Small is the new big: As OTT takes over, talent and content receive recognition over star-factor

OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar are taking outlier themes to create new stars, tell bold stories and bind India and the world.

Published: 14th June 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th June 2020 08:04 PM   |  A+A-

For representational purposes

"Nobody ever gets mobbed after a walk-on part in a Bollywood film,” says actor Abhishek Banerjee, recalling how, in 2015, a minor appearance as the character Bhati in a show called Pitchers, on the comedy-collective The Viral Fever’s (TVF) YouTube channel, had turned him into quite the magnet at bars.

Banerjee would know a thing or two about walk-on parts in Bollywood. Soon as he stormed into the scene mid-May this year, as the antagonist Hathoda Tyagi in the deliriously dark Amazon Prime Video series Paatal Lok, screenshots of a much younger Banerjee from the ‘audition sequence’ in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006) went viral on Twitter. 

This of course gave one a sense of how long the actor had been around, until he attained Hathoda as a household name.

But the point Banerjee was trying to make with the Pitchers instance was how he had realised then, first-hand, for the first time, the sort of fame that accrued to an actor—showing up only in the first episode (‘Tu beer hai’), of the first season, of a popular YouTube/web show. 

He’d been surrounded by fans, “whether among engineering students in Tamil Nadu (who didn’t even speak Hindi that well), or film-festival audiences in Stuttgart, Germany.”

Banerjee has also been a Bollywood casting agent for over a decade. His résumé includes hardcore mainstream titles such as the Vidya Balan-starrer The Dirty Picture (2011), Akshay Kumar masala-entertainer Gabbar Is Back (2015), the massive Karan Johar period production Kalank (2019), or the most recent—Irrfan Khan’s last film Angrezi Medium (2020). 

Amazon Prime’s Four More Shots Please! is India’s answer to Sex And The City 

Sensing potential from Pitchers, Banerjee was the first established casting director in Mumbai to set up shop for web—issuing casting calls for TVF’s YouTube sketches/shows: “It was like a barter deal. I’d pick up talents from one industry, and introduce them to the other. None of the film directors would take actors from web seriously though. Since I was involved in both, I knew what they were unable to see. That a time (for web actors becoming the new stars) would come. That time is here.”

Banerjee’s internet roster has organically segued into mammoth productions such as Inside Edge, Mirzapur, Gullak, with the advent of global streaming apps Prime Video and Netflix into the Indian market.

Although a web series is essentially a non-perishable TV serial, with no added burden of appointment viewing—in terms of budget, scale, look and feel—web platforms with deep pockets have brought it closer to cinema, as it were. Which is a massive jump, yes. Did the YouTube actors/entertainers make the same leap? 

It’s happening among a fair array already. Take actor Sumeet Vyas, who’s naturally graduated from YouTube to main roles on shows such as The Verdict: State vs Nanavati, and Rejctx (on Zee5), while dabbling in lower billing in Bollywood alongside (Veere Di Wedding, Made In China). Likewise, leads Mithila Palkar and Dhruv Sehgal, who ruled the underground scene with their sweet, realistic romance Little Things on YouTube have a permanent home for multiple seasons on Netflix.

Consider Jitendra Kumar. The first time I saw him on screen was when I’d done a cameo on a collegiate TVF spoof called Bollywood Aam Aadmi Party (2014)—by length, at 16 minutes, the most popular Indian YouTube video that year. It’s at 8.5 million views currently.

Kumar played ‘Arjun Kejriwal’ (mimicking the current Delhi Chief Minister) in the skit so convincingly, he recalls, “a great win for an actor, that for three to four years, all the casting calls were to play ‘Kejriwal’ and other atrangi (odd) parts!” 

So much so that when he went into a full-fledged mini-series with TVF Pitchers, he asked for his character to be named after himself, Jitendra (Maheshwari). His breakout role undoubtedly is as the warm, friendly IIT-tutorial/life coach, Jeetu bhaiya, in the college cult hit, Kota Factory.

Kumar had his first brush with amateur theatre while still a student at IIT Kharagpur. He’d been around in Mumbai doing shows such as TVF Bachelors, Tripling, Humorously Yours and the like for half a decade. The year 2020 appears to have been the best year thus far for him. And, perhaps, for him alone on this planet! 

A still from the Amazon Prime show Panchayat, a comedy-drama based on the journey of a man working as secretary of a panchayat office

Late February, Jitendra made his Bollywood debut as the bona fide lead opposite Ayushmann Khurrana in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (SMZS). Early April, he headlined the top-notch, instantly-loved Prime Video series Panchayat, with veterans Raghubir Yadav and Neena Gupta in supporting roles. Both successes reveal as much about changing times as it does about Kumar’s professional growth. 
SMZS is a gay-romance, a theme that would’ve ideally been left untouched in mainstream Hindi cinema. Panchayat, on the other hand, is a sweet, simple, wholly non-violent series set in a village in the deep interiors of North India that, I suspect, hasn’t happened in Bollywood since Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades (2004), and Lagaan (2001), which was also a sports, and a period film. 

What about basic constructs/features of the lead actor or hero/heroine, as it were, in cinema, vis-a-vis series on streaming apps, that have an equally large distribution network, dropping in about 200 countries simultaneously?

"Is the star here a different commodity? “Right now I think it is about matching the lead actor, to the lead character, as it should be,” Jitendra says, reiterating he doesn’t know how long this will last. “Bollywood had a similar phase between 2008 and 2012, when actors Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey would be heroes of a certain kind of cinema. And then that trend disappeared. With web, we got a sense, especially around 2015-16, that a certain elbow room for experimentation was getting created. And that it will stay this way, for at least 10 years or so. Let’s see,” he says.

To be fair, some of that alternate/eclectic eco-system within popular cinema—outside of the Khans/Kapoors/Kumar with a captive audience, so to say—had already been created over the past couple of decades. Which explains the first line-up of lead actors on India’s flagship long-format shows on the web—Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Sacred Games) on Netflix, Manoj Bajpayee (Family Man) and Pankaj Tripathi (Mirzapur) on Prime Video, Kay Kay Menon (Special Ops) on Disney-Hotstar.

But there’s a key difference between a theatrically released film, and a series that drops on a platform. Banerjee points out: “Firstly, your expectation, as an audience, is lower with a series. Because you haven’t physically travelled, devoted specified time, and paid money for tickets plus popcorn for it. That’s why you’ll notice when people don’t like a show, there’s not even a whimper online. Nobody cares. They just move on. (If you have the app already), you’ll just try out any new show, for at least an episode, to see if you could be interested in it at all. Now how does it matter then, who’s in it? Look at Jamtara on Netflix. Nobody knew its writer, director, or actors from before. If I hadn’t told you otherwise, you could not think the show was actually made in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar with local talents.”

Examine slightly below the surface, and here’s the point Banerjee is really trying to make. A star in popular cinema is defined by box office numbers; distilled even further down to the opening/weekend collections on release. This sets the bar. No such parameter, at least externally, exists on a streaming platform. The apps strictly don’t reveal viewership numbers either. The power of a star is thereafter determined by projects he or she (but, mostly he) can green-light, given a captive audience, in a deeply commercial industry. 

In the case of a web series, or a web-only film, that financial decision is made entirely by the web platform—keeping in mind the cast, surely; but not wholly determined by it. At least not for now. These creative decisions in turn determine what we watch on the apps we’ve downloaded or subscribed to. What does that make Amazon, Netflix, Disney-Hotstar, Zee5 and other OTT platforms? 

Stars of their own medium. OTT means over-the-top—a generic term from telecom industry to mean all services offered over and above what a cellphone already comes with. It is usually referred to mean subscriber-based web-streaming platforms in India. What can’t be precluded is the fact that hugely popular stars from cinema on a web show could considerably help widen an OTT’s subscriber base. Especially newer audiences, given an ever-expanding reach of internet and smartphones at the moment. Both the growth-curve and the competition look steeply inclined. This is early stages yet. The OTT industry itself is only around four years old in India. Netflix was the first mover, with Amazon Prime Video following suit—along with 42 OTT platforms reportedly in the fray currently. Amazon was the first to commission Indian originals. Netflix entered local content right after. 

The numbers are still stacking up. According to research-agency Media Planner Asia, quoted in Forbes US, Prime Video will have 17 million paying subscribers in India by the end of the year, second only to Disney-Hotstar at 18 million (thanks in part to live sports); with Netflix India lagging, for now, at five million. Zee5 in its December-ended quarter of 2019-20 announced 11.4 million daily active users. Contrast this with the domestic audience size of 625 million people on the internet.

Abundantia Entertainment’s Vikram Malhotra, who is paving Bollywood star Akshay Kumar’s entry into web for Prime Video, besides having produced Breathe (with R Madhavan), the second season of which stars Abhishek Bachchan, says, “The presence of traditional stars can be reassuring for audiences, who haven’t tested the medium yet.” Should talents like Jitendra Kumar be worried by the obvious pull of Akshay Kumar, already? “Who knows? Maybe the new stars created from this new medium will remain long enough for even their children to become stars thereon,” he laughs. 

Banerjee conversely hopes, “If an Indian show, in terms of reach and production scale, can really benefit from the presence of a star, it should be directed towards making that Indian show, which crosses over globally, like Dark (from Germany), or  Money Heist (from Spain) did. That has got to be the next step/aim.”To some extent that did happen with Sacred Games, as Netflix, on a rare occasion talking numbers, revealed that two-thirds of its first Indian original’s audience came from outside India. “And look at the way Saif Ali Khan was received on Sacred Games, compared to Vivek Oberoi in Inside Edge (on Prime Video). It’s about the characters, not the individual’s stardom,” says actor Maanvi Gagroo, indicating she loved the extreme subtleness in Khan’s performance, as opposed to a mainstream showiness in Oberoi’s, that didn’t work (for her). 

“The Gaiety-Galaxy (single-screen theatre) crowd, though that’s changed a lot too, will probably think you’re doing nothing (in the show). But you are,” Khan had told me of his role during the shoot of Sacred Games, where he plays the Sikh cop, Sartaj Singh.Gagroo plays one of the leads in Four More Shots, a desi version of Sex And The City on Prime Video. The second season of which, Amazon claims, has been the most watched Indian series of 2020 on the platform so far. Speaking of budgets and traditional stardom—naturally built into the success of a season is also a show’s scalability. Much like Money Heist, Four More Shots, budget-wise, has grown noticeably with its sequel. 

Breathe is a thriller on Amazon
Prime with a Crime Branch officer
trying to crack a case involving organ donors

“That’s to do with everything,” Gagroo reasons. “The idea was to notch up every department, whether it’s styling, writing, production design… Budgets, of course, are for all to see. The first season was shot in Goa. For the second season, we went to Istanbul and Udaipur.” The third season, it is reported, will be set in Europe. 

Gagroo started off her acting career around 2009-10 with a relatively minor role in the Bollywood thriller No One Killed Jessica (2011). At the time, she remembers, getting into films was tough enough. And television, by virtue of reaching out to the common denominator in rural markets, had no content in it that she could relate to; let alone participate in. She says, “I can’t be part of something I can’t connect with. If I’m not enjoying a performance, how do I expect audiences to?” 

Even now, Indian television, with an audience base of 836 million, plays out very differently from OTT, which is still at an experimental/nascent stage. It was around 2014 that Gagroo began acting in short films and series on the web/YouTube, and enjoyed it, because the realistic stories and young characters appealed to her. The real success came her way only when she picked up gigs on a web platform. “A show on Amazon or Netflix brings you legitimacy; not just within the industry, but also outside, since the spend on marketing and promotions is huge. Besides digital ads, they put up hoardings all over the city, just like cinema,” she adds.

There is, at the same time, dilution in quality across the board, given the ongoing wave/boom. Gagroo says, “I’m just worried this doesn’t go the satellite television route, with a lot of pushing the envelope happening initially, but everyone ending up gravitating towards the same thing eventually. Every second person in Andheri (Mumbai’s entertainment district) is either starting a web show, or doing a web show. Some of the flattening of the curve in quality is inevitable.”

That said, as an actor, what she finds most attractive about a series, as against cinema, is that it is fundamentally democratic. For instance, she imagines for a second Four More Shots as a movie instead: “There would’ve been a lead actor in it, and a second lead. The other two roles would’ve gone to good actors, but not stars. Given that you’ve spent so much money on the stars, it would make sense to utilise them far more. Films that way are a product of the power dynamic, and play to the market a lot more. It is in the nature of web-series as a medium to delve into characters more.”

With multiple episodes, sub-plots and seasons, there is clearly far greater scope to explore characters beyond the leads—all of whom stay on the screen for so much longer. And in fact remain on the platform to be discovered in the future. Banerjee says, “Take a show like Mindhunter. People are huge fans of Cameron Britton in it, who plays just one of the several serial killers (Edmund Kemper) on the show; let alone the protagonists (the FBI agents), who are there throughout. Earlier, with movies, 
there would only be fans of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino or Robert De Niro.” 

It’s the same with Paatal Lok, that Banerjee’s company Casting Bay recruited actors for. Of course, the Haryana-born Jaideep Ahlawat dominates the thriller, as cop Hathi Ram Chowdhury. But you equally recall his buddy-cop Ishwak Singh (Imran Ansari), the journalist Neeraj Kabi (Sanjeev Mehra), his colleague/girlfriend Niharika Lyra Dutta (Sara), his wife Swastika Mukherjee (Dolly)… And, among the assassins, Banerjee as Hathoda himself. 

Likewise, sure, Panchayat is essentially centred on Jitendra Kumar playing the village-council (panchayat) secretary—but, you can tell, there are just as many fans, if not more, of his deputy Chandan Roy (Vikas). There is Raghubir Yadav as the de-facto village head-man, sure; but his deputy Faisal Malik (Prahlad Pandey) was loved as much. Just as the meme-generating heroes of Sacred Games were probably Kubbra Sait (Kukoo) and Jitendra Joshi (constable Katekar) in side-roles of a series, that were as memorable as full-blown parts in films. Who’re these actors? Had never seen them before. Stars from another sky. 

The Regional Pursuit 

The demand for online regional content is nearly at 95 percent of the total video consumption in India, while the generated content is more than 40 percent, according to a joint study ‘Indian OTT Platforms 2019’ by Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad (MICA) and Ahmedabad-based startup Communication Crafts. Of the various languages, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali top viewing patterns.

With internet reaching semi-urban and rural areas coupled with affordable data plans, new players have entered the game, including Hoichoi, Ullu, MX Player, besides established platforms such as YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar. Amazon Prime and Netflix are dubbing their shows in different Indian languages. A new movie streaming app—Simply South—has been launched to cater to those interested in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinema.

The major players in the regional circuit are Hoichoi, Addatimes and Sun NXT. The former two deal with Bengali content and the later covers Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Hoichoi, launched in 2017, has witnessed almost an 85 percent growth in 2018-2019. Byomkesh, E Kon Eken and Mismatch are generating a lot of viewership. Similarly, Sun NXT with its shows Azhagu, Settai and Nayaki is focusing on Tamil and Telugu viewers.

Digital streaming companies spent around  $21 billion in 2017, which is expected to more than double by 2022, according to ‘Asia on Demand’. Content spending by Asian operators is expected to reach $10.1 billion by 2022 from $2.7 billion in 2017.

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