The man who makes soap froth

For the last decade, scriptwriter Rajesh Joshi  has written India’s most popular television shows. He tells  Aastha Atray Banan how his work will change the world

Photo: MS Gopal

IN 2001, writer Rajesh Joshi killed Mihir Virani in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. Housewives across the country cried rivers. Amar Upadhyay, the actor who played Mihir, was flooded with calls checking if he was alive. “I found Amar standing at my door. He said, ‘Look at the way India has reacted,’” remembers Joshi. Voila, Joshi invented the reincarnation formula! “We brought Mihir back,” he says, knowing his decision marked the genesis of the Great Indian Soap. Joshi was no one-hit wonder. He then wrote Kasautii Zindagii Kay, Kkusum, Koi Apna Sa and Bandini, and today, writes the reigning winner — Pavitra Rishta, Balaji’s trump card on Zee TV.
Sitting in his Kandivili home in a leather recliner against the background of a wooden Ajanta-Elloraesque mural, Joshi has an air of knowing amusement. With Pavitra Rishta, Joshi has once again set new rules. Gone are the opulent settings. Inspired by his chawl days in Bhuleshwar, the story is about the undying love of a poor couple sans the jhataak clothes and rich families. With a TRP of 6.1, highest among all soaps, the show has turned its protagonists into small screen’s Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif.
Joshi, 50, hadn’t even imagined he would end up writing. Son of Mansukh Joshi, who co-founded the Indian National Theatre, he says, “The atmosphere was there, but I ended up working with a pharma company.” And then in August 1999, a car accident confined him to bed for three months. But life was to change soon. Before he knew it, he was writing Kyunki… “Vipul Mehta, who co-wrote Kyunki… with me, suggested I try my hand at writing. I didn’t have anything to do, so I said okay. I decided I would continue writing if it worked. The gamble paid off,” he says.
It’s easy to see why it did. Joshi is a writer who believes in a simple diktat: write what and who you know about. There are joint families, similar to his own Gujarati background, and his central women figures — mild yet strong, strict yet loving — are much like his own mother and wife. “My mother was the matriarch of the family. She had a rough hand with us but loved us too. I used to trust her instincts when I was younger, now I trust my wife’s. I usually do what she says,” he smiles. “And it’s obvious that my characters are like them — the VIPs.” And surprisingly progressive for Indian entertainment as they have taken harsh decisions. “People need jerks in a story that may not always be appreciated. But writers need resistance. In Pavitra…, the duo get married, divorced and marry again. A character gets an abortion as she would rather choose her career. I keep up with the times.”
But that’s where a paradox creeps in and suddenly, Joshi appears like an onion without a skin. Though he admires the ambitious middle-class woman as she exists today, he wishes she would imbibe the “ideal bahu” traits from his Tulsi or Archana. So is he just making them progressive to cash in on the “scandal”? “My characters tell their own truth,” he says. And just before you start changing your opinion of him, Joshi adds, “I mean they can be both modern and traditional.” What could also be working for Joshi’s stories is the thin line his characters tread between good and bad. “No one is bad. Only situations make them bad. Take the character of Ajit, Manav’s sister’s husband in Pavitra… He rapes Manav’s sister and marries her. But when he loses all his money, he realises his wife is important to him,” says Joshi.

‘Like my shows, my family too lives by a strict moral code. If my son enters a live-in relationship, I will disown him,’ says Joshi

It is at this moment that his 22-year-old son enters the room, and the father in Joshi takes over. He gives him cash and tells him to go and have a good time. Once he leaves, Joshi muses, “I set a strict code of morals for my family. If my son ever entered into a live-in relationship, I would disown him because he is not committing to the girl,” he says, “My wife married me when I used to earn Rs. 60 a month, and now it’s six figures. She is my heart and soul. I want my son to feel like that about someone.”
Along with relationships, Joshi’s soaps revolve around two important pillars — karma and the belief in God. But here he surprises us again. Joshi hasn’t been to a temple for months now. “God is everywhere. When you ask your mother to bless you, she becomes God. And karma is obvious, right? I experience it every day. I borrowed some money from a person a few years ago and forgot to return it. Just recently, I paid him five times that figure!”
The ‘Rajuisms’ are indeed believable. After all, his success is for everyone to gauge. Even his actors, who have now become stars, thank him. Ankita Lokhande, who plays Archana in Pavitra…, gushes, “I walk on the road and people recognise me as Archana.” Her co-star, Sushant Singh Rajput, says, “Playing Manav is a yardstick. I suffer from Manav hangover all day.” Ironically, he was recently caught in a brawl in Mumbai that ended with newspaper headlines claiming he was nothing like the real Manav.
This begs a question. How does Ekta Kapoor, the bold in-your-face woman that we have heard about, agree with all that Archana and Joshi’s other heroines stand for? How does the master producer (she describes Joshi as “one of the best writers on television. It’s like what’s happening in the show is happening in people’s lives”) get convinced that Joshi’s self-sacrificing characters will work with India’s increasingly cynical audiences? “Ekta knows women have many shades. She may be nothing like Archana but she knows that Archanas exist. Her observation of the middle-class is astute. She is a businesswoman, so she needs to be strong. But Archana can be milder,” says Joshi.
The writer has now turned producer for Zee’s brand new entrant, Sanskaar Lakshmi — a tale of a village belle who moves to Mumbai with her rich husband’s family, and will now instill sanskaar in each member. If it sounds a bit too much like a rehashed Kyunki…,Joshi doesn’t care. He says, “I want to prove that even a girl wearing jeans has morals. That’s because having sanskaar doesn’t mean she covers her head. It means keeping everyone happy. Like my other shows, this too will soon change the world!”
Banan is Senior Correspondent, Mumbai with Tehelka