ON A SUNDAY morning in a Wan Chai bar last month, three well-dressed patrons are having an argument in Hindi. In walks a police officer. 'Lieutenant,' says one of the customers, 'arrest that man.' The cop pulls out handcuffs to clamp them on the culprit - and bursts into laughter. 'They're too small for his wrists,' he says. This is not a blunder by one of Hong Kong's finest, but a shoot for Sindoor Tere Naam Ka, an Indian soap opera. The show, which filmed for a week in Hong Kong and featured local fans, has more than five million viewers in India and tens of thousands of Indian expat fans, according to broadcaster Zee Television. It's a lucrative market. Advertising revenue for the Indian cable and satellite television sector surpassed $7.75 billion in the last financial year, and still has room to grow as the population of nearly 1.1 billion becomes increasingly wealthy. On this particular morning, three local fans are acting on the show. Bobby Natesh, who plays the cop, says he didn't have to practise before auditioning. The financial analyst already had memorised lines from movies starring his favourite Bollywood actor, Amitabh Bachchan. 'Since I was young, I've dreamt of entering this industry,' says Natesh, who does community theatre with the Indian Arts Centre. 'My dad forced me to study computers, but the love was still there.' Despite his fondness for classic Indian dramas - full of tears and fight scenes - Natesh says Indian soaps are no longer his favourite. He prefers reality TV shows such as Pop Idol rip-off Sa Re Ga Ma Pa. 'They have such great talent,' he says. Natesh is not alone. While melodramatic soaps once ruled India's television programming, their ratings now lag shows mimicking the US' Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Britain's Pop Idol. That has meant trouble for Zee, India's first Hindi-language station. Once the king of the television stations, Zee now lags behind News Corporation's Star India and Sony Entertainment, both known for catering to the country's young middle class. Zee has 11 per cent market share compared with Star's 42 per cent and Sony's 12 per cent, according to India's rating system TAM. 'The success of formats and genres beyond soaps ... is testimony to the fact that viewers are open to content beyond soaps, blockbuster films and family dramas,' says Atul Phadnis, vice-president of TAM. But Sindoor, following the convoluted if formulaic plots involving illegitimate children and evil twins, has been something of a surprise hit for Zee. The show has not only helped draw more viewers to a weak 7.30pm slot, it consistently beats nearest competitor, Star's Akkad Bakkad. That Sindoor paid to bring some of its cast and crew to Hong Kong in an industry that relies on low budgets and quick production is a sign of its success. 'We're always trying to do something new ... to think outside the box,' says head creator Prashant Bhatt, an avid reader of novels by the likes of John Grisham and Dean Koontz. 'What's most important are the unexpected twists and turns.' One way of ensuring the surprise element is to build the show around a mentally unstable heroine. The show's main character, Vedika, is a woman with psychological disorders who shuns her loving husband, Dhruv. The title of the show is a reference to how Vedika is always having to rub off the mark of a married woman, the sindoor, from her forehead. 'It was a difficult role,' says Gurdip Kohli, the actress who plays Vedika. 'We all sat down together and researched what a person affected by this disease would do and how they would act.' While it was a challenge for Kohli to act insane, the crazy work schedule wasn't as bad. As with many TV and Bollywood stars, Kohli worked her way to success. 'After I finished my studies I worked for an advertisement agency,' Kohli says. 'Some of the people there liked my hair, they liked my skin, they liked my smile and they said, 'why don't you model?'' After appearing in commercials, Kohli graduated to acting and has logged four years in the soap industry. The other actors on set have similar stories. Sachin Shroff, the leading man, came from a background in business and got his start modelling. Sharad Kelkar, who plays a hunky mummy's boy, worked at a mobile phone firm before catching his first break. 'My character begins his life in very poor conditions,' says Kelkar, peering out from blue contact lenses. 'I'm a very rough, tough guy who believes only in his mother. Whatever his mother says is correct. That's true for many people in India, so I see him as being very Indian.' The acting life can be arduous, but Kelkar finds it more exciting than an office job. With Sindoor, he has the added bonus of working with his wife Kirti Gaikwad, who also appears on the show. 'We feel very lucky,' says Kelkar. 'If I'm doing a serial and she's doing another ... she may be very tired when she comes home and all she'll want to do is sleep. So there would be no time for us to spend together.' And they enjoy the fame that comes with being on a hit soap. During a shoot near the Big Buddha on Lantau Island, Shroff doesn't conform to the 'eligible bachelor' descriptions that fill entertainment sites, and instead sits on the curb of a car park to give his interview. 'Sometimes you have to act out a cliched scene that you don't believe in,' he says. 'But you have to do it. And do it with so much conviction, so much interest, that it should actually make people feel it. 'So that's how it goes ... for instance, if there's an emotional scene where I'm supposed to cry, I actually feel that I'm in love with this woman and I start crying.' All the actors are used to turning on the waterworks. It's common to perform a scene 15 times in a row as the camera crew shoots from different angles. For Kohli, that's all part of the show. 'Everyday we have something where I'm screaming, shouting, crying because that's what Indians like,' she says. 'I'm not sure why they like it but they like people emoting.' That may be so, but among India's growing middle class those tastes are changing. And to survive, shows such as Sindoor must keep viewers tuning in. 'Every show has its own destiny,' says creator Bhatt. 'The idea for this show came about with just a one-line idea. But one line can only go so far. The important thing in keeping the thing going is to not repeat yourself.'