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Gajra Kottary uses the power of the written word to reinforce women centric issues in the Indian television industry. Catching up with the feisty script writer and author.
Gajra Kottary is a powerhouse of energy. She effortlessly switches between her multiple roles as an award winning script writer, an established author, a successful mom and a recognized journalist. We were intrigued and amazed at her ability to take up multiple pursuits, and do equivalent justice to each of them.
She is the brain behind the much loved twists and turns of Indian television serials such as Astitva – Ek Prem Kahani, Ghar Ek Sapna, Jyoti, and the best of the lot, Balika Vadhu which went on for a whopping 2,248 episodes. Gajra’s entry into the world of script writing was the result of Sony Razdan, the noted television producer and actress, taking note of her potential, and offering her a show on Zee TV, Humare Tumhare, and subsequently the role of a script associate with her husband, the renowned Mahesh Bhatt.
After two gruelling and intensive years of work with the Bhatts, she moved on to write for noted television soaps. Kottary’s diverse body of work, is definitively women centric. She gives a voice to the trials and tribulations of women in a patriarchal Indian society, while delving into issues such as a woman’s independence to work, freedom of choice, and child marriage.
I was intrigued as to how Gajra dealt with the television industry, which has been traditionally fraught with age old, sexist and often, dramatic representations of life. As a feminist, how did she reconcile with it, while keeping her ideologies intact?
Her response was equally intriguing, “Actually the hardest part about working for TV is the ideological battle one has to fight with oneself. When you strongly believe in the empowerment of women you do need to have it speak in the author’s voice, and are not prepared to compromise that for regressive melodrama and high ratings. But every time I felt I wouldn’t be able to walk this tightrope anymore and was prepared to quit TV, along came an Astitva or Jyoti or Balika Vadhu, which restored faith in the fact that it was possible to connect with the masses, and yet send out the right message.”
Now, that’s a woman to stand up and take note of. An unflinching belief in the end goal is the only and the best way to push oneself, one day at a time.
Gajra also duly applauds the efforts of “a handful of gutsy people in the channels” to have given her the opportunity to take on less talked about subjects, but ultimately, “it was the audience that lapped them up and then the industry stood up and took note.”
She relates the most to Astitva..Ek Prem Kahani. According to her, “The protagonist was a career person, who rather late in life fell in love and thereafter, had to walk the tightrope between a career and a personal life. Dr Simran was a most unlikely heroine – after all being 34 and a career woman and daring to fall in love with a 24 year old would make you more of a vamp than a heroine in India, and yet there she was.”
If you thought this was it, you couldn’t be more mistaken.
Gajra is also an established author in her own right. Her latest book, Girls Don’t Cry, published by Harper Collins, India, was recently launched. An empowering feminist novel, it takes us through an inter-generational saga of three phenomenal women, through the eyes of an ambitious and fiercely loyal, 26 year old advertising professional, Amala. The book explores the multi-threaded nuances of relationships between mothers and daughters, and brings out the sordid details of the male-folk in the household, often unquestioned and swept under the carpet.
The novel was born out of a favourite short story of Kottary, which she felt she had not done justice to in the first go. She was fascinated by the dualities and similarities of the lives of women across generations – their dreams and aspirations, their ambitions and challenges, their highs and lows. Her relationship with her teenaged daughter reflects beautifully in the book, capturing the evolution in a mother-daughter relationship – one where “daughters are rebellious and judgemental of their mothers, and mothers, in turn, have a misplaced anxiety about their daughters turning out right”.
Perhaps a reflection of her troubled childhood. Kottary came from a dysfunctional family, where her parents did not see eye to eye, yet chose “not to separate because of the fear of societal fame”. Her siblings were also a decade older to her. In her own words, “I was a lost kid escaping into my make-believe world all the time. I was a loved and pampered child, but was impatiently waiting to grow up and take control over all the things that I felt so helpless about.”
She always dreamt of a writing career, one where she could therapeutically keep in touch with her emotional self, one where she could unabashedly be creative and let her imagination run wildly. She started her career as a journalist in The Statesman in the late 80s, and moved on to the Magna Group (then Lana). She credits both the roles as being critical towards helping her hone “her research and analytical abilities”, while remaining true to the “core language and editing” skillsets.
Her first collection of short stories, Fragile Victories, was the turning point in her life, and marked “her shift from the world of non-fiction to fiction” in 1996. Post her rendezvous with the television industry, Gajra took a leap of faith and wrote her first novel, Broken Melodies, which was published both in English & Hindi (Bikhre Sur) in 2011. Brimming with new found confidence, this was followed by Once Upon a Star in 2014. The latest of the lot, Girls Don’t Cry, is the most special of her novels.
Gajra deftly switches gears between the interactive script writing format, and the liberating writing process, and allows each activity to creatively feed into the other. She wishes to “mentor young script writers, and take them through the science and grammar of TV writing” – which isn’t fuelled only by good language skills, but a slightly crazy creative spark as well.
An avid reader, she loves Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, adores the old poetry written by Tagore and Premchand, and the works of Jane Austen & Ruskin Bond. She credits her husband for his practical counsel, and looks up to him “as her role model and best friend in life”. In the next couple of years, she sees herself consulting for interesting television and digital shows, writing novels and films, and hopefully with her grandchildren.
We wish Gajra Kottary a creative and fulfilling life, and look forward to reading and watching more of her work.
Image source: Gajra Kottary