There's a fascinating duality to Ekta Kapoor.
She has produced a women-empowerment drama (Lipstick...) but that hasn't stopped her from being the uncrowned queen of seemingly regressive TV dramas.
Her production house, Balaji Telefilms, is still raking the numbers on TV, while the film unit doles out movies such as Udta Punjab, Love, Sex, Aur Dhokha, Shor in the City, along side more mainstream fare like Half Girlfriend and Ek Villain.
In this interview, the producer talks about her choices and motivations to produce the kind of TV content that she does, her skepticism towards the liberals who criticise her, and why Indians aren't ready for progressive content.
Ekta, you are one of the few, or rather the only woman, who owns a studio (there are women in key positions in other production houses but legacy studios like YRF and Dharma are owned by men). When it comes to subjects that revolve around female protagonists, do you think being a woman, you can empathise with the subject and have a better perspective as opposed to other studio heads? It's quite possible that male-led studios may not feel the necessity to bring out a story like, say, a Lipstick Under My Burkha, as strongly as you do.
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I don't think I have put myself out there for any other film of mine more than Lipstick. So yes, I wouldn't have felt as strongly as i did about the film, if I weren't a woman. There's so much patronising that has happened. So, while there's a group of young girls, who say that they want to watch the movie, and that makes me happy, there's a section that also says, 'Good, you picked up the film. You should support women. But don't expect too much. Art films get this much only, they will open at a certain figure and will run only this much.' So, the more I hear this, the more I am determined to support such cinema.
After Udta Punjab in 2016, you got Lipstick Under My Burkha under your label. For lack of a more refined word, you added masala in its marketing to make it more ...?
... I found the film entertaining. The problem with preachy and pretentious films is that they exclude you, you don't enjoy them, and the whole point about making films with, say, creme de la creme taste, is that you are there to educate, not entertain. You come with that purpose, but you end up educating those, who are already educated, because the rest are not watching. So, I felt somewhere these films were missing the point. The other option is for you to become entertaining and use infotainment in a way that you don't let the viewers know that you are informing them as your basic flow itself becomes entertaining.
Being a woman plays a part in making that choice, right?
Of course, it does. We are constantly told, 'It's a good film but female-oriented films don't work.' So, these daddys and uncles of the industry tell me this and they think that such a film will never get an audience and they think that it's okay if I am backing it, like it's some charity. It makes me more determined in my resolve to make the film work to prove them wrong.
There's a conflict I sense. You produce/distribute films such as Lipstick Under My Burkha, Udta Punjab, Love, Sex, Aur Dhoka and Lootera, which are very cerebral but then you are also the same person who bankrolls movies a Kya Kool Hai Hum and Great Grand Masti.
I don't want to fall into categories. Honestly, we will never shy away from sex and sexual content, and I have no interest in being put on a pedestal because the first thing that comes with it is the fear of being pulled down. I have gone through it for many years. But I do something, which I believe in, and when I did a Kya Kool, I loved it. It was the funniest comedy ever. It was in the space of American Pie. These are double standards I fight all the time. We have a problem with sex, but we don't have a problem with sexual crimes.
On one hand, you are doing a film, which genuinely empowers women and women movie-goers but don't you feel stuff like Great Grand Masti works against the positive agenda of movies like Lipstick Under My Burkha? Don't you see the very obvious problem in the whole objectification, the sleaze in such films?
If I think about it, Kya Kool Hai Hum was crass. That I will say. But being crass and being anti-feminist are two different things. You can have a problem with an over the top television show, but you can't say it's anti-feminist. That's the confusion, which happens. There was a song in Kya Kool Hai Hum 3, which I found extremely problematic. But I don't have a problem with sex. I will make Kya Kool Hai Hum 4, 5 and more, films with as much as sex as possible because I have a problem with sexual crimes, not sex.
But when women are brazenly objectified in films or referred to in a derogatory way, that perpetuates a very harmful notion in the society.
You tell me, where did we show a woman in a derogatory way?
It was there in Great Grand Masti, which you distributed.
I wouldn't pick Great Grand Masti for that. I can count four films, which were absolutely classy... A Gangs of Wasseypur probably had more slang but easily got away because it was in an art zone. The treatment matters. That's why I will take it that Kya Kool Hai Hum (or others) were crass but not anti-feminist.
Do you think your belief in astrology (Ekta is deeply superstitious) extends to the shows you make?
Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. I have had shows where my protagonists have even been atheist.
I have a problem with liberals having an issue with TV shows because you don't see those shows and make comments on them. You don't go and see what's going on in television. There are millions of shows, and they are not just from my production house, which have liberal female characters.
In your interview with Mid-Day, you said that people are not ready for progressive content on television. You still stand by that?
Yes, I still say this. I don't know if you can use the term progressive but we live in a country, which is extremely diluted when it comes to television. At least in three instances, I have made stories which are different and they just haven't worked.
But Ekta, that's because they have been fed and conditioned into liking the same kind of content over and over again. It will take time for that tide to change.
No, but it's a paying industry. Television is a very simplified, non-questioning medium. We can be progressive on television, but we can't be radical on television. This is the problem I have with the liberals, the so-called thinkers. Which movie has dealt with the subject of transgender? The transgenders have been represented on television and that too on a very successful show. We took on the issue of marital rape in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. But clearly you see the saree, the make-up, the melodramatic treatment.
But that's also the problem -- the heightened treatment overpowers your core message. It dies between the re-incarnation and other similar things...
That means you are myopic in your viewing. You are seeing the colour, not the texture or the storytelling. You should be smart enough to look beyond.
You can't get radical on television. That's a problem. I have tried. I made a show about a woman, whose marriage is not working and she develops a bond with another man. Unfortunately, India refused it. I had 70 per cent women turning around and saying, 'So, what if her man has an affair? That doesn't mean you will leave him!' EKTA KAPOOR
Don't you think it perpetuates superstition, black magic and ideas such as re-incarnation?
Absolutely not. Why wouldn't you say anything when in Game of Thrones, she (Emilia Clarke's Daenerys Targaryen) is giving birth to dragons?
You are comparing Kyunki, a show perceived to be in the realistic space with a fantasy show ...
I have a problem with liberals having an issue with TV shows because you don't see those shows and make comments on them. You don't go and see what's going on in television. There are millions of shows, and they are not just from my production house, which have liberal female characters. You had a Kyunki showing marital rape, when no one else did it. But you saw a hugely built Tulsi shooting her son and made fun of it but you didn't see the impact it had on India. There's a woman, who shoots her son because she felt it was unacceptable for a man to rape his wife. So, when you make fun of that character, you make fun of the very ideology you are supporting. Why do you think the shows about mother-in-law and daughter-in-law touch a chord? It's because that is an issue for a lot of women.
According to Boston Research Group, from 2001 to 2005 (HuffPost couldn't independently verify this claim), the TV shows are the real reason why women at home actually took on family decision-making, because Tulsi and Parvati (the protagonist from Ekta's TV show Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki) did it. Indian women were not having a chance to have a conversation at their homes, the men would take the decision and the women would follow.
You are saying that you are aware of the influence that television has, so why not use it more responsibly?
You can't get radical on television. That's a problem. I have tried. I made a show about a woman, whose marriage is not working and she develops a bond with another man. Unfortunately, India refused it. I had 70 per cent women turning around and saying, 'So, what if her man has an affair? That doesn't mean you will leave him!' And that really, really disillusioned me. There were also women who said that they wanted to watch the show but they couldn't watch it on TV because their husbands are sitting right next to them.
As a creative individual, wouldn't you want to challenge those very boundaries?
No. You can't, because the women, whom you are catering to and want to tell your stories to, will not watch it because of the medium, and it defeats the very purpose of that creativity. They are not going to watch it, so, what's the use of making it?
Understand that we come from a society, which believes there is a family face and the TV audience keeps that face on. The internet is your new private life. Putting content on TV (meant for the internet) is actually saying, 'You now watch it here, with your family.' And the families are not ready for it. I don't think things will change on TV because the youth and the people, who want more individualistic stories, will walk away from the medium.
But it doesn't still mean that television has not taken on hugely important social issues. TV cannot take on radical issues, to a different kind of society, one that makes contradictory views come alive. But when it comes to basic issues, which are very important to a large part of the country, TV has been the biggest fighter. And the re-incarnation bit is absolute folklore. Internationally, you have vampires, you have folklore there and we have folklore here.
You don't think that qualifies as regressive?
Not at all. It could be boring, mundane or irritating but it does not qualify as something, which is promoting superstition. It's saying that 'I can watch an American show, where a woman is giving birth to dragons but when it comes to my own country, I look down upon it.'
What do you make of that?
Hypocrisy. We all have double-standards and we have to fight them on our own. In one of my shows, there was a song, which I, today think, was problematic. The show was about a middle-class girl, who wants to continue supporting her family after getting married.
The show was progressive, the idea was right, but there was a song in one of the episodes that went like, 'Humare ghar mei phool aisa khila, beti ke roop mei beta mila'. At that time, I felt, 'What a beautiful thought!' But today, when I look back, I feel we didn't even realise the thought that we gave birth to by saying 'beti ke roop mei beta mila'.
I wouldn't do a song like that in 2017.
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