We spoke to Rajan Shahi, show runner and producer of this hit soap.
Year 2008: Household names Tulsi and Parvati were set to retire from television screens after ruling them for 1,833 and 1,661 episodes of 'Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi' and 'Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki', respectively. Star Plus, the then No.1 Hindi General Entertainment Channel (GEC), was faced with serious competition from Zee TV and the then newly-launched Colors, from Viacom18. Rupert Murdoch's Star India, under the leadership of Uday Shankar, decided to work hard at bringing some freshness into its programming lineup to battle popular shows such as Zee's 'Pavitra Rishta' and Colors' 'Uttaran' and 'Balika Vadhu'.
Soon enough, a simple show nestled in the channel's 9:00 PM slot, called 'Sapna Babul Ka.... Bidaai', one that unabashedly mirrored the blueprint of a quintessential Rajshri-produced movie (read: Vivaah), began making headlines. The show had a dark complexioned girl as its protagonist and simplicity as its USP.
Subsequently, taking the channel's newfound mission of injecting freshness into its programming lineup forward, the team thought of creating another simple female-centric story for the immediate next time slot (9:30). That's how the idea of the show 'Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai' was hatched. The first episode was aired in January 2009. The show was launched with the objective of exploring the concept of love within the context of a traditional arranged marriage. Hina Khan played Akshara, the protagonist, a shy, demure, obedient daughter, who's been raised like a princess, in a traditional Marwari family. Karan Mehra played her husband Naitik.
Cut to 2017: Nine years after it hit TV screens, the show has emerged as the longest running daily in India going by the number of episodes as the parameter.
Rajan Shahi started his production house Director's Kut in 2007 and first forayed into the cut-throat world of television production with Star Plus' 'Sapna Babul Ka...Bidaai'. "That was my first show as a producer. It did very well and became one of the top rated shows at that time," recalls Shahi. The show, in its very first week, garnered 4.7 TVR and soon emerged as the No.1 one show, both, on the channel as well as overall, in the category. Star then decided to make the show an hour-long daily, from 9:00 PM to 10:00 PM. "For three months, 'Bidaai' ran for an hour," says Shahi.
'Bidaai' was all about simplicity and Star handed over the responsibility of complementing this simplicity with a new show to Rajan Shahi's Director's Kut. Then, in January 2009, came 'Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai' at 9:30 PM; 'Bidaai' went back to being a 30-minute show. "Extended telecast of 'Bidaai' for three months gave 'Yeh Rishta' the perfect launch pad to thrive and fly high. The show had a great opening with 5.6 TVR," remembers Shahi, 'show runner' as the channel puts it.
Even after 2,500 episodes, it is the No.1 show on Star Plus and is among the top three shows in the Hindi General Entertainment space, across channels. "This is one of the biggest achievements of the show," says Shahi, adding about the ongoing buzz, "Remember, we are in a space today where there is a lot of hype around the show, leading to a temporary spike in viewership. But once the dust settles and the viewership falls, we'll still say we're running with dignity for the last nine years," barely able to keep the gratitude and pride out of his voice.
But it has not been all peaches and roses. 'Yeh Rishta' too has had its roadblocks. Shahi feels staying true to the essence of the show helped the team tide over each obstacle. While staying true to the core theme is important, so too is evolving with time. "Yes we did evolve," says Shahi, "But evolution does not mean following a particular trend or formula. We did not let our competition decide what we should do. There was a time when we saw everyone chasing one successful formula, but we didn't."
Speaking of trends, who can deny the ongoing barrage of supernatural themed shows in the Hindi GEC space? The makers of 'Yeh Rishta' have managed to steer clear of this apparently winning tack. But why isn't there a villain or a vamp? "We were very clear from the very beginning that no matter what, we will never play with the 'simplicity' aspect of the relationships in our show. This is a family show, something the entire family sits and watches together, and that is our strength. So, we always kept overly dramatic tracks away from the show," Shahi responds.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE
Not very long ago, the makers of the show faced turbulent winds. Last year, the show saw a mass exodus: Karan Mehra (who plays Naitik) was the first to leave; he was replaced by Vishal Singh. Soon after, Rohan Mehra exited the show (he played the lead pair's son Naksh). Both Karan and Rohan were participants of Colors' Bigg Boss - Season 10. Rishi Dev replaced Rohan as Naksh, but the exit that raised many an eyebrow was that of the protagonist Hina Khan (Akshara). Hina wasn't replaced; the writers accommodated her absence by adding a track in which her character meets with an accident and dies on the spot.
According to sources, there was friction between Hina and the production team. "She wanted to have a say in the amount of screen time other characters got and if things didn't pan out as she wanted, she would skip work without prior notice..." says an insider. Hina told the media she quit the show as she believed there was nothing more to add to her character.
"Well, when you're there for nine years, obviously there are ups and downs," Shahi concedes, adding, "Yes, it's true that the biggest challenge for us was last year when we had a lot of issues with the senior cast, where we were not able to live up to their expectations. Hence, we decided to place a big bet and gamble by bringing in a new story, that of Naira (played by Shivangi Joshi), daughter of Akshara and Naitik, and Kartik (played by Mohsin Khan). That was as good as launching a new show."
Did it work? "When the transition took place we were at 1.7 TVR; in two months we reached 3.5 TVR. This shows our transition was accepted by the audience," says Shahi.
Going on about the entire transition phase, he says, "I did some introspection and found that I was not very happy with way the episodes were shot. The entire quality of the show was not up to the mark. One day I sat down with my team and said, 'This is not what we stand for' and that I would rather shut the show than carry on that way. We had the best directorial team, best post production team and were still not able to deliver in terms of quality. I was keen to identify the issues and find solutions, failing which I was willing to discontinue the show."
And that's when the team decided to hang on to the people who believed in the show. The rest moved on.
THE RATINGS GAME
Shahi is grateful to Star for not interfering with the storyline or suggesting dramatic 'trending' tracks, even during tough times. "They never came to us saying things like, 'This show on that channel is delivering high ratings... ' And that happens a lot in programming... whenever there is a dip in ratings, the channel hits the panic button and says, 'Yeh show me yeh funda bahut chal raha hai, aisa kuch daal do...'"
But that does not mean Shahi sleeps well on Wednesdays. "I too am nervous on Thursdays. No ratings, no show," he says. It's that simple. "No channel today will let a show run if ratings aren't good. They need ratings for their business. So, yes, ratings are important for producers. It's important to me. If I want to sustain, I need my shows to garner good ratings," he says, going to on clarify, nevertheless,
"But, I never let ratings decide my track. If there is a dip, I won't bring in a track which might get me short term success. That is why I have shows which have rated well as well as shows which are critically acclaimed but did not get good ratings like 'Kuch Toh Log Kahenge' (Sony)..."
2,500 AND COUNTING...
At the moment, Shahi and team are on a high. Currently, about 200 people (excluding around 45 actors) work as a unit to keep the show going. The post production team comprises about 25 people. Savouring this milestone, he says, "There's one thing I'm very proud of - the fact that majority of our writers, creative directors, editors have been there with us since day one. That's the biggest force behind our success."
Ashish Bhasin, chairman and CEO, Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN), South Asia
"Media buying decisions are taken on the basis of viewership trends. If the viewership is good, it does not matter if the show is 10 episodes old or 2,000 episodes old. Media buying and planning judgments are made on the basis of past trends too; longer running shows make a difference. The longer the run, the more stable the viewership tends to be. So the element of risk decreases. It becomes a safer bet for the media planner because the chances of it going down significantly are less; it's not as if a show running for 2,480 episodes will suddenly flop at the 2,481st episode."
Asit Kumaar Modi, founder, Neela Telefilms and producer of Taraak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chasmah (2,337 episodes)
Asit Kumaar Modi
"2,000+ any day, anywhere is a great achievement for a show, but now it has become way more challenging as viewer habits are continuously changing with the emergence of digital media. With 'Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chasmah', our challenges were different from those faced by the makers of other daily shows. That's because we operate in the comedy genre and need to make people laugh. Else, we go off. Also, our primary responsibility is to stay relevant to day-to-day life. What worked well for 'Yeh Rishta' is clarity of thought and belief of the maker of the show in his team."
Sunjoy Waddhwa, CMD, Sphereorigins, and producer of Balika Vadhu (2,248 episodes)
"The key to being around for seven to eight years, or for 2,000+ episodes, lies in the characters of the show and in the art of story-telling. The biggest challenge in the process is to maintain the freshness of the show; that's where the writers play a vital role. Congratulations to 'Yeh Rishta' and Rajan (Shahi). 2,500+ episodes is undoubtedly a great milestone. The characters worked very well and several of them managed to earn a lot of loyalty. Hats off to the writers too."