B for Battle

Posted on: July 28, 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.


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