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Monday, November 24 1997

The Founding Father

Deepak Karambelkar

So phenomenal was its success that it has becomes difficult to say if Ramesh Sippy made Buniyaad or Buniyaad made Ramesh Sippy. Countless other serials have come and gone, but Buniyaad has remained forever. No one -- not even Sippy himself -- has been able to recreate the magic of his debut on television. Witness the fate of his latest project -- Gaatha -- (STAR Plus) -- which is no where near as compelling.

Sippy is quick to point out that it is still too early to say if Gaatha has been an expensive failure. Written by Buniyaad writer, Manohar Shyam Joshi, the serial is more complex. "Dealing with one family is problematic enough. With two families and the nationalistic movement as the third dimension, it is that much harder," says Sippy, adding that "television is not a medium for focussed viewing, it is one for channel surfing." Also, the serial is in a 45-minute time slot, a rare thing for a social drama. Still, Sippy is confident that Gaatha will eventually shine through as it is quality entertainment. "If Gaatha doesn't pick up sufficiently, I'll have to accept the results. The only thing I won't accept is a fall in its quality." Which he insists is better than that of Buniyaad. "Buniyaad had a free run," recalls Sippy. DD was the solo channel at that time. Sippy believes that in today's competitive environment, Buniyaad wouldn't be able to repeat its success. He says that after Buniyaad, nothing other than mythologicals have done as well or lasted through time and memory. Parikshit Sahni, star of Gaatha says all comparisons are odious, especially when the canvasses are so different. "Buniyaad had a captive audience whereas Gaatha has to fight it out," he says.

Sippy agrees that he will always have to live with the burden of having made Buniyaad and the landmark movie, Sholay. "That does weighs heavily, but there it is. It's mine, not anybody else's!" In fact, Sippy is still reaping the returns from both projects with repeat telecasts of Buniyaad and Sholay. "I have never worked with anybody for a fixed sum of money. The returns should keep coming if the programme is successful," he feels.

To be successful, the Sippy gospel advocates Quality. That was one of the reason for putting Gaatha, Kya Baat Hai and The Joneja Talk Show on STAR Plus. The sound and picture quality is superior on the satellite channel which has a "discerning audience who understands and appreciates quality." Also, being the early bird on the channel means that he gets special treatment on further project. But in the twelve years since Buniyaad, Sippy has made surprisingly few television programmes. He insists that his aim was never to become a software house and churn out material. "For me to be personally involved in any project, it will have to be more than just another show," he says. Sahni feels it a pleasure just to be associated with Sippy. "He is a complete professional and does not make anything half-baked,''he says. "Neither does he resort to pyrotechnics to get his work done -- he is always relaxed and never shouts or screams." Vijayendra Ghatge thinks Sippy is a wizard of the Indian screen, especially when it comes to putting mega-project together. "He has a passion for life. He is a great visionary and perfectionist and can draw out the nuances from an actor," says Ghatge. Kruttika Desai insists that Sippy is the shy and reserved type who takes time to open up. But when it comes to work, he never fails to deliver. "He has had the maximum impact on me. He is a man with class and commands that kind of respect," says she.

And Sippy disagrees that because of his "class", he is ill-suited to the rigours and low budgets of television. "You must understand the parameters of television, understand the limitations of time and resources. One has to balance things in such a way that quality comes through, yet the project remains affordable," he says. He admits that making serials on a huge scale can be confusing and vexing. "You are shooting episode 14, editing episode nine and 10 and giving final touches to episode five or six. Shooting backwards and forwards and backwards...!" In fact, he has installed computers on the sets of Gaatha to keep the intricate shooting details and his wits on a coherent track.

Sippy has been a star-maker. But he has rarely used stars in his projects. While he insists that he has nothing against them, in a project like Gaatha, which has over 20 characters, it's unfeasible and uneconomical to take on expensive performers. Ask him what he finds most challenging and Sippy replies directing a comedy "It requires a brilliant level of handling, performance and creativity." He also thinks that the most important element to a successful television project is a good writer, though a director who can spruce things up and keep the unit on its toes is almost as essential. "Once you say chalta hai, the downward spiral begins." But he says that he has given no Ramesh Sippy chhaap to any of his projects. "The subject commands its own kinds of takings. Why should I restrict myself when I have so many ways of doing things?" he says.

For Gaatha, he has tried to combine a period feel from the Forties with performances from the Nineties. "You have to update the drama and the performance because today's audience is watching the serial," he says. Sippy has to balance things with his camera work too. "Camera work must blend with the written work. If the camera prevails over content, there will be problems.'' Same goes for special effects and technology. "Technology should be used to enhance the contents, not baffle the audience," he insists.

For Sippy a real hit, regardless of whether it s a movie or a serial, is something that cuts across all classes and appeals to everyone. Difficult. But as Sippy knows only too well, "anything that succeeds is not easy to do."

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