THE INTERN is sniffy. When she was hired, she’d thought Ekta ma’m was going to ask her for ‘creative inputs’ into the TV shows. She isn’t at Balaji Telefilms to do “just this”, she gestures vaguely at the office around her with Facebook-weary hands. Does she watch the shows? No! She is horrified. “I keep telling my sister. How can you come home from work and watch them? These shows are for aunties.” What does she watch? Roadies. Reality shows.

A little later, two young TV writers enter the common room. For the next two hours, the plainly dressed men earnestly discuss how to establish a new character’s attributes without making her too simplistic. They’re speaking in Hindi, writing in a mix of Hindi and English, stroking their chins, looking limpid. There’s none of the cynicism that makes the average non-viewer smirk about saas-bahu shows — that enormous meteor shower that Ekta Kapoor created before she turned 25. Those shows changed television, fashion, weddings and claimed a giant space in our popculture history.

To those who haven’t met her, Ekta is a parody — just like her shows are to those who haven’t watched them. Her multiplying rings with soaring gemstones, her many gods, her easy success, her sexual orientation, her cell phoneflinging tantrums, her obsession with astrology and the letter K, her jogging with a phone-toting retinue — everything has become as legendary as her show’s aesthetics. In the vast plains of online fan forums, viewers address complaints directly to an omniscient Ekta — “Ekta, I didn’t understand this part. Why did the vampire bite Pia?”

Wedged between a huge executive desk and a wide sideboard blurred by god paraphernalia, Ekta says, “I used to be a human being. Now I am folklore.” At 35, she combines her infamous bluntness with a kittenish voice. A few years ago, she took to wearing a gemstone that she says helped with her temper. Before you can start wondering if any male producer in Bollywood ever worried about his temper, she adds with a grin, “It helped only 40 percent though.”

Ekta is the face of the production house she runs with her mother Shobhaa Kapoor. She’s been at it for 17 years now. But since 2008, there’s been a new regime of streamlined budgets at Balaji under Puneet Kinra, the group CEO. Ekta herself has welcomed the iron shoes Kinra wears to prevent Balaji from floating off in a swirl of zardozi. Just as importantly, there is now more senior management to ease Ekta’s burden, if she so wishes — which is still a matter of debate inside Balaji — of signing off on every last detail on every last show.

The old habits are interesting to watch. The entire seven-storey building is galvanised from the ground up when Shobhaa Kapoor’s car is spotted down the street. Whiteboards listing the week’s tasks also list ‘Jeetuji’s trip to Hyderabad’. Ekta’s movie star father Jeetendra is promoting the group’s next film Ragini MMS. When writers talk of Balaji investing in their writers, of Balaji refusing to change scripts to please the channel suits, they gesture unconsciously in the direction of Ekta’s office. “You will know when she is here,” the intern says wanly.

THIS IS the room where underconfident writers come to die. Kapoor’s meetings are often protracted and chatty. Working with her requires you to recognise when she shifts gear, and then business is suddenly concluded in a concentrated 10 minutes because she knows what she wants. Ekta’s nose for what viewers will like is formidable. Smriti Irani, star of Balaji’s flagship Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, remembers the 25- year-old Ekta Kapoor insisting on casting her in the face of much opposition, saying, “This is my Tulsi.” And later agreeing with Irani that she should cry as she wanted — face-distorting, ugly tears — not the glycerine prettiness the director wanted.

Her intuition is partly shaman. It is partly an endless interest in details. Althea Kaushal, writer of Balaji’s hit vampire teen show Pyaar Kii Ye Ek Kahani, says, “The thing about Ekta is this. You throw her a plotline and she gives you inputs. A month later if you haven’t incorporated her inputs, she’ll spot it right away. She’ll remember exactly what she told you in spite of having meetings all day long. That’s scary!” This is the same Ekta who jokes about how she was once an undereducated couch potato. She’s somehow turned the two traits of a TV addict — a fragmented attention span and obsessiveness — into a creative dynamo.

When media critics first caught sight of the young woman making those shows that appalled them, they must have paled more. Her orange-tikka’d religiosity was going to take the country back into the Dark Ages, they warned. Ekta has always been unapologetic and amused by this nervousness. A nervousness her parents share. “They are religious, not spiritual,” says Ekta. “They do pujas and all but they worry about me. They keep saying, you are so young. Why do you go to temples?” She adds, “Astrologers keep trying to meet me, they think I’ll fall for anything. I’m not stupid, I think through things. [But] in the astrology world, I am Mallika Sherawat.”

Ekta talks with delicious, sensual enjoyment about alternately seeking passion and calm on her pilgrimages, saying things like: “Tirupati Balaji and I have a bond. When I go to suprabhatam, I get sucked in by his aura. I love him.” Or “Kamakhya is wonderful.” Or “Ajmer Sharif is very calming. Soothing. I prefer the Sufi saints to the Hindu ones.” She speaks with the same thick relish about everything. Of her favourite goddess Kali, she says, “She rides a wild boar because it’s the wildest animal. She feels a little remorse only when she has her foot on a man’s head.” She adds with a smirk, “So she is feminine too.”

Her parents may not get this desire for spiritual uppers and downers but they are, by all reports, workaholics like her. Milan Luthria, director of Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, admires Ekta for being the rare producer who’ll pitch in when the director is alone and beleaguered. He talks fondly of Ekta and her parents for being able to do long hours, endless trips and casual stopovers in small towns. All three combine enormous drive with a gift for being relaxed. “They are happy. It’s rare,” he says.

Which perhaps explains why Ekta never tries to present a picture of Happy Families to the public. She and her mother have raucous fights at work, knowing that when they get home the fight will have to be (and can be) dealt with. Some years ago, she moved out but ended up moving back home in a few months, saying she was too dependent on her mother to run her own household. Ekta says candidly that she and her actor brother Tusshar Kapoor give each other a wide berth to keep their relationship stable.

ONCE, 35 of the top 50 shows on air were Balaji Telefilms creations. Then in 2008, everything went pearshaped. Star Plus, the network that had bought all her shows, decided to take Ekta’s iconic Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi off air. An outraged Ekta sued the channel unsuccessfully and the show’s eight-year glory run — 1,800 episodes — ended in a hiccup.

Ekta had adored the idea of producing a Mahabharat that focussed on Draupadi’s dealings with the Pandavas as modern relationships. Her Mahabharat on 9X had perfect bodies and a colloquial idiom, but some audiences mumbled it was too realistic and not BR Chopra, others complained it wasn’t realistic and not HBO. It failed, along with the channel.

Meanwhile, audiences were spurning saas-bahu shows for the charms of reality TV and shows about rural girlhood. Balaji was reduced to having just four shows on air in 2008. The new flock of shows like Balika Vadhu that came then frankly surprised Ekta, who says about them, “Forget getting into them, I didn’t get them. Child marriage and women beating their daughters-in-law. I’d never seen anything like it.” Balaji announced a net loss of Rs 14 crore for the quarter ended March 2009. It was as if the evil vamp had wormed her way into the heart of the family and thrown Ekta out.

The channels who didn’t anticipate this new wave condemned them as regressive, but Ekta is humbler and says, “I felt it was a gap in my experience that this rural reality was not something I knew anything about.” And suddenly it clicks. However anachronistic, those zardozi family dramas were, in the end, urban. They were about urban joint families that Ekta had watched as a stealthy outsider. They were as urban as the young people for whom Balaji is making movies today.

And as TV will teach you, you can’t keep a good woman down. Balaji is now more professionally run — and profitable again. Today, it has four shows on air — all youth-centred with an individualistic ethos. Pavitra Rishta is the top show in the country, while Pyaar Kii Ye Ek Kahani has the highest ratings on Star One. The TV business is chugging along, but Ekta says she’s more energised now by her films division.

Above the heads of the restless intern and the earnest writers, Balaji’s films division is a place of efficient people with thin, gentle smiles and hair in thin, gentle spikes. Balaji Motion Pictures produces stylish mainstream aspirants like Once Upon a Time in Mumbai and Shor in the City. More interestingly, the films division’s ALT brand is gathering attention for edgy films like Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, this week’s Ragini MMS (a horror date film) and soon Dirty Picture (a biopic about Silk Smitha).

This is not the wild swing in taste that Ekta watchers claim it to be. It is, in fact, consistent with her focus on urban storytelling. Ekta has added up two facts since 2008: 1) Young urban viewers do less and less appointment TV viewing and prefer to download shows or set aside weekends for movies. 2) There is urban life outside Mumbai. She recounts her happy surprise at attending cool house parties in Chandigarh and meeting articulate young people in Guwahati.

PhD theses and newspaper columns keep condemning TV shows as regressive and anti-women. They don’t get the radical appeal to viewers in their making women protagonists central, even if in slo-mo. Ekta has made no secret that the men on her shows are merely eye candy. In a 2007 episode of Koffee With Karan, she fake-leered her way through a description of casting cherubic Hiten Tejwani and the suave Ram Kapoor for different age groups of her women viewers. “Indian women are not worrying about ‘Why’d you say that to me at dinner?’” she told Johar. “They’re worrying about their in-laws.” The critical contempt hasn’t been towards Ekta’s shows, it’s been towards the minutiae of women’s domestic lives.

She laughs at silly allegations that her films are all about sex. “Today, no one needs to go to the movies to watch sex. You can download any amount of porn for free. Movies need to talk about young people’s lives in the language they use. About relationships. Money. Sex.”

The culture has changed in the 17 years Ekta has been at work. We are equally at ease with mata ki chowkis and dirty weekends. She observes with pleasure how, increasingly, Indians are now more comfortable in their skin. In the end, this is what is most attractive about Ekta — her desire to live in multiple worlds and let others do the same.