Friday, July 22, 2016

The Taarak of Creativity

Courtesy: India Infoline
Sudhir Raikar , IIFL | Mumbai | July 22, 2016 17:45 IST

The maker of the epoch-making serial ‘Taarak Mehta ka Ooltah Chashmah’ shares the chills and thrills of his umpteen trials and triumphs en route success and fulfilment in this exclusive conversation with IIFL’s Sudhir Raikar.

Take a problem to Asit Kumarr Modi and he’ll invariably turn it into a solution, thanks to his oddball approach to life and its challenges. Edward de Bono may call it lateral thinking, Modi calls it ‘Ulta thinking’ – a perennial state of inquisitive mind that straightens out many a hassle of day-to-day life. Seated in his spacious office cabin wearing a broad smile, you can sense an air of positivity all around him. Even more so, because the man has no airs despite the glamour and glitz associated with his name..

“I can’t afford to lose my humility. That would mark the end of my creativity. Hence, I am extra vigilant about staying grounded and not losing my commoner identity in the halo of my fame, which of course is not eternal.” He tells you with quiet authority.

A commerce graduate from Mumbai, Modi was never cut out for the career options related to stocks and finances that were intrinsically linked to his Gujarati roots. The family took some time to come to terms with his uncommon passion but it was his single minded devotion to his chosen pursuit that motivated them to lend the support he needed.

Thus began a career steeped in a good mix of struggle and success, initially into theatre acting, technical support and assistant direction. Soon after, he handled end-to-end production for many a popular Marathi and Gujarati serial of the era and eventually in 1995, he incepted Neela Tele Films with the debut show Hum Sub Ek Hain. Thereafter he dabbled in an assortment of genres including comedy, family drama, verse-based series and reality shows. But it was the sitcom Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah that made him a legend. That Prime minster Modi included him and his Taarak team in the inaugural list of invitees to promote the Swachh Bharat Campaign bears testimony to his sterling achievement.

Loosely based on a newspaper column by renowned Gujarati writer Padmashree Tarak Mehta, the show immediately stuck resonance with TV viewers across strata for its humorous take on day to day issues grappling the middle class. Modi astutely tailored the script to suit modern day sensibilities while retaining the wit and wisdom of Mehta’s idiom. “It was a tight rope walk but I had faith in my ability to read the minds of my prospective viewers.” says Modi with a winsome smile. And he was more than right. The show will complete its 2000th episode in August and is still going strong.

The Famed Tarak Family: Modi with the Taarak Mehta team

But way back when Modi approached different channels with the idea of Taarak, most of them greeted him with a disdainful smile of rejection. ‘Saas Bahu drama’ was then the recurring theme and comedy had virtually no takers among makers. But Modi was hooked to his mission impossible and didn’t rest until Taarak was finally aired in 2008. The serial’s viewership took some time to gain momentum but what transpired later is of course history. Today, the show has earned worldwide fame and it’s the number one choice for film promotions. Distinguished guests from the world over visit the sets of Gokuldham Society, the famed residence of the screen characters. The latest dignitary to grace the premises was the Polish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Piotr Glinski who’s an ardent admirer of Indian culture and heritage, and hence the Taarak family as well.

Although the serial’s star cast is extremely popular, certain artists stand out for their effortless acting. Prime among them is Dilip Joshi (aka Jethalal) who has immortalized his character for posterity. Not only is his comic timing perfect, he doesn’t even need a storyline to make his act engaging – breathing high-octane drama in everyday situations that are typical of umpteen middle class households. Matching his calibre in every respect is his screen wife Disha Vakani (aka Daya) who is simply awesome in her portrayal. To maintain the bizarrely comic core of the character in episode after episode requires great talent and temperament and she has both in equal measure. The duo’s credence, contrary to popular perception, can’t be attributed to theatre backgrounds alone (both are accomplished artists); it’s their on-the-spur ingenuity that creates the magic, an effort that doesn’t show on screen, thanks to their terrific performance that's often downplayed in the name of comedy. That comedy is serious business is lost on most even today.

Many more artistes, apart from the two, show flashes of brilliance every now and then but there are also a few who clearly fall short of the intended effort and effect at times. This is of course understandable given several accidental artistes in the team. To their credit, they have shown tremendous dexterity in delivering the goods with convincing authority. And hats off to Modi’s people skills that he has bound his team together like a close-knit family. Even the script seems watered down at times but Modi ensures the viewer is kept positively engaged.

Modi sums it up aptly: “There’s no central character in the show as I see it. The protagonist is Gokuldham Society. And talking of acting, every artiste has his or her distinct style. Some do comedy through their actions, others in their reactions. And there are a few who amuse us simply as passive watchers of the action-reaction. I prefer to let each performer decide what’s best on the given day. I am happy with the aggregate outcome, so there’s no reason why I should look to create templates of acting.”

Modi with his Neela Telefilms team – Gokuldham-brand camaraderie

How does Modi approach the road ahead for Taarak? Ask him and he’s quick to reply in his matter of fact style, “Of course, the challenges of a daily soap are plentiful. But that’s what keeps me charged all the time. Though I am the producer, I have to personally get involved into every aspect of the creation – from script to direction. My creative team does a wonderful job so I feel duty bound to support them throughout.” So does that take a toll physically? “Not really. I relish my job as I want to cherish it in equal measure. When you enjoy your work, there’s no question of fatigue.” He reassures us.

Future plans for Modi are ripe with rich possibilities. Although he’s now firmly etched in the minds of TV viewers as a star producer of comic creations, his heart beats for scripts devoted to pathos and human-interest issues as well. "Very few remember that I produced the thought-provoking ‘Saarrthi’, a Mahabharata adaptation depicting the conflict between two brothers and their respective families. In future, I will definitely like to produce films and TV serials on diverse issues including stories based on literary gems. But I won’t make a film for the heck of it. I will wait for the right opportunity.” he reveals.

Given his track record, we know this Taarak, the saviour of creativity, will do just that to create another super hit Mehta of a different genre. We wish him every success.