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How Rajan Shahi became a successful TV producer
MUMBAI: Delhi boy Rajan Shahi’s only claim to fame while growing up was studying in St. Columbus School where Shah Rukh Khan was six years his senior. But Shahi had another connection with the industry—his maternal grandfather P Jairaj. However, it took a lot of struggle, rebuilding his morale and defying the prediction of a famous astrologer, to attain success in the television industry.
After doing graduation in English literature, Shahi came to Mumbai in 1993 with many inspiring stories from his grandfather, who was a popular actor. He was even awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1981.
But tales were not enough to help him survive in the fast-paced life of Mumbai.
“When I first came to Mumbai, I did not like it and every three months, I would run back to Delhi. Today the exposure is high and youngsters know what they want, but at my time I just wanted to be a part of the industry, I wasn’t very sure as what,” Shahi tells TVP.
Shahi started off by assisting ad film companies as a production guy, and also assisted Gulzar for some TV shows. But he was trying to get a break as an assistant director in films.
“Every big film director I approached already had 15–20 people on the sets and I used to sit outside their offices for long periods. I was confused and deterred.”
During this time, his grandfather told him that TV would be a very big medium and as a youngster with good education, this is the right time for him to get into it and learn the tricks of the trade instead of waiting for films.
But one incident broke his morale down completely.
“I was struggling and for nine months nothing had happened. Every day I would go to 10 offices and wait. Somebody suggested me to go to a famous astrologer in Mumbai who was popular in the fraternity. He told me nothing will happen in Mumbai, nothing near the sea will benefit you so go back. He was so famous and sure that my morale broke down,” Shahi recalls.
Completely disillusioned, Shahi immediately packed his bags and left for Delhi. With Diwali around the corner, he did not get a ticket and travelled in the general compartment just to reach home.
He went back and decided to join the family business, taking out all the commerce and accounts books to get a hang of it again.
“But my father said I should go back to Bombay and if I don’t succeed within 3–4 years I can come back to the business. I was so angry and upset that I packed my bags and left. I didn’t have a ticket again and took the general compartment where I paid Rs 30 for a seat, but I couldn’t get up even for the bathroom for 24 hours, as my seat would be taken,” he reminisces.
Once back in Mumbai, Shahi began the struggle by doing 12 ads as a junior artist to have money to spend every month.
Not using his family connection, he lived with six boys in one room for Rs 500 a month in Veera Desai Road.
Shahi adds, “That is when I realised every day is a survival out here and you have to work very hard. The bathroom didn’t function properly and there were six boys, but I still stayed there for five years.”
He finally got an opportunity to work as a production boy with Ravi Rai who was a leading director of those times with serials like ‘Sailaab’. Shahi’s job was to arrange for ice, run around, and look after the set-up.
A year later, he got the chance to start assisting as a director, having learnt to multi-task like Rai, who was also a producer, director and writer. Shahi was the assistant director of serials like ‘Sailaab’, ‘Thoda Hai Thode Ki Zarurat Hai’, etc.
This gave him a chance to buy his first TV set in 1998. Later, all the boys pooled in and brought a fridge, followed by a cooking stove.
“I remember at that time all my friends from school and relatives were well settled by 25–26 and by 29 I was still an assistant. That is why I would not interact with my school friends because they would only talk about designer clothes and here I was living with six people,” he says.
In 2000, he went on to direct his first serial ‘Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahin’ on Sony TV.
“That was the time of weeklies so I went on to direct some for Vishesh Bhatt like ‘Hamare Tumhare’ and a couple more. I spent three years with them. But then the transition to dailies happened and I sat home for two years with no work as I was a weekly director and the temperament was different,” Shahi mentions.
Facing a roadblock yet again, he got a new lease of life due to DJ’s Creative Unit’s Tony and Deeya Singh who came up with a genre-defining show in 2003, ‘Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin’.
“I was always scared throughout the shoot of Jassi because I was a weekly director and after almost losing my confidence, I got an opportunity. Tony and Deeya groomed me to direct daily soaps. I remember shooting from 7 am to 10 pm and going back to their house for the narration of scenes for the next day. It became a huge learning experience,” he says.
From there on, Shahi directed around 13 serials like ‘Saath Phere’, ‘Raeth’, ‘Maayka’, ‘Kareena Kareena’, ‘Ghar Ki Laxmi Betiyaan’ and others. He also took on the role of series director and set up some shows.
By 2008, Shahi reached a saturation point as he realised that directing gave a very limited say on all the other aspects on the set.
He explains, “A lot of time I felt there was some wastage happening on the set on the management front, and a different picture was being projected to the channel.”
With all these insights, he set up his own production house called ‘Director’s Kut Productions’ in 2007. The name was suggested by Shahi’s ex-wife (Pearl Grey), who also dabbled in numerology and said go for a K instead of C in ‘Kut’, which proved lucky.
Shahi got an opportunity when Star Plus asked him to produce his first show in 2007, ‘Sapna Baabul ka Bidaai’.
“I remember the day I got a call from Star. That same day I also got an offer to direct a film by Deepti Bhatnagar, for whom I had done a show earlier. That night I took a decision, called Deepti saying I will go and have a meeting with Star first as this is a medium I know very well,” he states.
|Up close and personal
At that time, there was a huge wave of the Balaji shows where the drama was over the top and everything was glamorous and larger than life. But Shahi’s show spoke about simplicity and he got two newcomers as protagonists.
Shahi says, “With my first story I wanted it to be simple, which was a huge gamble because I remember the first press conference where the two new girls were introduced as the leads. The journalists started laughing saying that these don’t look like leads. The press was brutal to them and the girls went backstage and started crying. I told them to have faith and the show became history.”
In fact, even in his first meeting with Star Plus, four of the seven people in the room were laughing at the concept. He remembers a time when he was coming back from the edit at 2 am and as he got out of the auto, a leading producer started making fun of the show saying it’s been 10 episodes but where are the leads.
“But then Bidaai became a trend where girls from small towns started ruling the roost. Majority of the shows I have done have a lot of newcomers,” he asserts.
Shahi followed this up in 2009 with ‘Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai’, which has completed six years and seven months of run on Star Plus. The concept came from Star Plus and was a simple one liner stating, ‘let’s work on a show on a young married couple who discover their journey of love. In a traditional marriage, when does love happen?’
Having completed over eight years in the industry, Rajan Shahi’s production house has many shows to its name. Not wanting to limit themselves to one kind of storytelling, its range of work includes shows like ‘Kuch Toh Log Kahenge’ on Sony, which was adapted from a Pakistani series ‘Dhoop Kinare’.
Presently, Director’s Kut Productions is working on two more concepts alongside developing digital content for a company.
Refusing to divulge more details, Shahi says, “There are so many limitations in thinking for TV. I think the one who want to experiment will move to digital.”
He adds, “I think TV has to improve really, but then there is a huge dichotomy. When you do great different stories, they don’t work. Sometimes we tried to experiment, but the ones which will get you ratings are the ones which you may have seen 10 times before.”
Shahi states that when shows shut down after 3–4 months the show makers suffer the most. Broadcasters do not give the producers the scope to experiment with different shows.
“We also experimented with ‘Tere Sheher Main’ with a different genre. Ad filmmaker Gyan Kudia, whose film went for the Oscars, set up the entire show where we have girls wearing costumes. I went abroad to get those. They are very real, even the writing was very real. And though we got a lot of critical acclaim for it, we realised that we didn’t get TRPs. Ultimately, when we started something familiar, the girls came down to wearing Indian costumes, we suddenly started getting audience on it,” he says.