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 .... ”


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,


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.


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

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