STREAMING HOT STARS BEYOND SAAS-BAHUS AND TRPs
Exclusive shows on streaming platforms are changing the landscape of Indian entertainment
Quirky, funny and real, the Sarabhais are one of the most loved families on Hindi television. But Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, which ran on Star One from 2004-06, never had a huge fan base. “We had a minuscule audience [on Star One] and no earth-shattering TRPs,” says Aatish Kapadia, co-creator of the sitcom that acquired cult status only via reruns. When asked to revive the show, Kapadia was not troubled that the show’s new avatar would be restricted to the web. While 180 million households in India have a television set, 432 million people have internet access, according to a December 2016 report of the Internet and Mobile Association of India and market research firm IMRB International. Over 300 million of them are smartphone users, eager to watch content on the go. With comedy a clickbait genre on the internet and the HotStar app boasting over 200 million downloads, Kapadia was confident that digital was the right platform for his show, even if it meant alienating the TV audience. “We always catered to a section of the audience,” says Kapadia. “We knew people would find us.”
Sarabhai vs Sarabhai Take 2 is no different from the original. It is still a weekly show, the Sarabhais still bicker, berate and mock each other, the snooty Maya (Ratna Pathak Shah), now also a grandmother, is still annoyed with her daughter-in-law Monisha (Rupali Ganguly). Her son Rosesh (Rajesh Kumar) is still single, but now there is a ‘singress’ from Jamnagar he fancies. There is just a minute-long ad break during the minimum 22 minute episode. Sarabhai vs Sarabhai was the rare Hindi show in the deluge of saas-bahu soaps that had memorable characters and recall value. A decade later, not much has changed on the small screen apart from bigger budgets. “Over the years, the business model for TV content is dictated by the ratings you get,” says Gaurav Gandhi, chief operating officer of Viacom18 Digital Ventures
that runs the as yet free, OTT (over-the-top) ad-driven videoon-demand platform Voot. “For a wider appeal, you have to create something for the masses.” With their parents hooked to shows like Naagin, Kumkum Bhagya and Yeh Hai Mohabbatein, the urban youth are turning to their cellphones and computers, taking control as well as protecting their privacy. To cater to this growing, influential segment, most digital providers realise the need for exclusive web content.
Today, all big television conglomerates have an online presence. Besides Star TV’s HotStar, there is Viacom 18’s Voot, Zee’s Ozee and Sony’s SonyLIV. Together with platforms from telecom operators such as JioCinema and Jio TV, Airtel-Zee’s Ditto TV and Vodafone Play, they enable viewers to stream shows on their mobile devices. These apps have so far stuck to streaming content from TV channels, including live programming, and haven’t invested resources for original shows. Though data connection speed in India is still not up to global standard—according to content delivery network service provider Akamai’s report, India with 5.6 Mbps has one of the lowest average connection speeds among Asia Pacific countries—the entry of Jio and the subsequent data price war between telecom operators has seen the speed double. That said, consuming content at one’s convenience comes with a caveat. “If you don’t engage me at the get go, I’ll go somewhere else,” says Gandhi. “There is so much more to that device— Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube .... ”
THINK BIG, WATCH SMALL
Unlike the United States, where TV ratings are falling with audiences giving network shows a miss to “Netflix and chill” and binge-watch shows on SVOD (subscriber video on demand)-streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, India is still in a nascent stage of the VOD space. Shows like Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (on Netflix) and Transparent (Amazon) are competing for top prizes at the Emmys and Screen Actors Guild. “Indian television hasn’t reached the heights of Indian cinema,” Ted Sarandos, chief content officer of Netflix, said in an interview in Singapore last year. “I think what we can do is take the elements of Indian cinema and make great Indian television.” So far, however, Netflix, which launched in India in January 2016, has relied more on its international fare—Narcos, House of Cards, Stranger Things, Master of None.
Recently, the streaming giant indicated how big India is in their plans when it got Brad Pitt down to promote his latest film, War Machine, produced by, and available only on, Netflix. In a joint interview with Shah Rukh Khan in Mumbai, Pitt backed Netflix after the backlash it faced at the Cannes Film Festival for not giving its productions a theatrical release first. “The business model of the studio system in Hollywood is such that risky films like (War Machine)—print and advertising and the ancillary costs being so high—are just not being made right now,” Pitt said. “We need different delivery systems like Netflix. If anything, we had possibly even more freedom than normal. Now more films are getting made. More interesting filmmakers get to tell their story,
NETFLIX NOW HAS A BIGGER AD BUDGET FOR INDIA, EVEN IF ITS ORIGINAL CONTENT FOR THE COUNTRY IS STILL SMALL
which means a greater variety of films.”
Even as Netflix now has a bigger advertising budget for India, its original content for the country is still small, limited to Q’s English adult comedy Brahman Naman (released July 2016) and comedian Vir Das’s stand-up special Abroad Understanding (April 2017). Its next original is likely to be the adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s novel Sacred Games to be made by production company Phantom.
Unlike Netflix, Amazon, another international SVOD player, which launched in December 2016, has a team of content operators in Mumbai. It has also roped in some of Bollywood’s big filmmakers to make original shows for Prime Video. They include Kabir Khan’s war drama on the Indian National Army, Ram Madhvani’s martial arts-heavy series on a warrior prince and Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar’s comedy on wedding planners. So far, though, besides the hour-long stand-up specials by Indian comics, Baahubali: The Lost Legends is the only other web exclusive programming. “In an ideal world, we’d love to have an original every month,” says Nitesh Kripalani, director and country head of Amazon. “Good things take time to build.” One series is in post-production, another will go on floors soon.
It’s this lag in delivering content that Ekta Kapoor wanted to exploit when she announced the launch of the ALTBalaji app in April 2017. In a press release, the company declared it will make 32 shows over the next year and debut a new show every fortnight. Promising content that “stands out for being avant garde, non-conformist, inclusive and effervescent”, the platform’s characters are a far cry from the sanskaari ones on Kapoor’s TV shows. Young men go wild in Boygiri and Devdas gets a brash female treatment in Dev DD. So far, only Nupur Asthana’s Romil and Jugal, a charming gay love story, is worth the annual subscription fee of Rs 300 compared to Amazon’s Rs 499 per year and Netflix’s Rs 500 per month. However, Kapoor has managed to get talented actors such as Nimrat Kaur and Rajkummar Rao on board. “For us, as actors, it’s about the story and the character, not so much about the medium,” Rao said in an interview to newswire IANS at the launch of the app.
THE FILMMAKERS’ MEDIUM
For Indian filmmakers like Vikram Bhatt, who is producing original programmes—Spotlight and Gehraiyaan— streamed on Viu, the digital space not only offers “creative freedom” but also helps “to directly connect with the viewer”. For S.S. Rajamouli, the digital space has helped him carry forward the world he’s built on the big screen. “What we managed to showcase in the films was just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “From the minute I started working on it, I knew the world of Baahubali can’t be encompassed in a film or two, because there’s so much more to tell.”
The oversensitive and fussy eyes of the Central Board of Film Certification have still not made it to the web, making it one of the perks of the format. It gives the filmmaker the opportunity to break the rules of storytelling and tackle subjects that may not be deemed box officefriendly. Says Bhatt, “With the web coming into the picture, it has given us the liberty to explore and experience art in its raw form.”
The web series format, it seems, is what Ram Gopal Varma had been waiting for all this while. Guns & Thighs, the 10-part series he has shot, will be uploaded on YouTube shortly. “If you are interested in telling a story, you shouldn’t think if it is coming on the screen or on the mobile phone,” says Varma. The streaming sites also cut down on two key hurdles filmmakers face in releasing films—the rising ad and promotion costs and getting enough screens and time slots for release. “I can have my own channel,” says Varma. “The ultimate democratisation of filmmaking can happen only on the web.”
THE REGULAR GUYS A selfie by the cast of Sarabhai vs Sarabhai Take 2; Voot original series Untag