What Was Really Behind the Success of the K-Serials?

Kovid Gupta
Grist Media
A word cloud of Balaji's K-soap titles

K. Street Pali Hill. Kaahin Kissii Roz. Kaarthika. Kaaun. Cab Kaisey Kahaan. Kabhi Kabhii Pyaar Kabhi Kabhii Yaar. Kabhii Sautan Kabhii Sahelii. Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii. Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki. Kahani Terrii Merrii. Kahiin To Hoga. Kahi To Milenge. Kaisa Ye Pyar Hai. Kalash. Kaliren. Kammal. Kandy Floss. Kanyadaan. Kayaamat. Kayamath. Karam. Karam Apnaa Apnaa. Karma. Karma – Mayavi Nagari. Kasamm. Kasamh Se. Kasautii Zindagii Kay. Kashti. Kasturi. Kavita. Kavyanjali. Kesar. Keshav Pandit. Khwaish. King Aassman Ka Ek Raja. Kis Desh Mein Hai Meraa Dil. Kitani Mohabbat Hai. Kitne Kool Hain Hum. Kitni Mast Hai Zindagi. Kkehna Hai Kuch Mujhko. Kkoi Dil Mein Hai. Kkusum. Kesar. Kohi Apna Sa. Koshish...Ek Aasha. Kosmiic Chat. Kuch Khona Hai Kuch Paana Hai. Kuchh Is Tara. Kuchh Jhuki Palkain. Kumkum Bhagya. Kundali. Kutumb. Kyaa Hoga Nimmo Kaa. Kyaa Kahein. Kya Dil Mein Hai. Kya Hadsaa Kya Haqeeqat. Kya Huaa Tera Vadaa. Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.

The sun was beginning to set on the twentieth century. Balaji Telefilms had successfully completed six years in the industry towards the millennium, and Ekta Kapoor had carved a name for herself. The company had proved its worth not only in mainstream television production but in regional entertainment as well. Ekta and her mother Shobha were finally starting to be taken seriously by their industry co-workers and the media. Experienced actors and technicians alike were now open to the possibility of working with the company.

Balaji was still fighting tooth and nail in the battle of supremacy, however. It was one of the many production houses making quality television, but as yet there was no strong indicator of Balaji becoming the indisputable leader. More so, a visible brand identity for the company was missing. Balaji required a trademark that would not only define its shows but also distinguish them from competitor software. To move a step forward in the game of primetime chess, the company needed to identify its queen rather quickly.

The queen was identified on October 10, 1999. And queen here was spelt with the letter K. It was one that would checkmate each of Balaji’s rivals in the coming years. Kanyadaan, Balaji’s first K-serial in the Hindi market, went on air on this auspicious date. A once a week telecast, the show aired on Sony Entertainment Television India. The serial premiered on a big screen at Mumbai’s historical Eros Cinema, a rather unique debut for a television show. A glossy photo shoot was conducted with Shobha, Ekta, Sony TV India’s Head of Content and Communication Ravina Raj Kohli, and the leading ladies of the serial. The women were dressed in silver and grey outfits. The photo even appeared on the cover of a leading magazine. Kanyadaan encompassed every identifiable aspect of what would become the future K-brand: emotional storytelling, astute characterization, superior shooting technique, identifiable music score and attractive costuming.

Kanyadaan’s story was woven around Balaji’s field of expertise: family drama. The series showcased the relationship of a mother (played by veteran actress Kirron Kher) with her two daughters, one legitimate, played by Jayati Bhatia, and one illegitimate, played by Poonam Narula Goel. A sense of femininity and sexuality was retained in the mother, struggling to keep her family together even as her past resurfaced. The legitimate daughter Kavita had her own share of tribulations, being constantly rejected by suitors due to her average looks. The serial’s hero Sudhanshu Pandey, meanwhile, was extremely handsome, a stark contrast to the plain Kavita. Several contenders were considered for the role, including top models of the day such as Himanshu Malik and Diwakar Pundir. The role ultimately went to the dashing and debonair Sudhanshu, who became extremely popular with female audiences. The narrative structure and sentimental quotient of Kanyadaan set the rhythm and tone that Ekta’s subsequent serials would echo.

Another important element of Kanyadaan was its music and artistic title montage. In the late 1990s, television starting sequences comprised scenes from episodes pieced together. Credits would roll over these sights, and background songs would be played to complete the montages. Often dull and dry, the same themes would go on, episode after episode. Sony had recently become a pioneer in innovative title montages through shows such as Saaya (1998) and Heena (1999). And Kanyadaan was most certainly not going to be an exception to the precedence that the channel had set.

The look of the title montage and the promotions was meticulously planned to reflect the feel of the narrative. Colours such as lemon yellow, light blue and light pink were chosen to create an aura of tranquility and joy. The crew shot for fourteen hours straight to perfect the thirty-second title piece. A beautiful garden was created and a wooden swing was placed in it. Jayati Bhatia, dressed in a white salwar kameez with a dupatta in various pastel shades, sat on the swing. To create the effect of the dupatta blowing in the wind, the security ring was removed from a giant fan to directly expose the swing to the air-blowing blades as it swivelled back and forth. Kirron Kher, draped in a light green sari, lovingly showered flower petals on her daughter. Near the end of the montage, the serene atmosphere was dramatically interrupted by the entrance of the illegitimate daughter. The background score, meanwhile, used a light acoustic guitar accompanied by a gentle whistle.

Kanyadaan also started getting Balaji recognition for another central aspect of its K-brand: costumes. Well known for her taste in clothing and jewellery, Kirron Kher outdid herself in Kanyadaan, using chiffon saris from her own massive wardrobe. Maasi (Shobha Kapoor’s sister, Nim Sood, who would later be called ‘Maasi’ across the industry due to her relationship with Ekta) paid a visit to Kher’s home and the women selected saris for every scene. Maasi and Shobha then got the blouses and petticoats stitched according to the shooting schedule. Kher’s look was completed with stylish costume jewellery that Maasi had amassed. For special occasions on the show, Kher would be decked out in heavy saris and real gold jewellery.

Kanyadaan was also more technically advanced than Balaji’s previous dramas. It put an end to the multiple-camera set-up used in Itihaas, bringing in the more innovative single-camera shooting technique. Under the single-camera set-up, each shot of each scene is filmed separately. With every shot change, lighting is reconfigured. Cameramen could let their imaginations run wild, utilizing round trolleys, cranes and various other equipment and shooting styles to frame distinctive shots. Furthermore, directors could now easily shoot in changing locations (including outdoor areas), something difficult to do with the multiple-camera set-up used in Itihaas. While this allowed for a more versatile cinematographyand look, it took up far more time than the three-camera system. Due to its visual appeal, however, single-camera became the norm for not only Balaji’s K-soaps, but for other fiction shows on television as well.

Kanyadaan was also Balaji’s first show to shift from linear editing to non-linear editing. In the previously used linear system, shows were edited by recording one tape onto another tape directly. In simplistic terms, this meant cutting an unwanted scene by slicing an 8mm film strip with a pair of scissors. The relevant portions would then be joined by scotch tape. Furthermore, the editing had to be done in linear order from start to finish. Through this mechanical system, the process of recording twenty minutes of edited footage onto a new tape literally took twenty minutes to complete. Non-linear editing changed these dynamics. It allowed editors to squeeze scenes and dubbing into episodes without having to re-record them from start to finish. With this computerized system, editing could be done much faster. Twenty minutes of edited footage could be transferred within five minutes. Moreover, video files could now be made easily available on servers and hard disks; cumbersome reels and tapes were no longer required.

A few months after Kanyadaan went on air, Balaji launched yet another groundbreaking program. A weekly serial on Zee TV, this show would soon become the first Balaji serial to secure the number one spot across satellite channels nationwide. The narrative revolved around a woman who was fraudulently married to a mentally challenged man. Instead of walking away from the marriage, however, she fought with her circumstances and nursed her husband back to his appropriate mental age. The serial was Koshish... Ek Aasha (Koshish, 2000). Actor Varun Badola, who played the mentally challenged hero Neeraj in Koshish, had his first brush with stardom through the serial. Badola often inserted two cotton balls in his mouth so as to stretch his cheeks to reinforce the childlike nature of his character. The impression of the script and acting was so strong that Badola’s onscreen disability was taken as a reality by many viewers. People who saw him off-screen were often flabbergasted to find him behaving like an adult. So strong was the impact of the character that a mentally challenged child became a huge fan of Badola’s, regarding him as his inspiration. The child refused to eat until Badola gave him an autographed picture, forcing his family to approach the actor for help.

Koshish, which was directed by Anurag Basu (who would go on to direct acclaimed films Life...In a Metro (2007), Kites (2010), and Barfi! (2012)), was truly pathbreaking. It was concurrently made as a daily soap in Telugu, Pavitra Bandham (2000), on Gemini TV and was later rehashed in other southern languages as well. So popular was the serial that it was even dubbed in Chinese for broadcast in China. In 2007, the Chinese government made Balaji Telefilms an offer to set up operations in the country and film the show with Chinese actors. A similar offer came from Pakistani television as well. The reach of Koshish was wide and expansive. It was an indisputable hit, right from its inception on March 7, 2000.

The alphabet K had worked its magic rather quickly. The letter went on to find a place in every subsequent Balaji serial. Contrary to popular belief, the titles of Balaji’s future shows did not necessarily stem from superstition. Rather, they represented the company’s desire to maintain this newfound brand identity. Besides including the alphabet in their titles, these shows also maintained the storytelling and production values Kanyadaan had set. The blueprint of each serial revolved around the great big Indian joint family. Characters capable of creating audience empathy were combined with relatable plotlines.

While Koshish undoubtedly performed well, the irrefutable confirmation of K’s success came with the launch of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Kyunki) and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii (Kahaani) in the second half of 2000. Both these Star Plus soaps did phenomenally well. They not only grew Balaji’s show ratings but expanded the company financially as well. These melodramas sealed Balaji’s belief in the K magic, thereby dictating the nomenclature of every succeeding saga. Interestingly, the epic game show Kaun Banega Crorepati, produced by BIG Synergy, also premiered in 2000. The skyrocketing success of the Amitabh Bachchan-anchored program only strengthened this K conviction further.

The letter K remained a pivotal part of Balaji’s branding for nine years. The company invested so much faith in the letter that its integration went far beyond the titles of the Hindi soaps. All of Balaji’s regional shows were ornamented with the auspicious K as well. Furthermore, when Ekta established Balaji Films in 1994, the company produced several motion pictures embellished by the lucky charm.

In 2007, Balaji Telebrands along with tarot card reader Sunita Menon launched Ekta’s Karyasiddhi Graha Shanti Dhoop, incense sticks that could be conveniently lit in lieu of an elaborate havan ostensibly fulfilling the same purpose. Incidentally, Sunita was also the clairvoyant who had recommended the letter K to Balaji for its serial titles in the first place. The Karyasiddhi packet was manufactured in tandem with the company’s astrological beliefs.

It must be noted that K was not always a foolproof path to success. Of the K-serials that Shobha and Ekta created, quite a few faltered and were pulled off air quickly. Some of these included DD’s Kuch Khona Hai Kuch Paana Hai (2000), Sony’s Kuchh Jhuki Palkain (2001) and Kahani Terrii Merrii (2003). Although these shows maintained every element of the K-brand, they somehow failed to climb the rating charts. The team also produced the larger-than-life Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki (2008), broadcast on the channel 9X, which garnered poor TRPs in spite of a massive budget and advanced production techniques. The majority of K-films such as the David Dhawan-directed Kyo Kii ... Main Jhuth Nahin Bolta (2001) and horror films Kuchh To Hai (2003) and Krishna Cottage (2003) failed at the box office as well.

Balaji Telefilms head Ekta Kapoor with the cast of one of her TV serials.

For the most part, however, K did extremely well for Balaji and for others. Since the 1980s, actor-turned- director Rakesh Roshan has also consistently sworn by the K factor. His track record is evident: films such as Khoon Bhari Maang (1988), Karan Arjun (1995), Kaho Naa ... Pyaar Hai (2000) and Krrish (2006). There is also Karan Johar, who directed and produced blockbuster films such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Kal Ho Naa Ho (2005). As Balaji would extend its love for K from television to films, Karan would go in the reverse direction. His attachment for K would extend from films to television through his successful talk show Koffee With Karan (2004).

With the K phenomena, everyone wanted to be a part of Balaji’s success. Not only were Balaji lookalike soaps created, but the use of the alphabet was copied as well. The codification became a fad and many started including K in their titles – a pastiche of sorts. Balaji’s love for the letter K and their saas-bahu sagas also became the butt of jokes for stand-up comedians on late-night talk shows and others. Ekta came to be so strongly associated with the alphabet that tabloids and news headlines began to call her ‘Kekta’. In the course of all this joking about K, the brand identity of Balaji as a corporate company strengthened. Audiences, both rich and poor, soon became cognizant of the K element, so much so that even non-Balaji serials with titles starting with K were automatically attributed to Balaji Telefilms.

As K entwined itself with Balaji, it brought a facet of numerology with it. An offshoot of astrology, numerology involves a belief in the vibrations and numbers associated with an alphabet. According to it, the sum of the number of letters in a television show’s title dictates its popularity and success. Furthermore, the title and producer’s birth date are matched to assess how the show should best be alphabetized.

Each of Balaji’s K-shows was deemed numerically ‘sound’. The naming of any given program followed a standard procedure. First the concept and broad storyline of the show was locked. On the basis of this, the creative team and writers brainstormed a name for the show. This title was then sent to an astrologer such as Sanjay Jumaani for numerological approval. At times this was accompanied by a consultation from Pundit Janardhan, the Kapoor family spiritualist. The numerological renaming of programs was seen across countless Balaji melodramas. The monster hit Kkusum (2001), for example, had an additional ‘k’ in its title, while the equally celebrated Kaahin Kissii Roz (2001) had an extra ‘a’, ‘s’ and ‘i’ in its title.

If the Walt Disney Company had Mickey Mouse, Balaji Telefilms had the K. The alphabet became the official brand identity of the production company. It gave Ekta a direct avenue to connect with the masses who watched her serials. It also became a way for the production house to conduct its business. A workable brand that consistently delivered results was built. Thus the need to analyse why the K worked in the mysterious way it did, to evaluate or measure the impact of this brand, seemed unnecessary. The levels of both qualitative and quantitative prosperity derived from the letter K were phenomenally high.

In 2008, however, the need for a brand reassessment finally arose. The long-running Star Plus mega-hits Kyunki, Kahaani and Kasautii Zindagii Kay were exhibiting declining ratings. One after the other, Balaji’s K-shows were pulled off air. The foundering of these once hugely popular programs left a big question mark over the power of K. After a long run of eight-odd years, the alphabet was failing to deliver results. The symbol that had flown the studio to the top now seemed to have lost its magic.

According to the book, astrologer Sanjay Jumaani would provide numerological approval for the titles.

The fading of K’s power in 2008 prompted Balaji to re-analyse its choices. With her strong belief in astrometry, Ekta conducted an analysis on Balaji’s lifecycle. What she uncovered astonished her. As per the astrological indication, Ekta’s fortunate tenure with the letter K, which began in 2000, ran all the way up to 2009. Coincidentally, Kanyadaan premiered in 1999, and Kyunki was thrown off air in 2008. The rise and fall of the company’s mega soaps directly coincided with this astrologically auspicious time. Ekta also discovered her lucky letters during the hit eight-year period to be ‘kra’, ‘kray’ and ‘kro’. As per these astrological beliefs, the stars were giving a loud and clear message to Balaji Telefilms through their alignment all these years.

From a cosmological point of view, K would not necessarily continue to have the prosperous effect it previously had on the company’s fortunes. Thereafter, Balaji discarded the K from its branding. This is, of course, not to say that K would never appear in Balaji’s bouquet again. But the conscious utilization of the letter was limited.

Kingdom of the Soap Queen - The Story of Balaji Telefilms, by Kovid Gupta.

The first soap to break out of the K spell was Bandini, which launched on Imagine TV in 2009. The serial fared quite well, and was followed by other soaps that branched beyond the K factor. While the performance of some of these new shows fell short of the standards set by the K-soaps, others went on to perform exceedingly well. Zee TV’s Pavitra Rishta (2009) and Sony’s Bade Achhe Lagte Hain (2011) became extremely viable business drivers for their respective channels. They also put Balaji Telefilms on the popularity map once again post the downfall of 2008.

The K era not only changed Balaji’s functioning pattern; it revolutionized the working system of the entire television industry. The era had been diligently ushered in by a successful model established by Balaji Telefilms. Going into the new millennium, Shobha and Ekta pioneered a successful business blueprint that was utilized in every subsequent Balaji serial. By multiplying this blueprint across various serials, the company was able to function with limited resources; this allowed it to mass-produce multiple programs concurrently.

The Balaji model was easily implementable due to a variety of reasons. One key factor was the establishment of Balaji House, the headquarters of the enduring soap factory. The seven-storey building would become an institution in itself, delivering and capturing a certain kind of artistic value around the clock. It would become a haven for those whose creativity met Balaji’s needs, showcasing their talents across television networks. An industry of its own would soon be created under a single supportive roof.

This is an edited excerpt from the book Kingdom of the Soap Queen: The Story of Balaji Telefilms by Kovid Gupta (HarperCollins India, Rs 239).

As a screenwriter, Kovid Gupta has written for popular television shows Balika Vadhu, Bade Achhe Lagte Hain, and Chhan Chhan. He previously worked at Teach for India and is the founder and CEO of India Kids, a non-profit organization that works to improve the lives of orphan children across India by empowering college students globally.