'Our plays would be available across media': Shailja Kejriwal

Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (ZEEL) is all set to become the first Indian media and entertainment company to foray into theatre production with the launch of ‘Zee Theatre’. This new content vertical will partner with renowned playwrights and theatre stalwarts to produce over 100 plays over the next three years. The initiative will make theatrical content available on multiple platforms (online, on-air, on-ground, in-transit) for audiences to consume at their convenience.    

Adgully got into a conversation with Shailja Kejriwal, Chief Creative - Special Projects at Zee Entertainment Enterprise Limited (ZEEL). In a career spanning over two decades, she is one of the only professionals in the Indian media industry to have a hands-on experience across all three mediums - films, television and theatre. She is credited with the absolute success of programming with Kaun Banega Crorepati and other ‘K’ Soaps, as well as ‘Star Bestsellers’, a show where she launched some of the biggest directors of cinema like Rajkumar Hirani, Anurag Kashyap, etc.


Adgully: You have done Films, television and theatre. Can you tell us about the different intricacies involved with three of them?

Shaila Kejriwal: All three mediums deal with story-telling but the target audience and ways these three mediums are consumed are different. Television is consumed at home in the drawing room with women being the core audience. The characters become like family members and hence there is the long running continuity and familiarity with the protagonists and their families. Television is a writer’s medium. And possibly the most difficult medium to write for. The writers are required to churn out capsules of entertainment on a daily basis, which requires huge commitment and discipline. 

Cinema is a director's medium. It's seen in a darkened theatre away from home and reality. Also one makes a choice and pays to see it. The primary audiences for cinema are males between 15 to 35 who make the choice and purchase the ticket. Hence cinema in our country primarily deals with larger than life, male driven fantasies. 

Theatre is primarily an Actors medium. Also it's live so it rests on the actor to make you believe. The core TG would be 25 to 55 couples who make a choice to see what is considered different and meaningful entertainment. It's experienced live in a darkened theatre with a community feeling.

Because of the difference in consumption patterns as well core TG, the kinds of stories told in all the mediums is slightly different. With the digital space becoming huge, there is requirement for all kinds of stories as the viewing has become individual. Hence it opens up immense possibilities of variety. One is neither TG bound, nor infrastructure bound and neither schedule bound. So creating all kinds of content for screens is now possible. These are very exciting times for content creators. 


AG: Tell us the space Zee Theatre will be operating, marketing strategies, media mix and target audience for same.

SK: Zee has been a pioneer in introducing new ideas and concepts. In a conversation with our MD and CEO, Punit Goenka, the idea of looking at our own rich literary heritage cropped up. The idea is to take theatre to as many people as possible through as many platforms as possible, live as well as recorded. 

We are producing plays ground up, so that they will be available as live performances. We are filming these plays with a theatre director as well as a filming director for the plays to be available across media- broadcast, digital as well as in cinemas. They will be available across Zee channels, ditto TV, the zee theatre website as well as special cinema screenings. 


AG: Tell us what kind of plays you are looking forward to telecast on this platform and criteria for the same?

SK: The selection has been made keeping all kinds of audiences in mind and not aimed at any particular Target Group. So there are all kinds of genres in our first batch from Piya Behrupiya - a musical, to a social satire – Janpath Kiss, to a contemporary internet based romance - White Lilly Night Rider, a social about ageing parents and their loneliness - Sandhya Chaya, an inspiring story of a Dalit woman - Rudaali, a psychological thriller - Savita Damodar Paranjape, a play on the issue of domestic child abuse - 30 Days of September, a comment on modern urban relationships and marriage - Mera Kuch Samaan and the ever green classic Hamida bai Ki Kothi. We met up with the stalwarts of the theatre industry like Vijaya Mehta, Feroz Abbas Khan, Kirti Jain, Anuradha Kapoor, Mahesh Dattani, Ranjit Kapoor, Usha Ganguly and many others. They, along with our own internal research and consumer understanding teams, we made the selection of our initial 30 productions and this will be an ongoing process. 


AG: Do you think Indian audiences have now emerged and where the westernization is happening with regards to content, how would theatre grab eyeballs?

SK: I don't think there is any emergence per say. People whether in India or anywhere else always like variety in content and Theatre brings to the viewer more variety and choice. Over time we have become more exposed to entertainment from across the world. Du   e to lack of adequate infrastructure, it was difficult for people to consume this form of entertainment. We are just making this consumption simpler by bringing it on screen as well. 


AG: Among other platforms like TV, Online, DTH, you mentioned educational institutes and on-ground performances. Can you throw more light on this?

SK: Almost all of the plays have been selected keeping in mind not only entertainment but also some social message and purpose. Many school and college teachers that we have shown some of our plays to, feel they need to be screened in educational institutions as they provide entertainment with a purpose, without being preachy or didactic. Also many of these plays are classics and a part of our cultural heritage that we should introduce very proudly to our next and future generations. 


AG: Well, producing 100 Plays in next 3 years is the plan. So tell us the challenges you foresee and your plan of action for facing those? 

SK: As a team we have spent almost eight months working on this project. So have been through most of the challenges I hope. The biggest challenge that we faced initially was to convince the theatre industry that this is a good thing. There were many apprehensions about purity of the art form, or about losing theatre audience to TV or the digital medium. I guess a great number are convinced now that just as film or sport, there will be people who go to the stadium or a cinema hall to experience cricket or a movie and then there is a huge number who watch both these at home. The other big challenge is that each production has two directors. A theatre director and a filming director. That's now recipe for trouble. But it's something everyone is getting used to, albeit slowly. The theatre industry would get a lot more marketing and publicity and the talent that lies there in would get the recognition they have long deserved. I guess whenever anything new happens, there are bound to be a lot of apprehensions. Our challenge is to explain, assure and overcome. 


AG: When we can expect it to go on-air?

SK: Right now we are in the midst of completing our first batch of 13 productions. Working with 26 directors and almost 100 artists across these 13 plays has been the most exhilarating experience. By early 2016 we aim to be ready with almost 30 new productions. From Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali as well as Gujarati Theatre. We will take our finished productions globally starting January 2016. The digital launch will be early next year along with broadcast. Parallel to this we will be doing special cinema screenings and live shows.


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