Archive for July 2014

The angry young man is now older — but still garnering eyeballs. As Amitabh Bachchan, at 71, makes his debut in television fiction, Smitha Verma and Sonia Sarkar assess whether Big B’s magic is working.

Yudhisthir Sikarwar’s life is like a house of cards, ready to be blown away. There’s been a blast in his coal mine, and the workers are agitated. His daughter from his first marriage is walking out on him. To top it, his son from his second wife has been kidnapped by Maoists. As the eighth episode of Yudh draws to a close, Sikarwar announces, in his familiar baritone, that the game is about to change. “It’ll be played according to my rules,” he says.

Amitabh Bachchan is Sikarwar. And the game on television is set for change.

The series, launched on July 14, boasts of many firsts: Bachchan stars in his first TV fiction series; Anurag Kashyap and Shoojit Sircar team up as the creative director and the creative consultant, respectively, for a TV show; and it features heavyweights such as Tigmanshu Dhulia, Kay Kay Menon, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Zakir Hussain and Sarika, some making their television debut with the show.

The 20-episode story of the ageing male protagonist strives to capture an audience attuned to women-centric family dramas. Yudh is the story of Sikarwar, a construction magnate, who suffers from Huntington’s disease, a life-threatening neuro-psychological disorder. Bachchan, the angry young man of the 1973 Bollywood hit Zanjeer, makes entry as an angry old man.

“I liked the story idea,” Bachchan, 71, stresses. “I liked the character and its complicated bearings and I liked the idea of doing something in a serial form for television,” he says.

For the broadcaster, Sony Entertainment Television (SET), a drama centred on Bachchan is a coup — and it’s gone all out to market the mini series, said to be the costliest Indian TV drama per episode.

The show was announced in June last year, and interest sparked when its trailer was launched on television during the IPL cricket finals. The first look of the show was unveiled with a 50-foot poster from atop a building in Connaught Place in Delhi. This was followed by the fictional listing of Sikarwar’s company “Shanti Construction” on the Bombay Stock Exchange.

“Since the show is pitched as Big B’s debut in fiction format on television, we did a lot of film-style marketing,” says Gaurav Seth, senior vice-president and head, marketing, SET.

Though the channel refuses to divulge production costs, the whisper is that each episode costs around Rs 3 crore, including marketing costs. Ad spots are being sold at double the rate of the usual Rs 3 lakh charge for a 10-second spot. “This is premium property,” Seth holds.

The industry buzz is that the series was actually Bachchan’s idea. In December 2012, the actor expressed the desire to act in a television drama in talks with members of the production house Endemol India. His company, Saraswati Creations, was keen to co-produce the show. Endemol India, in turn, asked writer Bijesh Jayarajan to draft a script.

Bachchan and Kashyap also discussed the show, and the director agreed to handle the first five episodes and then hand over the reins to his one-time assistant director, Ribhu Dasgupta. Bachchan, who is close to Sircar, asked the director of Vicky Donor to oversee the work.

“The series was thought, written and envisaged keeping Big B in mind,” says Bonnie Jain, business head, Endemol India. “We had to do something that was never done before.”

Kashyap suggested that the lead character be based on the role played by Sanjeev Kumar in the 1978 film Trishul — but 40 years later. Sikarwar’s company, Shanti Constructions, was the name of Kumar’s group in the film that also starred Bachchan.

The first 16 episodes were written in a little over two months by Jayarajan, while the remaining four were scripted by another young writer, Manu Warrier. After the opening episodes had been written in April, 2013, shooting began in mid-June in Mumbai and Lonavala.

The shoot took a cinematic course. Like a film, Yudh too followed a post-production work schedule which involved sound design, colour correction, visual effects and background music. “Also, we shot in C 3100, a camera which accommodates all film lenses. But we shot in digital mode, not on celluloid,” says Jain. Helicams or remote-controlled helicopters were used to capture the aerial views for shooting the mining scenes in Virar.

Jayarajan, who has penned scripts for television series Kagaar and Parvarish, believes the show seeks to reach out to fans of Western dramas such as the Game of Thrones. Critics have also drawn comparison with the American mini series Boss. In both shows the protagonists have life-threatening diseases, rely on their two close aides and try to win back their estranged daughters. For an Indian audience which is not accustomed to watching finite series on television (as opposed to series that carry on indefinitely), Yudh attempts to present a male protagonist, a shift from the usual women-dominated dramas.

“This kind of format is tried and tested in the West,” Shoojit Sircar says. “I am not saying Yudh will be something historic but it definitely is an important milestone in one of the many milestones on the small screen.”

Bachchan, too, is wary of calling the show a game changer. “Adapting to change can only come if change is presented or attempted,” he says. “We have tried that and shall await reactions. All fresh and new ideas shall go through the gamut of adjustment and acceptability,” he adds.

What’s true is that Yudh — which deals with builder mafia, mining and Maoists — has created a buzz. Television critic Shailaja Bajpai feels it can mark a new turn in television because of the issues it tackles. “The context is contemporary, topical, social and political,” she says. “Our serials for long have ignored this reality. It takes an Amitabh Bachchan to bring forward the urban reality.”

Indeed, quite a few people who are in the series joined up when they heard that it was a Bachchan show. “It was Big B’s idea to get the most talented actors to the series. He wanted Siddiqui in the show so we created a cameo for him,” Jayarajan says. “I acted in this serial because I wanted to work with Amitabh Bachchan,” adds Dhulia, who plays a crafty politician.

Bajpai points out that where Bachchan goes, others follow. In the summer of 2000, Bachchan first entered living rooms with a reality show. A bevy of top stars followed suit including Salman, Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan. The latest top actor to make an impressive TV debut was Anil Kapoor, whose 24, an Indian adaptation of a popular Western series, was aired last year.

“But 24 was a remake of an English serial while Yudh is original. And Yudh reinforces the belief that something different can be tried out,” Jayarajan says. “We took a big risk in today’s television.”

Bachchan and Kashyap are aware of the mounting viewer expectations. “Creativity shall always bear the burden of apprehension. When we work on any project there are concerns on what the reactions are going to be, and whether we have been able to deliver what was expected of us,” the actor says.

In some quarters, however, the show is already been panned, with critics drawing attention to its slow pace, weak dialogues and convoluted character sketches. “The show is taking time to find acceptance,” agrees Zakir Hussain, who plays Bachchan’s close aide. “Some scenes look weak because we never went out of Mumbai for shoots. We talk of Maoists but we never went to a place that would look like a red corridor,” Hussain says.

But others argue that it is too early to discuss the impact of the series. “Even 24 became a success towards the end. Anything new takes time to settle with the Indian audience. So it would be unfair to judge the show so early,” says an industry evaluator.

Meanwhile, producers and broadcasters are keeping a close watch on Yudh. The series competes with Savdhaan India (Life OK), Veera (STAR Plus), Doli Armaano Ki (Zee) and Uttaran (Colors). “Our viewership has gone up even after the launch of Yudh. So there is little reason to worry,” says Ajit Thakur, general manager, Life OK. According to trade pundits, at the 10.30pm slot, Life OK’s Savdhaan India, a topical crime show launched two years ago, has high TRP ratings across Hindi general entertainment channels.

Yudh also faces competition from Pakistani series being aired on Zee’s newly launched Zindagi channel. “We launched Zindagi to offer an alternative viewing experience; the formats of the shows with a finite number of episodes are completely different from what viewers in India are used to watching,” Priyanka Datta, business head, Zindagi, says. “As far as competition from Yudh is concerned, we are quite confident of our line-up.”

Bachchan’s quiz show, Kaun Banega Crorepati — now ready for a new season — changed the nature of reality shows on television. Will he do the same with Yudh? The initial response is tepid, but excitement is still rife. After all, it’s a battlefield out there.

Manipur is seeing a resurgence of polo. Schools have been encouraging students to play polo and women have taken to the game. Polo clubs have been mushrooming in the state.

When the city downs its shutters, H. Kaoba, 35, gets ready for action. A bandh in Manipur’s capital, Imphal, may force most residents to stay indoors. But Kaoba heads for the fields, where, with a group of like-minded people, he plays a robust game of polo.

“During bandhs, when everyone else is home, we play polo,” says the farmer’s son.

Kaoba has been playing the game for the last 22 years. But he says there has been a sudden interest in the game in the strife-torn state in recent years. “It seems to have got a new lease of life.”

If youngsters across the country are donning their football T-shirts or white flannel for cricket, the Manipuri youngster is atop a pony, playing polo — which is believed to have originated centuries ago in Manipur. Known as Sagol Kangjei, it was a game played by princes and their companions. Today, it’s every Manipuri’s favourite sport.

Polo clubs have been mushrooming across the Imphal valley and in neighbouring Bishnupur and Thoubal. Around 20 clubs have opened in the last three years, taking the total number to 33.

“Even five years ago, there were only a few clubs,” says Girimohan Singh, former captain of the state team.

The game has picked up also because the state has been hosting global polo tournaments. Though the tournament was first held in 1991, it was discontinued for lack of funds. But it was revived in 2012, and polo enthusiasts are now waiting for the 2014 games, to be held in November.

The tournament, being held with corporate funding, features teams such as England’s Hurlingham polo club and others from France, Germany and Thailand. The organisers hope that UK’s Prince William will be present during the matches as the chief guest.

“We also want him to play an exhibition match with our local players where the game will be played in the traditional way with a team of seven players,” adds S. Budhhachandra Singh, president, Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association (MHRPA), the body which organises several local matches and the international tournament.

The game, which is elsewhere played on horse with sticks and balls, has changed over time in Manipur. The teams don’t consist of seven members but of four members as everywhere else.

The only difference is that players sit on Manipuri ponies and not horses. These ponies, about 52 inches at the shoulder, are much loved beasts. There was a time when every house in Manipur had a pony, used for transport as well as to ward off enemies. The sturdy ponies now cost anything from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh.

Manipuris say that families have started keeping ponies at home. “And anyone who has a pony invariably learns to play polo,” MHRPA vice-president Rajkumar Dilip Singh says.

But the game is not restricted to affluent families. Schools, cutting across strata, have also been encouraging students to play polo. “Children start to learn the game at the age of 12 or 13. Schools want us to give them lessons in pony riding, and then polo,” Girimohan Singh, who is a member of the Nambul Mapal Polo club, adds.

“We encourage the children to keep the tradition alive. Polo was first invented in Manipur and the state should be known to the world for this,” he stresses.

Legend has it that the game was played in the court of King Ningthou Kangba in the 15th century. But it was in the 19th century, during the rule of King Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, that the game attracted attention — especially of the British. It gained in popularity as an assistant deputy commissioner of Cachar in Assam, Captain Robert Stewart, held a match with Manipuri kings and their team at Silchar. Stewart also set up India’s first polo club in Silchar.

In 1864, a British officer, Lt John Shearer, took a team of seven Manipuri players — called the Band of Brothers — to Calcutta for a match against a British team. The match ended in a draw, but the players returned to Manipur and started popularising the game there.

“Those were the days when everyone played polo — not just kings but ordinary people too,” Dilip Singh says.

The game remained popular till the 1950s. But with construction and the disappearance of grazing grounds for ponies, interest waned. In 1977, the MHRPA was set up by a handful of polo enthusiasts to revive the game. In 2005, the MHRPA started a pony breeding farm. It has 102 ponies which are hired by players who don’t own one.

Manipuri women have been playing the game, too. The state has five teams of women players, and there are separate tournaments for women participants.

Deventy Devi, a 28-year-old player, stresses that polo is a challenge for women in a patriarchal society. “It was hard to convince my parents that I too wanted to play polo because there was a pony at home. They were convinced only after I proved to be a better player than my brothers,” the Imphal Riding Club member says.

Manipuris have another reason to be interested in the game. Polo players often find jobs in the government. Sinam Bimol Singh, 38, is now a constable with the Manipur police — and believes that it’s polo that got him the job. “I learnt the game because I loved it. But I never thought it would help me get a job — and an identity,” he says. Bimol is one of the 30 players who have government jobs.

Some of the senior players feel that the game needs a professional touch. “If the government gives it a push, we will make Manipur visible on the global map. We want to give us a different identity through the game of polo,” says 54-year-old M. Manihar, who has been playing for the past 30 years.

For those who grew up in times of violence, polo is not just fun. “When we are mounted on a pony, we feel that the world is under control. There is no fear even if the state is under siege,” Kaoba says.

Polo’s past

Polo the game was played in the court of King Ningthou Kangba in the 15th century. But it attracted attention in 19th century, during the rule of King Nongda Lairen Pakhangba.

Polo is said to have become popular after an assistant deputy commissioner of Cachar in Assam, Captain Robert Stewart, held a match with Manipuri kings and their team at Silchar. Stewart also set up the first polo club in India in Silchar.

In 1864, A British officer, Lt John Shearer, took a team of seven Manipuri players — called the Band of Brothers — to Calcutta for a match against a British team. The match ended in a draw, but the players returned to Manipur and started popularising the game there.

A little village in Manipur has pinned its hope on the new Prime Minister. Sonia Sarkar tells us why

WAITING FOR PM: Children in front of the village school
When Bebe Jackson heard about Narendra Modi — then just a prime ministerial candidate — he was intrigued. The 28-year-old Manipuri knew little about him because he had been working in Ghana for several years. Back in India, Jackson quickly did a background search on the Internet — but not because Modi seemed set to rule India. Jackson’s interest was triggered by the fact that his village was also called Modi.

“I started reading about him because I wanted to know if he had any connections with our village,” Jackson says. “I must say I was disappointed to discover that there was none.”

Village Modi in Manipur’s Chandel district is five kilometres from Chandel town. The village — inhabited by the Anal people of the Naga tribe — is surrounded by hills. A narrow lane, covered with pebbles, runs through the village, with single-storey wood houses on its two sides. The lane curves up to the village church, which is where the villagers meet to discuss social and political issues.

These days, Modi is the topic of discussion. The village of 253 Christians has been in a state of excitement ever since the 2014 elections were announced.

L. Hringam, who runs a grocery shop
“We are extremely happy that our village shares its name with the Prime Minister. Now we hope that the fate of our village will change,” says L. Hringam, 68. “We want him to visit us. We too want to see ‘achhe din’ (good days).”

Modi’s election slogan of better times is reiterated by the people of Modi, who have lived without basic facilities such as water and electricity all their lives. “The Chapki river is the source of drinking water and we use the same water for cleaning,” says 64-year-old R.T. Thintra, who runs the only grocery store of the village with her husband, Hringam.

The river itself is a cause of worry. The previous United Progressive Alliance government had proposed the construction of a dam for the Chapkimultipurpose hydroelectric project. “But our village will be submerged if this dam is constructed,” says P.S. Raylee, who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recently. “In fact, we would want Prime Minister Modi to stop this project. He should do something to save the village which bears his name,” he says.

Some of the villagers have been following Modi’s rise to power since he became the chief minister of Gujarat for the fourth time in 2012. “We used to joke that this man was making us proud by doing such good work in Gujarat,” says village chief K.L. John.

Modi’s name was heard more often as local BJP leaders started campaigning for the elections this spring. The thrill peaked when the party organised its first election rally in the state in Chandel. “The BJP never took so much interest in our district or our village before. But it was different in this election — they wanted to reach out to everyone,” John says.

Twenty men from the village attended a rally that Modi addressed in Imphal. Modi spoke of unemployment and corruption and promised to develop the state. Vastly impressed by his speech, 130 people of Modi voted for BJP, John says.

“For the first time, this village voted for the BJP,” says W.S. Kanral Anal, president of the Chandel Naga People’s Organisation. But Gangmumei Kamei, the BJP candidate of outer Manipur — the Lok Sabha Constituency of all hill districts including Chandel — lost the election to the sitting MP, Thangso Baite of the Congress.

Villagers on the steps of the Modi Baptist Church
The villagers now hope to make the most of their village name. Folklore has it that the village was set up in 1893 by a man called Pashel Modi, who also belonged to the Anal tribe. Village elders say that Modi and his wife, Nula Pethem, came in search of a new place when his own village became too crowded.

“Once he discovered this place, he named it after himself,” Thintra says.

This village has been a part of world history too. Elders in the village believe that some people spied for the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II, during the battle of Imphal.

Hringam’s grandfather was one of them. “My grandfather used to keep an eye on the British soldiers who hid in our village,” he says.

In 1946, an old bomb shell burst, killing seven villagers. “We also discovered a bunker in the village,” he adds.

But all that is history. Modi, the village, wants to move on. And that’s because it’s caught in a time warp.

Villagers mostly survive on the rice that they grow. Barely 10 families in the village have their own land; the others work in the paddy fields as daily wagers.

The villagers complain of unemployment, and about the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which promises to give 100 days of work in a year. The people say they barely get 40 days of work and are mostly underpaid.

The young ones have been moving out of the village in search of jobs. Some have joined the Manipur police force or the army. Raylee, a graduate from Chandel’s United College, worked in a call centre in Delhi for a year, but came back to “do something” for his village.

At a tea stall
He and a few other men pooled in money to repair the rain ravaged state highway. Nobody from the government paid any heed to it, so the villagers say they decided to do it themselves.

“It took us more than a month to repair the road. But the village gets cut off from the rest of the world if this highway is not functional,” Raylee says.

PM Modi would like their sense of enterprise. In the late 60s, when the village didn’t have a school, the villagers set up their own primary school by hiring three teachers from nearby areas. But though the school got government recognition in 1971, the village children have to walk to Chandel town for secondary and higher secondary education.

Local teachers believe their students will have a brighter future if the village catches the attention of Modi. “Just as Modi scripted his own destiny — from being a tea seller to becoming PM — our children too can do that if he gives them what they deserve, which is good education,” teacher Totorani Khumlo says.

But will Modi visit the village? Some point out that local BJP leaders visited the village only once after the election results were announced. They promised water and electricity but have not been seen since then.

But then lack of development is the story of many villages across India. Even Modi’s neighbouring Lamphoupasna village, also inhabited by Anal tribals, is underdeveloped. “We feel a little jealous because we too voted for the BJP. If he gives a special package to Modi, we too should get a share,” demands Nita Khumlo, who is an assistant teacher at a school in Chandel town.

Village Modi, however, continues to pin its hopes on its namesake. “We want Modi to turn this into a model village,” Raylee says. “Then the name of the village will be justified.”

(Published in The Telegraph, July 6, 2014