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Tracing the journey of ‘Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah’ on SAB
MUMBAI: At a time when comedy programmes on television were not an important part of the programming mix of broadcasters, one show came and redefined the genre. After being rejected by almost all major broadcasters, ‘Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah’ found its home on SAB.
TVP traces the journey of the show and finds out the elements that make it click with the masses even today.
How it all started
Asit Modi of Neela Telefilms envisaged the need for daily comedy back in 2001–01. But the thought of doing a daily comedy show was scary because one would need good comic writers for that, which was scarce back then.
Being a Gujarati, Modi was a regular reader of the column ‘Duniya Ne Oondha Chashmah’ by journalist-columnist Taarak Mehta for the Gujarati weekly magazine ‘Chitralekha’. The column was quite popular among the Gujarati community for its satirical take on daily issues.
One day, during a chat with a friend, Modi came up with the idea of adapting the column for a television show.
The column was a great read but the challenge lay in adapting it. Modi then acquired the rights to the column, which first started in 1971. But since the column came out weekly, it did not help him much in terms of story, and only gave him the basis and some characters to start his work.
For his purpose, he changed about 80 per cent of the column content and adapted it for the show. An important aspect was capturing the soul of the column.
“I had to change most of it because the setting of the column was a chawl and that backdrop would not connect with all audiences,” he adds.
Despite all his efforts, the top GECs of the time rejected it as they felt it would not match the popularity of the highest-rated daily soaps of the time. Dejected, he waited patiently.
SAB laps up the show
In February 2008, Sony Pictures Networks (SPN) India CEO NP Singh was planning to reposition SAB TV as a comedy channel.
Talking about that time, SPNI senior EVP and business head of SAB and Sony Pal Anooj Kapoor says, “I realised that because consumers had been used to watching soaps, SAB could manage to get overall GRPs of 14 even though it had successful shows like ‘Office Office’ and ‘Yes Boss’ (post the acquisition). We realised for that kind of weekly half-hour comedy, there is a very limited audience and most of them are those that are used to viewing daily soaps. Therefore, the idea was to tap that audience.”
SAB then devised a new genre of programming—daily family comedy, with a linear storyline to cater to consumers who are used to viewing linear daily soaps.
“We were thinking of ways to differentiate ourselves from the others. One point was, if others are talking negatively about the saas-bahu and the joint family system, we will talk about the positives of it. Secondly, there was a lot of vulgarity in relations within a family and there we thought we will feature happy, good families,” he explains.
Under the new genre, the first show was ‘Lo Ho Gayi Pooja Iss Ghar Ki’ produced by Siddharth Malhotra, followed by ‘Main Kab Saas Banungi’ by Deepti Bhatnagar Productions.
It was then that SAB and Neela Telefilms met, and the show ‘Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah’ was finally commissioned for SAB.
“The show was based on a popular article existing since 1971. Our point was very simple; people were very regular followers of the magazine purely on the back of that column. So when we commission this show, we will get a whole lot of existing readers of the column who will easily convert into viewers. Even today it rates better than others, because I feel a lot of people who are daily soap watchers come to watch the show because of the strong loyalty they have towards the article,” Kapoor asserts.
On the other hand, while Modi was happy with his show finally finding a platform, the biggest challenge he faced was to set up a good creative team.
“Sometimes I don’t realise how the seven years have passed by because when we had started on 28 July 2008, we were very scared because SAB was not an established platform. But I believed that if my show had enough pull, people would come and watch it on SAB. NP Singh and Anooj Kapoor had faith in me. The only thing I told them was that comedy is risky as you have to catch the viewer’s pulse so have faith and don’t pull off the show immediately if it doesn’t work initially,” recalls Modi.
Kapoor adds, “In those days, there was no platform for comedy. When we decided to change our positioning, the show was a natural fit. I still remember when the show was being cast, it looked very good, and we did a pilot first to make sure the show did well. I remember telling Asitji that he had got three things right—the characters, the script and the director. It is difficult to get all three things right at the first go.”
After discussions, Modi’s team of 5–6 writers started work on episodes. A show being close to his heart, Modi for the last seven years has been reading each and every episode of the show before it is shot.
“Even if one aspect is loose, it shows on screen. I knew I had to do hard work, so from the outset I started worked on all the aspects of the show myself,” he says.
Meanwhile, the production team was constructing the set that was designed by Jayant Deshmukh.
However, the show faced a hurdle when SAB sanctioned a budget lower than Modi’s expectation and he refused to do the show as it would only result in loss for him. But his wife persuaded him to change his mind and convinced him to work towards making the show a success.
Interestingly, the show launched with a rating of 0.2 to 0.3 and the channel size was also 35–38 GRPs. The first 4–5 episodes were not that great, and that was when the channel and production team understood what changes were needed.
People gradually started liking it, and as the channel grew to 150 GRPs, the show also grew to a rating of 4.
But Modi only understood the true popularity of the show when he met the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
“We belong to the same native place and when I told him that, he said he had heard about my serial from everyone. But he hadn’t been able to watch it, so he asked me to send him some DVDs. That was the moment I realised how popular the show had become,” Modi states.
Another proud moment for them was when Disneyland approached the team for integration. It brought in a new storyline in the series as they shot the team going to Hong Kong enjoying in Disneyland.
Broadening the show
As the show progressed, the team made plans to rope in women, children and make it inclusive. Thus, they did some experiments with the storyline by bringing in a ghost, GPL based on IPL and more. So the show had elements like sports, singing, dancing to lure more audiences.
However, over the years, the show’s biggest strength has been the story, and the team takes special care to find some topic that will be relevant and connect with the audiences.
As SAB grew, so did the show. In 2008 when ‘Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah’ was launched, it contributed 21 per cent to total primetime viewership and then moved up to 41 per cent.
However, this also made SAB over dependant on one show as it aired repeats of the show every day in the morning and afternoon band, in addition to the weekends.
Kapoor states, “We didn’t want to ape other channels by doing six clones once the show became successful. We resisted the temptation and it’s been a great journey and Taarak has been an important part of that. Slowly we are replacing the repeat programming with other programming. Our only input to Mr Modi is ‘What You Do, You Do Right’.”
|Behind Taarak Mehta’s lens
The show has also slowly become a promotional platform, where many actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Ajay Devgan have come several times to promote their films. The show was also roped in by PM Modi for hisa Swacch Bharat Abhiyan.
The biggest achievement of ‘Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah’ has been maintaining the storyline without a leap for seven years.
Kapoor is quick to add, “The show has strong characters and is etched on the viewer’s minds so there is no reason for us to take a leap. Shows usually take a leap when they the ratings are dwindling but Taarak has continued to hold the fort.”
Moreover, the team does not fear or anticipate any viewer fatigue. Kapoor says that so far they haven’t received any feedback of viewer fatigue, but if it comes, then they will discuss it with Modi on how to reinvent the show.
Modi says, “We have taken special care on the story and going ahead, we will keep doing such things that the audience will know that we still have a lot of story left to tell.”
In fact, the show’s journey can be understood from the aspect that when the show started, the kids were aged 7–8 years and would come on sets with their mothers. Today, all of them have grown up so much that some even drive their own car to the set.
“Boys who have learnt how to ride a cycle on the set now drive a car. It feels so good that I have seen them through their journey and since the artists are the same and we haven’t taken a leap in the storyline. We have found elements to continue the show as a journey,” Modi concludes.