Making an impact on screen from behind – Diana Sylvester

Let's Talk Movies

by Neelima Menon

6 min read
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Diana Sylvester

For the longest time, not many people knew that Cinemala, a political and social Television satire headlined by a bunch of men, was spearheaded by a woman. The show launched in Asianet had no predecessor at that point. It initially showcased film scenes weaved in with a bit of comic commentary and later transitioned into an out-and-out political satire. Cinemala was Diana Sylvester’s idea. After being summoned by Sashi Kumar during the initiation of Asianet in the early 90s, Diana overhauled the concept of satire in Television shows. Her Cinemala went on to complete over 1000 episodes. The show’s humongous popularity also led to the introduction of several talented mimicry artists into the world of Malayalam cinema. A chat with Diana.

After graduating in English literature from St Teresa’s college and completing her post graduation from Sacred Hearts College, Thevara, Diana Sylvester wasn’t really over the moon when she got a US Visa to learn computer science (her professors did graphics in Hollywood films). As expected, she struggled with computers and felt terribly homesick too.

She missed the singing and acting workshops back home (her father had a small music troupe). Diana switched to Mass Communications at Chicago Governors State University and also did Liberal arts.

When she came home after exams, she heard that private channels were making inroads into Television. She sent a biodata to NDTV head honcho Prannoy Roy as well as Sashi Kumar, who was the chief Producer of PTI. Though Roy invited her to Delhi for an interview, she couldn’t attend as the city was witnessing riots at that time.

Then one day she got a call from Sashi Kumar’s secretary for an interview in Trivandrum. He briefed her about his vision for the Asianet channel. When she said she was working as a Foreign student advisor, he told her to take leave and join.

Asianet had only purchased 10 films then. It was Diana who suggested interlacing film scenes with a comedy story. And not just that, she proposed going for a string of film scenes around a topic (hero’s dialogue after the fight etc) and Sashi Kumar was impressed by her detailing.

Asianet wanted a female anchor and Cinemala started with Praseetha Menon. It was writer Paul Zachariah, their consultant, who suggested the name ‘Cinemala.’ Diana remembers how in due course several artists anchored the show (Dileep, Kalpana, Adoor Pankajam).

Diana also holds the distinction of producing the first sponsored programme on Asianet—Talent scan, also the first reality show/collegiate fest in Kerala. Being a drummer in college, she admits it was a programme she did for herself.

“Kunchacko Boban first participated in the show as a dancer to represent a college,” she tells.

Meanwhile, Cinemala evolved into an out-and-out socio-political comedy satire. They had to do away with film clippings eventually owing to public demand. Diana says the show had far too many sponsors and remained top-rated for 15-16 years. “We had to avoid many sponsors with the excuse that people would perhaps mind changing channels,” she tells me.

“No, there were no challenges that I can think of,” admits Diana while producing a show like Cinemala. “It was a passion. In hindsight, I wonder how I did it all. Perhaps the only pressing issue at hand was to write a comedy script according to the current issue.”

Though many tried to copy the format, none could recreate it, Diana says with a hint of pride. “It requires dedication. We can do any number of serious programmes, but comedy is tough to pull off. That too consistently.”

Since she hailed from a family who never differentiated her based on gender, she never felt she was a lone woman pitted against men in a male-dominated space. “I think it was because we (me and my brother) were encouraged to flex our creativity at home. My dad had an acting/music amateur group and that was my university. My brother was a singer and drummer. I learned comedy and timing from home.”

Though most of the artists were slackers, Diana was able to handle them. “I was very strict though we dabbled with comedy. Not much of an issue otherwise.”

They visited toddy shops and even places strewn with intoxicated men and most often she would be the only woman in that group, but Diana can’t think of any “uncomfortable experience ever.”

She handpicked all the mimicry artists. And once these artists started getting stage shows abroad, Diana set herself a rule. No one was indispensable. She never waited for an artist. But that also meant she had to keep some of the artists, who agreed to be a replacement during crises, out of obligation. The numbers kept increasing!

For mimicry artists, this was family, and some registered their disappointment when they weren’t called for an episode.

Diana had this knack for spotting talents. When they did a special episode for Cinemala based on a Kairali TV spoof, they wanted a female dancer and that’s how Subi came on board. But Diana detected that behind that serious exterior was a girl who could do comedy. A screen test confirmed that. Subi became a Cinemala regular. Years later it was only when Suraj Venjaramoodu and Kalabhavan Shajon expressed their disappointment in not being a part of Cinemala that Diana realised it had such an extensive fan base.

Politicians being sportive

Since they were the first to do a political satire on TV, politicians would call her up and complain if an issue wasn’t featured. “Politicians were very happy—they loved the fame and often told me to make them a character,” she recalls.

Diana has fond memories of Karunakaran who loved being caricatured on Cinemala. His daughter Padmaja told her that he loved it so much that he would complain when he was missing from an episode.

Usha Uthup requested her to make her a character and even offered to act. So they made sure their 666th episode featuring Usha Uthup was a stupendous success.

Another rule she strictly followed was to avoid vulgar comedy in dialogues and costumes.

Does she think making such a show is easy in today’s times? “I don’t think so. My company gave me lots of freedom. They knew I won't misuse it. Now I think I need to be careful. I remember while doing Badai Bungalow I had so many restrictions about using certain words. Now the restrictions are multifold and that affects our creativity.”

Beyond comedy

Diana is extremely proud of some of the documentaries she produced for Asianet. And Charakadhayil Jeevikkunna Rakthasakshi based on the ISRO espionage case is very close to her heart. “It was in my programme that he proved his innocence. It was revealed that he was a living martyr. I met them all in jail and spoke to them at length. Never before have I researched so much for a programme. When you do research, you are able to understand the loopholes in the case.

Cinemala will always be the high
point in Diana's career

It was so torturous to go to his home and meet his wife who was mentally traumatized,” she tells me.

Then she did a documentary on Indian poet Mirza Ghalib. His house used to be a small hut filled with cows and goats. It was after the Delhi government saw her documentary that they decided to renovate it and convert into a historic monument. “This was in 1995. I did it with a small camera. It was part of many International festivals.”

Diana also filmed KR Narayanan’s presidential election and Sonia Gandhi’s entry into politics. “Those were some of my landmark interviews, especially at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. I never realised the seriousness of it back then.”

Badai Bungalow and Cinemala

Cinemala will always be the high point in her career. And it did take a lot of her time, scouting for ideas and writing the scripts. Having to alter the climax according to the issue was a challenge she faced every week. But mostly their inferences were correct.

Badai Bungalow, an inspired copy of The Kapil Sharma show which was the next big show she produced also ran for many years. Diana says that initially she was criticised for picking Arya, who later went on to become a big hit.

The show which started in 2013 ran till 2020 and was stalled only because of the pandemic. The channel is open to starting the show, but there are other glitches that she isn’t willing to disclose.

Diana shakes her head vehemently when I bring up the top of gender discrimination at work—” I have never felt bias because of my gender. I had confidence in my work. So I wouldn’t let anyone walk over me. That is not to say backstabbing and other side effects weren’t there, but I never let it affect my work.”

She did get a lot of offers to script and direct films, but Cinemala kept her far too busy. “I should have done it then.” The only difference she can see is that now the family atmosphere which existed earlier has made way for corporate culture.

She thinks there are two types of artists in this world—those who have genuine talent and those who resort to PR to bring attention to themselves. She says now the latter is more rampant. “So many talented artists haven’t got their due. But those with lesser talent are successful. Self-promotion is the key. I think I am zero in that department. The people whom I have helped have turned away from me. The ones whom I have not helped have been unexpectedly kind.” Now she feels mimicry artists have more accessibility and opportunities.

But Diana thinks humour is getting more and more difficult to pull off, be it in cinema or comedy skits. Trolls and memes have redefined comedy.

Looking back Diana is amazed that she was able to pull off a show like Cinemala with such consistency. “My record remains intact,” she smiles.

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