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This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If there’s a moment when Bela Bajaria‘s south Asian ancestry reveals itself as an anomaly among Hollywood elite, it’s when competition to stand out from the masses is at its fiercest: on the red carpet.
“My first year at the Emmys many years ago, I wore a dress — this was before Slumdog Millionaire and the Indian resurgence in pop culture — and my husband asked, ‘Why don’t you just wear a sari like you do for other occasions?’ ” says Bajaria, 41, relaxing on a Friday in mid-October on a comfy couch inside her decorative office on the Universal lot.
“I was like, ‘Of course!’ Saris are so much easier,” she says, dressed similarly for comfort today in a flowy gray-blue blouse and black skirt. “My friends can’t eat for three days before the show, but I’m comfortable all night. I love my motherland representation in those moments — and it makes my mom very happy.”
Bajaria, Hollywood’s highest-ranking Indian-American, has further distinguished herself in the 15 months since NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt recruited Bajaria from her near-16-year tenure at CBS — where she oversaw cable and miniseries programming — by positioning NBC’s sister studio as a competitor in the bloody battle for hit series.
Although her slate already has seen some casualties (among them NBC’s Animal Practice and the network’s Munsters remake debacle), Bajaria can count some bright spots in a brutal fall season that saw nearly a dozen primetime series axed before Thanksgiving.
Universal’s Matthew Perry-starring NBC comedy Go On is the season’s No. 1 new comedy among adults 18-to-49 and has helped to elevate the network’s stature on Tuesday nights. Also, Fox’s The Mindy Project (Universal’s only current program to air on a network other than NBC) has won its time period opposite competition like ABC’s Don’t Trust the B– in Apt. 23 and is the only new series on the network to receive a 24-episode order.
“I’m proud of those because [Go On creator] Scott Silveri and Mindy [Kaling] represent exactly what I look for in writers: unique voices,” says Bajaria. “It can be a cop serial, a medical drama or romantic comedy. When a writer pitches us, it has to feel personal — that the writer has somehow lived those stories.”
Pausing to reflect on her busy year, she adds: “It’s thrilling that we haven’t had to sell anybody hard on, ‘Look at us, we’re the new supplier in town.’ Getting Mindy on Fox sent exactly the right message: We will support your show and make sure it ends up at the right place.”
If Bajaria comes across as a bit less jaded than the average exec, it’s because she never imagined someone like her could be a tastemaker in a culture so starkly different from her own beginnings. Her parents were from the Kutch region of India, then raised in east Africa before moving to London in 1970, the year Bajaria was born. After owning a grocery store there, the family moved to Zambia for two years before making the dramatic move to Los Angeles when Bajaria was 8, settling in Palos Verdes and eventually owning car washes.
Unlike most first-generation south Asians she knew growing up, Bajaria wasn’t forced to deny the lure of Western culture. “Yes, my parents were very involved in the Indian community, and there was a lot of cultural push-pull. It was like, ‘Are you going to be a doctor or engineer?’ My response was, ‘How about neither?’ ” she says, laughing. “This Indian girl was going into entertainment! And my parents were too happy to be in America not to support me.”
Having excelled in writing and literature in college (she graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in communications after also running a nonprofit for disabled children from Third World countries for four years), she sensed a calling to navigate the intersection of “creative and business.” At 24, she embarked on a letter-writing campaign to get a job aimed at “pretty much everyone in the creative directory at the time,” including top execs at TriStar Pictures and CBS, the latter of which called her in March 1996 for an interview to work in its busy 65-films-a-year TV movies division.
During her ascent at CBS, where she “did all the true-life stories, got rights to all the big books,” she met Greenblatt, who had produced the network’s Golden Globe-winning 2005 Elvis miniseries. “Bob always said, ‘This experience will be invaluable to you in your next job,’ ” she recalls. “So when he called me about the Universal post, I knew, ‘This was the one to leave for.’ I was really ready for a change.”
Bajaria is candid about the new concerns she has faced at Universal, like the pressure- cooker battle for ratings. “With a miniseries or TV movie, by the time they say it isn’t working, it’s already over,” she says, wistfully. And the even tougher moments, like when she had to break the bad news to the Animal Practice cast and crew. “It’s not fun for anybody,” she admits. “We tried to make it work. It’s the part of the business that really, truly sucks.”
She says such trials are countered by a busy roster of other projects, including her second series to air outside of NBC, Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin‘s Bates Motel on A&E starring Vera Farmiga and slated for 2013, and numerous studio deals with such writer-showrunners as Jason Katims (Parenthood) and Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Recreation), who worked closely with Bajaria to sell a pitch to ABC developed for The Office star Brian Baumgartner called Norman.
“She got us a very good penalty [premium], even though we were very late in the pitch season,” says Daniels. “She’s whip-smart and very bold.”
Bajaria’s energetic output translates outside of the office, too. She avoids business travel as much as she can and spends precious off-hours with her writer-producer husband Doug Prochilo and their three kids, ages 5, 9 and 11, “usually watching The Voice or going to soccer practice.” She also squeezes in frequent informational interviews with young Indian-Americans interested in showbiz. “One woman, who’s currently an assistant, told me, ‘My parents beg me once a week to do anything else.’ And I told her: ‘Your parents don’t understand what you do. Bring them to the office and show them.’ “
Bajaria sees the tide “finally” turning for women of color working in Hollywood but admits she’s happiest when her background is an appendix to her other achievements. “I was in the editing room with Mindy when she was working on her pilot — months after we first met –and she said: ‘You know what’s weird? We’ve never talked about our favorite places to eat Indian food,’ ” says Bajaria, laughing. “That moment would have never happened when I started in the business. It’s pretty exciting.”
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