Diya Aur Baati Hum aired over 1500 episodes and was the top rated television show in India for three years. As the season comes to an end, I chat to writer Raghuvir Shekhawat about life, the television industry, and what’s on the horizon.
As Raghuvir Shekhawat walked across from the Sony Pictures headquarters, he appeared surprisingly calm and collected for someone whose latest TV show launched earlier that day.
Not to mention the fact that he is currently working on five other television shows. And yet, when he sat opposite me, at a small table in the corner of Café Coffee Day, he was the one who told me to “relax, breathe…”
All in a day’s work for India’s most prolific and highly-acclaimed screenwriter.
Across more than five Indian television networks, Shekhawat has written scripts for over 65 shows. It should therefore come as no surprise that he holds the Indian national record for writing the largest number of shows.
To name a few, Diya Aur Baati Hum tells the story of Sandhya, a young woman who, with the support of her husband, Sooraj, embarks on a personal journey to fulfil her lifelong dream of becoming a police officer. The show ran on Star Plus for five years and screened nearly 1500 episodes. Balika Vadhu follows Anandi, a child bride, and her journey from childhood to womanhood. The show lasted eight years and aired just over 2000 episodes.
Shekhawat also dabbled in writing scripts for films, with some success. The 2009 film Jail won three national awards and was shown at a number of international film festivals.
An aspiring poet in his youth, Shekhawat set his sights on screenwriting after a stern warning from his father to get a job, or get out.
“So I had a teacher for seven days. On the eighth day, I told him, ‘I can write better than you. I’m going.’”
Twenty-two years on, the Raghuvir Shekhawat sitting opposite me is much more patient. He acknowledges the slight recklessness of his choice back then, but puts much of his career success down to his willingness to make it on his own and embrace the real world.
“I was stupid. But I learnt on my own. And that is why my writing is totally different from any one else in the industry.”
“There are people who take inspiration from books, or they take inspiration from films. I have not read much literature. In fact, forget not much…I’ve not read one single bit. I take inspiration from surroundings, from life, from people.”
Clearly not fussed on reading, when it comes to TV, Shekhawat knows what he likes and what he doesn’t.
“I never watch my shows. Not because I don’t have time, but I don’t like watching television shows. I hate seeing those dramas and people crying and everything. I love to write that, but I hate to see that. I can’t stand my own shows.”
“I’m a typical man, so I love to see cricket matches and the news.”
However, Shekhawat’s views are far from typical when it comes to empowering women.
His wife is the head designer of a jewellery company, and a very good designer, he assures me. They have a child together, and Shekhawat completely supports her ambition to work and pursue a career, even if it means breaking from the mould and not being a stay-at-home mother.
“I don’t need her money. In fact, I also don’t know how much money she is earning. All I know is that from that business money goes in my pocket. I support her. I want her to pursue her dream.”
On a different note, he tells me about his mother and his sister, and the young age at which they were thrown into being wives and having children.
“My mother gave birth to my elder sister when she was 13. And that was after she had one miscarriage. And my sister, she was 16 when she gave birth to my niece.”
Shekhawat has a large task on his hands – it’s not just the women in his family he has to keep happy. In India, women make up almost the entire television viewer market.
Diya Aur Baati Hum is the story of Sandhya, an Indian woman who, with the support of her husband, Sooraj, is able to achieve her lifelong dream of becoming a police officer. Image: Dekh News.
“All my TV shows star females. In TV shows, we focus on social issues. And social issues are something which are more relatable to women than men.”
One of his longest running shows, Balika Vadhu, focused on a controversial element of Indian culture that attracts media attention worldwide: child brides.
“Balika Vadhu is about an eight-year-old girl getting married. Imagine, an eight-year-old girl getting married and doing the duties of a wife!”
He talks about another dark side of Indian culture that women face. The state of Haryana is notoriously known for honour killings, especially of daughters. When girls are born, or when pregnant women are known to be carrying girls, the child is killed.
The Haryana state government has implemented a number of programs to stop this and increase the gender ratio, with some success: in December 2015, the child sex ratio increased to 903 girls per 1000 boys. This is the first time that figure has crossed the 900 mark in 10 years.
These improvements don’t mean that it still doesn’t happen: the district of Jhajjar recorded the lowest ratio, with 794 girls to 1000 boys.
“That’s the sad part of…one part of India.”
“So we pick up social issues like that, and we try and show the evil side of it, so that people learn from it.”
“Our culture is deeply rooted, and when something is so deeply rooted…if you just change the leaves, it’s not going to change much. People need to be more educated, and TV pays a small part in that.”
Already, Shekhawat has seen some of the fruits of these labours.
“When we made the show Balika Vadhu, we actually started getting letters from people, saying ‘we wanted to get our daughter married, and we are cancelling that marriage after seeing this.’”
However small, the part that television plays in driving societal change across India is a very important one. This is evidenced by the stark contrast in the attitudes of men in metropolitan cities versus those in rural India.
“Mumbai is displayed as the city of dreams…go there and you will have anything you want. The rest of India is not like that,” Shekhawat confirms.
“In Mumbai and in metro cities, you see that a lot of people support their wives. But in small cities, men do not support their wives. They think their wife is supposed to sit at home.”
For this reason, Shekhawat chose to set Diya Aur Baati Hum in the town of Pushkar, Rajasthan.
“This is why the husband in Diya Aur Baati became an inspiration. Every woman who was watching said ‘I wish I had this kind of guy in my life.’ A lot of women must be kicking their men’s arse, saying ‘why do you not support me?’”
While gender roles are becoming increasingly fluid worldwide, the role of the woman is deeply entrenched in India’s cultural heritage. Traditionally, women are still brought up to believe that their role in life is to take care of the household, have children and look after the family.
“My wife used to feel guilty if the child cried at home, saying “why am I working?” Even though I was supporting her, my parents were supporting her, because she grew up thinking this is what she’s supposed to do,” Shekhawat explains.
“It [television] is how we make people understand that going after your dreams, even after getting married, is not a wrong thing. That striking a balance between family and your work is not a wrong thing.”
“It’s about opening the eyes of people…making people understand that women can also have desires, and those desires are not confined to the kitchen or to the bedroom.”
Poised and passionate, Shekhawat’s progressive views and positive outlook are a testament to his prosperous career.
Yet for somebody so successful, Shekhawat remains humble as ever: “The world has been kind to me...that’s all I can say.”