Interview with Umesh Padalkar
Posted by Vivek on October 6, 2008 | No Comments
You have almost made a specialty in the Thriller/Forensic/ genre in television. What is it about that genre that excites you particularly?
Human conflict, in all its forms, is the core subject of all my work on Indian Television. To a twisted mind, the gun represents a solution in a conflict. And most “normal” people have that twisted mind hidden somewhere deep below the layers of “socially acceptable behavior”. When the circumstances get tough, and the conflicts go beyond reasonable limits, the twisted mind takes over and uses violence as resolution. This reaction is always destructive. Physically and, more importantly, mentally destructive. The exploration of such human conflicts and their violent reactions leads to entertaining visual narratives. Since most of my episodes have elements like “murders”, “guns”, “race against time”, etc, I agree that by definition my work so far could be labeled as “thrillers”. But, these elements are merely outcomes of irreconcilable human conflicts, and not the main agenda behind the stories.
Also talk about some of your work in Indian television.
I must be the TV director with the least number of episodes to his credit. I cannot have actually “directed” more than 30 to 35 episodes in all my life. These days, people direct those many episodes in a month ! I have been a part of the team that created TV series like “Kagaar”, “Dhadkan” and “Special Squad”. All of them have received some nomination or award for some team member or the other, but none of them have ever received “chart-busting” viewership.
Given that you came from an Engineering background and then Ad films, talk about Indian Television as a director?
Indian Television is a promise that has gone awry. While we can bemoan its pathetic state (brought to light by the current strike), we can also take heart in the fact that it can only improve. I am betting on the fact that it will.
For an Industry that is looked down upon by most literary snobs, here are a few issues to consider. Number of original episodes per day, multiplied by the number of channels on air – gives us the number of episodes that are written, executed, edited and aired on time, every time, day after day, week after week, for the past so many years. Majority of these are also delivered within budget ! No other audio-visual entertainment Industry has this record. People do not associate this sort of sustained discipline with the TV Industry. On the face of it, everyone derides this industry. “Oh, he’s doing TV,” they say ! But when it comes to earning money, they run to it like producers and actors run to numerologists.
Despite the fact that color TV arrived more that twenty years ago, I would still refer to the TV industry as nascent. So the expertise to control this beast has not yet matured. While achieving this amazing delivery schedule, a lot of things have gone haywire. Investment in infrastructure remains extremely poor. Unmanageable stress levels, mutilated personal lives, lazy HR development in all the departments of the Industry (i.e. job-specific training and development), time-management, payment schedules, salary structures, overall efficiency and . . . above all . . . choice of content. All these issues are yet horribly under-developed, leading to the poor image of the Industry.
If properly developed, then TV can become a platform for experiment, and a feeder channel for all other audio-visual mediums of entertainment. A typical TV day consists of six to eight hours of prime time, multiplied by the number of channels. If we cannot devote one or two hours per week to exploration of the medium, discovering new talent and breeding new ideas, then, when the rest of the programming fails, you will have nothing else on stand-by. As is the case now.
How has it changed and how has it evolved as the media and economy of India, looks upwards?
Doordarshan was, and still is, free-to-air. That was excellent. A whole new industry was created. Content was designed by creators of repute. Audiences lapped it up. Satellite TV arrived and gave the audience more choice. Prices of TV sets dropped and audience in smaller towns multiplied. Then, KBC, Star Plus and Balaji changed the dynamics of the Industry. A simple majority of the audience became the benchmark for designing software. The niche viewers (the sum total of whom may exceed the so-called “majority”) are totally neglected. The budgets zoomed higher. But the actual cost of producing an episode has not yet gone up pro-rata. The current structure of Industry management (Administrative and Creative teams from the production and the channel) is top-heavy. Lot of well-paid and not necessarily well-qualified people at the top making decisions which the harried, under-paid and over-worked people at the bottom have to execute. The current strike is a result of this imbalance.
But, even as times change and we have more channels than the buttons on the remote, television software is still considered as “free entertainment”. The audience directly paying the makers to watch a good episode – is still an alien concept. As new generation of viewers come in, they might be more open to “paying” for a more “personalized” mix of programs, delivered to them in the format of their choice and . . . mainly . . . at the time of their choice. The innovator who is able to do that at the right time, will hugely benefit. That’s when the TV industry will be an extremely exciting place to be in.
Having worked with some of the finest actors in television and also having groomed some of the finest talent, who have gone on to make films and television, who amongst these have been your highlight to direct and work with? Like the “Aha” moment?
I have always tried to make my job very easy. Appoint the best possible people for the job, lie back and enjoy the continuous stream of “aha” moments ! The idea is to make each moment . . . whether writing, directing or editing . . . an “aha” moment. And that “aha” moment has happened with an overwhelmingly large majority of the people that I have worked with. Actors, technicians, writers, assistants . . . you name them . . . they have come up with stunning “aha” moments, under extreme duress. I owe my continued presence in the industry to these amazingly talented people.
What is next on the plate creatively?
I rarely do stuff that I have done earlier.
So, now I am writing a 26 part series for the TV venture of Yash Raj Films. They want to write 26 episodes first and then shoot them together.
I am writing an animated film for Graphiti, a concept that they have been painstakingly developing for the past 18 months. The results are astounding.
Some blokes from California think that I can direct an out-of-the-box financial thriller for them and we are currently trying to hammer out a good script for the past six months.
The above examples show that there still are a lot of people who believe in putting good money in projects that defy tradition. So, the plate is full of diverse, exciting and satisfying concepts.
Compare Indian television with US television :
Comparing TV in India and US is like comparing Amitabh Bachchan with DeNiro. i.e. it is a pointless exercise. Both work effectively in their own surroundings. The land is different, the society is different, the ethics are different, the audience is different, the business is different, etc. If and when those conditions become similar, such a comparison will yield some fruitful results.
Compare Indian television with the Indian film industry :
Competition always leads to better results for the audience. At one point in time, Films were the unchallenged mode of entertainment. Then, TV challenged the gargantuan Indian Film Industry and won. Theaters ran empty. Then, the Film Industry re-invented itself. It started doing what TV did in the Doordarshan days. New and exciting scripts are being funded. Variety is at least attempted. Now, by being repetitive and uninspiring, it is TV’s turn to lag behind. Sooner, it gets out of the rut, the better.
Compare Indian television with the Regional film industry :
World over, people are most comfortable in watching entertainment content in their own language. Hollywood is trying to break that rule in the rest of the world and Hindi Films are trying to overpower regional films in India. In both cases they might get limited success, but certain robust local industries and their die-hard fans will not allow this take-over to happen. Thus, the Regional film industries will always survive the onslaught of Hindi Television and Films. If they innovate quicker and provide better value for money, then they will easily beat Hindi TV and Films, as has happened in the case of South Indian Film and TV industry.
If all paid as well and all were as fulfilling, which one would it be, films/television or theater?
Television. Any time. I can do more and much more varied projects in much shorter time intervals. Films just take too long !
But, I guess that eventually making films might be more satisfying. When I make one that is released, I might be in a better position to compare.