When ZEE5 released Break Point in October, the documentary on celebrated tennis star duo Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, it forayed into hitherto an uncharted territory - away from their usual forte of fictional shows.
The OTT platform was taking a risk around a sports-documentary but the gamble paid off. Its success led the channel to commission more documentaries on varied subjects. Just like Leena Yadav who - when started her work on House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths - was unsure of the reception a 2018 mass-suicide case could generate.
But the show went on to trend on Netflix for many weeks. "I was seeking my own closure in understanding this case. But I did not estimate the impact this series would have or the kind of discussions it would evoke. I wasn't aware that a three-year-old case would generate such viewership. It has been a gratifying reception," says Yadav, the director of the show.
Documentary viewing in India, especially on streaming platforms, is registering an uptick in viewership. According to a 'What India Watched' report by Netflix, documentary viewing grew 100 percent in 2020 over 2019. Shows such as the Bad Boy Billionaires (on India's infamous tycoons), The Social Dilemma and Money Heist: The Phenomenon were the most popular documentaries on Netflix in India in 2020.
The reasons for the growing interest are many. For one, it is no longer just screened during festivals or released on exclusive channels. According to a Netflix spokesperson, the platform allowed people to discover more shows than before, letting it evolve from a niche, festival-interest category to an easily accessible one.
Onscreen adaptation of real stories through documentaries isn’t a new concept. But what has changed now is the accessibility. "With OTT platforms proliferating, content getting more power-packed and only a click away, we’ve seen a huge growth spurt in the adoption by Indian audiences," explains Manish Kalra, Chief Business Officer, ZEE5 India.
Then, unlike fiction, real stories connect with audiences at a deeper level. "I think there is greater joy in watching something that you know is real," says Yadav. Her interest in the Burari case led her to search for answers as a filmmaker. "I think crime and scandal would get a wider viewer interest because of the curiosity value attached to it," she adds.
The lockdown also led to many viewers expanding their choices. "The pandemic rejigged consumer’s content viewing patterns as they spent more time exploring new genres," says Kalra. He explains how the explosion in audience numbers prompted platforms to look beyond the tried-and-tested shows.
They knew there was a category of experimentative audience that wanted compelling narratives. "Even though there has always been deep audience interest in sportsmen, the idea with Break Point was to keep it real, candid, and untainted, straight from the horse’s mouth," he adds.
According to Netflix, 76 percent of Indian viewers watched a documentary title from the third quarter of 2020 to the second quarter of 2021. And the channel intends to renew its focus in this category. "We are constantly investing in various formats and themes to make sure our documentaries are not predictable but also inform and entertain our audiences. We will continue to find stories from all parts of India," says the Netflix spokesperson.
The way documentaries are shot is also changing keeping in mind audience interest. “The quality of documentary telling has also evolved and made it more immersive than academic,” stresses Yadav. Usually, a documentary is often associated with a news feature. “But once the viewer samples the documentaries being made today, they will definitely come back for more. And that’s what we are witnessing now.”
However, not everyone believes that documentaries sell well here. "Interest is not in the documentaries but on the news surrounding the subject. If it was big in the news then it will sell," says Hemant Gaba, whose documentary An Engineered Dream (on the coaching industry in Kota), won the best non-feature film at the National Awards this year and has been telecast on History TV18 channel, besides international festivals.
Gaba, who had earlier released his documentary Japan in Nagaland on Doordarshan, further adds, “For independent documentaries, there is still no funding in India and international audience is the only choice. To get a wider release in India is still tough.”
But for now, OTTs in India, are cashing in on the growing interest, even if it remains around a few niche subjects of crime, scandal and sports.
THE WATCH LIST
Break Point, 2021 ZEE5
House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths, 2021 Netflix
Searching for Sheela, 2021 Netflix
Lost Cities with Albert Lin, 2020 Nat Geo (On Disney+Hotstar)
Bad Boys Billionaire, 2020 Netflix