From Fabulous Lives to Searching For Sheela: Creative head Aneesha Baig on Dharmatic's diverse non-fiction slate
'Dharmatic was opened to do things that aren't done at Dharma — not in a competitive kind of way, but a bolstering, cross-pollinating, dynamic kind of way,' says Aneesha Baig, Creative Head, Non-Fiction.
Three year ago, Karan Johar launched the digital wing of Dharma Productions. Dharmatic Entertainment found its Creative Head, Fiction in Somen Mishra, and Creative Head, Non-Fiction in another familiar face.
Aneesha Baig, former NDTV entertainment and food journalist, has fronted Dharma's maiden tryst with unscripted content. After the success of her first show, The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, that no one could stop talking about (not all nice things though), she is now back with Dharmatic's latest non-fiction offering in Searching For Sheela, a documentary on spiritual guru Osho's infamous aide Ma Anand Sheela.
In an exclusive interview, Baig talks about bringing diversity to Dharma, the criticism against The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, and how non-fiction fits into a production house most famous for escapist entertainment.
Why did you decide to make the switch from a journalist to a Non-Fiction producer at Dharmatic Entertainment?
Even during my years at NDTV, I actually enjoyed production more than I ever enjoyed anchoring, the detail and the coming together of content into a whole. So this allowed me to do what I enjoy the most, just on a different scale altogether. It was always shows over stories, and features over reports for me. And so this felt like just this amazing opportunity to try all the things, and attempt all the ideas I ever had.
How different has the new role turned out to be from your last one?
Both entirely and not at all. In news, it's always about what’s topical, what's relevant, what's of the minute, and it comes with its own rush and rewards. Here, the rush is of a different kind: we get to plan, and to perfect, and to blow up an idea to as big as it can be. So, it’s been incredible just readjusting the goalposts.
What is your vision of the non-fiction content at Dharmatic? How synchronised is it with that of the bosses, Karan Johar (owner) and Apurva Mehta (CEO)?
I think our vision is primarily to tell good, entertaining stories, to be entirely unapologetic for the guilty pleasures, and equally, to try and surprise people where we can. I love that our first two releases are as diverse as The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives and Searching for Sheela.
I love a good reality show, I really do. And we wanted to make one that tonally and stylistically we hadn't seen before. A fun, sassy, unrepentantly glossy and gossipy romp, and I like to think we did exactly that. The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives was actually Karan's idea, and I have no idea how he gets it so right with casting, but he does every time. All ideas are shared and discussed and enjoyed and expanded with Karan and Apoorva, and that's a huge part of the process. They're both so hands-on and engaged, and Karan is, of course, just a well of ideas and makes daily miracles happen for us.
When I interviewed Somen Mishra, he told me he aims to bridge the gap between "Dharma and Versova" by bringing fresh voices to the storytelling. What gap do you want to fill on the non-fiction front?
I don't know about a gap as such. This is the first time Dharma has dived so deeply into unscripted content, and so there are fresh learnings for us every day. We're greedy for ideas and fun stories, and OTTs allow us to try all kinds of things which is where the fun lies. And if we can come close, at any stage, to the variety, nuance, and ambition that Somen brings to Dharmatic, I'll be pretty darn pleased. And if we are able to get people hooked to unscripted series the way they are to scripted, that's the goal.
Do you think the very nature of the non-fiction genre stands in conflict with a brand that is perceived as the one that builds dreams and offers escapism?
See, the kind of cinema that Dharma is known for, that brand, that tag is constantly being evolved, and then you add the fact that Dharmatic was opened to do things that aren't done at Dharma — not in a competitive kind of way, but a bolstering, cross-pollinating, dynamic kind of way — with artists and talents and aesthetics and ideas being pushed and bounced between. And that’s why we see Shakun (Batra, executive producer on Searching For Sheela) working on an exciting unscripted film, and why Ajeeb Daastaans boasts of the storytellers it does, and why a reality show like The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives is so scaled up, so glamorous, because those are the Dharma aesthetics. So no, no conflict at all.
What are the influences Dharma's movies have had on you as a moviegoer and journalist? What part of their signature strengths do you want to keep in the non-fiction content?
The easy answer is of course the aesthetic, scale, and attention to detail, but again also Dharma has actually tried so many more things than it's given credit for, and we'd like to do the same. From the lavish and entertaining to the gritty/more serious.
How do you assess The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives as your maiden venture at Dharmatic? Will the criticism it received factor into how season 2 is shaped or positioned?
Look, I and the entire team, we knew we were going to get trolled from the outset, and that a lot of people would have issue with it, and that critics would not love it, we knew and we were braced, ALL of us, But I also think we achieved what we set out to do and some more besides. Because for all the criticism, we actually got a lot of love (Maheep, Seema, Neelam, and Bhavana most of all), and we were thrilled at how many people were watching it. And that people enjoyed a show that had friendship at the heart of it, that celebrated a demographic we don't always see represented on screen, that it's travelled so far and we got feedback from all over the world. The one criticism that stung was that we weren't self-aware, because we were! We also recognise and enjoy the innate absurdities of this world. I think that some people missed that we were in on the humour too.
Also, if you want the critics to love you, never make reality shows! So we know that that’s not the measure of how we move forward, we just try and find the stories in their actual lives, of which there is no shortage. And if Season 1 was an introduction to these characters and their world, I’m very excited to dive into Season 2, because we know — and so does the cast — that if there was any holding back the first time out, that won't fly this time. They're all a hoot actually, and let’s just say that there are some very intriguing developments happening already, which we are all very pleased to be able to capture.
Searching For Sheela has been an ambitious project for everyone involved. What has been your most fruitful contribution in making this documentary?
I think I was just excited and happy we could be part of this. Sheela is a deeply fascinating character. Shakun is someone I a) admire and was very keen to collaborate with, b) someone who's been way ahead of the curve in following Sheela's story (well before Wild, Wild Country). So when he brought the idea to us, we jumped at it.
How do you see the scope of non-fiction content changing in India?
I think it’s going to be a really exciting time. I know as a consumer, I'm having the best time watching the kind of unscripted shows/films that are available now. You can jump between Indian Matchmaking and the Kardashians, or between Bad Boy Billionaires and My Octopus Teacher. It means we're free, even encouraged, to do shows that haven't been done before, to find all kinds of stories and fun ways to tell them.
Finally, you have been a renowned food critic. Do you have any ambition for a food or travel show at Dharmatic?
God I wish. I love stories told through/with food. I'd love to get a really exciting one going. I have a few ideas, let’s see. This is a space, it could be argued, that I enjoy a little too much.
Searching For Sheela, Dharmatic Entertainment's new non-fiction offering, will stream on Netflix India from 22 April.
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