A young, beautiful girl in her impeccable uniform walks into the airport and then towards the ready-to-fly aircraft in the terminal. “Oh, what a pretty airhostess!” she hears someone talking about her. Paying no heed, she walks on only to see the surprise on the passengers’ faces as she graces the cockpit as the pilot. This is the story of Ananya Rawat and the challenges she faces in the aviation industry, typically thought of as a male bastion.
It was on an idle February morning in 2013 that the idea of a television show centring on a female pilot came to writer Advaita Kala’s mind. Having penned the award-winning film ‘Kahaani’, Kala at that time was planning to make her debut on television.
Speaking to TelevisionPost.com, she says, “‘Kahaani’ was a great experience for me and now I wanted more time to develop characters and give them some meat. People keep asking me why I’m doing a TV show after such a big film, but frankly I don’t care. I don’t believe in the hierarchy of films and TV. In fact, I am working on a play right now because that’s what interests me the most. Then again, I don’t want to be writing five shows at a time.”
With the skeleton of the show ‘Airlines’ ready, she, along with the production house Miditech, approached Star Plus.
Miditech co-founder Nikhil Alva states, “We felt that the good thing about the airlines industry is that it’s an aspirational place for the youth today, so we thought to keep it as a backdrop. This backdrop allows for various characters as passengers keep changing, and you have different kinds of characters to string stories and a lot of space to play with.”
On its part, the channel also found the story to be in line with its philosophy of ‘Nayi Soch’ (new thinking) because Ananya is not a conventional girl for whom marriage is all that matters. She wants to make her career and that too in what is perceived to be a male-dominated industry.
The finite series was then modified in such a way that it kept viewers connected. The 26-episode show was given a weekly episodic format because the intense quality of writing, graphics and production was thought to be difficult to deliver on a daily basis. Choosing an appropriate time slot posed another problem.
Star Plus SVP marketing and content strategy Nikhil Madhok adds, “After doing fiction from Monday to Saturday, Sunday was the only day available to us. Since everyone else was doing non-fiction on Sunday, we thought of doing a fiction show.”
That set the ball rolling for a show that was to be much different from the rest in many ways. Firstly, ‘Airlines’ was based away from the hustle of Mumbai in Delhi’s Film City, a fact that led to a lot of local talent being used for the show.
What is even more interesting is the grand production scale. As much of the story takes place on an airplane, one of the first tasks for Miditech was to replicate a Boeing 737 so that they could show stuff like a crash landing, engine fire and more. This further led to an association with Pixion, which created all the graphics and visual effects for the show.
So while there was an aircraft set constructed of wood, plaster of Paris and glass, the exteriors were covered by a green screen used for chroma effects to showcase the visuals of landing, take-off and flight.
However, a recreated cockpit, a discrete business class and an economy class made the inside of the aircraft look almost authentic.
It was a long gestation period as the set took about four months to build and the VFX took six months to execute.
Alva tells that the set was built in Mumbai and came in five flat-bed trucks which took almost two weeks to reach Delhi.
One of the trucks once went missing with one large chunk of the set and did not turn up for about six days. As a result, the design team had A, B and D parts of the set in place, which left a massive gaping hole as one entire chunk (C) was missing.
The production crew of 150 people went crazy trying to figure out where the truck went. Finally, it transpired that the truck had a breakdown on the way and the driver had abandoned it without reporting the incident.
“That was a nightmare as we were all ready to roll. We were shooting on Monday and till Saturday night we had no clue where the truck was. The truck finally arrived on Sunday. A lot of such crazy stuff happened,” recalls Alva.
Besides the aircraft set, there are different set-ups spread around Delhi. There is a special room on the set that is used as an airport lounge and the officers’ room. Another set-up is used as Ananya’s bungalow, which is a farmhouse in Delhi. The airport has been set up in the city’s Expo Mart. Incidentally, the production house was earlier allowed to shoot some sequences at the Indira Gandhi International Airport.
Kala also spoke to pilots, frequent flyers and airhostesses to get insights into the industry. She chatted with various people over a drink or dinner to gather anecdotes.
“I consulted some civil aviation experts to see if what I was trying to recreate was possible. I have taken a dramatic licence as I am not making a documentary, but it’s mostly factual,” she quips.
She recalls that an aviation professional who takes proficiency tests of pilots told her that women pilots lack good reflexes. This caught Kala off her guard and when she asked if all women pilots were really like that, he said that compared to men who react immediately in a crisis, women usually take a little longer.
This prompted Kala, Star Plus and Miditech to focus more on the casting as they needed a face who would challenge and break these stereotypes with conviction on television.
“We did not want any established television soap actress because we felt the authenticity would be compromised if she is in a soap opera yesterday and now a pilot in this show,” states Alva.
Wanting a face that has not been on television, they auditioned over 1,200 people before they came across Tulip Joshi, who Kala immediately approved.
“There is elegance about the way she carries herself and she’s a very different girl on TV. I immediately liked her. I told the team to forget the dialogues during the audition and just capture her essence. Star saw it and it didn’t take much time to finalise the character,” claims Kala.
Tulip Joshi adds, “This is Ananya Rawat’s journey from the time she becomes first officer to the first day of work, her equation with family members, her fellow colleagues and more. How she sticks to her values and faces all the challenges forms the core of this journey. Since it is mainly acting, preparing for the role was not difficult for me. The most challenging thing, however, was imagining the backdrop of flying, tilting the plane, landing while having a green curtain in front.”
She prepared for her role by observing the body language of pilots through YouTube videos, and also visited the cockpit a few times to understand how an aircraft works.
Yudishthir Urs, aka Yudi, who will play the parallel lead Captain Akash, also did the same. Urs has earlier been a VJ but has not done television fiction. “Every role needs a specific look, and for this show they wanted my character to look like a pilot. And I hope that I will be able to pull it off. You will get to see the challenges the pilots and air hostesses face. This show is not going to highlight the scandals of the industry. This is a thrilling show that will grow on,” Yudi states.
Having many pilot friends, Yudi sat with them to know what the industry is like. Besides learning the body language and the cockpit set-up, he also worked with a flight simulator to learn where the intercom is located, how to operate the landing gear and the flaps, how to read radar and more.
“My friend Dhruv Pandey, who is a pilot with Jet, helped me a lot by explaining many technicalities. Miditech also got one pilot to come and consult us to say how you enter and strap up,” he says.
With the show ready to roll within a year, it was time now for the channel to flex its marketing muscles to create a buzz.
The on-air promo aimed to break the stereotype of what a woman can do. It aired across the Star network and on 25 other channels which have a higher youth viewership index.
Star Plus also focused on digital platforms like YouTube, Yahoo and MSN to underscore the challenges of being a pilot. For the same, it is launching a first-of-its-kind online simulator game where one can actually control an aircraft with different challenges like rain, bird hit, engine failure, etc.
The team also prepared a trivia on what the aviation industry is like through a special segment ‘Did You Know Facts?’. In addition, Joshi is visiting various cities and interacting with female pilots and aviation training schools to learn more about what it takes to be a pilot.
This helped the channel to attract different sponsors for the show on its standard-definition and high-definition feeds. While Fortune and Ariel came on board for SD feed, Forest Essentials was roped in for HD.
With the early buzz around the show being positive, Miditech is already planning for a second season of the show.
“The thought process is that we work with seasons, and we have clear plans of what we want to do in the second season. There is certain viewer fatigue in infinite series and there is no point juicing it then. So you take a break, refresh it and come back with new characters and storyline,” claims Alva.