Smriti Kiran: It is not possible to talk about television in India without talking about Sameer Nair. Sameer went through the gamut: wanting to be an astronaut, studying hotel management – I believe there was a 6-month stint straight out of the hotel management course to set up a tiffin delivery service that was very quickly abandoned – he spent two years working in sales at Yellow Pages before joining the advertising agency Goldwire Communications.
This was his first step in the world of storytelling that became his calling for the years to come. He joined Star India in August 1994. Five years later, he became the programming head of the network and a year after that Kaun Banega Crorepati launched. The first episode of the show went on air on 3rd July 2000, and in just a few months post-launch, the market was shaken.
In the last three decades, things have drastically changed but Sameer has endured. He is currently the CEO of Applause Entertainment. Fresh off the staggering success of his show Scam 1992, season two of the show is tentatively titled Scam 2003: The Curious Case of Abdul Karim Telgi was announced. The series is now a franchise! Sameer has had a very hectic schedule during the pandemic and has just come up for a breather to be on Dial M For Films to talk about his journey.
Smriti Kiran: Sameer, your childhood friend Sunita Rajan opened the window of opportunity for you at Star. You had your own ad film company when the offer came in. Firstly, what made you join Star? We don’t have the original note that you made as a run-up to that chat with Sunita, but in 1993, you wrote down two things.
I must say, this is very prophetic. You didn’t know KBC was going to happen; you didn’t know T-20 was going to come, but these two lines were written by you. Can you tell me a little bit about what this note is based on and why you decided to take that giant shift?
Sameer Nair: I was in Goldwire, which is a wonderful advertising agency. I learned everything from Aubrey Sequeira. He taught me creativity and filmmaking. We used to do a lot of MRF commercials, documentaries, and corporate videos.
At that time, Aubrey had the idea of wanting to start a 24-hour Hindi entertainment channel. We called it GTV, for Goldwire. In fact, we put a full plan together, even went to Hong Kong in ’91-’92 to pitch it to the then Star TV as an idea. So, I’d spent some time trying to create a programming calendar at that time.
Apart from making commercials, Goldwire also used to acquire a lot of content, which we used to put on Doordarshan at the time. So, I was familiar with the TV business, and I had watched so much TV all my life that I knew it was obvious the medium would come up fast. Doordarshan was there and satellite TV had launched. (In the early ‘90s, after the Gulf War, satellite TV had arrived, Star TV had come.) There was that excitement.
The GTV experience was quite interesting because we made a whole pitch deck and two of us went to Hong Kong – him a little older and me a younger interloper – I was about 26 or 27. But, of course, we had no money – it was just a small agency. A year or two later when Zee TV launched, I was always amused at the coincidence – that real six degrees of separation.
After I’d left Goldwire, I did what everyone always does: you work in an agency for some time, then you strike out on your own to become an independent ad-filmmaker. It was pretty good work. I did a commercial for Funskool, I did another video for MRF; I shot the Sriperumbudur races with a Belgian crew – a 14-camera shoot and all that. So, I was having a good time. I was in Chennai, I was happy. I was in my comfort zone when my childhood friend, Sunita, called up and said, ‘You’ve heard about Star TV right? They’re going to come to India and they’re going to be serious, and I think you should make this jump and you should get into television. That’s the next big thing.’ So I said, ‘Um, okay.’
I sent her my CV and I was hopeful of getting a job in Star Sports. I thought that if I got a job at Star Sports and if I can become a promo producer, I’d be really happy. I’ve done a lot of sports footage and editing. Then I thought about Star Plus, which is when I made all these notes because I thought I might as well get prepared in case I get a call. What I did get was a call from Tony Watts from Star Movies. (The channel had not launched at the time, so there was no reference to it.) In June of ‘94, he just told me that they’d launch this English movie channel and that it’d be the first paid TV channel in the country, whereas Star Plus and all the others were not, and I was to make interstitial programs. I was not clear what interstitial programming was. He said, ‘It’s going to be interviews of actors and behind the scenes and all of that stuff.’ My first thought was, ‘Oh, good Lord! Bajaj ki Lehren?’ But it was all nice and fancy, and then he described everything else that he did. Tony Watts was a really big figure in the media business and globally, going to festivals and all.
So, I took the punt and accepted the job. I told him, ‘Listen, I’ve done a lot of work at Goldwire, so I’m not exactly a researcher-writer.’ He said, ‘Okay, what do you want to be called?’ I said, ‘I should at least be an executive producer.’ And he agreed.
Smriti Kiran: Star launched in India in 1990 – two years before Zee and five years before Sony – but it struggled for nine years before you turned it around. Both Zee and Sony became market leaders. They left Star behind. Apart from not being able to do programming in Hindi because of the agreement with Zee Telefilms, what do you think were the challenges?
Sameer Nair: That was the main challenge. It’s not like when we came along we did anything magical or something that should have been done before but wasn’t. The reality was, the arrangement that required you to do 50-50 Hindi-English in prime time and 24 hours was like getting into a boxing match with one hand tied behind your back and having injured your other hand. So, there was not much hope in that game. It was tough. It was obviously never going to happen, although we were always sporting about it. Even in the management before that, under Mr (Siddhartha) Basu’s, we did a lot of things. I used to buy movies in that period. I used to buy all the Hindi movies. There used to be a five-year window and we broke that in ‘99 by buying movies. Satya was put on the air within six weeks, Ghulam within five weeks. We did all those things. There was Saaz, Kora Kaagaz, Tu Tu Main Main, Chandrakanta and Rendezvous with Simi Garewal. There used to be programming. We had done things like that, but it was always one-Hindi-one-English, which was never going to work out.
In ‘99, when Mr Basu’s management had left, when Peter (Mukerjea) and I were there, that’s when the split with Zee happened. That’s when the decision to go 100% Hindi was made. Going 100% Hindi was the big thing. It was not any great thing that we did as much as having the freedom to do that, because then we could have continued for another five years and continued to do smart things.
Actually, all through ‘99 till the middle of 2000, we did Star Bestsellers and so many other shows. I did a show called Darr, Main, Rajdhani, Life Nahi Hai Laddu; we did so many things. But they were always in that 1-2 kind of ratings. Zee and Sony were at 11-12. It obviously needed a complete overhaul. That’s what we ended up doing then.
Smriti Kiran: Sameer, you were quite spent doing what you were doing. You were tapped out. You’d done the premiers, you’d done the in-depth interviews and you worked on a film idea, which you were going to pitch to Amitabh Bachchan. You asked for a meeting for Friday, 11 o’clock, and the shakeup happened on Thursday, which led you to become the programming head at Star Network, due to which you had to cancel that meeting.
Sameer Nair: I had to cancel it because I was a bit startled on Friday when I got a call saying, ‘Have you reached?’ And I said, ‘I’m in the office.’ Sunil Doshi said, ‘We have a meeting with AB!’ I said, ‘Oh, shit, Sunil, I got promoted last night. I’m the programming head of Star Plus, man. I can’t come to the meeting.’ That was a close shave.
“It’s often said that we had a long list and then we selected Amitabh Bachchan, but that’s not true. There was just the one name always: Mr Bachchan.”
More than spent or tapped out it was something that I had been wanting to do. At heart, I’m a storyteller. My background has been creating productions – rolling up sleeves and getting things done. The entire period at Star was really exciting. We had done a lot of stuff, but as long as that 50-50 thing existed, as long as the management existed… It was a really crowded place. There was a lot of traffic at the time.
My sense at that time was to maybe make the break, get on to pursuing my movie dreams and actually setting up a studio. It was not so much about just being a movie director or something. I genuinely wanted to set up something like a collaborative, creative ecosystem, mostly inspired by Steven Spielberg – I’m a big fan. So, I thought that I should do something like that, set up something like Amblin. But then of course that didn’t happen. As you said, I got promoted, the next day I got really busy and then I was busy for a long time after that.
Smriti Kiran: But you did go to Mr Bachchan a year later.
Sameer Nair: A year later I went to meet him for KBC. He’s got a fantastic memory. The first thing that he told me was, ‘Weren’t you supposed to see me last year with some movie script?’ So I said, ‘Yes, sir, I was. But now here I am, why don’t I tell you about this instead?’
Smriti Kiran: Walk us through the creative war room that led to KBC, which became a TV phenomenon, and daily soaps that were not even a part of the storytelling lexicon till then.
Sameer Nair: The reality is that daily soaps always existed. In fact, there used to be a very popular show on Sony called Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka, which used to come at 11 o’clock at that time. Before that daily soaps had always been on television in the afternoons. It was a common phenomenon. In South India, Sun TV used to put daily soaps from early evening to prime. They used to do it from five to eight. What we did uniquely on the daily soap and on the programming idea was, we put it into prime time and we proceeded to programme the daily soaps into prime time. So, that was new and unique, and for the first time because it hadn’t been done as a strategy.
With regard to how we got started: I’d met Ekta Kapoor once before when she had been doing a really successful show called Hum Paanch. She’d told me about this show that she did on Sun TV called Kudumbam and also how successful it was, and that she wanted to do that and not comedy because she wanted to be taken seriously. When we had met, we were still at half-Hindi-half-English and trying to be very urban. We didn’t really have a play. We were just trying to do cool stuff at that time.
“Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi went on air without a single channel or platform comment.”
When I met her and her father again in April – at that time we were actually preparing for KBC – he told me the story first. He said, ‘Ekta has this wonderful idea. Aisa hai ki there’s this family, and the eldest son of the eldest bahu gets married and a new bahu comes into the house. The name of this show is Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.’ I said, ‘Oh, my God! This is the real killer. We’ve got to do this.’ Then we decided that we’d do it as a daily soap, put it into prime time – 10:30 was the slot we picked – and that’s it. Then we forgot about it, in a sense – they’d gone off to do their work.
Around May or June, I asked my colleagues in Star, ‘Hey, what happened to that show with Ekta?’ Everyone was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘We should find out.’ I called her up and she said, ‘It’s getting ready. We’ll send you something soon.’ It was one Sunday, around three or four weeks before we launched, at the office that I noticed a colleague of mine, Zarine, watching something. I asked her what she was doing. She said, ‘The tapes from Balaji have arrived.’ We sat together on a Sunday morning and watched four episodes of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. I said, ‘Okay, now that we’ve watched it, what’s your plan now? What do we do?’ She said, ‘I’ll make notes and we’ll send feedback.’ Then I went to the KBC set that day and finished all the work.
The next morning I found all my colleagues – Deepak, Shailaja, Tarun, all of them – disturbed and perturbed, saying, ‘Did you see that?’ I was like, ‘Yes, yes, I saw that. What do you guys think?’ Everyone was silent and ashen-faced. They said, ‘Sir, what are we going to do?’ I thought long and hard at that time and said, ‘Listen, guys. This style of storytelling is not something that we are familiar with. I don’t want us to screw this up.’ We were intellectuals at that time – people were from Jadavpur University, Jamia and FTII. I said, ‘I don’t think we are in a position to give any comment on this. We should not comment on this because that kind of stuff won’t work. So, we’ve got to go with the gut. Let’s just do it right.’ The response to Balaji and Ekta was, ‘Okay, good to go. Thank you very much. Please keep delivering tapes. We’ll put it on air.’
Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi went on air without a single channel or platform comment. We all had our views on it, but there was no comment. We just decided to put it on air because I was really convinced at the time that this idiom was very different and that we shouldn’t be meddling with it, tinkering with that. Funnily enough, Kyunki went on air the same night as KBC.
KBC, of course, is a different story. In July ‘99, when I’d just become the programming head, during one of his visits to India, Steve Askew had given me a tape of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. He had told me to take a look at the show. I looked at it, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God! I love it. I love quizzes. But how are we going to do it? Half-Hindi-half-English, no hope in hell!’
So, it was just in my drawer. Later that year, around November-December, when the split happened and we had to go fully Hindi, one of the questions that came up was, ‘What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘Let’s do that. Let’s do Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.’ It started from there.
“Rupert Murdoch asked, ‘What is lakhpati?’ When we told him what it was, he was horrified. He said, ‘That’s pathetic. What’s the next one?’ It went from lakh to crore in four or five seconds.”
Then it evolved very quickly. ‘Who would produce it?’ ‘Siddhartha Basu would produce it.’ That got set. ‘Who would be the anchor?’ From the beginning, I knew I had only one. I know it’s often said that we had a long list and then we selected Amitabh Bachchan, but that’s not true. There was just the one name always: Mr Bachchan. I was really keen on approaching him and talking to him. So, this plan was hatched in Delhi between Steve, Siddhartha and me. I said, ‘I want to speak to Amitabh Bachchan to do this.’ They said, ‘Okay, if he does it, let’s try.’ I went and met him.
It took a long time to convince him because he was highly undecided about this. It’s a big deal coming from being a superstar. At the time, there was also the fact that he was called a fading superstar and in decline, but at the end of the day, he is Amitabh Bachchan, and now he was going to become a game show host and host a programme on TV. It all sounded so terrible and everyone was against it, even the entire family was against it. I know how much press I’ve spoken to at that time. They used to all be almost critical of me to have even thought of such a blasphemous thing! They were like, ‘Seriously? What are you doing to us!’
After all the oscillations he came on board. We took him to London and showed him the shoot happening there. He was very pleased to see all of that. The one thing that he mentioned to me on the flight back was, ‘You have to get this right. If you get it right, phaad ke rakh denge.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, sir. We are going to get this right,’ and we did. We produced KBC down to the last detail. Siddhartha’s team was outstanding. Every single production aspect of it – the set construction, the research; this was all for the first time, right? All the telephony, the calling, the whole process of entries, which is so commonplace today, was done by us for the first time; we did the first call for entries on a nationwide scale. Everyone at Star, be it the sales team, the marketing team, our programming team, the amount of detail that went into it, every single aspect of it was done so well.
On the first day that we shot the power went off. The pandit comes and does all the pooja, breaks the coconut, and the minute he completes it and goes to AB for the aarti, the power goes. We didn’t even have a view on it. We were in Film City, after all, and Bombay power never goes like that. We started shooting the next day and put a lot of effort into it.
Also, the famous story regarding the show being originally called Kaun Banega Lakhpati is true. We were doing this big review meeting with Rupert (Murdoch), and he asked, ‘What is lakhpati?’ When we told him what it was, he was horrified. He said, ‘That’s pathetic. What’s the next one?’ So, we said, ‘…Crore,’ and he said, ‘Okay, that’s better.’ It just went like that – from lakh to crore – in four or five seconds.
During that period, I’ve had numerous near heart failures because AB would continually change his mind and say, ‘I don’t think I can do it.’ By then, I had already confirmed internally. I was pretty far down on the plank now. But it all came together eventually.
Smriti Kiran: When it launched – ‘9 baj gaye kya?’ ‘Lock kiya jaaye?’– there was surely cult level hysteria over KBC. When did you realise that you were onto something?
Sameer Nair: We knew what we were doing. We knew the show had been successful all over the world. We had a lot of genuine programming insight into what KBC or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was. It’s a set of questions arranged in a particular manner. It gives you a certain degree of lifelines. It gives you certain credibility as you go along. There’s a lot of money at stake, it has those four options, and it allows a family to participate. It also gives you, a viewer, a sense of intelligence and achievement because when you see the question and you know the answer, you’re waiting, the game is being played, and when finally the answer is B, you feel fulfilled. You turn around and look at the rest of the family members and say, ‘See, I was right!’
All of those things were already proven in 60-70 countries. So, to that extent, it was not like we were buying a flop show or an untried thing.
When we got Mr Bachchan, there was that thing about him being the right person for it or not and whether we should be getting someone younger and cooler. I remember a colleague even suggesting Govinda at the time, but I’m such a big Bachchan fan that I was horrified at the suggestion itself. When it went on air, it succeeded straight away. In the first week or two, there was a rating of 10; it was in the top four on the list of programs in the top 50, and it pretty much stayed there for the next 50 to 75 weeks and went to a peak rating of 24.
We got a sense of the fact that it’d become a big hit in two-three weeks, that it had broken out because a lot of people, even in the creative community, had told me that it was a dumb idea to have a quiz show in prime time. ‘Asking questions and answering in Hindi and English during prime time has got to be stupid.’ So, we understood that it’d become a success. What surprised us was the fact that it kept growing. All the success, all of history being made, all of those things only come in hindsight. When you’re doing it, you’re not really making history. You’re just coming to work, solving problems and dealing with things.
Smriti Kiran: How did you run with what you began and how did you hold onto it for almost seven years? The other players in the market were playing catch up. You were also laying out the pipeline at the time – bringing satellite to homes, expanding distribution, literally laying the cables. Make us understand this matrix.
Sameer Nair: When KBC went on air, there were about 25 million cable satellite homes. When I joined Star in ‘94, Star Movies was the first pay channel, it was never ad-supported. In 2000, when KBC and Kyunki… happened, and both shows succeeded, the first thing we did was that we plugged it with Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki in October so that there was a gap. KBC used to air from 9 to 10, and Kyunki… would air at 10:30. So, between 10 to 10:30, we had a string of other shows, which we had done before. We really liked these shows, Rajdhani, Life Nahi Hai Laddu, but then they had to be sacrificed.
“We had gone from zero to hero, and we were determined to stay there.”
Tarun Katial came to me saying that Ekta had another show called Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki. I was like, ‘My God, it sounds good already! Let’s do it.’ We put that on-air at 10 o’clock, so then it became 9 to 11. That was the block we created first. We went on adding to it after that. We did 8 to 10; then 8 to 9; then we added Kahin Kisi Roz at 11. We first built that out all through the year, and KBC held strong through and through. Alongside KBC, we had Monday to Thursday taped up in this manner. Then we used to do movies on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and build out the rest of the programming.
Oftentimes, you say that Star did KBC, Kyunki… and Kahani… and the rest is history; that Star ruled for six years, or something like that. But that is actually seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for six years. That’s a lot of time. It was really a very energised team. Also when you have a success like KBC and when you have programming successes, people who work in an organisation that is successful, the success rubs off on them as well. Individual people at any level become smarter. They become more successful. They go back home and feel better. Even the youngest office boy in our office would go back home and say, ‘I work in the company that makes KBC.’ So, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We worked very hard. The content team that I had was outstanding. There was Deepak Sehgal, Tarun Katial, Shailaja Kejriwal, Abhijeet Mitra, Karan Singh – promo producers and the operations team. We used to send tapes to Hong Kong for the telecast, so we had a parallel airline service going on, where tapes were going every night to Hong Kong. We had three flights booked 365 days a year to deliver these tapes because all the material used to come late. It was all new, right? Daily soaps in prime time was insane stuff. Who’d done all this? We had a flood in between. There was much drama. So, in that period, the energy of our success was really something that drove us. We had gone from zero to hero, and we were determined to stay there. Famously said, ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and believe me, rich is better.’
Just before KBC happened, I remember we’d gone for a party – Tarun, Deepak and I. It was one of those producer’s parties. None of the other programme production community people really came and hung with us, nobody spoke to us. We were just standing around in a corner sipping our drinks. I remember telling Tarun and Deepak, ‘You know what, we’ve got to get to the point where we stand in the same place and everyone comes and says hello to us,’ and we got to that next year, which was a bit quick. That really energised us.
Smriti Kiran: The moment you started working on it, the others started struggling to keep up.
Sameer Nair: First moves did happen. Straight off the bat, Zee did a show called Sawaal Dus Crore Ka with Anupam Kher and Manisha Koirala, threatening to give away 10 crores in prize money. But that didn’t work. It was flawed from the start. KBC was never about the money. It was about a million other things. Then, six months down the line, Sony came up with their show, Jeeto Chappar Phaad Ke, with Govinda.
July 2001 to July 2002 was spent with the two main competitors, Zee and Sony, being more reactive than anything else. In the meanwhile, we were really, really keen on building our drama content because the mainstay of this is always going to be the daily soaps and the dramas. KBC couldn’t have survived and kept us going for 10 years. So, we were very focused on that.
“At the time, we wilfully went down the track of creating an entertainment channel.”
All through that period while everyone was focused on KBC, we were building out the daily soap dramas, and no one else reacted to that. They were still doing weekly soaps, and they were still trying to fight KBC. By the time they gave up that fight, we had already got entrenched. We were 8 to 11, with only KBC from 9 to 10. So, we had four to five successful soaps on air.
Around December 2001, when KBC was fatiguing and we said, ‘Okay, let’s take a break,’ we replaced that 9 to 10 band with one-hour weeklies, which later on gave way to dailies. By that time, we were a bit ahead. We used to do other things. We always kept improving the quality of content. We kept increasing the budgets. We had the ratings, right? So, we had the GRP, which means that the ad sales team could drive higher revenue. It almost became like one of those virtue cycles: I got bigger ratings, I spent more money to make better programming and then I got more revenue because I got more ratings. For the competitor at that time, you had low ratings, you couldn’t spend more money because if you spent more money then you couldn’t get the revenue. In many ways, it became how companies struggled in Tamil Nadu to compete with Sun TV. How do you break out of that?
Smriti Kiran: Though this was hugely successful, there was a lot of criticism around the content that was being made also. How did you react to that? What did you think of what it was that you were creating?
Sameer Nair: There have always been two Indias – India and Bharat. This was a time when the whole cable business was growing. We were coming from a zone where we were 2 million satellite homes to coming up to about 25 million satellite homes. By 2007, these 25 million satellite homes had reached 80 million satellite homes. This was a period of market expansion. This was a period of a whole new wave of people coming into the market.
Typically, there’s a classic difference between what you call parallel/art cinema and the Manmohan Desai version of cinema. There’s a degree of intellectualism and there’s a degree of entertainment. What we wilfully did at the time was to go down the track of creating an entertainment channel. We were quite clear about that. Within that, obviously, there are storytelling styles and all of that.
Funnily enough, there were also two things that were happening at the same time. On one hand, Karan Johar was making Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and there was Ekta Kapoor, on the other hand, who was making Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. When you think about it, they’re identical shows. Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi was about saas and bahu and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham was about sasur and bahu. It was the same thing. The difference was, he was doing it on that big 70mm screen with the biggest movie stars. But at its core, it was the same – it was all about loving your family. We were doing the same on TV. The two together also galvanised India in a direction. We talk so much about culture and Hindu revival today. We were already doing it in 2000. There was another show we started in 2001-02 called Yatra, where we used to go to all the temples and do darshans.
The criticism usually came in the form of the shows being regressive, which was a term I heard a lot. Our answer for that used to be that in order to provide a solution, you must create a conflict and then proceed to resolve it. There are different ways of doing that. One version is to create a scenario that may appear to you as regressive or may appear to you as very traditional and then have someone break out. Ekta is hardly the traditionalist. In all the shows, there’s always been the breaking out. At one point, Smriti Irani kills the son, right? When she hears what he has done, she kills him. All of that stuff has happened. We’ve done a lot of progressive stuff. It was enveloped in that.
Also, it was so successful that it became easier for an intellectual to say, ‘What nonsense is this? These bahus wake up in the morning fully dressed up in makeup. How does it work?’ But it’s okay. It was like questioning Amar Akbar Anthony and how three people with different blood groups could give one person blood and it just works in that manner.
With content, you can appeal to the mind or you can appeal to the heart. Often enough, popular content appeals to the heart. To the mind, you’re talking with logic, to the heart, you’re talking with emotion. It’s a different thing.
Smriti Kiran: Sameer, when you moved on from Star, you launched Imagine in 2007. You were the chief architect of the market because you’d created it. How do you fight the giants you’d created? What was your strategy?
Sameer Nair: It’s very tough! There were learnings and obviously we made mistakes at Imagine. One thought we had was that the market had fatigued with the greatness of Star – maybe the soaps have run their course and the market needs something new. The other was that a three-player market can easily have four or five players and that there would be a little bit of push and pull. We were a very confident team – we’ve had success – so we were quite clear about what we wanted to do. We had some good ideas.
When we launched Imagine in 2008, we launched with Ramayan. To bring back mythology as a daily soap in prime time was a big one. That was a really clever and smart idea. I remember when I told Prasoon Joshi about that for the first time, he was really startled. He was at the agency at the time. He said, ‘This is going to be really killer, man!’ We were quite excited about that. We’d also given it to the Sagars to make, the ones who had made the original Ramayan. We had lots of bright ideas. Shailaja Kejriwal was the programming head. We had shows like Radha Ki Betiyan, Ek Packet Umeed, Jyoti – there was a really good package.
There was a conversation that came up about whether we should also launch with one big game show alongside the package, but we eventually decided against it. I said, ‘Let’s wait. Let’s get this started, and maybe we’ll do it a little later.’ So, we decided that we’d do it in June or July. That was an error, in hindsight. We should have launched upfront.
“We had good fun navigating through stormy seas, between a recessionary environment, the market collapsing, lack of funding, and fighting these channel wars.”
The second issue: we launched in January. Pronoy and I had that conversation many times about launching earlier, probably around Diwali. We couldn’t get it together. We weren’t ready. But maybe we should have. We launched on Jan. 21, and in April, IPL (Indian Premier League) came. That was the first IPL. We were a fledgeling channel; we were getting up to 100 GRPs, which is not bad. Then, suddenly, IPL comes out, and nobody knows what it is. It turns out to be this crazy tsunami that just comes and flattens everything. While the bigger channels had been there for some time, we were one small sapling and bam!
By the time we recover from that in July, Colors launched with Big Boss, Khatron Ke Khiladi, Jai Shree Krishna. Just epic stuff. They’d done that and they still had nine months before the next IPL to come, so they had more of a chance. In September that year, Lehman shut. 2008 was a pretty crazy year. Those were wild times. But we fought on.
At Imagine, we did a lot of exciting stuff. We did Rakhi Ka Swayamvar, which was quite wild. We did Oye! It’s Friday! These were all really fun shows, and we had good fun navigating through stormy seas, between a recessionary environment, the market collapsing, no money, lack of funding, and fighting these channel wars.
Smriti Kiran: When you’ve had such staggering success and you’re at the helm of something and things just keep succeeding one after the other, do you sometimes feel that people stop questioning you?
Sameer Nair: Yeah, I suppose they do. Question is, who is to question? Internally, as a company, we spent a lot of time worrying about everything. I’m a natural worrier. I worry a lot.
When we were at Star, there were a lot of discussions when Jassi (Jaisi Koi Nahi) happened. In fact, I brought to everyone’s attention that there was some show where there is an ugly girl as the protagonist and it was growing. When Kyunki… was at 24 and Jassi… was at 4 my question was, ‘Why is it even at four? It should be at 0.4.’ Five-six years later, around 2005, there was a show on Zee called Saat Phere, which was gaining traction. In that sense, we’ve always looked back and asked. We’ve never been those kinds of professionals who never question and allow people to do whatever they’d like to. It has never been that. We did Koffee with Karan. Star One did such exciting shows. There was The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. It was a comedy show. Guns and Roses, Remix, and all of that. I like telling stories. I like to tell new things, and we’re always looking to push to do things differently. So, I don’t think that is ever the danger.
“A great idea can come from anywhere, but it can’t necessarily be executed by that person.”
I suppose what happens is that when you’re successful you tend to do more of the same things. The logic being, ‘Why fix it if it ain’t broke?’ which is often true. People say that it’s so formulaic. The reason why the formula exists is because formulas work. It’s not that formulas don’t work. Formulas work very well.
I don’t think it’s about no one questioning. There are so many other factors that are at play. It’s not just the content. Its revenue, targets, growth numbers, industry, economy, all of that come into questioning.
Smriti Kiran: What I meant by that question was, when the vision is coming from you and it’s working, how do you keep yourself on your toes?
Sameer Nair: Honestly, it would be wrong to say that the vision comes from me. That’s not the kind of person I am and that’s not the way we work at all. Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. Anything that we do in this business, in this audio-visual business, must be collaborative. Everything in the media business must be collaborative. So, that’s how we work. For example, the KBC idea originally came from Steve Askew who brought the tape and gave it to me. Later we decided to do it and went ahead. Kyunki… came to me directly. Kahani… came from Tarun. Once that happened, things like Des Mein Nikla Hoga Chand and Sara Aakash were driven by Shailaja and Deepak. Star One was a lot of Deepak Sehgal – all through, so many small-small things. The Laughter Challenge was me. I said, ‘Ye karna hi hai, ye pagal show.’ Koffee with Karan was Karan telling me about a talk show, when we’d once met, as an antithesis to Rendezvous with Simi Garewal. At Imagine, Ramayan was Shailaja’s idea. It was not my vision.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be working with such wonderful people. Also, I encourage them to think about new ideas and new stuff to do. So, it can come from anywhere. I do have one philosophy that says that a great idea can come from anywhere, but it can’t necessarily be executed by that person. I’m always open to having a young kid walk up to me and saying, ‘Here, I have a great promo idea,’ which happened so many times at Star. I’d say, ‘Wow! That’s a really good idea. Wait here for a minute,’ and I’d call the Head of Promos and tell him to listen to this stuff and go make it. I’d tell the other guy to work with him now, learn something, and let the pro execute it.
Our big skill has always been in execution, or actually getting things together and making them work together. I don’t think I’ve ever been stuck on a my-way-or-the-highway kind of thing. Everyone’s involved and everyone has got ideas; different people have different views, and there’s much more excitement and angst in this.
Smriti Kiran: Sameer, what were the key learnings from Imagine, and the times that were difficult because the world went into a recession and there were so many other things that happened? Did you feel gobsmacked?
Sameer Nair: Yeah. We were quite taken aback by what was happening. With a big success and then a subsequent failure, you don’t have a view on it while it’s going on. What you’re doing is you’re actually fighting day by day, like seven years ago I was fighting day by day to win more and more; then seven years later, I’m fighting day by day to not lose, not die, not collapse, not fail. That’s what we are doing because the market is collapsing, the funding has dried up, I have a team, we are still in the ratings game, we’re still fighting.
That period really taught me a lot about management. It taught me how to stay calm and collected, to live day by day, to continue to motivate the team, create content. Finally, we managed to make a sale to Turner Networks and managed to give NDTV an exit. We became part of the Turner Company, after which I left.
I suppose being successful for so many years at Star made us forget what happens if something doesn’t work. It’d been a long time since something didn’t work.
Smriti Kiran: There is so much to learn from that. There are learnings both from success and failure.
Sameer Nair: Yes, of course. Actually, more learning comes out of failure.
This is something that I’ve said many times: the one thing that we weren’t able to crack at Imagine was the successful daily soap. We were able to crack all the non-fiction pieces. The non-fiction team at Imagine was really smart and sharp – between Savi, Meghna, Swati and Salomi, all led by Shailaja, there was a really clever team. Rakhi Ka Swayamvar, Shaadi Teen Crore Ki, Oye! It’s Friday used to do quite well. But you need the lynchpin of two-three daily soaps, which we couldn’t crack.
We used to work really hard. We worked on new ideas, differentiated ideas. We started off by doing Ramayan straightaway, and the ones that became a hit on Colors was Balika Vadhu and Jai Shree Krishna. To that extent, we were right about mythology. It did well for us, but not well enough. It was not for lack of trying, it was also not for lack of thinking. It was one of those things where after so much success you needed to get a rap on the knuckles.
Smriti Kiran: What has made you endure through the years? How have you stayed on top of the game despite all the upheavals, despite it being like a bit of a ride and it getting tough, and then the resurrection? What do you feel has kept you in the game?
Sameer Nair: There’s a saying that I really took to heart, I really believe in it: ‘You’re not as great as you say you are when you succeed and you’re not as bad as they say you are when you fail. Life is actually somewhere in the middle.’ It always is somewhere in the middle. Even when you’re wildly successful, that doesn’t at any level make you a Superman. Success is a very external thing. It is a validation from the outside. How else do you define success? You define success with money or ratings or box office or something like that. But that is not necessarily you. In the same way, how do you define failure? It’s defined by lack of money, lack of rating, lack of box office, lack of something. But, again, that’s not you.
Staying and leading life in the centre is important because that way you won’t get carried away in either direction. Within that, I am inherently, terribly curious. I’m always interested in knowing and doing new things. I don’t dwell too much, so I don’t dwell on success or failure. We’ve had a wild hit, so as far as I’m concerned, thank you very much and now let’s get back to work. Oftentimes people ask me, ‘What’s next?’ I say, ‘Monday is next.’ It’s going to come again the next week, again the clock starts, again the fight starts. We’ve had one wild success with Scam 1992, I’m happy about that and I’m really excited, but now we’ve just raised the bar for ourselves and we have to work that much harder. That’s what it is. I don’t get too caught up with the past – either success or failure.
I’m hungry. This has been said for sport too – that some of the people with more longevity have more desire to keep playing the game. They don’t want to retire. They want to keep playing. I’m like that. I want to play. I got lots more to do.
Smriti Kiran: Post Imagine, ALTBalaji happened. What do you need to do to prepare yourself for times that the going might not be as good as it is at that moment? What held you in good stead when you were making a detour like that?
Sameer Nair: It was not a detour. After Imagine, I got a couple of years to play entrepreneur because that’s what I wanted to do. In 2011, I decided that I didn’t want to do TV anymore because how was I going to top that effort? I’d have had to land the job of the head of one of these networks, but they were all full up and all settled. There wasn’t anything available. I didn’t want to get into the game of trying to start one more. That’s too hard to do.
I was really positioning myself in my head and my brain towards a new digital world. So, while in 2011 that might have been very early to talk about, I thought that this is the future, this is where we should go. That’s why I said, ‘Let’s try and do other things.’ So, we were trying to set up a comedy network collective. I was working with Suresh Menon and Abe Thomas on that. I was working with another colleague about doing something in the online space. I dabbled a little bit in understanding politics better.
“I’m always looking to learn from whoever I work with and whomever I come in contact with.”
In 2013, I got a call from Balaji to become an advisor to Balaji, and I’ve known Ekta and Shobha Kapoor and Jeetuji. It is that that led to this matter of ‘Listen, we want to make some changes and we want to do stuff. We have grand plans for Balaji. Would you like to come on board and be our group CEO, and help us with that?’ At that time I thought, ‘Okay, sure.’ I wasn’t looking at it as a comedown in life. It was a good thing to do. I thought, ‘Wow, that’d be cool.’ Two-three years later we launched ALTBalaji.
You must appreciate that we launched an OTT platform, with original content, out of Andheri. It was not a large company. It was not a foreign company. We didn’t have an LA office. We didn’t have engineers from the Valley. It was a team that was built. There was Sunil Nayar, Nachiket, Mansi, Joyce, Nimisha Pandey, Manav Sethi – it was that gang. We were a bunch in Andheri, in what you would call a mom-and-pop shop. We built that. We hired. We got resources, we created the content and we actually launched it in April 2017. It was quite an achievement. I was quite proud of myself. That is genuinely a startup, right?
You’re also talking about a cultural thing. Balaji as a company mixes television programming with some very cool movies. To create and run a platform is another thing. It also required a certain degree of education of the promoters themselves. If Ekta is aligned and in tune with what has to be done, her parents need to be aligned as well.
I enjoyed my time there. Because it was a listed company, every quarter I had to land up and give these very difficult interviews to CNBC and ET Now. We came from Star and Imagine, where no one asked us anything. If you’re not listed, no one’s questioning you – it’s all internal. But in Balaji, I was subject to that every quarter. It was fantastic. I loved the experience. I’ve known Ekta for so many years and she is a wonderful person.
I’m always looking to learn from whoever I work with and whomever I come in contact with. I’m always trying to see what makes other people tick. How do they do what they do? What makes them so successful? Whether it’s actors or directors or other producers or big channel leaders or people in history, whatever. I’m always curious to know. It was good. I thought that the Balaji stint was wonderful.
Smriti Kiran: What is the creative vision for Applause? You said something very interesting once that you wanted to make content and then go shopping for a platform and not the other way around.
Sameer Nair: In a sense, Applause is a hybrid movie studio. It’s a traditional new age media company. I’m very traditional. I think that the big Hollywood studios of the early 20th century really grew and became big. Disney, MGM, Paramount, and ditto in India. There’s a role to be played there.
Movies continue to do that. You attract capital towards content creation, you make the content and then you release it. I’ve just taken that same thought and applied it to the series and platform business. So, I’m still doing the same thing. I’m doing what has been done in the US for the last 30 years. It’s the same theory, but not getting commissioned is taking a risk.
In a sense, Applause is exactly like the Scam 1992 line: ‘Risk hai toh ishq hai.’ We’ve really built it out in that manner. So, that’s what we set out to do.
I must say that in Mr Birla – because he’s the one I spoke to first about this idea – I found a true patron of the arts, which is really important. Obviously, you’ve got a big industrial conglomerate, and there are many other companies like that who are big industrialists, but it’s a different thing to be a patron of the arts. It’s about that appreciation of what art is, of what we are trying to do, about storytelling. That makes a big difference in how we operate, because of the amount of freedom, the amount of support and backing we receive.
A lot of what we do is quite risky. When we embark on these things and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to make this,’ or ‘We’re going to make that,’ he has never once asked me, ‘If you want to make this, what are we going to do?’ He just goes along with that vision that we’ve set out, which is to create content and own IP.
There is a risk and there will be a reward. It is a long haul. Our business is about getting rich slower, but getting rich for sure. We want to build a brand. We want to build a reputation. We want to be known for what we do. We want to go from being Applause Entertainment to ‘From the House of Applause!’ We are quite clear in our heads as to what we’re trying to do. We want to create more content. We want to do more domestic collaboration. We want to do international collaborations. Now we are growing out to make movies, documentaries, animation, apart from the series we do. We’ve got plans. We’re going stage by stage. Each year we refocus and make bigger plans, bigger ideas, and I think it’s all coming together well. That’s the vision.
It’s a lot to do with Mr Birla and the Birla Group that stands right behind us; without that there is very little you can do.
Smriti Kiran: What are your thoughts on the new OTT rules, and what do they mean for streaming platforms?
Sameer Nair: I’m not so fussed about it. We’ve always had censorship. It’s commonplace. Films have always had the censor board. It’s supposed to be the film certification board, but we call it the censor board, so you know what that means. In the last 20 years, TV has had self-regulation in place, primarily coming out of the premise and the philosophy that as content creators we must appreciate that we are, at the end of the day, invited guests into a person’s home, into a person’s life.
Of course, there are various things such as technology, parental controls, but the fact of the matter is that you are creating content and you are putting it out in a relatively public domain. It always happens that as societies evolve there are societal norms, there are do’s and don’ts.
The biggest regulator in life is the audiences themselves. More than any establishment or government, it is the audience that regulates things – what is kosher and what is not. How much can we take and how much can we not? This is why a lot of people watch porn privately. And you’ll never admit to it, right? If somebody were to ask you what you watched last, you’d say that you watched a great show on National Geographic. You’re not going to say that you watched porn yesterday because it’s taboo. It’s not something that’s done.
This conversation has been going on for some time, about the need for self-regulation. It’s fair enough to do it. TV does it. Films anyway have the censor board in place. Also, since there are so many different moving parts, it is fair to say that if a filmmaker has made a film which has to go through a censor board, why shouldn’t the same thing be applied to an OTT series? Why not? What’s different? Eventually, you’re seeing the films coming on the same OTT platform. So, why should the film go through the censor board and the series shouldn’t?
“If I have the freedom to offend, then you have the right to be offended.”
The other thing is, every time there is a regulation, every time there is a curb, as we like to call it, on our freedom of expression, it probably helps elevate the quality of our writing and the quality of our storytelling, and the way we choose to put these messages and what we want out there. It makes you think harder, it makes you work harder. All great expressions and all great rebellions and all great mutinies have come out of these things. Greater storytelling has evolved from these kinds of things. In ‘75, during the emergency, they banned Aandhi. We couldn’t see it then.
This is not the first time anything like this is happening. It’s happened before. And it’s just a thing. We are living globally. We are living in a very, very volatile and polarised environment. That puts the onus on creators and storytellers like us to tell better stories, to do it smarter, to do it cleverly, and not whine and moan about how people are stopping us from saying what we want to. If you have the freedom to express, you also have the freedom to be offended. If I have the freedom to offend, then you have the right to be offended. It’s a tough one.
Smriti Kiran: A lot of people now want to make content. I’m sure that the volume of ideas that Applause gets must be staggering. Is there a system in place to respond to people on time? Is there a department that is reading and consistently going through drafts to just respond and get back to people?
Sameer Nair: We have a commissioning team and a commissioning editor who do only this. They’re not part of the creative director teams. They are not the executing team. Their only job is to receive the material, assess it and respond. They do that for a living. It’s a three-man team and they do a lot of reactive work for that. The person who heads that is Ranjib Mazumdar. He’s my man for that. He’s critical about a lot of things. He does a great job.
It does take time. It’s not easy to do because Ranjib tends to be very, very meticulous. I’m now teaching them the art of failing fast, which is, read something quickly and decide quickly whether you want to do it or not. So, if you don’t want to do it, then just finish it. They like to read it fully, then re-read it, re-read it, have internal discussions, then re-read it again, then present it to me and tell me, ‘Oh, this is crap.’ I’m like, ‘Guys, let’s find a smarter way to do this. You should be able to take that decision by the third sentence.’
Of course, you must go through everything. It’s really important because there are so many good ideas out there. A good idea can come from anywhere, but whether the person giving the good idea can execute it or not is a different matter. Sometimes we need to do that.
We do have a department for this. We try to respond as soon as possible which is usually four to six weeks. It can’t be done faster. People send us stuff on Friday and then start calling me on Monday. I can understand that. I can understand that anxiety, that angst. Everyone is keen to get stuff done. People want to work. It’s important. We should be sensitive to that. A lot of people have their lives and their hopes riding on a silly approval that we are going to give. It’s not like we are geniuses and know everything. For whatever it’s worth, it’s important to be polite and courteous.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Nasreen Munni Kabir: What do you think is happening to the broadcasters? Are they losing a lot of audience to streamers in India? Is there a class divide in terms of who is watching what?
Sameer Nair: In India, the broadcasters still have a lot of headroom because it’s a very large market. If I talk numbers, broadcasters currently reach about 197 million homes. The paid streamers, i.e. the subscription-driven streamers, are now up to 15 or 20 million. So, that gap is pretty large as to how many people we have to still reach.
The thing with television in India is that it’s really cheap. The whole cord-cutting happened in the West primarily because cable TV was so expensive that the streamer was cheap. In the US, your package for cable TV is $80 and then Netflix comes around with $10. So, then it becomes cheap. In India, your cable package is around $3. So, Netflix is technically more expensive than the cable service here, and the cable service gives you all channels, sports, news, music, entertainment, everything. TV can continue. It can go on. Whether TV can work as a solid content provider is a different question.
Now data is cheap and people have devices. The pandemic helped in making people aware of what the streamers are, what they offer, and the kind of content that is different from what is on TV. That is the opportunity for the streamers to genuinely expand this scale, to go from their 15 million to, say, 100 million. It’s not that it will affect TV immediately, but over a longer horizon, the world is changing. The class divide really comes in because most of this is quite cheap – data is cheap and devices have become cheaper.
Audiences make those preferences. We make all kinds of content. Recently, we made season 2 of a show called Criminal Justice, which is about domestic abuse and marital rape. We did it quite disturbingly, in the sense that it was not voyeuristic at all – the actual incident is barely there. It’s really a sensible and serious show, and it’s done really well.
On the other hand, we do a show like Hello Mini, on MX Player, which is about a young girl who’s being stalked and it goes on in that manner. She’s forever being stalked. It has taken two seasons, and she’s still being stalked, and now season three is going to come up and the stalker will continue to stalk her. We call it sexy-scary as a genre.
It’s just different types, and there are different audiences for that. So, audiences make those choices. As creators, I don’t think we should have class divides. A show like Scam cut across everyone – from rich to poor, from young to old. One would think that this is a story about a stockbroker from 1992, why is it appealing to everyone? But it does appeal to everyone because it’s that kind of story that cuts through. When we try to do that, we don’t have a class divide in mind. It’s audiences who make those choices.
Rohini Ramnathan: Can you tell us what was that first email or what was that first pitch draft that you received before you said, ‘I’m going to do Scam 1992’?
Sameer Nair: There was no pitch email or first draft. Deepak Sehgal and I wanted to do it back in 2012. After I left Imagine, we got together and set up a production company called Pride Rock. We said, ‘Let’s do some really cool programming. Let’s do some breakthrough stuff.’ At that time, one of the first ideas that I suggested to him was doing Harshad Mehta’s story because it was really colourful and nice. But in 2012, it was too obscure and vague. How would we have done it? There were no streamers at the time as well. It sort of got parked there.
When we started Applause in 2017, I brought up this idea again. Shariq Patel from Zee Studios, who back then was an independent producer, came and met me, and said, ‘Listen, I want to do something. What can we do?’ So, I told him, ‘Let’s make Scam. Let’s find Sucheta (Dalal), let’s buy that book, and let’s make Scam.’ He said, ‘Okay, cool.’ So, I said, ‘Good. Now what you do is, you reach out to Sucheta and you now make contact with her and get started.’ We were a five-man team at the time. He met Sucheta immediately and then shortly after that my colleague, Priya, and I went and met her, and started negotiating to get the book. We managed to crack that book deal by February 2018.
Concurrently, I was trying to work with Hansal Mehta. Hansal was somebody whom I’d interacted with at Balaji when he’d done Bose – Dead/Alive for us. He was the creative director on that. I’ve liked Hansal’s work, especially his more recent movies. I’d reached out to him and KWAN and we signed Hansal. We signed him independent of this. So, that was Hansal paid and Hansal signed.
We talked about what we should do and what ideas he had. That’s when I said, ‘I’ve got this book, Scam, do you want to make that?’ He said, ‘Totally. I’ve spent my entire career with people confusing me and Harshad Mehta. When I say, “Hansal Mehta,” people say, “Harshad Mehta.”’ I said, ‘That’s it, then. There’s not much more to think about this.’
So, Hansal was there, Shariq was producing and the book had been acquired. Then we started working.
We had quite a journey. Two-three months later, Shariq came up to me and told me that he’d got a job offer to join Zee Studios as CEO. I said, ‘You’ve got to go, man. You better take it.’ He went off there. From there, we moved to Reliance Studios, because Hansal had previously worked on Bose with Indranil Chakraborty, who was at Big Synergy, Reliance. So, I said, ‘Let’s move the show to them,’ so they continued from there.
About five-six months later, Indranil left and joined Studio Next, Sony. Again, work had started, but no producer. At one point, Hansal said that he’d produce it himself with his company and partner, Karma, who took on the project. But that wasn’t going anywhere. Plus Hansal was busy with Chhalaang, and he was also the creative producer on The Accidental Prime Minister, so he had many things going on at the time. I moved it back to Indranil again, and said, ‘Let’s do the marriage again.’ Now, it was back with Indranil and Hansal.
In late 2018-early 2019, it got moving in earnest. We started writing, casting, there were two-three iterations of the writers’ room. The latest guy to come on board was Karan Vyas, who wrote all those delightful dialogues. Vaibhav Vishal wrote the famous ‘Risk hai toh ishq hai,’ but almost every other line after was written by Karan, including all the twangs and quips.
Mukesh Chhabra did the amazing casting. Hansal had come to us with Pratik (Gandhi). He said that he had great faith in him and that we should keep him. I said, ‘Okay. Let’s do it.’ And Pratik turned out to be truly amazing. Within the first couple of minutes of the show, he owns the stage like a boss. We were originally thinking that we wanted to cast likeness, somebody who looked like him – much like how Pablo (Escobar) had been done in Narcos. But then Pratik being an actor would be able to own the character rather than just being a lookalike. It paid off as a gamble.
We started shooting around August 2019. We shot all the way until March. Shortly after we finished shooting, the lockdown happened. The post on the show was done in lockdown. From that time on, no one met. We did the post remotely – all the cleanups, fantastic music, great performances.
Sony LIV, being fantastic partners, marketed it so well. They had so much belief in the show that they really put it out there. When the first promo went out, I remember speaking to Danish Khan – and this was his and his marketing team’s idea – about figuring out a way why anyone today, especially the younger audience, be interested in Harshad Mehta, and Danish said, ‘We want to put out a promo from the show which opens with the line that Satish Kaushik says, “Ye Harshad Mehta bhenchod hai kaun?”’ It goes off with that and goes into all the dramebaazi.
The show has it all: the rags to riches, the Bachchan feel, the 70s ka daring, where a guy goes out there and takes on all the rich people, obviously disadvantaged but winning against all odds and that classic Shakespearean tragic end.
The lockdown was a big positive. It was always there. Streaming had been there in India since ‘15-’16. But not enough people had sampled it. People are busy in their own lives, going to work and doing stuff, sticking with their own routine – you come home and you watch TV. Because of the lockdown, people had more time to check out other things and they all checked out streaming. For example, when my mom discovered streaming, she was amazed. She said, ‘What are you saying? This thing remembers where I stopped yesterday and I can actually continue watching tomorrow? What magical technology is this?’ Because TV is not like that. TV is ad breaks; you miss the movie and it’s gone, you can never see it again – it never comes back again. TV is a very linear medium. Streaming is like a giant library that is always there. It keeps reminding you that you haven’t finished this, you may like this, you may want that, what about this, check this out, this is new. It’s a relationship. Some platforms have excellent technology. It’s quite a deep relationship you have with them.
Nandita Gangwal: On OTT platforms, do you see scope for weekly telecasts as compared to series launching all together?
Sameer Nair: They do do that, especially in the non-fiction space. If you take Hasan Minhaj, he puts out an episode once a week; I think Letterman was doing it once a week or once a fortnight.
The binge and dropping everything together was done because it was something new. If you remember the show 24, all of us would have gotten DVDs of 24 and spent the whole weekend trying to watch it and finish all 24 episodes. It has a peculiar way of ending – it breaks into four frames and then the next episode starts. It’s exciting. So, basically, the streaming world is that 24 experience that’s happening all at once. It’s great because if you consume that content so quickly, then you want more, and then you sample other things.
For the longest time, Designated Survivor used to come once a week on Netflix because it was being shared by the broadcaster. They used to show it in the US, and then the rest of the world saw it.
I think the audience has moved to saying, ‘If you’re showing me something, show it to me all or don’t show it to me.’ The weekly business is also risky. You’ve got to wait, and who knows what may happen next week. I might fall out of love. So, better to be done with it.
Suhas Naik: How do you view the Indian OTT audience’s taste and appetite for non-fiction content, and animated shows and movies?
Sameer Nair: Honestly, there’s no such thing as an OTT audience. OTT just happens to be one more form of technology that is reaching the same audience. From the same 800 million people that are watching TV, a subset of them have gotten smart devices and data and are consuming stuff on OTT. It’s the same people, actually.
Also, there’s a lot about demographics – older people and younger people, rural and urban. I don’t think all that amounts to much. It’s just based on taste clusters. I like House of Cards, you like House of Cards and my son likes House of Cards. We are still different people, right? If we put ourselves into a single demographic, we won’t even fit, but we do watch it in the same way that we watch different content.
In that sense, in the space of reality and non-fiction, the platforms are doing it. It’s the medium that defines some of these things. There are some shows that work well on TV in a particular manner. It comes in a sequence, it plays out week-on-week, there are winners, and then you go onto the next thing. That’s how TV viewing is a habit, whereas when you come onto the streaming platform, you are habituated to seeing a lot of episodes in one go.
It’s actually a habit. It’s not content. For example, my mother watches her daily soaps on the broadcaster, on Star or Colors, and then comes to watch Criminal Justice on Hotstar. Those are two very different universes. She waits every day diligently to watch one episode of Anupama. She’s got no problem with that. She’s not suddenly saying, ‘Why can’t they show me all the episodes together?’ She hasn’t cracked that you cannot watch it for a month and then catch up with all episodes together. She doesn’t want to do that. She wants to follow that rhythm for that, and she wants to follow this routine for this. It’s a question of rhythm and behaviour.
So, yeah, they’ll watch non-fiction. There’s nothing so different. There are so many documentaries that get made. There are so many new shows getting made. That’ll happen. Platforms will do it. It’s just the mechanics of how it’s done.
TV also is supported by advertising. A lot of the big reality shows get a lot of ad support. Platforms are subscription-supported and then they work to mount these big shows and put it out. Why shouldn’t KBC come on Sony LIV only or on Netflix only? You could do it. Why should they not do it? If they want to, they can do it. It’ll become an economic decision, not necessarily a programming decision.
Amol Choudhary: What, according to you, is the future of the entertainment industry?
Sameer Nair: That’s a little bit of a crystal ball prediction. But, again, they say that if you can look two years ahead, then that’s good to go because in the long-term we’ll all be dead. Going in these smaller batches would be good.
Obviously, OTTs are going to spread because data’s cheap and we’ve got devices. We’ve got 900 million smart devices in this country, so we say that we want all 900 million people to consume streaming content. Will that adversely affect TV? In a way, it will, but most broadcasters have become OTT players themselves. So, in a sense, it’s just a shift.
What happens with theatres? They were all shut during the lockdown. But once vaccines are out and things sort of normalise, it should open and bounce back. Will people go back to theatres? I think they will. I think they should. Just because you’re getting it in the house doesn’t mean you’ll never go out. By that logic, we should not go out for anything. We should not go out to restaurants. We should not go out shopping. Everything is there, right? Amazon will give you everything in the house. You should not move from your sofa. But that’s not true. You will move. You will go out. You want to go out on a date. You want to go out with friends. You want to do stuff. You don’t want to sit around with your family and do everything together. These kinds of things will continue. They will continue to grow.
From the entertainment industry’s point of view, the biggest advantage is that streamers have introduced giant libraries. With TV what used to happen is, you saw it and it went away. It was ‘Tonight at nine,’ and gone. Now it’s all there. You can come back to it. You can tell somebody, ‘Listen, I saw this great show. You can see it. You can go find it and watch it again.’ You can watch it three years later, five years later, you can catch up on seasons. These are really amazing things that technology has brought us. All this technology – resume watching, you may also like, you may want to do this, skip episodes – you couldn’t find it on TV, right? You can’t do it on film.
These are big global companies, which means they’re taking out our stories globally. So, it’s not to say that we’re making a story for the whole world, but the whole world can potentially see it. What the pandemic has done is, in a sense, it has locked you up in your house but it actually exposed you to the world. Everyone in the world, while locked up in the pandemic, saw everything else in the world. Everywhere everyone has done that, and now it’s opened up for all of us.
If you are a creator or if you’re looking to tell stories then there can’t be a better time because you’ve got the rich platforms, the big broadcasters, the technology, you’ve got the devices and you’ve got an audience here – hungry and fully clued in, asking for more.
Sure, there will be some regulation and some censorship – those kinds of things keep coming. But beyond that, you’re talking about a huge latent need and appetite. What are we making? We’re making 10-15 or 20-30 series a year. The market should do a thousand series a year. It would still be less because you’re talking about Hindi, you’re talking about all the other languages, you’re talking about all the genres… I mean, too much fun.
Maitri Karia: What would your advice be for youngsters who want to work in the media corporate sector? What path should we follow or what are the things that we need to keep in mind if we want to succeed in this sector?
Sameer Nair: One advice I give to most people is, oftentimes you can be a specialist, but then you’ve got to be a really good specialist. You can be a cinematographer, but you need to be a great cinematographer. You could be a great editor. If you’re not one of those, if you’re not going to be the brain surgeon, then you’ve got to be a really good generalist. In order to be a really good generalist, you need to have an active and a very, very intense interest in everything that’s going on in your business.
If you’re getting into this business you must want to be a producer, in the truest sense of the term. Like what Hollywood calls producers or executive producers, that’s the best way. You should know everything about how things get made, why they are made, what is the research going into their making, what are the moving parts of the making, what is the whole process, what is the writing process, what is resource development, costing, pre-production, actual filming – all of that.
You need to have an active interest in it. There is no job which is too small and there’s no job which is too big. Everything should be of interest to you. If everything is of interest to you, then you’ll find that the whole thing becomes more fun and interesting. You enjoy doing it. That’s really the key.
Jaydeep Ashra: What do you look for in a script or a show that makes you want to go ahead with it? I know there’s gut feeling involved, but what is it deep down that makes you say that this can work?
Sameer Nair: Gut is very important. At the end of the day, gut is experience, and experience is data. ‘Gut’ is often abused as a term, but gut feeling means that the older you are, the more guts you have. That usually helps.
Apart from that, the more you listen to things around you, the decisions become informed on that basis. This whole theory of when a platform says, ‘You may also like,’ the recommendation engine works on the principle that if you saw one crime thriller, you may like another crime thriller. It’s a very, very powerful human insight. If you like sneakers, I can sell you another pair. If you don’t like sneakers, I can go on advertising to you about sneakers but you would never buy them because you want slippers. The same thing works in content and that’s how it gets built.
Now, in modern times you’ve got all this research and data, so there’s a lot of cool jargon for it. But in many ways, all creative industries across the world, definitely in India, have been doing it in any case. There’s a degree of experience, a degree of audience understanding, a degree of taking an educated guess. Sometimes you follow the trend, sometimes you break the trend. The trick is to not get a flop. If you’re following the trend and you’re the last one doing it, then you’re mostly going to have a flop. There have been hundred love stories and if you make the hundred and first, it wouldn’t work; but if you’d made the 52nd love story, you may have gotten away with it.
Many times you change the trend. You say, ‘Too many love stories, I’m going to do an action thriller.’ That works and it becomes a herd mentality – everyone tries to follow that. There’s nothing wrong with the herd mentality. There’s nothing wrong with formula. So, there’s no correct answer.
I suppose the trick in life, more so now, is to avoid being specifically wrong and trying to be generally right. That’s your trick. I know I’m making it sound too simple, but honestly, that’s what it is. You want to avoid being specifically and spectacularly wrong. That’s it. Beyond that, it’s generally right. You’re simply trying to head in a direction.
If we take Scam, for example, it is a story about which we said, ‘No financial biopic has been done. It’s a good, unique idea. It’s different. Very colourful period, a very colourful guy. We haven’t done enough big biopics like this. We want to tell it in this manner,’ of course, it was written also in that manner of being real. It’s like Deewar, right? Basically, he’s like Amitabh Bachchan and the brother is like Shashi Kapoor, who is like his conscience saying, ‘Bhai, aisa mat kar.’ It plays out in that manner.
There are some degrees of calculated risks. Now, we get data on what people like. The whole world likes crime, right? Everybody likes crime – it’s nothing unique to India. ‘Murder ho gaya. What happened?’ CID mein Pradyuman 20 saal se dhund raha hai na logon ko? People are still watching! It means people like it. These are genres that work – romance works, comedy works. The key then becomes: what’s unique and different, is it fresh, is it a different setting with different people.
Many times, things just repeat themselves. Look at the Americans. They keep rebooting Batman. Each time they reboot Batman, we watch it. Something has got to be said about reboots as well, right?
Siddharth Menon: In each organisation that you’ve worked in, the sensibilities of the creators must be starkly different – each organisation must be churning out different kinds of projects. How did you manage to meet eye to eye with the creators and match your sensibilities to their vision while trying to deliver these projects?
Sameer Nair: There are two things to this: one is, I like to regard myself as a creator. It’s not like we are some sort of a financing studio working with people who create. We are creators in our own right, and we often decide what we want to do, how we want to do it. Like, I green-lit Kyunki…
I suppose what we try to do, and have done, is that you shouldn’t let your own sensibility come in the way of doing what is right. Oftentimes, people do that. You take your sensibility and your hoist it upon something else. It doesn’t work like that. This is why at Applause we are able to work with a variety of talent. As long as we give each one their space to do what they have to do, we are able to create a lot more variety. Let different people do different things. Hasmukh, Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors, Scam 1992, Hostages, Undekhi, Avrodh are all different.
Each of these are different expressions of storytelling and different expressions of creativity. Whatever we try to do, I feel, we should do it really well. There this line that says, ‘If you’re going to make a dumb comedy, then make sure you make a really dumb comedy.’ You shouldn’t get intellectual about it. You’re making a dumb comedy, you must make a dumb comedy. If you’re making a blood and gore action thriller, then you should make a blood and gore action thriller. You shouldn’t stop and say, ‘Let’s pull back.’ On the other hand, if you’re doing something thoughtful, then you should do something thoughtful.
I have always worked with all sorts of people. I encourage any kind of thinking and trying to do it well. What really bothers me is, having a great idea and executing it badly, then blaming audiences or circumstances and saying that you’re ahead of your time. That’s really sad. If something didn’t work, it didn’t work for a reason. It was probably badly made.
Rohan Bhowmik: In your life as a tastemaker, what has kept you driven? What makes you get up from your bed every Monday and go to work? Also, what are the skills that you’ve kept really close to you in your journey?
Sameer Nair: I wake up every morning, not just on Mondays, feeling pretty excited. I enjoy what I’m doing. I like what I’m doing, so I don’t count this as work. I’ve been fortunate enough to have this long extended vacation. I find holidays to be work. That requires a lot more planning. ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘What’s the itinerary?’ ‘Which museums are we going to see?’ That’s a little more stressful. I like coming to work. I like meeting people. I’m always interested in telling new stories. That’s what keeps it exciting.
The good part about the storytelling business is that you’re reinventing and inventing and creating new things every day. A lot of other work does not have that. If you’re in the business of making steel, the business defines what you do, and you don’t really have an opportunity to do new things. But I have often found that people from other industries are wonderful artists in their own right – they sing well, they write well, and do amazing things.
I’m really drawn to storytelling. I want to keep doing that. It excites me each time. I am satisfied with small joys. When something big and spectacular happens, it’s good, but I’m happy for all the small victories. All the small-small wins such as taking the strike, taking the singles, not getting out and adding runs on the scoreboard are really important. Sometimes the ball will stray, you will get a loose ball and then you must hit it for a six. If you do that well enough in your life, then you have lots of runs, lots of dramatic shots, some exciting moments, some matches won, some matches lost. That’s pretty much it. Ball by ball; stay in the moment.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session of Sameer Nair in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.
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