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comedy shows take back seat on TV

The once popular sitcom has taken a backseat on the tube. But with Zee TV launching Bh Se Bhade last month,will the rest follow suit?

The rise of daily soaps on television was just a trend seen in 2000,which was supposed to die down in two years,instead it continued for over 10 plus years. The success of all regressive serials have put a road-block to the development of content on Indian television

— Shekhar Suman,actor

Launching Bh Se Bhade was akin to taking a risk. There are three critical things in a sitcom — a good writer,great cast and an amazing director-producer. If all these things match up,then you are bound to get a good show. Bh Se Bhade has all things mentioned above.

— Ajay Bhalwankar,Zee Content Head

“Ek ho gaye hum aur tum…humma humma,” sang Sweety (Rakhi Tandon) as she rushed to open the door on Zee TV’s popular show Hum Paanch. Or the self-proclaimed intelligent Praful (Rajeev Mehta) explaining to his wife Hansa (Supriya Pathak) the meaning of certain English terms on Star Plus’s Khichdi. These are some unforgettable images from popular sitcoms of yore. Gone are the days when sitcoms like Dekh Bhai Dekh and Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai ruled the GECs,they have now been eclipsed by daily soaps,reality series and stand-up comedies.

Says Saurabh Tewari,former channel head of Imagine TV,who is now producing Madhubala – Ek Ishq Ek Junoon for Colors,“There was a time when special format shows like Rishtey,Gubbare or situational comedies aired in the weekend space of Friday-Sunday,while the daily soaps aired between Monday-Thursday. The slot for dailies then got extended to Monday-Friday. Slowly and steadily they even captured the Saturday slot to telecast the special maha episodes of these dailies,leaving no space for special category programmes.”

Adding to Tewari’s observation,J.D. Majethia,who produced some of Indian television’s successful sitcoms like Sarabhai vs Sarabhai and Khichdi,says,“With Friday and Saturday being eaten up by dailies,Sunday was the only space available for sitcoms. Unfortunately,producers did not find the slot viable as they’d have to contend with tough competition from television premieres of star studded films on that day.” This opened up a space for reality shows to step in. “With star studded reality shows on weekends,channels were now able to compete with film premieres,leading to sitcoms being edged out completely.”

Since Indian television mostly plays it safe,every channel took to daily soaps,except for one. One channel took full advantage of sitcoms disappearing from GECs,and that’s SAB TV. “The audience got brainwashed with the entry of SAB TV. People began to believe that agar daily,drama,soaps dekhna hai toh tune in to GECs,but for comedy,one had to tune in to only one channel — and that’s SAB TV,” explains Tewari.

At one point of time shows like Shriman Shrimati and Hum Sab Ek Hai topped the TRP list. Such shows were loved by the entire family audience and also offered repeat value. Yet it lost its hold over the audience when television content largely became women-centric,making way for soap operas in the 2000s.

Shekhar Suman,who has acted in one of the most popular sitcoms,Dekh Bhai Dekh feels that Indian television is going through a phase. Unfortunately,he feels the trend of soap operas is taking a much longer time to fade. “We have seen a lot of trends on television,” he says,elaborating,“For example,there was a time when game shows were quite popular on TV (Jeeto Chappar Phaadke,Kya Aap Paanchvi Paas Se Tez Hai? Kamzor Kadii Kaun?),today we don’t see many game shows on TV. Likewise,the rise of daily soaps on television was just a trend seen in 2000,which was supposed to die down in two years,instead it continued for over 10 plus years. The success of all regressive serials have put a road-block to the development of content on Indian television.”

Elaborating further on why he blames the disappearance of sitcoms on daily soaps,Suman says,“When TV became available at even the remote villages of India,the profile of the mass audience changed with it. It now included the unemployed females and housewives,who loved the overtly dramatic shows aka the Indian soap operas. They connected with the characters in it.” This change in audience over the years saw the rise of kitchen politics or social messages in soaps and dailies with rural backdrops.

Meanwhile,though the sitcoms continued to vanish away from GECs,a new crop of shows started mushrooming. These were the stand-up comedy shows that got lapped up by audience deprived of comedy. The chutkulas of Sunil Pal or the mimicry of Raju Srivastava,coupled with the thahakedaar hansi of Navjot Singh Sidhu,is well remembered from one of the popular stand-up comedy reality shows The Great Indian Laughter Challenge,which went on air in 2005. Interestingly,while sitcoms take a backseat,stand-up comedy still remains a favourite on GECs — example,Comedy Circus,which is running successfully for over six years on Sony TV.

So was it a strategic move by GECs to offer comedy through stand-up as it requires less cost of production? “On the contrary,stand-up shows are more expensive than a sitcom. A show like Comedy Circus is made on a budget of Rs.40 lakhs per episode,” says Suman. Tewari seconds Suman saying,“Cost of producing one episode of Comedy Nights With Kapil (which is more of a skit format than a stand-up) is three times more than the cost of producing one episode of Madhubala. It is the cast (including Navjot Singh Sidhu) and above all,Kapil himself would be charging a bomb.”

Asit Kumarr Modi,however,feels that channels avoid sitcoms as it’s not an easy format. The producer of the hit comic series Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah opines that writing for a stand-up show is much more easy than writing for a sitcom. “On a sitcom you have set characters,a set plot and a subject. You have to work within these limitations,weave in different stories for different episodes,make it look fresh,interesting and humorous. Stand-up shows are not based on anything specific,” he elaborates.

Suman may just see his prediction of the absence of sitcoms on GEC being a phase turning true as one of the country’s leading channel,Zee TV took the initiative to launch Deven Bhojani starrer Bh Se Bhade last month.

Says Ajay Bhalwankar,Zee Content Head,“Launching Bh Se… was akin to taking a risk. There are three critical things in a sitcom — a good writer,great cast and an amazing director-producer. If all these things match up,then you are bound to get a good show. Bh Se Bhade has all things mentioned above (the show is being produced by J.D. Majethia).”

Though Bhalwankar sounds all optimistic,Tewari opines that when it comes to number-crunching (TRPs),drama shows score over fictional comedy shows. “The kind of viewership Diya Aur Baati Hum gives to Star Plus or a Madhubala… gives to Colors is not the case with sitcoms. Drama brings bigger numbers,because the TV audience is over-dramatic. The shocking twists and turns are added in daily soaps which attract audiences. For instance,Colors tried to bring in some sitcom magic with Mrs Pammi Pyarelal,but it failed,” he explains. In terms of success ratio,Tewari feels that the success ratio of sitcoms is just one per cent compared to drama series.

“Tell me how many successful shows do you remember from the comedy channel — SAB TV? Over five years,it could only deliver one Taarak Mehta…,whereas Star Plus or Colors have given atleast two well remembered soaps per year,” he adds.

Whatever be the case,Suman feels that Indian TV is in need of a revolution. He lauds channels like Colors or Zee for making the effort to break the routine. “It is good that Colors is doing something like a 24,or Zee launching Bh Se Bhade. From here on,it can only grow.”

onkar.kulkarni@expressindia.com

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