Hope 2022 will see Zindagi also going back to its loyal TV audience: Zee’s Shailja Kejriwal

Hope 2022 will see Zindagi also going back to its loyal TV audience: Zee’s Shailja Kejriwal

She spoke about Zindagi’s digital journey, the South Asian diaspora, and her content philosophy.

Shailja Kejriwal

Zee Entertainment Enterprises (Zee) chief creative officer - special projects Shailja Kejriwal, and her brainchild Zindagi channel have had an equally unpredictable, yet exciting journey in the world of media and entertainment. As a visionary storyteller, Kejriwal, to her credit has critically acclaimed content brands and initiatives like Zindagi, Zee Theatre, Star Bestsellers, and an unconventional series of short films called "Zeal for Unity" on one hand, and the TRP-churning, K-series of Indian family dramas on the other.

Zindagi launched on television in 2014 with the Pakistani soap opera "Aunn Zara," which ended in just 20 days, a rather ‘blasphemous’ occurrence in the pre-OTT days when TV serials ran into as many 2000+ episodes. With real characters who didn’t wear make-up to bed and finite storylines, the channel came in like a breath of fresh air. Becoming an instant hit, it went on to launch Pakistani stars like Fawad Khan, Sanam Saeed, and Mahira Khan with the popular dramas "Zindagi Gulzar Hai" and "Humsafar."

However, post the 2016 Uri attack, Zindagi had to pull the plug on all Pakistani content. Eventually wrapping up on TV, it became a digital-only channel. Starting out on the Ozee app, and later as Zindagi Digital, the channel finally launched on Zee5 in 2020. In the same year, Zindagi began its Originals innings with Asim Abbasi–directed web series "Churails" (2020). It was followed by "Ek Jhoothi Love Story" - a romantic comedy directed by Mehreen Jabbar, the critically acclaimed series "Dhoop Ki Deewar" featuring Ahad Raza Mir and Sajal Aly, "Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam" – a desi noir anthology helmed by British Indian director Meenu Gaur, and most recently (11 March) Kashif Nisar’s "Mrs & Mr Shameem" - featuring Saba Qamar and Nauman Ijaz.

Kejriwal’s constant endeavour through all the challenges has been to keep brand Zindagi alive and thriving. In a freewheeling interaction with IndianTelevision.com, she talks about "Mrs & Mr Shameem," Zindagi’s digital journey, programming for the South Asian audience and diaspora, creating content from out of Pakistan, and her content philosophy.

Content, cause and creativity

‘Short-run programming,’ ‘Hindustani content,’ ‘content for cause,’ ‘alternative mainstream,' while the content on Zindagi has been classified as all of these and more, the idea behind the brand is simply to tell stories that have a purpose, and hence says Kejriwal, the brief is always ‘why is this story being told,' and ‘how it will impact those watching it.’

“There has to be a social comment in our stories; something which provides a different point of view. I believe that in today’s times when everything around us is changing, storytellers have to explore new ways of telling stories, new ways of talking about love and relationships,” she tells.

Zindagi’s latest release "Mrs & Mr Shameem," for instance, questions ‘who is the ideal man,’ ‘does he always have to be aggressive,’ ‘can he be like Shameem who is seen as effeminate?' “What I also like about Shameem’s character is that he doesn't feel like a victim of this perception of him being ‘less of a man.’ I loved the positivity in the show, and the fact that it is inclusive,” she adds.

Programming for the South Asian audience

Programming for the South Asian audience

Zindagi began in 2014 with a clear roadmap of ‘curate, create and collaborate.’ The channel’s TV days comprised the ‘curation’ phase wherein it got a lot of Pakistani content to see how people liked/consumed it, and the response, shares Kejriwal, was phenomenal.

“I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t tell me that at least one person in their family watched Zindagi," she says, adding that, "We also kind of expected that because a) Our shows were fresh, finite and meaningful, and b) there was a lot of curiosity about Pakistan among Indians. While our shared history, language and geographies were an important reason behind it, primarily it was the fact that we’ve not had any visual reference of Pakistan since the 80's, except the news media. On the other hand, Pakistanis have grown up watching us through our films.”

The phase Zindagi is in right now on Zee5 is phase two of ‘Creation.’ Moving a step ahead from launching Pakistani actors, the channel began involving writers and directors in creating content for its South Asian audience. That’s when the ‘Originals’ happened. The third phase of collaboration where it hopes to be in the coming years will invite talent from both sides of the border to work together.

Zindagi’s digital journey

According to Kejriwal, the biggest advantage OTT as a medium offers is the freedom to tell stories that could not have been told on television.

Sharing some snippets from what she calls “a fantastic journey on digital.” “It gave us the chance to work with a new wave of filmmakers like Asim Abbasi and Meenu Gaur. Even though Gaur is not into making Pakistani dramas, her work has a distinct South Asian approach that reciprocates with our TG. OTT provided us the platform to experiment and create content that is truly international in its making, and aimed different cohorts,” Kejriwal notes.

"So, while 'Churails' caters to the upmarket or niche and younger audience, ‘Dhoop Ki Deewar’ is meant for family viewing in tier 1 cities. ‘Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam’ is a metro-centric content piece. ‘Ek Jhoothi Love Story’ and ‘Mrs & Mr Shameem’ are suited for family viewing for audiences across tier 1 and 2 cities," she further adds.

Kejriwal says that she is most excited about bringing back Fawad Khan and Sanam Saeed with a new show and a completely new genre and concept of ‘magic realism’ - a first on Zindagi. “We could not have done this on TV where people are used to seeing them in a ‘Zindagi Gulzar Hai.' That’s the fun of creating for OTT,” she states.  

And there’s the math too! “We programme for the South Asian audience and South Asian diaspora. When we talk of OTT, we don’t talk of India alone, but the global market. There is a huge Pakistani diaspora that does not have a truly dedicated OTT platform of its own. Therefore, it becomes a low-hanging fruit for us. Our shows have a tremendous fan following among them,” she asserts.

Back to TV?

Kejriwal observes that even though OTT allows the freedom to experiment, the audience is becoming increasingly concerned about not getting lost in discovering content and surfing through it.

“Content discovery can be an overwhelming task, and I propose to make the discovery of Zindagi simpler. That’s where television comes in for me," she notes. "This is not to take away from the medium, but while the independence OTT gives is amazing, the loyalty on TV is great. OTT has kind of consolidated our viewership across demographics. I hope that 2022 will also see me going back to my loyal audiences on TV."