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A pioneer, a frontierswoman at heart: Presenting Anupama Mandloi

A pioneer, a frontierswoman at heart: Presenting Anupama Mandloi

by Vinta Nanda April 17 2019, 12:05 pm Estimated Reading Time: 16 mins, 26 secs

One of the most significant outcomes of my having started The Daily Eye, which is an online publication specifically targeted to content creators, about five years ago is, that I have started to get to know my colleagues and friends of the past from the business of media and entertainment, much better than I ever knew them before.

Each storyteller’s life is a book to be written and so is Anupama Mandloi’s evolution one of her. She recounts her own life from when she was first bitten by the media bug to here where she stands so tall today.

Anupama has built a treasure chest of memories to die for and she has sketched a depth of history that chronicles the expansion of our business from its emergence to its present position of the power it holds.

Here, as you start to read her answers to my questions, you will see a metamorphosis like transformation take place of a person who came to a very chaotic industry once upon a time with just a simple thing called ‘passion to learn’ and her growth from that point to where she is today.

What has she not attempted, what has she not accomplished, which is that genre that Anupama Mandloi has not already scaled the heights of success with? None whatsoever. 

And when I met her a few days ago at the boot camp of the OTT Range of Mountains, Anupama was fully geared up to start her next climb. I’m convinced that she’ll be on top of the game and very soon because of just one sentence that she said to me, “There is no limit to the kind of stories we can tell now Vinta.”

I leave you now to read this stunning interview with her!

Q: Where did this journey start for you? What brought you to the business of entertainment at first? 

A: The major avenues of entertainment and information in my younger days used to be Doordarshan, CNN for the gulf war updates, Pakistani plays and movies on videocassettes … and then Newstrack happened. I was not one of those lucky few who knew from birth what they wanted to do. I was one of those who approached selection through a simple method of elimination … starting from what subjects NOT to select. However, when I saw Newstrack I identified with the angst that the ‘system’ evoked, the unmasking of wrongdoers, seeking accountability from those who owed it to the people they served … at that point I knew I had to apply to media schools. I was fortunate to be selected for Social Communication Media in Bombay and there began my journey of independence, of discovery and of being carried forward by the big media wave that engulfed a lot of us at that point in time. I stayed in the hostel and loved every minute of the 1-year course. It was an adrenaline rush and Jeroo Mulla, with the rest of the faculty, egged us on and challenged us relentlessly. I was greedy for the experience and soaked up everything on offer. 

After the course was over I got a call to join from Plus Channel, run by Amit Khanna. I had already interned there for a month. I took up the offer. I got the opportunity to write for several publications under my own name as well as a pseudonym. I also spent a couple of frustrating months cutting out newspaper articles for the business, Bollywood and People Plus feature directors. My contribution to research! I longed to do stories of my own and soon I was given that opportunity. 

Joining a company in its formative years is like being thrown into the deep end and then learning to survive. It’s also about being in the right place at the right time. This was 1992 when Babri Masjid and divisive politics were news fodder. I was living as a paying guest in Santa Cruz with three other girls and we were watching the tension and the passions escalate. The riots broke out and Tanuja Chandra and I were sent out to cover the riots in real time. I couldn’t believe that I was in the midst of history as it was unfolding. The entire experience was heady at one level and intensely disturbing at another. 

And then March 1993 happened. I was on my way to interview Pritish Nandy. Half way there, we were called and asked to head to Dadar where a bomb blast had taken place. Nothing prepared me for what I saw. The violence was horrifying, disturbing and angering. I remember moving into auto mode, and along with the crew, I went to around 8 of the locations as the bombs kept exploding in different parts of Mumbai … shooting, covering and recording for posterity the insanity that lay before us. I also remember reaching home late at night and sitting on my bed with tears rolling down my face as I finally let that day sink into my consciousness. I stayed for a year at Plus Channel before choosing to move on. That year set the stage for my relationship with moving images and how I saw the world around me. A lot had changed in that year.

Q: Where did you grow up? What was life like in school and college? 

A: My father was an army officer. We traveled across different cities in India every 3-4 years. I changed 13 schools. In retrospect, that gave me the ability to adapt to all sorts of situations. My parents never differentiated between my brother and me. Gender was never something we thought of consciously. Our upbringing was middle class and the values that came with it became a part of whom I am. Being a part of the defense services ecosystem, integrity was a big thing and civilians were viewed with suspicion. School was all about starting anew, putting down roots, making friends and just when you thought you were comfortable, it was time to move on. At that age I guess we all just developed a good deal of stoicism at dealing with change. College was at Lady Sri Ram, Delhi. I was the Vice President and President of the English Elocution society and I remember Shah Rukh Khan and Divya Seth had been invited to judge one of the competitions we had organized. They were active in the theatre circuit those days. I remember observing SRK and his incredible charisma. He was destined to be a Star. The college years in particular were fairly uneventful otherwise and academics were nothing to write home about. I got my BA Honors degree in English Literature. After 7 wonderful years in Delhi, we moved to Allahabad and as a postgraduate I spent my time studying BASIC and COBOL and watching tons of movies while figuring out next steps. To their credit, my parents never pressured me to get married and my mother was more than happy to see me make my way to Bombay and gain financial independence. I wouldn’t have had the good fortune to embark on the journey I did, if my parents had not supported my dreams.

Q: How was the experience at the beginning and how did it help you to decide your future career course? 

A: I had set out on this journey with a whole lot of idealism and enthusiasm. My first year at Plus Channel had been so action packed that there was simply no looking back. I had been sucked into the world of the media and I was hooked. Soon after, Vikram Bhatt, with whom I had worked briefly at Plus Channel, offered me the role of AD on a TV serial based on Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. It was called Aasmaan se Aagey. It had nothing to do with investigative journalism but it was exciting to discover a whole new world. I worked on the series for a year. It was intense, long hours of shoot followed by edits and it gave me a great grounding in basics of creating and crafting a TV show. 

Having spent a year on this production I realized that on most days I would emerge from the darkness into the real world with no clue of time, events or reality. I was hungry once again to be a part of the real world where life was stranger, more tumultuous and maddening than fiction. I got busy working as a freelancer doing stories for UTV, assisting on corporate AVs until I heard of a news channel to be helmed by Jackie Shroff! I went out of curiosity to meet a lady called Ambica Kuthiala who had been hired as the programming head and discovered that Sony Entertainment Television was opening shop in India. It sounded exciting enough to prompt an immediate yes. We started out as a handful of people in the programming team working out of an under construction office.

Those were phenomenal days because we were the team that kick started the content. I found myself in a position where I got more and more on my plate and very soon I was consumed by show development, working with producers and even sitting in on programming strategy and annual programming budgets. 

What began as fun and a personal journey of independence with no serious career path suddenly grew into accountability for utilization of show budgets and show performance, which determined how effectively you were doing your job. Inadvertently, I had begun climbing the corporate ladder. I was bang in the center of the evolution of Indian television.

Q: Tell me more about the various TV shows that you worked upon at Sony, then SAB and then when you were back at Sony? Encapsulate that time and space? 

A: The next 15 years, approximately, were spent in the creative environment working under varied heads. I was fortunate to work with a diverse set of people, all of who brought something specific to the table and encouraged as well as truly mentored me. They challenged me, pushed me and helped me discover my abilities. 

I started out as a greenhorn pretending to be this confident professional. In the early days, providing feedback on scripts felt like a trial by fire. Here were producers who had been making shows for years and suddenly I was expected to tell them what worked or didn’t or how we could do it better! Eventually it was just practice that enabled me to walk into a room full of writers and give inputs that could add value to the process.

Some of the fiction shows I remember for various reasons were Chamatkar, O Maria, Just Mohabbat, Hospital, Alpaviram, Kkusum, Kutumb, Mahayagya, Heena, Family #1, Office-Office and Jassi Jaisi koi Nahin …

During my first stint at Sony, some of us had been formed into a team that handled all live and produced events. The crazy hours, the adrenaline rush, the frenzy, the last minute unpredictability was a drug. Event coverage didn’t require having to sit behind a desk. We would be out on the field, traveling, setting up and riding the waves. This helped me in what was to later become a sort of specialty. 

At SAB it was about overseeing all content on the programming slate but with decision-making responsibilities. We were once again a small team, launching a completely new channel. 

During my second stint at Sony, I was asked if I wanted to spearhead Indian Idol. By then, soaps had become the rage thanks to Kyunki and Kahani and I found the day to day of unending stories not as exciting as the advent of international formats at around the same time. These were mega budget properties and had a definite beginning, middle and end. They also required intense preparation, a hands-on working style and an opportunity to work with some of the best names in the music and movie business. I took it on. Indian Idol was the first non-fiction property with a never-before-seen scale on Indian television. It was one of the most challenging shows I worked on since there was nothing to compare it to. Each day was learning. The entire season was dollops of fun despite the chaos, exhaustion and surprises that typify such shows. The show was all about real people, their stories and dreams. All of us at Sony, Miditech and Optimystix were in love with the show. That joy and magic shone through the first season and it was a spectacular success.

After that I found myself being tasked with setting up more and more of the non-fiction and mega budget properties.  

Later, I moved from Sony to the Star Plus programming team when the network was changing hands from Sameer Nair to Uday Shankar. I was overseeing non-fiction properties, weekend properties and events. The 2.5 years were a mixed bag of successes and failures. It was a phase when I learnt several lessons in leadership, accountability and the workings of a mammoth organization. 

Some of the non-fiction shows I remember were Indian Idol which will always be very special for me, Sach ka Saamna, Jo Jeeta Wohi Superstar, Chhote Ustaad, Aap ki Kacheheri, Nach Baliye 3

This period of working with broadcasters was a huge learning in team management, crisis management and learning to delegate. These lessons set me up for my next chapter. 

Q: And your stint at Fremantle? 

A: I had always had a warm and wonderful relationship with the Fremantle management because of Idol. The 3 seasons I had worked on had required plenty of interaction with them. They were setting up shop for the third time in India after two unsuccessful attempts. They were keen to have me on board and it appealed to me because, once again … it was a fresh slate and a small team that I could help grow from scratch.

The 6 years at Fremantle were wonderful. I made some long lasting friends. Work was fun and colleagues like family. It was a much richer creative space where we would thrash out shows and pitches, keep returning to the drawing board to satisfy the difficult to please clients and it forced me to shift focus from being a creative producer at a broadcaster to an actual producer required to navigate the television industry minefield. It was here that I realized the value of IP creation. I experienced the lack of control TV producers had over indigenous content in terms of ownership or monetization. Everyone worked for a margin. The financial investment and therefore the risk lay with the broadcaster. The producer was work for hire. The nature of the lopsided system reflected in the overall mediocrity of content. It began to feel like a tired joke. The same shows, the senseless mandates and the predictability of it all.

Q: Tell me about the sabbatical you took, why you took it and what happened in your life during that period of time? 

A: My father passed away in 2014 after being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2010. He led an active and full life till two months before his death when it metastasized to his brain and lung. That period toughened me up and I drew a lot of strength from my father who dealt with the loss of his vocal chords and eventual preparation for death with an, ‘it is what it is’ attitude. My mother’s quiet and brave front kept everything from going off the rails. That period brought our family closer together and even in the grief we experienced, there was the miracle of life. 

Soon after, I had the good fortune to attend TED at Vancouver and I was suddenly exposed to the amazing variety of things people were doing with their life. The contributions they were making to social and global development. Breakthrough innovation, lateral thought, creating an immersive experience, the attention to detail, and the camaraderie between those who were putting the huge seminar together, the desire for excellence … I felt small and insignificant. 

These two experiences eventually led me to move away, step back and relook my approach to work and life. 

I decided to study. I wanted to create a valuable chapter in my life that I would never regret or forget. I picked an 8-week course with Harvard Business School. The course spanned a year where we went through almost 80 case studies and attended 8 modular weeks in Mumbai and Boston. It was one of my best decisions. I experienced a faculty that was incredible. I was enriched by a wonderful ‘campus life’ and made some great friends. Some of the learning’s were huge and they resonated with me as well as my approach to work. 

Q: What is it that you're engaged with now? 

A: Once I reclaimed my time it became impossible for me to give that power and control away once again. I have been very fortunate through the course of my career to have great professional relationships where I’ve been called back time and again to work with ex-colleagues or ex-bosses. I’m currently working with my ex-boss, Tarun Katial, at Zee5 and with the Zee Network on a project, as a consultant. I’m enjoying the OTT space and the process of content creation in the current environment where ideas and concepts can be varied and experimental.

I’ve also produced a documentary, directed by Tanuja Chandra. It’s a simple narrative on her two aged aunts who live in a small town in UP. It is a heartwarming perspective on old age and the accompanying loneliness of widowed women. It provides a quirky and cheerful peek into their life. We are in the process of sending it out to film festivals since documentaries in India don’t have much traction. This is a journey in itself.

Q: Tell me about how it feels to bring all the experience that you have gathered over the years to the present times of storytelling? 

A: I’ve learnt that whether it is fiction or non-fiction, if you cannot tell good stories you will not have an audience. I’ve realized that the beauty of an OTT platform is that you must create all kinds on content because it is not about family viewing and therefore not about providing safe, uncontroversial, umbrella content. Individual tastes dictate a gourmet platter of rich and varied offerings for one and all. 

Building teams where talents are diverse enabling each one to contribute effectively is a better way of achieving success. Allow space for people to speak their minds. Good ideas can come from anywhere and a collaborative approach makes for richer story telling. Mentoring is so important. I’ve come this distance only because of the amazing people who showed me the mirror and also taught me by throwing me into the deep end time and again. Most importantly, be authentic and true to yourself. 

I’m now carving a completely new road for myself, and figuring things out as I walk on it. I’m meeting a wide and wonderful mix of people. The excitement is back. There is fun once again in work. Collaboration is joyful. Along the way I hope to be party to creating some high impact, milestone, award winning, blockbuster shows … wonderful! 



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