A couple is sitting on a sofa, chatting. She’s barely wearing any makeup and is dressed in the
kind of comfortable pyjamas and top we all like to lounge around in on a Sunday. Dressed
in a cotton kurta and jeans, he’s sharing his dilemmas with her. This relatable, rather “normal” scene is a vignette from the hugely popular Little Things, a show produced by Dice Media, which follows the everyday lives of Kavya (Mithila Palkar) and Dhruv (Dhruv Sehgal). The YouTube show did so well that its second season is now streaming on Netflix. Also on Netflix is Yeh Meri Family. The Viral Fever original got an expanded audience after the international streaming giant acquired the show. Switch over to Amazon Prime Video and you can happily join Sumukhi Suresh on a crazy ride in Pushpavalli. Or hit pause and toggle to Mirzapur for a drama about guns and goons.
The proliferation of OTT (over the top) platforms and digital streaming services, which once operated in their own ecosystem of talents connecting with the millennial audience, is now seeing a huge boost. Bollywood actors, writers, producers and directors are seeking opportunities to experiment and experience the scope offered by a web series. Actors such as Jitendra Joshi, Ritvik Sahore, Nidhi Singh, Biswapati Sarkar, Sumeet Vyas, Amol Parashar and Palkar have become darlings of social media with an amorphous fan-following.
Technology is integrated into the creative process, writers
and directors of series celebrate individuality, revel in experimentation, explore creative storytelling and seek out actors that fit the part to become characters such as Mikesh and Tanya in Permanent Roommates, Gaitonde in Sacred Games, Vikrant Dhawan in Inside Edge, Kaleen bhai in Mirzapur, Captain Shikha Sharma in The Test Case or Aakash in Laakhon Mein Ek.
Equally, faces already familiar on the big screen are seeking out opportunties on the personal screen. The three letters on almost every actor, writer and director’s wish list are OTT. After the resounding success of Sacred Games, which features top Bollywood actors including Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte, the possibility of your work crossing boundaries and breaking language barriers has become hugely attractive.
Huma Qureshi is shooting for Deepa Mehta’s six-part Leila for Netflix. Richa Chadha is back to work on Inside Edge 2 and Sacred Games Season 2 is also underway. Mirzapur, Amazon Prime Video’s latest local series, has a cast that includes Pankaj Tripathi, Ali Fazal, Divyendu Sharma and Rasika Dugal. Priyanka Chopra, Madhuri Dixit, Anushka Sharma and Anil Kapoor have come on board to produce Netflix originals. Emraan Hashmi is starring in a series based on the book Bard of Blood while Palkar and Abhay Deol are shooting for Chopsticks.
Tripathi weighs up both formats to say, “Cinema offers the joy of watching with your family or with an audience of 300. On the other hand, web shows do not carry the stress of opening weekend collections or huge marketing budgets. A series is like a painting that is created and hung in a gallery for people to appreciate, not for people to bid on and buy.”
From free content on YouTube, to subscription-based video-on-demand (VOD) platforms, international players come armed with huge budgets. According to reports, Amazon has earmarked $300 million for acquiring the rights for Indian movies. So, whether we call it web series, series, web shows, streaming services, OTT, digital, VOD, or direct-to-consumer streaming video, the fact of the matter is that size ity and connectivity.
While having a star headlining the series can help, screenwriter Varun Grover, who has co-written Sacred Games, thinks: “It’s still early days, but in just three years we have seen
the emergence of so many new stars. With Sacred Games we also saw new actors like Kubbra Sait and Jatin Sarna getting accolades.”
Content is King
Most writers and viewers rue that there is little innovation in Hindi cinema these days. The cost of tickets is often a deterrent for movie-goers. Personal viewing at one’s own convenience is a much easier option.
According to the 2018 edition of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) report on the Indian media and entertainment sector, the online video viewing audience in India is expected to double from 250 million in 2017 to 500 million by 2020. Another report by PricewaterhouseCoopers titled Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2018-2022, claims OTT video revenue which reached `2,019 crore in 2017, is expected to grow at CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 22.6 percent. Producer Ritesh Sidhwani of Excel Entertainment that has helmed Inside Edge, Mirzapur and Made in Heaven (releasing in March), says while it feels like everyone wants to jump onto the series bandwagon, ultimately content will be the distinguishing factor.
“As for the audience, their loyalty will be to the show, and they will shift from one service to another based on where the content is,” he adds. Sumeet Saxena, chief creative officer, TVF, and the writer and director of Tripling and Yeh Meri Family, says: “Right now everyone wants to make a series, but when we started it was for the fun of telling stories and working with good and talented actors. New players give us the push to keep making good content.”
Richa Chadha, who is currently shooting the second season of Inside Edge, likes “the challenge of having to remember details about my character across multiple seasons as well as the graph of all the other characters too.” One of the biggest advantages of streaming giants is that unlike Bollywood films there is no box office pressure and there’s the added benefit of unprecedented global reach.
“When I travel outside India, I meet people who may not have seen my films, but they have watched Inside Edge. I love that a show, which centres on an actress who is a cricket team owner, gets accepted without question,” Chadha says. Rasika Dugal who has appeared in TVF’s Humorously Yours, Amazon’s Mirzapur and is awaiting the release of Richie Mehta’s Delhi Police (working title) has had a similar experience. She too is recognised more for her work on web shows than for films such as Qissa or Manto. “OTT platforms are great for actors like me to reach a wider audience. There is a danger, however, that as budgets and competition increase, series producers will also be looking to cast A-listers from Bollywood,” she says.
This is a cautionary tale given Bollywood’s appetite for swallowing up smaller fish. Stakeholders in the digital space are aware of this threat but not anxious. “In India, there is always a danger
of being overshadowed by Bollywood, but seeing how smart Amazon and Netflix have been international, one can assume here in India too they will maintain a balance between indie-spirited content and the flashy bigger budget stuff,” says Grover.
Even Fazal thinks Bollywood is not a threat. “I think the OTT platforms have taken over Bollywood in many ways. It might have riled up old schoolers who don’t believe in this platform. But this is the [digital] wave that took over Hollywood a couple of years ago and today a lot of cinema halls are suffering there. Mirzapur released alongside Julia Roberts’ Homecoming and both are there side
by side to watch and click. That’s how close the competition is. We are literally a margin away from another click. You don’t like it, you don’t click on it. So, Bollywood will have to up their game and produce more original content,” he explains.
Not all actors are enamoured by the digital space. Vicky Kaushal is clear that his “first love” is cinema. Though he has appeared in two direct-to-Netflix films (Love Per Square Foot and Lust Stories) his focus is on Bollywood movies. He says, “My dream was born looking at the big screen. I am happy to see the streaming boom because I have experienced the struggle along with other theatre actors and now I see so many good actors, writers, directors and technicians getting work.”
Poll any viewer or filmmaker on the biggest names in digital content and Sumeet Vyas’s name is on every list. The writer and star of Permanent Roommates, who is currently shooting for Tripling Season 2 and has the shows Verdict and It’s Not That Simple lined up, says that this is a booming time for writers, producers and actors who are willing to take risks.
“When people view a web series, their expectation is to watch something edgy and different from film
or TV. For show makers, it’s an opportunity to experiment. So it’s a symbiotic relationship. The writing craft also has a different graph—every episode needs a beginning, middle and end, but also a hook. You have to develop arcs for multiple characters,” says Vyas.As an actor who is straddling both film and series, Vyas does not see one posing a threat to the other. “Each one has its own charm. A film develops one core emotion and story, which you can focus on and that can be fun to explore. I don’t believe that people watch a series for stars. Look at Game of Thrones, Narcos and Breaking Bad, for example. Of course there are shows like House of Cards with legitimate Hollywood stars in it. The common core, though, is good content,” Vyas adds.
IT’s all in the Numbers
The question of data measurement often comes up, but OTT platforms globally are guarded with figures. While one measure is subscriber base, another is the number of seasons a show is renewed for. Sunil Lulla, Group Chief Executive Officer, Balaji Telefilms, which includes the streaming service AltBalaji, explains that subscription-based video-on-demand (Svod) services such as AltBalaji and Hotstar have various measurement tools. He says, “In the case of Svod, each stream is focused around specific audiences and creating content for these differentiated audiences. From a content point of view, we consider the number of subscribers triggered, time spent, demographics of viewing and rate of completion as parameters.”
With international streaming services shielding data and analytics, the most tangible measure
of the success or failure of a show is the number of seasons it is renewed for. “If they make you write
season 2 even before the first season has landed—as Amazon did with Mirzapur—then you know you have got something right. They also up the budgets and examine the template,” claims Sidhwani, who
adds that the one of the bigger distinguishing factors between film and series is the storytelling style.
“In film you are telling stories that need 100 minutes, whereas a series tells a story in 400 minutes. Stars might help attract more subscribers.”
Race for Eyeballs
Over the last two years, with the amping up of connectivity and production on local shows, it’s
become easier for writers and producers to attract the acting talent and experienced technicians. Director and show-runner Karan Anshuman recalls how much harder it was to cast for Inside Edge in 2016 than it was to cast for Mirzapur two years later. “People could gauge the reach of Inside Edge and see how
it had made stars of actors like Tanuj Virwani and Siddhant Chaturvedi. A series gives you
the opportunity to create original material and work with actors that are known for their talent, rather
than as stars. Film caters to a certain rhythm and has a mainstream tenor.”
However, last week producers and consumers were taken aback by a report that Netflix India had agreed to self-regulate content. In response, Netflix issued the following statement: “The information quoted is inaccurate and entirely false. Netflix was never in this meeting.” Amazon, on the other hand, has been self-regulating content on their platform since its launch in India. Censorship for streaming
giants on the Internet is still under contention.
But what excites writers, directors, producers and actors is that OTT has no rules—a story
does not need to be resolved in one or two seasons; there is no looming fear of opening weekend collections, shows can be in any language since they are dubbed and sub-titled and
the audience is global. If watching a film is a communal experience, viewing a web series is a personal, immersive one. If viewers want both so do the creators.