[100 Emerging Women Leaders] Meet Mrinal Jha, who went from screenwriting to becoming an entrepreneur with her content company
Mrinal Jha is an Indian writer, screenwriter, and producer who has immensely contributed to Indian television. Her writing resonates with the Indian masses, and has fetched her multiple accolades in a career spanning over two decades.
A veteran writer who perfectly understands the tastes and preferences of the Indian audience, Mrinal Jha won the Gold Award for Best Writer (story) in 2008 for the TV serial, Maayka, and the Indian Television Academy (ITA) Awards Best Story for Sony TV's Tara From Satara in 2019.
She has written for a gamut of iconic TV shows such as Rajani, Kaahin Kissii Roz, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Qubool Hai, and Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Na Kijo.
She has also helmed the writing for high TRP shows such as Ishqbaaz, Banoo Main Teri Dulhann, Maayka, Meher, Santaan, Kaali - Ek Agnipariksha, Sanjog Se Bani Sangini, Pyaar Ka Bandhan, Mano Ya Na Mano, and Kya Haadsa Kya Haqeeqat among others. She is also the story and plot architect for shows such as Yehh Jadu Hai Jinn Ka!, Tara from Sitara, Nazar, Divya Drishti, Naagin (season one, three and four), Ishqbaaaz, and Qubool Hai.
Mrinal has also been a scriptwriter and creative producer for several TV channels including Zee TV, Doordarshan, Star Plus, UTV, and also Balaji Telefilms. She has also been the producer of Jay Hind! - the longest-running standup comedy show for the internet platform.
She is also the co-founder of Undercover Utopia. Along with her spouse Abhigyan Jha, Mrinal has also founded Mrinal Abhigyan Jha (MAJ) in 2019, which is a boutique content company that creates high concept video content across platforms.
It specialises in shows with unique plots and characters. Their upcoming series The Socho Project – claims to be India’s first-ever musical web series, and is the maiden project under the MAJ banner.
Her most recent project involves creating and producing Qubool Hai 2, one of Zee5’s highest-rated shows. With an extensive understanding of the Indian market, the content hub caters to both the evolving needs deep-rooted values of young India.
In conversation with HerStory, Mrinal tells about her journey and getting into the world of entertainment
HerStory (HS): Tell us about your journey.
Mrinal Jha (MJ): Born in Mumbai, I was raised as the only child and both my parents were working. Right since childhood, my parents were progressive, focused on education, and nudged me to be independent in life.
Being a total introvert made me a bibliophile. So, that is where my roots in writing lie.
As a child, I also enjoyed storytelling. Back in my school days, I was fortunate enough to have encouraging teachers who appreciated my essays in front of the entire classroom. Honestly, the ability to tell a story that engages and enthrals is what always fascinated me.
HS: What got you interested in filmmaking and storytelling, and what challenges did you face?
MJ: I started my journey in advertising with copywriting, which was also the time when the satellite television industry was coming up. Coincidentally, I wrote my first novel with Abhigyan the year Zee TV started.
It just so happened that we were introduced to Ekta Kapoor through this novel. She really liked the book and because of this, she asked me to write stories for her maiden release – Maano Ya Na Maano on Zee TV.
Since the release of my first project, work has always come to me in a steady stream, and people have always supported me. Be it from the production house or the broadcast end, co-workers have usually shown their willingness to work with me and vice versa.
HS: Tell us about the first stint at filmmaking and what was going through your mind?
MJ: My first show that aired on television was a children’s quiz show called Kab Kyun Kahan. I thoroughly enjoyed working on that show because there were a lot of segments in it which made the format quite unique.
Back then, we were not yet acclaimed as TV writers but had a lot of concepts and were excited to be writing for this show. This was the first time we learnt a lot about the process of shooting a show.
After that, I was fortunate to assist one of India’s greatest television makers, Anand Mahendroo, on a show called Aasman Ke Aage, and also on the all-time classic Rajani, which I also wrote. He has been my ‘guru’ where I learnt the whole art of making television shows under his guidance.
On the flip side, I was also creating a lot of shows while working with Ekta Kapoor like Maano Ya Na Maano Season 2, where the entire season was written by us but directors changed – among these directors were Sriram Raghvan, Anurag Basu etc, and then Kahin Kissi Roz, which was all in all a game-changing show and it was the first daily thriller on TV.
HS: What attracts you to a story? How do you approach it?
MJ: A good story needs to constantly evolve and have momentum. I would say that you always start by crafting interesting characters so the protagonist’s life obviously has to be power-packed with stories. Above all, you have to love the protagonist and that is how you can keep bringing interesting stories into their lives, bearing in mind that viewers will solely resonate with the main leads.
Only when a story has momentum, twists, surprises and newness, with an original thought thrown into it, is how it carries the protagonist along with it. I do not pen down a story with a thought that I want to run it for a half-decade. Having said that, they inherently have the material for a larger span and then some stories are finite in nature. Every story defines its own narrative, structure and style, and one ought to make a show bearing these factors in mind.
HS: Is there a challenge to create content that is relevant yet out of the ordinary?
MJ: Any content that is created, for television especially, needs to have a certain kind of identity where the audiences can identify with the concept and characters that are put out there. At the same time, the whole purpose of entertainment is to put it in such a way that it is fresh and resounds with your target audience.
It should precisely showcase situations catering to the changing taste and everyday situations of your audience and, in return, makes your content entertaining to watch. The storyteller makes the audience live these various experiences. Thus, one needs to constantly come up with stories, ideas and situations which will make the audience feel like they are experiencing them.
HS: What got you to start Mrinal Abhigyan Jha, and what challenges did you face?
MJ: With various platforms that are available today like TV, digital etc, and with so many new genres, the audience is now more receptive towards new things. That’s why I thought it was a good time to set up a company. Unlike Hindi GECs that had only a particular type of content that would be repetitive, this is an exciting time to push ourselves beyond the ordinary and create the extraordinary.
Further, I have always wanted to put forth my brainchild and create content that is about multiple genres, multiple formats, and come up with original content across genres. In 2019, I finally took the plunge to set up MAJ (Mrinal Abhigyan Jha) Productions.
Having my husband Abhigyan with me for execution and production gives us a very special edge as he has international production experience, having worked with the great Ismail Merchant.
This goes to tell you that we bank on each other and this is as good as it gets. We are also lucky that our family has always been supportive and encouraging of our journey. Under MAJ, we have already created and released Qubool Hai 2.0 and will soon be releasing India’s first-ever musical web series The Socho Project.
HS: What conscious and unconscious biases have you have faced?
MJ: I have been glad to not have faced any biases personally and even if I have, I have always chosen to step aside from it and always move forward. At no point in my life have I stopped and felt like there was a hurdle due to biases and prejudices at any time because of which I was not being able to move in a certain direction. Of course, people have created hurdles for other reasons yet, these issues have not bothered me so far.
HS: Tell us about your highest and lowest points?
MJ: I feel extremely happy and delighted when any of my shows do well and it’s not just about the rating, it’s a general feeling that you get when you know that you have written something good. Honestly, I even get a natural high whenever I write an episode and it turns out well.
I am extremely self-critical, at least with my work, if I struggle with something and it ended up not coming out well, then I feel really low.
HS: What things have you learnt from your mistakes?
MJ: I feel like only when one makes mistakes, is when they learn. Earlier, I made the mistake of not really valuing my work enough and I would undercharge for the work that I did. There was also a point in my life where I chose to compromise rather than get into conflict situations, and not push my point enough. Especially, not fighting for the ideas I believed in was a huge mistake. Even if the idea does not work, have the grace to accept your mistake, learn and move on from it.
HS: What will you tell your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to trust the instincts more and to never get discouraged, and persevere despite facing hurdles or multiple closed doors. Even as a teenager, I have always found peace and enjoyed whatever I would do.
While I agree that in all life stages, we are constantly juggling and operating in a time and space that is limited as there are only 24 hours in a day! But if you truly enjoy every aspect of what you do, it will not stress you.
HS: What advice would you give women producers and advice to young producers in general?
MJ: In the entertainment industry, from the past few years, things are turning positive for women as we have an increasing number of female directors, scriptwriters, and technicians. A lot of scripts also have strong female leads in the story, making women able to express themselves even better now.
More as well, personally, there are characters like Zoya from Qubool Hai 2.0 (created by MAJ Productions), who speak her mind and is bold, brash and confident. That is a subtle but revolutionary change in the representation of women on celluloid that could remould the mentality of the viewers.
We are witnessing a paradigm shift in narratives pertaining to women and battle bigotry at a community level. We are paving way for more real and inspirational portrayals of women as ‘heroes’ than ‘supporting’ characters not just in front of the camera but also behind the screen.
Honestly, what I also feel is irrespective of the gender one must find euphoria in whatever they do. Furthermore, I would like to say that you just need to begin; don’t wait, don’t think, don’t overthink. Even in the worst-case scenario, where things go out of control, it is absolutely fine.
When I produced Jay Hind! In 2009 as the world’s first TV show on the internet – despite a ton of viewers across six years and 400 episodes – we failed to raise money to create a platform – and by no means is this my only failure - we all fail. At the end of the day, it is about becoming someone who deals with successes and failures equally. So don’t wait, just start!
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