New Delhi: An early 20th century fable that traces its origins to Russia, ‘The Frog and the Scorpion’, with its moral that some people just cannot resist hurting people, has been adapted to the screen several times. One such adaptation was a 44-minute episode directed by Hansal Mehta, of the series Scam 1992 fame, for the popular anthology series Star Bestsellers.
Mehta’s ‘Neeti’ was the premier episode of the anthology that blended genres like drama, thriller, comedy and romance and aired from 1999-2000.
Star Bestsellers aired in what was widely regarded as the ‘golden era’ of Indian television, before saas-bahu dramas had invaded the space. The 36-episode anthology was the launchpad for several prominent directors like Imtiaz Ali, Sriram Raghavan, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Anurag Kashyap including Mehta.
“It was a bit ahead of its times in its execution, the kind of performances, the way it was shot and all,” Mehta told ThePrint. “All of us lost money in making these episodes. The idea was never to make money, it was to show what we were capable of. I remember Anurag showing me an edit of Last Train To Mahakali. A director was born then, he was just a writer at the time.”
The director shot his episode, starring Suchitra Pillai, at a bungalow in Madh Island with no furniture because the budget was tight. All the kitchen decor in the show came from the sets of the cooking show Khaana Khazana since Mehta had directed several episodes of the show.
“It was a very abstract take on relationships, which for me was very surprising. It also had a fantastic song — muskurati aankhon main namin — the lyrics of which I fondly remember till today. It was beautifully sung by Babul Supriyo,” Mehta told ThePrint.
Star had asked the filmmaker to shoot this episode at the heels of Rishtey — a Zee feature where he had directed a few episodes which had done very well. “My film, Jayate, was unreleased. Nobody had seen my work. These short films had become the means of showcasing my work,” he said.
This was also the case for Tigmanshu Dhulia, who had said: “Television toh isliye kar rahe the ki ghar chalaana hai. So when we were doing TV, we were all trying to execute our work to fit the standards of film – be it writing, shot-taking or casting. So maybe the execution was good.”
Responding to a fan on Twitter in 2019, Kashyap had reminisced how the show marked the beginning of his career. “Star Bestsellers.. the programme that gave all of us a career.. most of my generation made a short film here.”
Star Bestsellers.. the programme that gave all of us a career.. most of my generation made a short film here .. they are all on hotstar now https://t.co/YrTbc5sq93
— Anurag Kashyap (@anuragkashyap72) March 14, 2019
Series starred Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Not only for the directors, Star Bestsellers was where actors like Irrfan Khan, Kay Kay Menon and Nawazuddin Siddiqui also got the opportunity to chew into meaty, well-written roles before making it big on the silver screen.
The anthology is also said to have an episode directed by Irrfan — the only such venture he undertook — featuring Nawazuddin Siddiqui. However, the episode is unavailable currently.
Several other episodes took inspiration from Hollywood films. Maya Rao’s Sharma Vs State, featuring Alok Nath as a lawyer is a remake of the 1991 Martin Scorsese movie Cape Fear. The 1998 rom-com You’ve Got Mail was also remade by Vinta Nanda, titled Love on the Net. Oscar-winning Primal Fear, featuring Richard Gere and Edward Norton, was adapted by Ankush Mohla and Glen Barretto — of Zee’s Woh fame from 1998 — titled Masoom.
As word spread, several big directors, including David Dhawan, began pitching ideas. But remaining true to the show’s only two rules — it would give newcomers a platform and the episodes would cover different genres to sustain originality — they were turned down.
While a budget of Rs 2.6 crore was cleared for 52 episodes, only 36 were made.
Amitabh Bachchan’s Kaun Banega Crorepati and daily soap Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi had begun to air by the mid-2000’s, leading to Star Bestsellers’ unfortunate and untimely demise in just one year.
“(Star Bestsellers) was a 0.6 in the ratings and Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi was a 19. A lot of like-minded people liked Star Bestsellers, but it really wasn’t a money spinner for the network,” executive producer Shailaja Kejriwal of the series said.
Despite the show not doing that well — number-wise — and quality of episodes dipping here and there, it has maintained a place in many people’s hearts, Reddit pages, pirated recordings on YouTube and is now available to stream on Hotstar.