At the forefront

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9 Aug 2011
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From television producer to the first woman director of Doordarshan Kendra Hyderabad, M. Sailaja Suman has come a long way, writes Neeraja Murthy

When John Lennon said “Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans,” he must have had in mind M. Sailaja Suman, Director, Prasar Bharati, Doordarshan Kendra, Hyderabad at Ramanthapur. As a child, she wanted to be a perfect housewife. “Home science was my favourite subject,” she says, seated in her office, with a big maroon bindi shining bright on her forehead. “I wanted to be like the heroine who lives in a joint family in the movies, taking care of everyone and adept at handling everything.”

Sailaja grew up in Machilipatnam in a family where culture, tradition and education were given equal prominence. “My mother was a singer and my father was in dramatics,” she says. Her heart beat in tandem to the ankle bells of Kuchipudi. When her father wanted her to take up medicine, she had already made up her mind. “I had a plan ready,” she laughs. “I told my father that I will not do medicine but if he insisted, I would marry a doctor.” Television doors opened for this home-science professional when her father-in-law came across an advertisement asking for TV producers. “He marked the advertisement in the paper for me to read and I thought he wanted me to apply,” she says with a smile. She was chosen for the job (“I think the interview worked in my favour as child development was one of my M.Sc. subjects”) and asked to report for training at the film institute.

The adventures of a professional life began at 24, when she had planned to settle down as a housewife.

“I realised a lot of our plans get junked midway and our lives take a different turn. I had never imagined that I would work in a creative field such as television,” she says. With absolutely no experience with visual media, she learnt the fundamentals and worked as a producer for 12 years, making programmes for women and children.

In 1994, she got promoted to Assistant Station Director, but the year also saw her file a sexual harassment case against P.L. Chawla, Doordarshan Director at the time.

“When the boss is vindictive and otherwise different, somebody has to take up the issue. If an employee is not protected during office hours, one's pride is hurt. I waited for six months to see if things would improve. I knew going to court was not easy and no one would support or believe me,” she recollects. Sailaja was transferred to Lucknow and she says there are no bad feelings now.

As we walk towards a recording studio for the photo shoot, the zing in her voice is back. She talks about her new experiences as Marketing Director (Doordarshan) for eight years) and at FM Rainbow.

“If you do not like your product, how can you sell it?” she asks. That was also the time DD's monarchy was challenged by cable television and it could not withstand the competition from private players in the business. When being glitzy with concepts and sets is the order of the day, Doordarshan is criticised for not shedding its old skin and continuing with tacky sets and boring programmes. “It is ironic that it was DD which started the trend of soaps and gave some memorable serials,” she says.

As the first woman director of Doordarshan Kendra Hyderabad, her task is cut out. “The two main concerns we have is that that we don't have big budgets and cannot get celebrities to our shows. The money game has made it tough for DD. Outside productions spend exorbitantly for their daily serials. Channels buy the terrestrial rights of new films on the muhurtam day and we miss out on airing the latest movies,” she says.

There is hope on the horizon with the new shows lined up for September 15 (DD's anniversary) and October 23 (when Hyderabad Doordarshan came into existence) – Maa Naana Garu, Maa Ooru (where people get nostalgic and talk about their native place), Rangoli (based on the popular Rangoli in Hindi) amongst others.

Any dreams? “I want to see my daughter married off,” she replies instantly. Interestingly her two children's names, Nithya and Nikhil, have been taken from the popular Telugu song Maa Telugu Talliki, from the line nithyamai…nikhilamai...

When the photographer asks her to pose, “Enti pelli choopula photola,” she says with a laugh. As we conclude, we ask her about her new plans, “Increase DD's revenue and TRPs. And, personally, I want to take care of my in-laws and read and enjoy literature,” she says. And if the plans change track mid-way, she knows how to adapt.

Sharing success

It was time for celebration when Doordarshan Kendra, Hyderabad won the award for best Doordarshan Kendra recently. Sailaja was in Delhi to accept the award from Union minister of Information and Broadcasting Ambica Soni.

“It was a memorable moment for us at Hyderabad,” she says. “We wanted to share our happiness so we made a replica of the award and gave it to every one of our 360 staff members.”

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