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How Gajra Kottary Weaponises Words

In a medium that is known for its regressive content, Gajra Kottary, novelist and short-story writer, has time and again gone against the tide and broken taboos. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at five shows she has written that went against the grain and emerged triumphant…

Growing up in the 1980s, one of the many pleasures of a less cluttered and leisurely time was the birth of the TV series. Many people I know would swear by the fact that the first of these represented the best of Indian television. Even close to forty years later, I can still rattle off the days on which each was telecast: Karamchand on Mondays; Hum Log[1]and then Buniyaad[2] on Tuesdays and Saturdays; Khandan[3] on Wednesdays; Ados Pados[4]on Thursdays; Yeh Jo Hain Zindagi[5]on Fridays. You had stalwarts like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal and Basu Chatterjee make fine works for the television.

Sometime by the end of the decade kitsch entered in the shape of Ramayan and Mahabharat. I moved on and lost touch. A resurgence of sorts happened with the coming of cable television, and we had path-breaking shows like Shanti and Tara. And then it became increasingly difficult to keep track of TV shows. The shows changed beyond recognition. Led by the likes of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi,[6] they became more and more ridiculous in the worlds they represented. One word came to be bandied about regularly with respect to soap operas: regressive.

However, like all generalised judgements, a blanket application of the word is unfair to a number of serials that tried to, and often succeeded in breaking taboos, while operating within the limitations dictated by the medium and the grammar of its narrative. And the one writer who has time and again bucked the trend, gone against the tide, is Gajra Kottary, the creator of historic shows like Astitva: Ek Prem Kahani[7]and Balika Vadhu.[8]

Gajra Kottary with Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. Photo provided by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

Journalism and Fiction Writing

One of the reasons Gajra manages to break new ground in her television narratives might have something to do with her training as a journalist. “IIMC [Indian Institute of Mass Communication] was a tough course to get into and we had a few fresh graduates like me, and a whole lot of older and established professional journalists from other non-aligned countries studying with us, a great mix,” she says. It provided her with a grounding in fact-based narratives while polishing her skills as a writer, of which she had provided glimpses in college, when two stories she wrote got published in Eve’s Weekly, along with two fiction-style middles in The Times of India. “The IIMC stint helped because as I have observed over the years, I have more respect for the sanctity of facts even while taking my flights of fancy than others in the business. I take fewer creative liberties than others. I have done more realistic shows on television which helped forge a distinct identity for my writing.” But it also left her confused since political and economic writing held no interest for her and Delhi offered avenues only for those.

Destiny intervened in the form of Cupid. Falling in love with Sailesh Kottary, a “hotshot and hardcore journalist”, she moved to Bombay. It was here, as a “stay-at-home mom”, that she gave wings to her imagination and honed her writing skills. Watching serials like Saans[9] and The Bold and the Beautiful might also have helped imbibe certain aspects of writing for a visual medium. Her first work of fiction, Fragile Victories, a collection of stories, led to her first assignment in television. She had sent a copy of the book to Mahesh Bhatt, who passed it on to Soni Razdan. Impressed by the collection, the latter signed Gajra up for the story and screenplay of her first TV production, Hamare Tumhare[10](2000), which marked her TV debut, before Astitva made everyone sit up and take notice.

If IIMC shaped her in some ways, another skill-set that has held her in good stead probably came from her experiments in writing fiction. Fragile Victories was followed by another collection of stories, The Last Laugh, and the novels Broken Melodies, Once Upon a Star, Girls Don’t Cry and Not Woman Enough. These helped her to keep to a discipline that could go missing in the never-ending juggernaut that is the TV soap opera. They also are testimony to her willingness to push the envelope when it comes to narratives and characters. Not many know that much before Indian writers, particularly women, began addressing issues of sexual identity and same-sex relationships, Gajra had written about these in her fiction. As she puts it, these themes “continued to ‘consume’ me”. Not Woman Enough may have been published as an e-book only recently, but it evolved from a story that she had published way back in 2003. “I felt that I hadn’t done justice to the theme in the short format, so I wrote a full-length novel titled Not Woman Enough and felt finally relieved of my obsession.” Another story, ‘Two Gold Guineas’, evolved to her third novel Girls Don’t Cry, a pun on the expression ‘boys don’t cry’ and “an ode to the bravery of women and the friendship between a grandmother, mother and daughter”.

What is startling about these works of fiction is her ability to address taboos. Not Woman Enough not only deals with a same-sex relationship, but Gajra has the audacity to set it in rural Rajasthan as opposed to an urban setting, where it would have probably been just another story. She has the perspicacity to understand that the stakes are so much higher for first-generation characters experiencing the forces of social liberation while battling age-old customs. It is the same acuity that she brings to bear upon her iconic TV shows, which have time and again shown what is possible in a medium that allows little leeway for out-of-the-box thinking. 

Astitva: Ek Prem Kahani (2002-2006, Zee TV)

Running 668 episodes, over a period of three-and-a-half years, this is the series that launched Gajra into the big league. Today, twenty years after the first episode was aired, an older woman-younger man relationship might appear staid. But back then it was bold, and Indian television had not seen anything like it. It made an icon of its lead, Niki Taneja, who plays a doctor who falls in love with a man ten years younger. What stood out is the maturity with which the series unfolds, largely devoid of the excesses that came to mark television in later years. “The first TV show maker I decided to call upon was Ajai Sinha, who had directed shows like Hasratein [11]and Justajoo[12]. He had been planning a show called Astitva with a bold theme and my timing was bang-on. It spoilt me enough to believe that television too was conducive to the kind of work I felt happy doing.” That this show managed to hold its own against a raging Kyonki[13], speaks volumes of the writer.

Balika Vadhu (2008-2016, Colors TV)

2167 episodes! Yes, you read that right. One of the longest-running shows on Indian television, this cemented Gajra’s reputation as a writer. Here again, Gajra was going out on a limb addressing a much-abused tradition prevalent in large parts of India. And sure enough, the press wasn’t flattering. It is one show that divided opinion like few others. “Yes, we received some negative press, because Anandi was this irrepressible kid, a happy child who kept bouncing back despite dealing with the dark consequences of child marriages of the past playing out in the present. It was a calculated approach as child marriage is a dark and gloomy issue. It was a conscious decision here as we needed to keep the cheer, but critics felt that we were glorifying child marriage. I think they were missing the woods for the trees.”

One possibly needs to understand the medium and its viewership to get a sense of what Gajra means. Unless the packaging is glossy enough – colourful clothes and jewellery – audiences might have been put off entirely by what is a repulsive subject. “And that would mean we would not be able to get across the underlying message of the show. These tactics are important due to the challenge of the medium of television, and the terror of the remote control. It was a classic case of the sugarcoated pill doing its work.”

Apart from the writing, the series was also recognised for its iconic performances and comments on several social issues that ail Indian society, which were woven in organically without being preachy. It also had an authentically rustic feel thanks to Purnendu Shekhar, whose concept it was. Those decrying the glossy packaging forget that the issues the series addressed included girl child education; peer, sibling and parental pressure to do the best; child labour; the begging racket; forced prostitution behind a legal façade; quacks and medical malpractices; date rape; adoption; alcoholism; divorcee and widow remarriage; trafficking in women; surrogacy; juvenile delinquency and teenage crimes, among others. From the comfort of our air-conditioned condos and offices, far removed from these realities, it was easy for the elitist press to criticise the series.

One standout episode dealt with the protagonist’s first experience of menstruation. This is a subject still, despite Padman and the increased conversation around it, spoken of in hushed tones. It is fascinating to hear Gajra’s take on this: “I remember how we involved Avika’s [the child actor who played Anandi] mother to explain to the child privately about menstruation before we shot the scene showing a young girl’s trauma when it happens to her as a bahu in a conservative household. Lots of people wrote to us about delaying the marriages of their girl children after watching Balika Vadhu. There was a girl who was emboldened enough to annul her marriage that had happened as a child when she turned eighteen. We received mails even from parents of city girls who were now reversing their decisions to get their girls married by the time they were sixteen.”

There was of course the flipside of popularity, when the writer received a death threat on Twitter if she dared to kill off the character of Shiv (played by Siddharth Shukla). “Those were the early days of social media, so real people started to write in with their reactions which were usually very intense and sometimes downright ridiculous.”

Buddha (2013-2014, Zee TV, DD[14] National)

This series, spanning 55 one-hour episodes, was a huge challenge, involving as it did a historical figure, and one of the most important religious figures of the world. But trust Gajra to approach the subject from a refreshing point a view: as she points out, in school textbooks we go straight from the story of Gautama leaving home to being under the Bodhi tree and achieving enlightenment. But his experiments to arrive at the truth had many stages to it. As she says, “What it did was to dispel my own myths about the Buddha’s life. I had always felt disturbed about his abandonment of his wife and child for his own spiritual search.”

It helped that the show came to her at a point in life when the strong opinions and idealism of youth, both professionally and personally, had given way to the realisation that nothing is or can be ‘perfect’. By the time the show was done she too had evolved to accept that the Buddha had to be true to his heart’s calling. “I understood the ‘larger purpose’ of his life. I came to terms with the ‘abandonment’, though my heart still bleeds for Yashodhara and Rahul. What also helped was learning about Yashodhara’s evolution, albeit painfully, to want to join his sangha voluntarily, and him helping her find her ‘larger purpose’.” The series focuses on aspects of his life after the Enlightenment that many are not aware of. It is this larger view that shapes the series, making it a departure from the dime-a-dozen ‘mythological/religious’ shows with ‘special effects’ that blight our senses.

Silsila Badalte Rishton Ka[15] (2018-2019, Colors TV)

Extramarital affairs are the oxygen to the beast that is the TV serial. Offhand, I can think of not one serial that does not have a million and more permutations and combinations of the theme. So, it takes a really perceptive writer to give this tired trope a new perspective, and Gajra manages that in Silsila, upending the traditional way that extramarital affairs are portrayed. “Is the ‘other’ woman necessarily a femme fatale, a super-cool career woman, and the wife a boring domestic goddess or could it be the other way round also?” she asks.

The series provides further proof of her ability to give a new spin to a theme that’s been done to death. As she says, “I am emotional about this show as it was inspired by what happened with some close friends and associates. I needed a relief from all the social stuff in Balika Vadhu. Also, I believe that an author’s voice in terms of standing for the right thing can and should reflect in any kind of story, even if it’s not apparently one on a social issue. The classic extramarital affair with the eternal conundrum is a fascinating aspect of human relationship … does a third person enter the picture because a marriage is already collapsing or does the entry of a third person lead to the collapse of a marriage. Is it the cause or effect?”

Molkki (2020-2022, Colors TV)

After Silsila, it was back to a classic social issue for Gajra. At the heart of this show is the tradition of bride-buying in Haryana, which in turn has its roots in the scarcity of brides due to female feticide/infanticide. As Gajra says, “Molkki was a Covid baby, my second project with Ekta Kapoor and it was made keeping in mind all commercial considerations.”

Female infanticide is a recurrent theme in several of her stories. She writes about it in her novel, Girls Don’t Cry, while Not Woman Enough, published as an e-book by Juggernaut, has this as a strong strand, being part of the protagonist’s backstory impacting her psyche. Again, what needs to be noted here is the writer’s willingness to explore issues that contemporary television is not known for, even if the execution falters given the demands of the medium. 

Addressing the Regressive Nature of Television

But Gajra does agree that on the whole, television is regressive. Though it is described as a writer’s medium, there’s only so much that writers can do in terms of trying to infuse new ideas and nuanced storytelling in the face of TRPs[16] and other market considerations and entrenched beliefs that ‘bas yahi chalta hai’[17]. So, writers take the easy way out, churning out what the studio executives want. “For the handful of people prepared to take the risk and at least try to do things differently, there are scores of others who would like to use every gimmick in their book and keep regurgitating bad content.”

In terms of audience profiling too, what’s happening with television is that most of the intelligentsia has shifted to web shows. The television viewership class has gone lower down in the social scale. So when content is being made and consumed by a non-thinking class, it also starts reflecting in the TRP studies. The classic chicken-and-egg syndrome.

Looking Ahead

Gajra is currently basking in the success of her latest show, Na Umr Ki Seema Ho,[18] which recently celebrated its hundredth episode. The show is being hailed as ‘different’ by many. As she says, “The most heartening comment that I often get to hear is that ‘it’s the first TV show I have started watching after many years’, from people who had switched full time to watching web shows.”

Shantanu and Gajra with the lead actors of Na Umr Ki Seema Ho. Photo provided by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

Any grand obsession, a show she would like to write? “As far as TV goes, I have always dreamed of doing a version of one of my all-time favourite films, Abhimaan[19], with or without the music background. The subject becomes more and more relevant every decade. Frankly, no channel wants to touch it. Though the people one speaks to share my admiration for the story, the ‘system’, they say, is not conducive to making it. I also want to adapt my first novel, Broken Melodies, as a web show or film. It’s the story of a girl growing up in the seventies, torn between the values and stifling world that her classical musician father [an autobiographical element given that Gajra is the daughter of the classical maestro Pandit Amarnath] represents and the liberation that the English education sponsored by her mother affords her.”

One can only say, more power to writers like her, and the breaking of glass ceilings and taboos.

(Originally published in The Telegraph, Kolkata)

Addendum

Shantanu: You grew up in Delhi in the 1980s. That was the birth of the TV era with Hum Log, Buniyad, and all those glorious serials. Did any of these influence you?

Gajra: You’re so right, Shantanu, they hugely did, except that there was no plan that I had then, to actually use that impact to write something similar. I loved both these shows purely as a viewer. Hum Log did tackle social issues, for example, dowry, but why I liked it was that it showed the clash of values within a family with different generations, and through that, it entertained and made one feel and think – the sensitization process as its termed. Later, I learned that Hum Log was inspired by the Sabido method (originating in Mexico) where TV is used as a medium to bring about positive social change by making viewers ‘feel and think’ rather than preaching to them.

I loved Buniyaad for a purely sentimental reason. My parents were from Lahore and Multan respectively and had come as refugees to Delhi, so we had grown up hearing stories of Partition and here was a show that brought that era alive for me in an extremely moving and entertaining way. So maybe subconsciously both these shows did impact my psyche – as in it was possible to talk emotions that were universal, even while having a responsible author’s voice.

Shantanu: What do you attribute the change in the style and content in TV soaps, first with Tara and Shanti, and then Kyunki Saas Bhi

Gajra: Tara and Shanti were the first movers, coming in like a breath of fresh air after the DD days which were associated with somewhat stodgy storytelling, Buniyaad etc., being the shining exceptions. Tara and Shanti were great in terms of revolving around thinking and evolved women, but perhaps were ahead of their times…they still are, given where TV storytelling has gone.

By the time Kyunki Saas came to TV screens, middle- and lower-middle-class homes could afford a TV set, so there was a genuine need for TV to go more middle class in its appeal. So, we had a plethora of shows with joint families and generations under one roof, which truly was the reality of such homes, and which therefore connected with the masses easily. Ekta Kapoor also upped the drama quotient hugely, so there was no way it wasn’t going to work with the masses.

Unfortunately, however, everyone went about copying the formula and there was the overdose factor. So, TV honchos were afraid of trying different subjects and worlds and that for a very long time became the bane of TV writers.

Shantanu: On Buddha: ‘dispel your own myths, you say …’ What apart from his abandonment of his wife and child haunted you. Do you reconcile with the abandonment once you had done the writing for this? Did it make sense now?

Gajra: Buddha, the show, came to me at a point in life when the strong opinions and idealism of youth – both in professional and family life – had given way to some acceptance and the realisation that actually nothing is or can be ‘perfect’. And certainly not any decisions of life that we might make. So, we might as well make the decision, and accept and live with the consequences as positively as one can. I know that that’s so ‘anti’ the way today’s youngsters think!

So yes, from his wife and family’s point of view his decision seemed ‘selfish’ but he had to be true to his heart’s calling and that so-called ‘selfishness’ of his is what made him give so much to the world to make it a better one. I understood the ‘larger purpose’ part of the Buddha’s life after I started researching more and more while writing the story for the show. I came to terms with the ‘abandonment’, though my heart still bleeds for Yashodhara and Rahul, when I think about them. What also helped was me learning the historical truths about how Yashodhara evolved, albeit painfully, to want to join his sangha voluntarily at some point, and him helping her find her ‘larger purpose’. 

Also, what I realised is that in school textbooks we go straight from the story of Buddha leaving home to being under the Bodhi tree and achieving enlightenment and uplifting the world. This had been my myth too. But, in reality, the Buddha’s many experiments to arrive at the truth had many stages to it. He went through extreme deprivation, abnegation, self-loathing and much else, before he arrived at the eight-fold path – the most practical and fair way to lead life in any time and space.

And he certainly did not advocate renunciation for all or even the perception of Buddhism as a religion. His was the ultimate live-and-let- live approach to life – just that his methods helped his followers lead a life of peace and equanimity within their chosen path. Through writing the show I realised that there could be no other way of life that was so compatible with the modern way of thinking and doing. So I am not a ‘Buddhist’ but I still try to recall the eight-fold path at various difficult points in my life and it really helps me.

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

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[1] TV series, translates to ‘We – the People’

[2] TV series, translates to ‘Foundation’

[3] TV series, translates to ‘Dynasty’

[4]   TV series, translates to ‘Neighbours’

[5] Comedy TV series, translates to ‘This is life’

[6] TV Series, translates to ‘Because the Mother-in-law was a bride too’

[7] TV Series, translates to ‘Identity: A Love Story’

[8] TV Series, translates to ‘Child Bride’

[9] TV Series, translates to ‘Breath’

[10] TV Series, translates to ‘Ours & Yours’

[11] TV Series, translates to ‘Desires’

[12] TV Series, translates to ‘Search’

[13] TV Series, translates to ‘Because’

[14] Doordarshan or DD, Indian public service broadcaster founded by the government of India

[15] Translates to ‘Changing Relationships’

[16] Target Rating Points

[17] Hindi phrase: ‘This is what works…’

[18] ‘Age is just a number’, literal translation ‘Age has no boundary”

[19] Translates to ‘Ego’, 1973 Bollywood film

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