“It’s an attempt to put out the story of India-Pakistan collaboration”

March 17, 2024

Shailja Kejriwal (centre) with writer Beegul and director Kashif Nisar at the Sydney premiere of The Pink Shirt. — Photos: Supplied
Shailja Kejriwal (centre) with writer Beegul and director Kashif Nisar at the Sydney premiere of The Pink Shirt. — Photos: Supplied

Much before YouTube popularised contemporary Pakistani drama, the common Indian became familiar with it courtesy of Zee Zindagi, a Hindi-language general entertainment channel launched in 2014, which exclusively aired syndicated Pakistani shows. A decade on, as Zindagi reaffirms its position on Dish TV, direct-to-home and OTT platform, its Pakistani content remains its main draw. Recently, the channel hit another milestone when it entered into partnership with producers on this side of the border. The result has been stellar shows like Asim Abbasi’s ensemble Churails (2020) and Meenu Gaur’s genre-bending Qatil Haseenaon Kay Naam (2021). In the pipeline are a Kashif Nisar-directed rom-com, The Pink Shirt; Mehreen Jabbar’s Farar, which celebrates female bonding; and Abbasi’s Fawad-Khan-led Barzakh. Each of these got a rave response at preview screenings at festivals around the world.

For Shailja Kejriwal, the Mumbai-based proud creator of Zindagi, “it’s been a tough journey but a journey forward nonetheless.” The CCO of special projects at Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited, Kejriwal has previously produced Star Bestsellers during her stint as head of programming at Star India, before she struck gold with the saas-bahu ‘subgenre’ of day soaps on Indian television.

A great admirer of Pakistan TV drama, Kejriwal was famously quoted to have consumed “almost 8,000 hours of Pakistani content,” before Zindagi was born. She is the lone advocate for artistic and cultural exchanges between India and Pakistan. Following the 2016 Uri terror attack, Zindagi was compelled to remove all Pakistani content. However, it soon rebranded itself as a digital-only channel accessible on the subscription-based streaming portal, Zee5. It also started curating shows from Pakistan, in addition to shows from Bangladesh, Turkey, Brazil and South Korea.

In 2020, Kejriwal took a leap of faith and announced generating original content from Pakistan. The channel got a fresh tagline/ slogan: Zindagi Mil Ke Jiyenge, a clear nod to cultural collaboration between the two neighbouring countries.

Kejriwal is also credited for producing films for Pakistani filmmakers like Jabbar (Lala Begum) and Nabi (Jeewan Haathi) under the banner of Zeal for Unity — Zee Entertainment’s “apolitical platform meant to bring Indian and Pakistani filmmakers together.” Always looking for good stories, she launched Zee Theatre in 2015 as a pioneering OTT channel to adapt and archive stage classics as teleplays. The aim, according to her, was to “bring forth and preserve the traditional and literary roots of well-crafted stories and plays.”

The News on Sunday had a Zoom Live with Kejriwal, ahead of the release of Abdullahpur Ka Devdas, another Zindagi original from Pakistan, starring Bilal Abbas Khan and Sara Khan. Excerpts follow:


The News on Sunday: Premieres of OTT shows have become quite a trend. How do you look at it, and what purpose do you think these serve?

Shailja Kejriwal: There are shows produced for a specific market. For instance, a lot of shows in India target primarily the Indian market. Similarly, a lot of shows on Zindagi are for Indians and Pakistanis all over the world and not particularly for the Indian market.

Unfortunately, we aren’t allowed to play these shows in Pakistan. So, when we take a show to the festivals, we get a lot of press and social media influencers. That’s one important way of marketing.

It is also great prestige because we only go where we are selected and invited to. We end up being an India-Pakistan collaboration. That’s a great message to send out.

TNS: The premieres are theatrical showings; right?

SK: Yes. See, we shoot these shows/ dramas in 4K, which is better than what a lot of movies are being shot in. The sound quality is amazing, too. So, why restrict them to the small screen? I was telling Kashif [Nisar] and Asim [Abbasi] the other day that they should have theatrical premieres in Pakistan also because the shows look amazing on the big screen.

Usually, we premiere two episodes at a screening. We’ve had several screenings. For instance, The Pink Shirt had screenings in three cities — Birmingham, Manchester and London. It was exceptional because the exhibitors wanted more content. We ended up showing three episodes at a screening. It was packed houses everywhere. Then Farar had premieres in Washington DC and Chicago. Mehreen [Jabbar] was there, too.

TNS: What’s the status of Barzakh, by far Zindagi’s most anticipated Pakistani show?

SK: Actually, Barzakh has only been completed now. It’s a VFX-heavy show, probably the biggest VFX show to come out of Pakistan. You’ll believe it when you see it. The visual effects took long because, initially, we tried to get it done in Pakistan but it didn’t work out. So we tried it in India. That didn’t work out either. Eventually, we settled on a foreign company. You know how [The Legend of] Maula Jatt was delayed because of the VFX but the final product was worth the wait.

TNS: Did you get a chance to watch The Legend of Maula Jatt?

SK: Oh yes, first day, first show. I flew to Dubai to watch it.

TNS: Abdullahpur Ka Devdas, another Zindagi original from Pakistan, which is currently streaming two episodes a week on Zindagi’s YouTube channel, took almost five years to release. Comment.

SK: Let me clarify; Abdullahpur Ka Devdas was delayed because it got stuck between various people in the bureaucracy in Pakistan.

TNS: Why? Does it have controversial content?

SK: No, not at all. Abdullahpur Ka Devdas is a sweet love story. It was more of a business problem. Since Zee5 is banned in Pakistan, I’ve been looking at platforms that are accessible in Pakistan where we can play these shows. Again, my worry is that if we stream a show on, say, Amazon Prime, and the authorities in your country ban it, what are we going to do?

For Abdullahpur Ka Devdas, we approached various platforms for a simulcast. I thought it’d be great fun. It would be a new thing for Pakistan as well as India. We had recently shown Kabuli Pulao and we timed its finale with the airing of its concluding episode on Green Entertainment in Pakistan. So, these are nice little things that benefit the audiences on both sides [of the border].

Piracy is a big threat. You spend so much time, effort and money; and then it will be pirated. My take is: why can’t two platforms talk to each other and play a show simultaneously rather than allowing it to be pirated?

TNS: Are you doing something about the ban on Zee5 in Pakistan?

SK: We spoke to every authority in Pakistan, had long email exchanges etc and asked them to share guidelines on what we could show and what we couldn’t. But there’s no response. So, we don’t know what to do. Even in India, there are strict rules and guidelines, but at least you know what those are.

I’ve stopped dreaming of OTT being unregulated, I just urge the authorities to update us about the regulations. It’s becoming tougher and tougher. Then we get extreme reactions from our side, and people are saying things like “Aap dikha toh rahay nahin, toh phir banaa kyun rahay ho?” Once you stop, you’re actually 10 steps back.

TNS: You’ve long been working for the exchange of arts and artists between India and Pakistan. Have you found allies in this?

SK: Yes. Now more allies are coming forward. Recently, we tied up with Applause Entertainment; they like the work we are doing and want to collaborate. We also hear that Netflix is getting some stuff made in Pakistan, with Momina [Duraid] at the helm. It’s such a positive thing.

A few months back, the Bombay High Court ruled against a petition aimed at banning Pakistani artists. This is very heartening for someone like me. It should encourage more people to come forward. At least now there’s no excuse.

That said, it is important that someone on your side takes a step forward. I know people in Pakistan believe that Indian films should be allowed in cinemas, as it will help your industry, there will be greater footfalls; and cinemas will be revived. I’ve been fighting for this for the past almost a decade now but, until you build some pressure at your end, we won’t be able to make headway.

TNS: After Uri and Pulwama attacks, Zindagi was relaunched in India. Tell us if it involved navigating bureaucratic hurdles?

SK: We managed to find some interesting partners. Whereas earlier it was just one channel, under the banner of Zee, now it’s Zee Zindagi in collaboration with Tata Play; another channel, Zindagi, in collaboration with Airtel; and yet another channel, Zindagi, in collaboration with DTH. All these channels show Pakistani content.

For OTT, I believe that if I only run Indian shows then it’s a waste because they will get pirated. Television is difficult to pirate, but from OTT it’s very easy. That’s why I’ve been reticent about putting [a show] on OTT till I find at least a Pakistani partner or a platform which is available in Pakistan. We don’t want to launch it and then [learn that] everybody’s seen the pirated version.

TNS: Other than Pakistan, Zindagi curates shows from Turkey and South Korea. Are you also generating original content from these countries?

SK: No. Currently, I don’t have Turkish and Korean content on the channels that I am running. But we do have it on Zee5. Earlier, we’d put it in so that nobody could say that we only show Pakistani content. But now, with our partners on board, we’re running four channels that are almost dedicated to Pakistani content.

So, I’m trying everything possible to see that content will reach as many people as possible. Whether we put it on DTH channels or an OTT platform or we take it to festivals, it’s an attempt to put out the story of India-Pakistan collaboration and show it to as many influencers, writers and people as audience as possible. I am always hopeful, but I also have a feeling that we’ve been opening up a lot. In the World Cup, we had teams of both the countries playing in India; and then the Bombay High Court ruling happened. I was hoping that Pakistan ki taraf say bhi ek qadam liya jaye toh manzil asaan ho jaye.

TNS: If you were to sum up Zindagi’s journey so far, what would you say?

SK: I’d say that we started on a lonely journey, but more and more people joined in. I just hope that it’s going to grow from here. It’s been a tough journey but a journey forward nonetheless.

TNS: Do you agree that trends have changed from the time when Zindagi was launched 10 years ago? Tell us about your content philosophy and also your target audience.

SK: OTT’s biggest contribution has not been the kind of shows they’re putting out but the fact that whoever wants to see whatever and whenever will find something of interest to them. You don’t need to cater for any single group of audiences, like you used to do in earlier times.

This gives you the liberty to create different things for different platforms. So, when I made Ek Jhooti Love Story, at the same time I made Churails. The latter was more for the OTT-Gen-Z kind of an audience, whereas Ek Jhooti Love Story was for the traditional TV audience. So, we’re always going for a mix. That’s our content philosophy in a nutshell.

Something that we’re always working on, whether we produce content for Gen Z or a TV audience, is that why do we want to tell a story. So, even if you take Ek Jhooti Love Story, it is talking about how we create our social media personas. It’s something very relevant to this day and age. It’s not a random love story. Similarly, when we make Mrs and Mr Shameem, it’s very important to us to say that if a man is a bit effeminate then that’s no big deal. Churails is about ‘enough is enough’ and it was timed with the MeToo movement.

(The content of the interview has been edited for clarity)

The writer is a staff member

“It’s an attempt to put out the story of India-Pakistan collaboration”