From Television Desk:

Writer of the Month




Vipul Mehta, the actor and theater director turned writer turned Indian television on its head with his first ever serial, a daily soap which went on to become India’s most popular and highly rated show, something which is still being emulated, both in success and story line. That show was named Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu thi (which he created along with Rajesh Joshi). 

A conversation with this soft, self-effacing writer fetches you a fascinating success story. Vipul was into professional Gujrati theatre when writing happened for him. After writing a couple of episodes for Captain House, a Balaji production, he was offered to develop a new show conceptualized by Ekta Kapoor. Vipul went to his theater colleague Rajesh Joshi and asked him to collaborate with him. Their first draft was thrown out by Ekta much to their chagrin. But they took it as a challenge and decided to bring the stories of their own house to the screen. Ekta jumped at it and summoned Jeetender and Shobha Kappor back to the office to present the new writer duo. This is how Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi was born and this is how Vipul Mehta stepped onto his first success stone. 

After writing Koshish – Ek Aasha, which was directed by Anurag Basu, they hit pair went on to write Kyun Ki Saas bhi Kabhi bahu thi, Kkusum, Mukti-Bandhan, Kasamh Se, KKavyanjali, Kya Hoga Nimmo Ka, Kuchh Is Tarah, Kasturi and many more hit daily soaps. Vipul has mostly worked with Balaji Telefilms since the start of his professional writing career. Owing his understanding of writing to theater and books, he also continues to direct and act in plays. Theater is also the reason which makes him fluent in reading as many as five languages - Gujrati, Hindi, Marathi, English and also Urdu. 

Vipul expresses his discontent over the fact that TV writer do not get their duly deserved share of respect. “A writer takes up a show not for money but for his passion to do something new and because a show gives him the opportunity to showcase his creativity. Keeping that emotion in mind I guess writers should be given a little more respect” he affirms. “Writer is the foundation of TV and the day that foundation gets shaken up, all the huge mansions and palaces would crumble,” he adds in response to the repugnant practice of neglecting writers at award shows. 

For new writers he advises: “One request which I wish to make to all the newcomers is - Please read literature. It facilitates your growth as a writer. I think by reading just Mahabharata a writer can discover at least 102 plots for shows!” 

(Excerpts from the interview) 

How did it all begin? 

I was never into writing per se. But I would read books and participate in plays while in school. I was then bitten by the bug of acting and joined children-theater after my tenth. I grew up doing backstage work for commercial plays. By then I was developing a fascination with the scripts of those plays. I would wonder at the way playwrights would construct scenes and fill them with so much drama. But till intercollegiate level my main inclination was towards direction. For about five years I represented Mumbai University at national and international levels, as a director, winning trophies. 

So while doing backstage along with a bit of acting in theater, I was also looking for opportunities for survival. I went to Balaji Telefilms to get a role in the show Captain House. Swapna Joshi who was directing the show had been one of my acting teachers. She asked if I had any story ideas for the show. At first I just shrugged it off but on second thoughts said yes. She liked my idea and then I had a meeting with Ekta (Kapoor). I wrote two episodes. Then one day Ekta asked me to watch a pilot episode, shot by Anurag Basu, and write episodes for that show. 

I did not have any experience of writing. One of my theater colleagues Raju Bhai (Rajesh Joshi) was on sabbatical from theater due to an injury. I offered him to write with me. He was skeptical and feared that we would not be able to pull it off because we were not writers but directors. I convinced him on the grounds that if we gave it a shot our theater experience was going to help us. We developed a story and took it to Ekta which she threw in the trash. We came out and Raju Bhai again said that we were going to remain directors. I was still hopeful and asked Ekta to give us a couple of days more. We went back to her with a reworked story and finally she was impressed. Her thrashing had awaked the writer in us! From then on we were on a roll. 

Did you feel the need of training to sustain as writer? 

I had been doing theater since I was 8. It had inculcated in me a basic sense of the craft, graph, drama and characterization. I had automatically learnt a bit of all that stuff which I continue to learn more about. I would write in bulk which sharpened my skills. I also read a lot. I can read as many as five languages - Gujrati, Hindi, English, Marathi and also a bit of Urdu which gives me an advantage. 

So I have not had any training as such but I do learn from little experiences of life. Training can teach the fundamentals of drama and how it is structured but the basic sense of writing lies within you. Training becomes necessary if you are starting as a completely fresh writer but even if you don’t have it you will learn to walk the rope anyhow. It’s like how every kid stumbles at first but ultimately learns to walk. Some would just pick it sooner than others. I would say go for a course if you wish to but more than that do read a lot of novels, literature and different kinds of writing. 

You wrote a show which was adapted from a book. Tell us about the process of adaptation. 

Mukti-Bandhan was a novel by Harkishan Mehta that would get published as segments in a weekly magazine named Chitralekha. I was very fond of it and thus, got very excited when it came to my knowledge that we were going to make a show on it. We broke it down into episodic screenplays but unfortunately as it aired we had to change a lot of things succumbing to the pressure of TRPs. We actually could not use the most interesting chunks of the novel. What I feel happy about is that the channel (Colors) actually picked up a novel and bought rights to make a show on it. The same way another show named Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah is also based on a popular column by Tarak Bhai in Chitralekha. Marathi literature also has lot of content which can be adapted. Earlier Premchand’s stories have been adapted for TV. I also remember a serial named Shrikant from my school days. So literature has so many stories which unfold with great beauty. Even if you shoot them just the way they are, they would turn into nice films or shows. 

Which have been the milestone shows in your career? 

Kkusum, Koshish – Ek Aashaa and Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi have been the biggest milestones. Kyunki went to become a success which we had never imagined. It penetrated within every household. I remember writing the first episode with Raju Bhai. We were to create a family and were wondering how to go about it. I said to him “Ok tell me the names of any four members of your family and I will tell you four of mine.” We added it all up, wrote an episode overnight and met Ekta the next day. We saw Jeetu ji (Jeetendra) and Shobha ji (Shobha Kapoor) leaving for home as we reached Balaji’s office. Then Ekta listened to what we had written and she got so excited that she immediately called back Jeetu ji to make him hear it. 

Kkusum was again a beautiful story which we developed with a lot of nitty-gritty. Raju bhai and I are both from middle class families and therefore we related a lot with Kkusum and her family background. 

In 2002, for some personal reasons, I left Balaji before joining it back in 2004 and writing many of their shows like KKavyanjali, Kya Hoga Nimmo Ka, Kuchh Is Tarah, Kasturi, Kasamh Se etc. Since my theater activities also keep me involved I write only one show at a time. I love working with Ekta because it makes you learn a lot. Balaji has played a significant role in my career. They not only provided me the initial breakthrough as a writer but have also given me a standing. 

Which is your favorite genre as a writer?

I don’t have any favorite genres as such. I just aim that whatever I write should be entertaining and also a bit thought-provoking or message-oriented. My basic forte is family drama and I like to play with basic day to day incidents along with human emotions. Plots which show human relations excite me more. The drama between human emotions and relationships is there in every moment of life. It’s everywhere even between a writer and his assistant or between him and the producer. Every moment somebody gets hurt or somebody rejoices. 

While writing Kyunki, which was a family drama, all we decided was that we would keep things which happen in our own drawing rooms while just changing their degree according to the status of the characters. Mukti-Bandhan had a thriller-ish treatment along with a social element while Kkusum was purely social element with a thriller. 

How does any show’s writing team function? 

It’s good to have so many story writers, screenplay writers, creative-heads etc. You get lots of views and ideas. However, many times I have also felt that too many cooks do end up spoiling the food. 

The person writing the screenplay has to think about the story and the one who writes the episodic stories has to keep in mind the screenplay and subsequent scenes. They are both interlinked. Personally I like writing screenplays more because that enhances my own sense of drama. I find it challenging how innovatively I can package a story into a screenplay. 

According to you, what major changes have come about in today’s TV? 

I don’t see much changes happening in terms of content. As a writer I have this grief that our television is going regressive. World over cinema is dealing with new experiments. We can’t say that the viewers don’t need something new but judging everything by TRPs changes the whole equation. Every new show starts with a fresh idea but gradually acquires the predominant norms. No doubt channels do have to look after their business perspectives but in that process creativity and freshness do get compromised. 

Have you also written for films? 

I have worked on a couple of films. One of which is a play of mine named Bai Maari Boundry which is now being made into a film. I have also written two scripts with Pankaj Parashar for Sunil Manchanda. There are so many subjects which I want to do. There are a few plays which I wrote only to turn them into films later. I also want to direct those films. My overall experience of film writing has been mixed. 

To me, someone who is in a habit of writing a new daily soap episode every day, film writing seems very time consuming. But it’s my own fault that initially I could not adjust to the environment of leisure in which film writing takes place. I have learnt a lot since then. 

How to judge what good writing is? 

Whenever I finish writing something I close my eyes and ponder over it. I ask myself if I myself would find it interesting. I try to place myself among the audience and judge whether a scene is good enough. I feel character should always retain his or her original characteristics. For example when we show somebody who has just come back from America we give him an accent to build some humor around it. But when the same character is faced with an emotional situation that accent is gone. Why? That emotion can be portrayed in that same accent or language. I feel people tend to neglect the character while working out the graph of the story. Characters are those necessities of your story which take it forward. If you work strongly on characterization, it helps in the crafting of your story and screenplay. 

Do daily soaps have predetermined storylines? 

We start with a year’s story but ratings soak it all up in just one month. Three month’s story dries up in 12-16 episodes. I think we should give more time to a character. It wasn’t 100 years back but only 10 when we would present dramas with a great simplicity milking every situation. In any household if a child is born or a death occurs there are several other things which happen all around it. It’s never just one single isolated incident. But we are in a hurry to make that kid grow up who has just been born. We want to take quick leaps. There is an impatience which has crept into all of us writers, actors, producers, channels etc. because today you have about 112 channels at your fingertip. Nobody wants the viewer to flip. 

So the story is churned and molded in every way. Sometimes it’s justified in a sense that you can know in a month’s time which characters are going strong and which are not and then you can change your game. Some characters become so popular that they help you sustain the whole show. But everything should have a process. You start from A to reach B but end up going off the track. Then that story is used somewhere else. A writer should feel very lucky if the story follows the end which he had originally thought. If that happens it’s a victory for the whole writer’s fraternity, though I am not sure if that is happening at all. I don’t think anyone in particular is at fault if stories change their tracks. We are writers working in the entertainment business and we will give the viewers what they want to see. It’s our obligation to serve them because all said and done there are only three things which matter in life – Entertainment, entertainment and entertainment! 

Creativity versus commercialization - 

The debate has been going since ages. Everyone defines these two terms by his own standards and that is how one has to function, setting his individual parameters for commercialization and creativity. On the other hand I also have seen people like PL Deshpande, a great Marathi writer, who along with his wife never used a single penny of what he earned through his books and plays. I remember till his last day he survived only on rice and sugar bought from a ration store while donating all his income to his institute so that others could learn. Ultimately, it depends on you how you want to look at things and define the terms like creativity and commercialization for your own life. 

Do writers get the respect they deserve in the TV Industry? 

I have mostly worked with Balaji where writers are a highly respected lot. Though it is said that TV is a writer’s medium, it’s only the writer who has to compromise the most, with his creativity and story. So whether or not he agrees with the suggestions he has to neglect his creativity, ego and passion, in order to deliver for the next day’s telecast. A writer takes up a show not for money but for his passion to do something new and because a show gives him the opportunity to showcase his creativity. Keeping that emotion in mind I guess writers should be given a little more respect. 

Earlier in 2013 some award show organizers didn’t even invite any writers, even those who had won the awards, to the ceremony. What was your take on the situation? 

For me it was a shameful occurrence. The same people who say that TV is the writer’s medium have been failing to show them respect at the award functions. Writer is the foundation of TV and the day that foundation gets shaken up all the huge mansions and palaces would crumble. I personally know those writers who went through this humiliation. I felt like questioning myself why do I write at all. Any producer who wants to do a show can’t create even a single episode without a writer. It was a matter of shame for all the writers, producers and production houses and everyone else related to the TV industry. We, and also those who committed this act, have the collective responsibility to ensure that such a terrible incident doesn’t happen again. 

A word to newcomers - 

One has to travel his own path. What I would like to say is that if you are thrown out of a show overnight don’t back off. Fight back with vengeance. Do another show and prove your worth with the fact it’s not easy to be a writer, one has to have that gift. 

Also, I have observed that today’s generation is not fond of reading. They say – We watch a movie every day. Fair enough, movies do give you a lot but still there is no alternate for reading. Every story that you read gives you at least one character or moment which helps your craft of writing. So a request which I wish to make to all the newcomers is - Please read literature. We are such a rich country having abundance of literature in Bangla, Marathi, Gujrati and other South Indian languages. Literature facilitates your growth as a writer. I think by reading just Mahabharata a writer can discover at least 102 plots for shows!

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