Ekta Kapoor is still ruling television, she’s now scaling up her ambitions in the world of digital entertainment and she’s also making a comeback to the movies. It’s a good time for a chat with the creator of the currently popular soap Naagin on her digital journey so far, her new film Veere Di Wedding and her relationship with her nephew Laksshya.
Q: You stepped into the digital entertainment zone with Alt Balaji a year back, it was a new space for you - I’m sure it has been liberating because you don’t have the CBFC breathing down your neck. How do you see your journey in the digital space so far, what have your learnings been?
Ekta Kapoor: My learnings have been that we always imagined digital to be small, snacky and we imagined it to be only for the youth, which is a big myth. This huge digital world is for anyone with a smart phone who can access content. What was actually liberating and what our biggest learning was - we think people are of a certain type and that we can box them with a certain type of entertainment. There are 100s of stories that slip between movies and TV.
Movies need very big stars and so many times you can’t tell a story because you don’t have those stars. In television you can’t do anything radical because you are reaching a million homes at the same time. This liberating medium that we got into made us realise that the ability to cater to polarised tastes only exists in this medium.
Q: Test Case and Bose: Dead / Alive have been your most popular and successful shows. Are there any figures in terms of viewership that you have that can give us an idea of what kind of reach these shows have had?
Ekta Kapoor: Actually, it’s a myth. For a certain audience Test Case and Bose worked miraculously. For another type of audience, Kehne Ko Humsafar Hai and Kar Le Tu Bhi Mohabbat, for another type of audience, it’s Ragini MMS. The numbers of course differ and I cannot give out which are the top 3 shows.
“We are growing, I am not allowed to give out numbers but what number we reached in 11 months, we doubled it in 50 days after that, that’s how fast this medium is growing.”
Q: You are talking about subscriptions and viewership?
Ekta Kapoor: We get such strong analytics that I know exactly which show triggered subscriptions. You have a few episodes free but we know that from the 3rd episode this show triggered subscriptions.
Q: Unlike the TV, the revenue generation among the OTT platforms (like Alt Balaji, Amazon and Netflix) relies mostly on viewer subscriptions. The Indian viewer is still warming up to the idea of paying for their entertainment via subscriptions - also you have to compete with bigger players like Amazon, Netflix and Hotstar here. So there are two related questions - why did you choose to not continue as a content generating production house that would provide software to an OTT and instead launch an OTT platform yourself and how tough has it been to get revenue in through the viewer subscription model?
Ekta Kapoor: For 23 years my company has done more than 1 lakh episodes and we don’t have IP ownership (copyright) of any of that content. It’s different in films, you create some content and you share the IP with the studio. Internationally, the IP stays with the producer, here the IP doesn’t stay with me. We had become a cash rich company but our service job was done, now it was important to actually own the customer and own the IP of the content you create, because that’s where the value lies. Having a digital set up does not require you to have a huge budget for distribution. So setting up content distribution would be easier, marketing would still be expensive but your content could now reach everywhere.
“You can only get scalability and valuation if you own the content and you own the customer. We are the only brand which was as popular as the channels we went on. So to actually not own that content was professional harakiri.”
Netflix is great, so is Amazon, but how much of an idea do they have of the local content? They have come in with big bucks, they have a great e-commerce business and Netflix has its set audience, but there is a whole world out there that doesn’t speak English. Ours is a homegrown app with a high understanding of the local taste. I definitely don’t give you what you are getting on TV, I am giving you something that you would never get on TV and it’s personalised taste programming.
Q: And how tough has it been to attract subscribers and generate revenue, when do you think you will break even?
Ekta Kapoor: Break even, according to our initial plan was year 4. We aren’t looking to break even before that. We have a revenue model that is pretty decent. I can’t give you numbers but it’s been an overwhelming ride, let me put it that way.
On Movies and Producing Veere Di Wedding
Q: In 2016, there was talk that you are winding down Balaji Motion Pictures. You had stopped producing films - last year you acquired and released Lipstick Under My Burkha and now you are co-producing Veere Di Wedding. Have you deliberately slowed down on your film production business to focus on Alt Balaji, and are you finding making films not as viable as they were before?
Ekta Kapoor: We are a company of limited resources, we do not have the financial backing of an international giant. We are not an Amazon, we are not a Netflix, this is the money we created out of selling our episodes on various TV channels. Luckily we got a great investment to start the app, knowing fully well that it is a business that will grow. At that time to take such a high risk with movies was not on. Especially because we had a spate of flops, so our board did do a knuckle rapping but we then have set up the app, it is doing well, we’ve got another set of investments from Reliance, we are not using any of this money to make anything but the business that we think will have the highest amount of scalability and valuation.
Now, things are different so there is a deliberate attempt to do movies because there is a way you can financially save yourself in movies.
“We previously had a bad year, 2 films back to back from the same producer being pirated - it never really happens. We were like the Titanic, we had everything go wrong. The only 2 films that don’t have a satellite or digital sale were the ones that were affected by piracy and it was terrible.”
Q: So, after this terrible phase that you went through, what drew you to Veere Di Wedding?
Ekta Kapoor: During the time when I was making Veere Di Wedding, I was pretty much down in the dumps financially, as far as movies go. TV was giving us enough to sustain, and we had just about raised money to make content for the app and I was to focus on making a big business out of it. I had already heard the script of Veere Di Wedding from Rhea (Kapoor), it was lovely but for everyone it was a bad proposal because it was women, it was expensive at that time, so the question was why are you putting your finances out there for a film which is all about women and anyway you’ve given 6 flops and you’re again going to invest into something that doesn’t look like a sure shot hit. But the year where I thought I was making sure shot hits was the year everything went wrong, so I thought maybe I was making proposals and not films, so let me just take a creative call. But it got into a roadblock.
I remember my mom came to me and said, buy a car, you’ve been using the same car for years, and I told her - I want to buy a film, I don’t want to buy a car.
I requested her saying that all these years you’ve backed my creativity, do it once more and we will make it financially viable, which luckily for me, my film team did. We have already sold Veere Di Wedding to Zee for a great price and now we only have a certain amount to cover. But at that time it was a big decision and my mother was like - if you are so sure about this, then we will go ahead with it. We will not jeopardise our investors, we will try to make it financially viable, we’ll do pre-sales far far earlier than otherwise. We won’t look at selling the film to make a profit but we’ll sell it at the right time and not make a loss. So I went ahead and picked up the film. I think it’s a sassy film. It may initially make you a little uncomfortable, but it later makes you live with the fact that women don’t have to be fitting in. That’s the beauty of this movie.
People are like - ‘Is this your idea of feminism?’ and I’m like ‘yeah’, because to me feminism has nothing to do with becoming a leader or an achiever or a scientist or an astronaut. I think we should just stop putting women on pedestals or expect them to rise to the occasion or be an ideal example of what a woman should be. A woman should just be! Why can’t we just be?
Q: But we have seen that it is not as easy as it was to get people into theatres - the ready availability of entertainment especially on handheld devices has definitely had an impact on the market. Do you see this as a major challenge for films going forward and is Alt Balaji an answer for that?
Ekta Kapoor: I think converging mediums for content consumption is exactly where we are heading to. So if Alt Balaji has to succeed then it has to create content that fights all the digital platforms and it doesn’t matter what brand I get on, as long as it is entertaining people will watch. As far as movies go, it’s got to be an experience now, it was always communal viewing, the small films will yet survive, but they may not release in theatres, they will come for maybe a weekend and people like me, well I don’t have a lot of money now, but people like Netflix will pay a lot of money to get these films in the next weekend or maybe 4 days after on their platform. So the film will be financially viable, it may not be in the theatres. The theatres will have those 10 big ticket releases every year, so the theatres will also survive.
On the Success of Naagin
Q: Naagin is one of your most popular serials right now, what’s your perspective on why it’s working with the audience?
Ekta Kapoor: Because we as Indians and even Americans in their own space love folklore. I would love to see a great typical love story in a atypical world where there is a vampire and a woman and they are crazily in love, the bad boy just gets big teeth and he can kill you and he can love you.
“To me Naagin is a retro drama, it’s like a great film out of the 80s which we don’t make anymore.”
It brings to life India’s most famous shape-shifting folklore of a snake woman and it’s always about vendetta, so the story doesn’t get predictable ever because there is nothing that has to stem from logic or end at logic. No one picked up the idea, we did it.
Umm... Is Ekta Remaking a Desi Game of Thrones?
Q: There has been talk that you are making a desi version of Game of Thrones and adapting Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham to the small screen.
Ekta Kapoor: Every day I hear something new. I won’t deny that my new soap on Sony has a lot of colour like Kabhi Khushi..., but the story is completely different. As far as this Game of Thrones talk is concerned, I am doing this huge show, it’s for the app, it’s bigger than any other historical. It’s about what happened to Salim and his last love, which is Mehrunissa who became Noor Jehan, while you think that the love of Salim was Anarkali and it ended like in Mughal-e-Azam, it actually begins from there to meeting this woman who is far stronger than him. She is married to another man, a man who worked for him and for 20 years he waited for her. She was his 20th queen.
So this forbidden love story based in the Mughal era, it’s going to be presented in a larger than life scale, I’m exploring even the debauchery that was there, I am recreating the era and it’s a very expensive show. There are no dragons, there is no fantasy but the scale, the size is such that people are immediately calling it Game of Thrones. It is not Game of Thrones, it is probably closer to Mughal-e-Azam.
What’s Ekta Bingeing On?
Q: What’s your all time favourite show or web series?
Ekta Kapoor: I quite liked the Mentalist and The House of Cards but my all time favourite is Orange Is the New Black.
Q: Which is the series that you are currently binge-watching?
Ekta Kapoor: Designated Survivor.
Q: A series that you don’t watch or have watched and not liked but talk about it only because everybody else is raving about it.
Ekta Kapoor: Narcos.
Q: A series that you would love to remake, if you had a chance you would start on it right away.
Ekta Kapoor: There are many, This Is Us...
Q: Orange Is the New Black?
Ekta Kapoor: Orange Is the New Black, I would love to remake in India, but I don’t know if our audience is ready for it. Also there is this really cool show that I love... Shameless, it’s outstanding.
Q: How’s your relationship with Laksshya, how’s it been being a bua...
Ekta Kapoor: Finally, I think I have become important to him. It has taken a long time but I managed breaking the ice. He’s such a boy’s boy, he loves his dad and dada. Me and mom are just like props in the house for him. He’s like - I just want to get my stuff done and you guys can go, I just want to play with these boys.
But now finally he’s calling out to me and coming to my room every morning. I wake up in the morning and I get to hear him screaming ‘Bua, Bua!’ and it’s the pleasure of a lifetime. There is no other emotion that can come even close to what you feel when your nephew calls your name.
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(This article was originally published on 8 May 2018 and is being republished to mark Ekta Kapoor’s birth anniversary.)
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