consumption. That's what my brief to the team is - the taste structure has changed. We can no longer have content that is one-size-fits-all. For example, I love Kar Le and so does my mother, but she doesn't get Romil and Jugul. She says she doesn't understand these people. It's all about very specific taste."
Kapoor then starts talking about a show she launched in 2015 called Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh, which starred Sonali Bendre who played a woman separated from her husband after his adultery. Later, she finds an emotional connect with her boss. But, TRPs nosedived and the Balaji's research team discovered that the people watching were unable to swallow the idea of a middle-aged mother having an affair, even if only to spite her husband.
"At that time I thought 'You can't judge me, I judge you for how you have reacted to this show'. Some people said 'Oh! Men do this, why did she have to leave him'. Some said 'We can't watch this with our families'." It was the lesson taught by this show that has prompted her to rethink her strategy. "I knew then that for clutter breaking stories, I don't need to cater to 100 million people. If only a few watch it, it would be worth it. And so I decided to target communities – like the LGBT community, some of whom may not be out. They have given us the thumbs up. I wanted to make a show that comes from the purity of the thought that there are people out there who are marginalised. They are not victims, neither are they caricatures. They are real people."
For now, Kapoor is concentrating on gathering as many stories as she can, which includes a modern-day adaptation of Little Women, and plans to make stories for every modern Indian, with not much regard for competition. "I have been around for too long, so I am well trained in the art of combat. I am aware of competition, but I behave like an ostrich. You take it all in, internalise it, and then do what you believe in. That's all."