Before the internet made us privy to the blessing of streaming platforms, Indians used to depend on occasional visits to the theatre and television soap operas for entertainment. TV shows had become an integral part of our lives, with viewers invested in the day-to-day plot developments. A history of the evolution of Indian television would be incomplete without a chapter on the epoch ushered by Ekta Kapoor.
Known as the queen of Indian television, Ekta had started her production company Balaji Telefilms Limited at the age of 19. The Content Czarina was felicitated with the Padma Shri award earlier this year for her contribution to the field of arts, and rightly so. Her TV productions, and projects on the screen and digital streaming platforms have played a defining role in shaping the experiences of Indian audiences.
Stepping stones to success
The daughter of yesteryear superstar Jeetendra, Ekta’s foray into the world of content was incidental. At 19, she was working on concepts for new TV shows for a friend of her father’s. The deal fell through and the losses pushed Ekta to shoot the pilot for the iconic comedy show Hum Paanch which was aired on Zee TV.
The show went on to become a runaway hit. The Indian audiences couldn’t get enough of the quirks of a middle-class family of five oddball sisters who drove their father to his wit’s end. The show made Zee TV’s TRP ambitions come true and also set a benchmark thanks to its refreshing portrayal of women characters who were unabashed about voicing their hopes and dreams.
For Kapoor, the next spell of success came when she partnered with the leading Hindi general entertainment channel Star Plus. Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii garnered a cult following. Plot points of these TV shows became the most hotly debated topics at social gatherings, especially among women. In the early 2000s, when access to cable television was steadily rising in the country, Ekta’s productions were brands unto themselves to the extent that a power cut during the airing of these shows would elicit highly audible, collective outpourings of dejection.
Although Ekta’s soap operas had all the underpinnings of the quintessential family drama, there was no dearth of variety in her offerings. Shows like Kasautii Zindagii Kay, Kkusum, Kahiin to Hoga, Kabhii Sautan Kabhii Sahelii, Kasturi, and Kaisa Ye Pyar Hai were emotional sagas that had a love story as its crux. Viewers took to them with the same enthusiasm that they took to her thriller shows like K Street Pali Hill, Kya Haadsaa Kya Haqeeqat, and Kahiin Kissi Roz. The serials resonated with women and it endorsed how women could play pivotal roles in family decisions given that women in the early 2000s had a completely different kind of gender battle to deal with.
Not only did Ekta’s shows satiate the diverse palate of the audiences but the women characters in them became major style icons. At a time when there were no Instagram influencers to look up to and fashion magazines remained irrelevant for the Indian middle-class woman, Ekta’s TV serials gave a glimpse of how women could be fashion-forward.
Despite the success with the saas-bahu formula, Ekta’s shows have been highly criticized for reinforcing sexist tropes and traditional gender roles that thrive on patriarchy. When she was questioned about perpetuating regressive notions about gender through her shows, Ekta was quick to point out that the Indian audiences had not responded well when she tried to make progressive shows like the Sonali Bendre-starrer Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Ye.
For years now, Ekta has stood by the content of her popular soap operas, calling out the double standards of the audience.
"What are the big shows that are working internationally, currently? People are watching dragons. It is uber cool for them to watch dragons, but when India watches naagins, it is not cool. Isn’t this anti-populist? Why do we look down on the masses and their choices?,” said Ekta while defending her popular TV show, Nagin.
From TV to Films and OTT
Ekta’s defiant indomitable streak continued when she tried her hand at producing films. Balaji Motion Pictures, a subsidiary of Balaji Telefilms Limited, is credited for having produced some of the breakthrough films of Bollywood. While director Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha created ripples with its threadbare portrayal of sex and voyeurism, Ragini MMS set the cash registers jingling at the box office with its seamless amalgamation of horror and sex.
Ekta’s daredevil attitude was on display yet again when she took up the mammoth task of distributing the controversial film Lipstick Under My Burkha. Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, the film was denied a release by the Central Board of Film Certification because of its portrayal of women’s sexual desires. The film is considered a landmark in terms of breaking down the taboo around the expression of women’s sexuality, and became a box office success. Ekta’s penchant for nonconformity gave Bollywood audiences another film that redefined the portrayal of women in cinema – Veere Di Wedding. The Sonam Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor Khan-starrer was lauded for its refreshing take on sex, marriage and relationships, and Swara Bhaskar’s unforgettable masturbation scene.
Besides establishing a firm footing in the arena of film productions, Ekta also ventured into the highly competitive digital streaming space. Alt Balaji, a subsidiary of Balaji Telefilms Ltd was launched in 2017 and Ekta became the poster woman for entertainment entrepreneurs who could rapidly adapt to the changing demands of their audiences. With more than 250 hours of original content, the platform is currently one of the biggest video content banks in India. Ekta’s commitment to share stories that are relevant and engaging for viewers remains unwavering with shows like Apharan, Dev DD, Gandii Baat, Puncch Beat, and Kehne Ko Humsafar Hai becoming binge-worthy.
Setting examples with personal choices
The powerhouse entrepreneur, producer and director’s stature speaks volumes about the fact she seldom cared about conventions. Her decisions on the personal front have also been exemplary. In a country where unmarried women are looked down upon, Ekta has always been vocal about being content with her decision to not get married just for the sake of it. Despite the unending stream of questions about her relationship status, Ekta has always answered them with aplomb, while debunking the theory that marriage is the ultimate passport to happiness.
In 2019, Ekta stunned everyone by becoming a single parent. She became a mother to a beautiful baby boy via surrogacy. Ekta’s conviction in herself of being able to tackle the challenge of being a single mother led her to decide on freezing her eggs at the age of 36. That she spoke about preserving her eggs and her desire to be a mother and not wanting a partner shows that Ekta is the ultimate example of today’s go-getter woman. She knows how to win against all odds – much like the leading ladies in her TV serials.
(Edited by Kanishk Singh)