The Epic Storyteller - Arvind Babbal

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Three names – Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Arvind Babbal, Saraswatichandra and you know we are talking about a legend in the making! Saraswatichandra has been one of the most awaited shows on television mainly for two reasons. Firstly, it is an epic romance and secondly it is an epic film maker’s visionary debut on television. So imagine our delight when we found out that the first schedule of the show was going to be shot in Dubai!!! We just could not miss the opportunity of bringing you an exclusive feature of Mr Arvind Babbal, the man, who has been entrusted the responsibility of directing Saraswatichandra by Sanjay Leela Bhansali himself. Mr Arvind Babbal is a man widely regarded as one of the greatest television directors who began his career in 1986 under the patronage of Mr. Lekh Tandon. He directed Zee TV’s ‘Kartavya’, a show that not only  managed to sustain against, but also achieve the same TRP as ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’, hosted by Mr Amitabh Bacchan on STAR Plus. Mr Babbal has been a part of monumental shows such as Kumkum, Chhoti Maa, Virasat (B.R. Films), Jiya Jale, Yahaa Mai Ghar Ghar Kheli, Kesar, Shobha Somnath Ki just to name a few and has received 8 nominations in ITA’s ‘Best Director’ category. Away from the city, on location in a beautiful palace on a private beach in Dubai…the cast and crew of Saraswatichandra get to work and the shoot goes on without a hitch for almost 8 hours. As the sun sets into the Arabian sea its pack up for the unit…Mr Arvind Babbal sits down with Tinsel Gupshup to talk about his work, his life, the art of storytelling and Saraswatichandra – the show that he has waited for patiently…




TG: We have heard that you are a ‘Set up’ director. Can you tell us a bit about that?

AB: Yes. For the past 5 years, I have been involved in show setups. So that means, I will direct the show for the initial 40-50 episodes and then I move on to other shows. It might sound easy but setting up a show is actually quite complicated because you have to take a concept that is on paper, breathe life into it, make it a reality on screen and then show its growth. When a new show starts everything about it is grand and we need to show that grandeur on screen. I believe that the initial 40 episodes are crucial because that is the timeframe when the audience will decide whether they want to continue watching the show or not. I doubt that a serial becomes a hit after 40 episodes. Touchwood, my fraternity has given me a great deal of respect and I am considered as sort of an expert in show setups.



TG: Why do you choose to only setup a show?

AB: The reason why I choose to setup shows is because after 40 episodes, I feel like I have done everything. After 40 episodes, the actor or artist has understood the character, so they don’t need to be instructed all the time. The set or location has been exposed completely, so there is nothing new for me and I don’t enjoy doing the same shot over and over again. So as a director I feel that I don’t have any more work to do. I have never worked for money…it has always been about my happiness, creative satisfaction so at the end of the day, I should be able to sleep well knowing that I was able to take two perfect shots! Everyone keeps asking me that I have been working in television for so many years; I must be bored of it all. To be honest, even today, when I go for a shoot, I feel like I am going to give a board exam. I cannot get complacent about any scene because when I take it as a challenge then it becomes much bigger and I feel connected to my work. This is why every day feels like an exam to me.




TG: You set up shows. For 40-50 episodes that show is yours…it is your baby, your concept, your vision. Is it easy to hand that over to someone else? Do you ever go back, watch what is being made of what you started and ask…what have they made of it?

AB: Yes, that happens a lot and it does trouble me. Almost like a mother who gives birth to a child, nurtures him and then when the child is old enough to run and play, you have to hand him over to someone else. That is painful and then sometimes you feel that the child is not being looked after well. I suppose if you are lucky then you will get a good director to take the show forward. Also, after 50 episodes, the stress factor increases because we don’t have a bank of episodes. So because of time restraints, channel demands etc the quality will not be the same as when the show had started. Having said that, I usually stay with the show and shoot wedding episodes etc because the producers and the channel always call me to take care of the big sequences.




TG: Directing daily serials is no joke. You are working for such long hours and there is a lot of stress involved. Have you ever considered moving on to movies?

AB: When I came to Mumbai from Delhi, the plan was to get into movies but at that time I had certain responsibilities. I wanted to settle my family and films could not have given me that financial security. Television has a lot of money in fact, all big production houses and film celebrities are moving into television today. There is no doubt that it is hard work but there is a lot of money and financial security in this industry as well. With films there is an uncertainty as in, you never know if the movie will work or not work so there is no security. Two years after I moved to Mumbai I had an offer from UTV for a film but I decided to stick to television. Even today, Mr. Bhansali keeps asking me narrate a story and he has assured me that he will produce my movie so yes…that is always a tempting option for me. So far I have enjoyed my career in television but now, after setting up this show, I will do a film as I have been working on the story and concept with a team of writers.



TG: What is the most challenging facet of being a director?

AB: I feel that in this day and age of television, a director must also be a good manager and leader. If you are 40% creative and 60% able to manage a unit then you can become a good director. We are given targets and we have many restraints and limits, so we have to follow deadlines and more importantly maintain quality while following those deadlines. I feel that working under pressure, deadlines and maintaining discipline in the unit are the biggest challenges a director faces. When I say something, people should get to work immediately. To get that kind of discipline, sometimes you have to treat the actor or unit like children and sometimes you have to get angry with them. At the end of the day all the actors are used to a bit of pampering and though  they treat me like a father and a teacher if I scold them a bit they will get serious and come to their marks.



TG: As a director, when you pack up and go home, what do you find most satisfying?

AB: The most satisfying feeling is that even under so much stress and with so many deadlines, I was able to fulfill my vision. If I had to do 8 scenes and 6 came out just as I had envisioned them but 2 scenes had to be hurried because of time restraints then, that will be a compromise for me. So, even after pack up, I’ll keep thinking about how much I had to compromise during the course of the day. As a director and a visionary, I have certain limits on how much I will compromise with my work. Of course there are times when things are out of our hands like emergencies, weather etc and that is acceptable. I have completed an episode in one day and the channel has called me up to congratulate me on it. That day I did not put the camera on the stand at all, they were all hand held shots and I was very happy with the work. Though we were under a lot of stress, I was very happy with the quality of the episode. So the biggest satisfaction is doing the best I can in the given the circumstances.





TG: You were the director of a historical show called ‘Shobha Somnath ki’. That show must have been very special because it was your first historical show and secondly you were working with children. Can you tell us about that experience?

AB: I have never done a historical or religious serial. Historical serials are grand and then you have horses, elephants, palaces etc. Even if the maharaja has to walk 10 paces there will be 20 guards following him, so though I enjoy grand shoots, I was skeptical about such grandeur. Once I started shooting, I realized that there was nothing to be nervous about. At the end of the day, my job was to show my vision on screen and within two days of the shoot, I was really enjoying myself. I think it is the most difficult thing to work with small children. I held a workshop for the children where I did not talk about the scenes or the show. My main intention was to make the children comfortable and get to know them. After the workshop when I went for the shoot, I took a big box filled with their favorite things and I said whichever child was well behaved would get a gift after pack up. The kids got so comfortable with me and when I left the show all the parents would call me up and tell me that the kids were really missing me. I had 3 assistants whose main job was to ensure that the kids were happy and comfortable. It is extremely difficult to work with kids but once you connect with them and become comfortable, it becomes very easy.




TG: You have directed so many shows. Any one show where you faced difficulties on a scene?

AB: Yes, we were shooting for a show in Mauritius and the concept of the show was something like ‘Lost’ where a plane crashes and there are survivors on an island. We were shooting on a beach in Mauritius and at night it would start getting really cold. The crew was all bundled up in sweaters and caps but my actors were shooting in jeans, T-shirts and skirts. One of the girls had started turning Blue during the shoot and I used to get really worried watching them shoot in such cold conditions. Also, that sea water had a certain species of Fish with very long thorns and if that thorn breaks the skin then it travels into the body and gets lost in the blood stream. So we always had doctors and ambulances on site. So I decided to make up a sequence where these actors are exploring the island and they find some dead bodies. So we had an entire scene where my actors take off the shoes, coats etc off the dead bodies and give them a proper burial. I needed props and this was the only way I could get those props for my actors! This makes me think of Hitchcock’s line that nothing is impossible in cinema. This is a huge statement because there should be no reason that your shoot to stop. Whether you have an actor or not, props, lighting…nothing should stop the camera from rolling. So my work should not stop for any reason. I always should have a way to make my scene move forward. But then you have to have that presence of mind, the vision…to make it happen.






TG: You have worked with so many actors and actresses. Anyone who has really impressed you?

AB: I have immense respect for two actors – Girish Karnad and Shriram Lagoo. I had worked with them in 1991 and at that time the shots used to be very well choreographed because they would be almost 2 minutes long. There would be complicated trolley movements and if an actor did not get to the correct mark in the given timeframe then the whole shot would get ruined. Sriram Lagoo was an expert in terms of these technicalities. I mean once you explain the marking and movements to him, you don’t need repeat yourself. He also had such an immense sense of pauses…I mean his timings for a pause would be so perfect, even the director or writer would not have thought of it. A pause can underline a moment, a dialogue so beautifully. Not many actors understand the art of pausing and I believe that an actor who can express without saying anything…that is art…that is performance!




TG: Saraswatichandra on television…please tell us about it. How did you take this project?

AB: Sanjay Leela Bhansali actually wanted to make a movie on Saraswatichandra but for some reason he could not take the project on. Sanjay ji is very attached to the story of Saraswatichandra and he decided to make a television show on it but he was unsure of how to go about it. I had shot a pilot for the show and when he saw it he was so impressed with my work. Basically his exact words to me were that my pilot was good enough to be a pilot for a movie…that was a huge compliment for me. Sanjay ji is very direct and he does not mince words so if he does not like something he will say it immediately. I believe that he respects me and has a lot of faith in me. Also, the channel was extremely excited that Sanjay Leela Bhansali would be making something for television. Now you have to understand that if Sanjay Leela Bhansali is making a show for television and his name is attached to the project then people’s expectations will grow tenfold! For the first time ever on television, this will be – ‘Sanjay Leela Bhansali presents Saraswatichandra…directed by Arvind Babbal!’ This is a momentous opportunity for me. I don’t leave any stone unturned…whether I am directing one scene, one show, one actor or 500 actors…that is how I work. With this show, I will be taking my perfectionism to a whole new level.



TG: What are your expectations from the show?

AB: I have a lot of expectations from the show and we have waited a very long time for the shoot to start. Both Gautam and I have been waiting very patiently for this project to start. I know that Gautam has had many other offers but he has literally put everything on hold just because he wanted to be a part of Saraswatichandra. Everyone who is a part of this show is very excited – the producer, director, makers, creatives, actors and the channel. In fact, I believe that the channel has set aside a larger budget for publicity of the show and they want to launch it in a very big way. Nobody is looking at it as a normal show. The pilot episode was made in such a way that it just immediately raised everyone’s expectations.





TG: Please tell us a bit about the story of the Saraswatichandra…

AB: I really like stories where we explore relationships, bonds…some days are good, some bad, some days people are together, some days they get separated. Basically, ‘Sambhando ke utaar chadaav ki kahaani mujhe bahut acchi lagti hai.’ The best thing about this story is that even in this day and age, the hero and heroine will keep within the boundaries, within the ‘maryada’ and they will not cross those boundaries to do what they want to do. At the same time, even though they are apart…their love is stronger and deeper than the love of those who actually live together, ‘aisa pyaar kiyaa jo saath mein rehkar bhi log nahi kar paye!’ It is a love without limits yet fate does not allow them to come together. Whenever they have the opportunity to be together, their duties keep getting in the way. So love keeps bringing them together but all the other things keep breaking them apart. Even though they are not together, the connection between them is so strong that they are just happy and content knowing and thinking about each other. It is a very tricky and complicated situation to show because there are very thin lines and Gautam and Jennifer are doing a brilliant job. Gautam catches things very easily and he is an actor who performs from his heart. To act from the heart you have to go in that zone, you have to feel and show those feelings. I think you have to bare your soul when you act from the heart. Many actors are mechanical and when they act…it is almost like calculated acting. An actor should be able to get the audience to connect with his emotions. Gautam has that factor and he can get the viewers in that zone. Also, the working chemistry between Gautam and Jennifer is fantastic. I am very excited about this show and we will put in our best effort. I am sure the viewers will enjoy the show. The TRP of the first five episodes will let us know how things go. Once again, I will set the show up and leave it in the capable hands of the makers but I am extremely honored to be connected with such a prestigious project.



Photo credit: Arvind Babbal & Tinsel Gupshup


©Tinsel Gupshup

May 17, 2013
Excellent........... do you know some other word praise this serial. this makes me to come to my house early

Mar 12, 2013
Amazed by the choice of ur questions TG! Bravo..superbly done! :-)

Achint Naveen
Feb 22, 2013
Very Nice interview. Bravo TG!

Abhay R. Singh
Feb 21, 2013
Gr8 Director of Television with gr8 Show.... Best of luck Arvind ji.

Jayant Deshmukh
Feb 15, 2013

Divya VS
Feb 09, 2013
Awesome interviews and beautiful article.. Waiting for the show to air..

Rose Fdes
Feb 09, 2013
Awesome article thank q so much.... aka Rose Barunholic

Feb 08, 2013
This was an awesome interview.The "set up" director part was quite interesting to read.I am looking forward to this show.The concept sounds good.All the best to the whole team.Nice snap at the end :)

Piu Chatterjee
Feb 08, 2013
A very very exciting and interesting read TG as usual.The exclusive feature and the insight on the set-up director concept has intrigued me.Totally loved the way ,the show is being shot with grandeur

Manal Ali
Feb 08, 2013
Awww Tinsel thank Q so much this Beautiful Article <3 ! and Pics <3 they small but enough to get GR's glimpse <3 this makes me very excited for the show :) <3 thanks once again <3

Aparna Thiyam
Feb 08, 2013
thank u. I saw the promos n been wanting to know whats its all abt. After reading ur intv it will be in my watching list:)

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