In 2017, Todd Yellin, the product head of Netflix pitched an idea to the creators of Black Mirror. His idea was to create an interactive film where the viewer controls the outcome of the story by making crucial decisions for the lead characters. Last month, the streaming giant has taken its first major step in offering an entirely new experience to its more than 135 million worldwide subscribers with an interactive episode titled Bandersnatch. With this move, the online streaming giant is looking to disrupt the way we watch shows.
It is worthwhile to note that over the years, watching a show or film is no longer restricted to only theatres or living rooms. We can stream on our devices, wherever and whenever we want. Web-streaming platforms are exposing the audiences to genre-defying content at a speed that commercial cinema may find hard to keep up with. A quick dipstick of urban India’s viewing choices, or even a cursory glance at the screen of the person sitting next to you in the train, bus or Uber pool, will reveal that video streaming has replaced the infinity scrolling on Facebook and Instagram on their daily commute. Young Indians seem to have pulled the plug on their television sets, even though the umbilical cord of cable TV and DTH have not been severed yet in most urban homes. India’s streaming market is breaking new ground and platforms such as Netflix, Amazon —Prime, Voot, Hotstar, Alt Balaji — are growing thrice as fast as TV viewership in India.
Content is King
While most OTT platforms entered the market with catch-up shows, it was Netflix and Amazon Prime that blazed the trail with original content. It not only provided the audiences shock value but also exposed them to content they would never have imagined playing out on the big screen. Amazon’s hit shows such as The Man in The High Castle, Grand Tour and Goliath and popular Netflix series such as Narcos, House of Cards and Stranger Things have created a new viewing culture in India. Buoyed by the roaring success of its first Indian original Sacred Games, Netflix has now also announced nine new originals from India, with a major focus on the vernacular audience. While the younger generation has chosen its loyalties with web streaming platforms, these companies are now looking at investing in native content to lure non-users. Netflix’s upcoming list of films includes Bulbul produced by Anushka Sharma, Cobalt Blue (based on a popular Marathi novel), 15th August (Marathi film produced by Madhuri Dixit), Music Teacher, Hotel Mumbai (starring BAFTA-winning actor Dev Patel), and another Marathi film produced by Priyanka Chopra, among others. Not to be left behind, Amazon prime has planned 20 Originals from India spread over 2018-2019. While announcing the line-up of shows for this year at the 'See What’s Next: Asia' event, Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer for Netflix, said, “We celebrate India today with an incredible line-up of original films and series that are right now filming across India. This line-up cuts across genres from horror to fantasy and in locations from Leh to Mumbai. The breadth of stories with its local settings and complex characters is incredible and we can’t wait for people to discover and fall in love with them.”
Last year, Leena Yadav’s Rajma Chawal was among the four originals Netflix released in India. Even though the film uses food as a metaphor in its title, releasing the film on Netflix draws parallels to the theme. Leena is well aware of the pulse of digital India and wants to hold her ground in the face of its tectonic shifts and movements. She not only gets a much longer run time but also a wider audience. She says, “My film deals with two generations (father and son) and accepting technology as a mode of communication is the major part of my theme in the film. So, I thought as a filmmaker, I should probably take that step and accept technology. Also, for the simple reason that it has such a wide reach and as a filmmaker what else do you want?” she asks.
It is true that digitalisation surpasses all boundaries of time and space and is the preferred option of the gen-next. The evolution of cinema revolves around its digital innovations - all in a bid to reach a wider audience. From single screen to multiplex, television to a laptop and even mobile phones today, cinema travels to multiple screens. “Earlier, we had very limited content and thought that is what defines entertainment. Thereafter people through television, through different channels started seeing a lot more content. If you’ve noticed through the years, peoples taste got a lot more refined. Not every film is for everybody, which is fine because it has to find its audience and the audience has to find the film,” says Leena.
Actress Richa Chadha who debuted in Gangs of Wasseypur as the firebrand, expletive-spewing Nagma Khatoon, went on to become a sensation with films such as Massan, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye!, Fukrey and others. The actress was among the first of the Bollywood stars to foray into the web space with Amazon Prime’s first Indian Original Inside Edge in 2017, playing the lead character of a struggling actress in the series. She says, “Audience tastes have changed and it has upped the game for the better. Now let's not take our audience for granted.”
Superstars to sidekicks
The last year saw the death of the big budget Bollywood blockbusters. The three Khans — Salman, Aamir and Shah Rukh were beaten at their own game. It was a year that elevated content-driven films, and producers now know better than to invest copious millions into hard selling potboilers that rely on the star as the hero of the film. The digital onslaught has challenged the way content is written and perceived. Though by far, no major Bollywood production house has chosen the digital platform to release their film, almost all major Bollywood blockbusters are available on these platforms.
A glance at the sheer range of films that have been accepted by the audience in the past few years is proof that they want content that is strong, entertaining, relatable and engaging. As a result, the production houses are also taking note and rethinking their line-up. “Five years ago, good packaging with a decent amount of entertainment was all that the audience was happy with, but today that won’t suffice. To be really honest, this shift in the business and in our industry has happened about two years ago because any film that was released this past year was in the making for about 18 months to 24 months. So, the disruption happened about four years ago where the audience stopped enjoying films that were packaged well as opposed to told well — and there’s a big difference,” believes Priti Shahani, President at Junglee Pictures. In the last two-years, Junglee Pictures has established themselves as a production house that is a hit-vending machine with films such as Talvar, Raazi, Badhaai Ho and Bareilly Ki Barfi.
If you’d reckon, a few years ago, a Hindi film featuring a middle-aged couple in the lead, wouldn’t have had many viewers. But Amit Sharma’s Badhaai Ho turned the tables of convention. The film is a realistic take on a middle-class household and their fear and loathing of a middle-aged couple getting pregnant in full glare of an old-Delhi muhallah. Gajraj Rao who plays the amicable Jeetender Kaushik was bought to the limelight in the 25th year of his career and he even bagged the Critics Choice award at the Star Screen Awards last year. Gajraj made his debut with Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen in 1994 and has featured in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Dil Se, Black Friday, No Smoking and Talvar. But way before his Bollywood oeuvre with Badhai Ho, Gajraj became famous through YouTube’s TVF series Tech Conversations With Dad. He says, “In our mythology, there is a term called Samudramanthan (churning of the sea), so right now whatever is happening is the churning of the entertainment industry where old thoughts are being sidelined, the old style of working is changing. New theories are coming, with new directors and a younger generation,” he narrates. The past few years have also seen the re-emergence of the undermined character artist whose roles were earlier akin to that of a wallflower. But today the character artist is a force to reckon with. But in the digital space, there is no room for bad acting and somehow, every actor feels compelled to give their best performance.
Actor Pankaj Tripathi is another case in point. Pankaj is a prominent face on screen in supporting roles. Since his debut in 2004 with a blink-and-you-miss role in the Abhishek Bachchan starrer Run, he has featured in over 40 films and 60 television shows. But he marched to fame only in 2012, with Gangs Of Wasseypur and again with Bareilly Ki Barfi, Newton and Stree that gave him a fair share of screen time. But Pankaj bagged his meatiest role yet as the ferocious and daunting Kaleen Bhaiya in the crime thriller web series Mirzapur. His screen presence is palpable and his acting prowess makes one mull over the ivory tower of Bollywood that rides on the back of its superstars to secure sure shot success while undermining real talent. But he believes that good acting will always get its due and with the coming of the digital space, this will multiply manifold.
“In my opinion, an actor is an actor, I don’t believe in the term character actor. But I do believe that there is good cinema and bad cinema, good acting and abysmal performances. Today what has happened is that the audiences have grown and matured. The exposure to world cinema has been eye-opening and this is exactly why the audience’s perception has shifted today. Good stories are also being written simultaneously and those who are doing good work are getting the appreciation they deserve.”
The digital space is also far away from the purview of the moth-eaten guidelines of the censor board, who is in a deep existential crisis with the coming of the digital space. But online platforms like Hotstar and Amazon Prime precariously indulge in ‘self-censorship’ to keeping in mind the Indian cultural sensitivities and to avoid legal controversies. Netflix has also stated that they carry ‘airplane cut’ depending on which region the movie will be shown. A petition filed in the Delhi High Court in 2016, accused Hotstar of showcasing ‘soft pornography’ on its platform. “There is freedom here. Censorship hasn’t reached here yet, but at the same time, an actor like me works with the morals of self-censorship. We know the line between aesthetics and vulgarity and we will not delve into something knowing it’s main motive is to create controversy. But yes, there could be many that will exploit this space, but a good filmmaker will never exploit his or her liberties,” avers Pankaj.
One thing is set in stone – The digital medium will not only bring in a plethora of path-breaking content but will also bring in a large variety of talent; both on screen and behind the screen. Recognising talent and giving them due space is digital’s biggest strength. Saif Ali Khan who has been languishing in Bollywood with consistently average performances got a new lease on his acting career with Sacred Games. The same is with actor Ali Fazal, who starred in the British biographical drama Victoria and Abdul that bagged him his first international role, but his performance in Mirzapur as Guddu Pandit trumped all his other acting achievements. Not only did he undertake a massive body transformation, shedding his chocolate boy image for a brawny look, but he also hit the nail on its head with his portrayal of a steroid-addicted bodybuilder, highlighting his drastic mood swings and ‘roid’ rage. Ali believes that the digital space is far beyond big budget Bollywood films and it is certainly the future of entertainment, “Digital is growing, and yes, it is giving films a tough competition. Films have to cut down on their budgets and it has proven to be successful so far, but the digital space is beyond that. It can be made in much lower budgets and garner much more viewing,” he says.
His co-star Rasika Duggal also emerged from the shadows in Mirzapur. She has previously featured in critically acclaimed films such as Kshay, Qissa and Manto, but made a lasting impression only with the Amazon Prime web series. She says, “It’s a great time for actors like us as we are getting more opportunities. It is the best phase because earlier, character artists never got exposure but now writers are writing some great stuff for character artists who are also the backbone of all the films,” shares Rasika
Eclipsing the big screen
Streaming giant Netflix acquired the worldwide distribution rights to Andy Serkis’ long-gestating film Mowgli from Warner Bros and released it recently on its platform. Andy who was in India to promote the film feels that “streaming is a wonderful thing” and there is room for both (theatres and digital platforms). It's really important that we have a shared experience that we can watch films altogether but also we get to choose to watch films just with our family or individually,” he says.
But does this mean that multiplexes might soon dry out and die out as audiences get more comfortable viewing high-quality content in the privacy of their homes? “I don’t think it’s a choice, I don’t think it's either or will survive. I think content will find its space, so there will be some content that will be for the theatres and some will be for digital and time will decide that. I don’t think this comes as a replacement.” says Leena.
To which Pankaj adds, “Cinema has its own draw. There is something about community viewing that is very compelling. It breaks all class barriers, you don’t bother to think about who is sitting next to you.” Watching a film in complete darkness on the big screen is unparalleled.” But the convenience of the digital space can prove as much a disadvantage to filmmakers, as it is an advantage to the audiences. And given how easy it is to switch between Tv-shows and films on Netflix, the competition gets tougher and the audiences are far more critical. But none of this inhibits Leena. She says, “If you have to lose an audience you can lose them in the theatre too. People walk out; people go off to the bathroom there too. So, if you have to lose an audience, you lose them either way. Yes, it is a little more challenging because you can just pause it and switch between shows, but then again that’s the test your film stands." Filmmaker Abhishek Kapoor who’s Kedarnath released last month believes that nothing can dim
he lure of a cinematic experience, “because cinema is a different experience and digital is something you see at the house. Going to the theatre and watching it with 200 – 300 people and they all are experiencing the same thing, you enjoy that experience. So irrespective of whatever is happening that cinematic experience will never fade away.”