The distress year of Covid has seen economies suffer, markets crash and entire industries wiped out. Its aftershock has rattled India Inc, which is still hunting for a recovery route. But for one business 2020 was a banner year. It would be hard to exaggerate the degree to which OTT (over-the-top platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, ZEE5, ALTBalaji, SonyLIV and many others) have made hay while a lockdown-weary population hustled for a ray of sunshine. On-demand video had already made streaming Starbucksy sexy (millennials are said to consume more online content than front-benchers once did stale samosas), and in a year of unprecedented confinement, OTT’s revenues and turnouts ramped up drastically. As all activities remained shut, most notably theatres, OTT platforms received the ultimate shot in the arm: a disoriented but nevertheless, hungry and captive audience.
In 2018, the Indian OTT industry was pegged at ₹ 21.5 billion. It is a loose change compared to Netflix, whose market cap alone stands at an intimidating $217.08 billion or so, transforming this once underdog business into a global financial behemoth. The streaming top dog currently has 193 million paid subscribers in over 190 countries. Blessed with pockets deeper than any Hollywood studio, it has given tinseltown veterans sleepless nights over the past few years. Last year, it backed the unbackable — Martin Scorsese’s languid mob epic The Irishman. And more recently, helped David Fincher realise his dream of making Mank, a sumptuous love letter to 30s’ Hollywood, on the lines of previous passion projects like Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. All these renowned movies are available in India, a golden goose increasingly seen as the world’s fastest growing OTT market. But Netflix’s focus is to cast a gimlet eye on slick local content for which it’s vying with homegrown producers like ZEE5, Eros Now, Voot, SonyLIV and JioCinema. A promising forecast suggests that the streaming giant will close the year with a 4.6 million haul having notched up more than two million subscribers in the last quarter alone, partly fuelled by the countrywide lockdown and social restrictions.
Netflix India began the year on a mixed note with the true-crime thriller Jamtara: Sabka Number Ayega. Though the show, set in Jharkhand’s phishing underbelly, was critically well-received, one wouldn’t exactly call it a game-changer. For commercial buzz and some social media noise, the streamer had to wait until Sima aunty and her suitable boys would take the internet by storm. Indian Matchmaking explored our nation’s cultural obsession with arranged marriage, a controversial subject that made protagonist Sima Taparia one of the more unusual Netflix stars. For couples desperately looking to find ‘love’, the real-life matchmaker’s appearance was no less than Christ’s second coming as she aligned stars, got faces read and set up alliances made in heaven (Sima Taparia: 1, Zoya Akhtar: 0). Taparia is an avowed marriage advocate, the typical annoying aunty in an overbearing Indian family who will sniff out an eligible bachelor from a mile off and spend the rest of her day pestering that happily unmarried youngster to take the plunge. As the show progressed, we learned that Taparia’s marriage was fixed by her family. When she first met her own fiancé, she barely got 20 minutes to spare with him. (Yes, the all-important ‘do you cook’ question came up and luckily, Sima aunty was fond of cooking. Why are we not surprised?) Yet, in one episode, she has no qualms in making this curious admission: “In India, nowadays, marriages are breaking like biscuits.” From shaadi ke laddoo to shaadi ke biscuits, the eight-part Netflix original with its regressive content, in an ironic way, also became a parable for the young India out there fighting its way out of traditional handicaps. The show’s inherent racism and casteism were flagged on Twitter, earning it a full 15 minutes of shame. But who cares, Netflix had found its match.
Netflix Has Just Added a Film You Might Like
A lot happened by the time we came to the original Suitable Boy. After airing on BBC, Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy arrived on Netflix with a bang. Vikram Seth’s kaleidoscopic period drama set in newly independent India about the almond-eyed Lata Mehra and her romantic exploits was one of the stellar titles it took a gamble on. But barely a month had passed before the show faced backlash. In an absurdity that’s becoming more and more common in India these days, Lata Mehra’s youthful PDA was targeted by the love-jihad brigade for showing a kissing scene between the Hindu Lata and her Muslim lover in a temple. However, it didn’t take long for the controversy to get eclipsed by some much-needed cheer. In a major clinch, the streaming site’s 2019 Delhi Crime bagged the best drama series at the 48th International Emmy Awards. Based on the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case that shook India and the world, Delhi Crime’s Emmy glory holds positive signs for the brand’s future.
If Netflix has Emmy laurels, then Amazon Prime Video, its main Indian rival, has not lagged far behind. It is likely to get a boost with Mollywood whiz Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu recently being selected as India’s official entry to the Oscar 2020. This is hardly surprising because Prime Video’s regional catalogue has always been superior to Netflix’s, including line-ups from Malayalam, Tamil and Bengali New Wave. In 2019, it had produced The Family Man, a riveting thriller that tossed a perfectly unassuming Manoj Bajpayee into an intriguing and twisty spy life. Earlier this year, its two Hindi originals Mirzapur II and Paatal Lok — gritty look at the big bad world of crime, cops, guns and gangwar — have raked in high ratings with the latter topping 2020’s critics’ picks. The Anushka Sharma-produced series is in some ways Amazon Prime Video’s answer to Netflix’s Sacred Games providing further proof that hard-hitting web offerings on crime and gangster sugared with sardonic wit are way more on fleek than a pack of glamorous housewives and their rich-people problems.
God of OTT
The common view is that Sacred Games was the Indian OTT’s tipping point. Released in 2018, it set the playbook for the fledgling platform. Vikram Chandra’s taut story, Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s pulpy pizzazz, Saif Ali Khan’s against-type casting and some savvy marketing were enough to lure young audiences and turn them into binge-watching bots. For makers Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane and Neeraj Ghaywan, the splashy caper was a continuation of mob themes explored before in Bombay Velvet and Gangs of Wasseypur franchise, which at heart were fanboy hand-kisses to Papa Scorsese’s Casa Nostra. As for Netflix, the series was its first foray into Indian waters — a carpe diem moment that made the American streamer hopeful about finding an Indian blueprint of Narcos or House of Cards, two of their earliest flagship bestsellers. Sacred Games: Season 2 followed suit and its glossy success reserved a front seat for Netflix in the streaming race. Since then, it has bet on Anurag Kashyap and Karan Johar as showrunners to supply it with that elusive Indian OTT-buster. Indian OTT’s star machine today includes the likes of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Pankaj Tripathi, Manoj Bajpayee, Neeraj Kabi and Shefali Shah. Its vast digital skies have offered new wings to actors with fading cinematic clout. For instance, Abhishek Bachchan, Sushmita Sen and Karisma Kapoor who made timely comebacks on OTT. Even Shah Rukh Khan, arguably Indian TV’s biggest gift to Hindi cinema, has embraced the new change, appearing on Netflix’s My Next Guest With David Letterman and most recently, a cameo on The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives. It’s hard to say what will work in the unpredictable world of OTT but so far, ‘the edgier the better’ is the word. Put differently, welcome to this digital dungeon where Nawaz is hot while SRK is not — to rephrase the former’s Sacred Games chant, “Nawaz hi OTT ka Bhagwan hai.”
Bollywood’s most famous struggler, Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s success parallels domestic OTT’s. In an age when digital has turned the tables and democratised the system, actors and directors previously in the doldrums are having luck shine on them all over again. Director Hansal Mehta, whose web series Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story on SonyLIV won rave reviews for an authentic recreation of the famous securities fraud that made Harshad Mehta the original bad boy billionaire, put it best when he told Open magazine in an interview last month, “Now the meaning and the power of online platforms have changed and for a filmmaker like me, who would prefer an audience that judged the film beyond that single Friday, it’s a big win.” In The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, a Desperate Housewives-meets-The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cringe-binge, actress Raveena Tandon tells Neelam Kothari that today “there is work for everybody.” Just moments before, Neelam and Tandon are shown poking good-natured fun at their Parampara co-star Saif Ali Khan and how they couldn’t keep a straight face every time he said the line, “Pratap has landed.” The biggest irony is that with his powerful performance as the jaded cop Sartaj Singh in Sacred Games, rumbling through a noirish Mumbai to expose God-like Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), Saif Ali Khan had finally landed on the scene. And it was OTT that made the flight possible for this formerly underrated actor.
Future of Theatres
With nothing to prove, some would argue that Saif Ali Khan can afford to be experimental (an Omkara here and a Chef there) and take risks because he has nothing to lose — as opposed to someone like Shah Rukh Khan who has everything to lose. Unlike Saif, many are still uncertain of the future of entertainment. There is chatter that Ranveer Singh-Deepika Padukone’s highly-anticipated 83, a sporty replug of India’s cricket world cup winning days, will hold out for theatres to reopen. Is OTT not big enough for the star couple? Certainly, it wasn’t big enough for Christopher Nolan. The Hollywood showman resisted OTT’s digital appeal and instead, welcomed Indian audiences to ring in his new film Tenet in theatre on December 4. Long celebrated for his high-concept, time-twisting thrillers, the Interstellar maker has famously locked horns with Netflix, calling out the streaming titan’s “bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films.” Talking to IndieWire, he aired his grouse, “They have this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation. So they’re not even getting in the game, and I think they’re missing a huge opportunity.”
Yet, not every filmmaker is Nolan and not every film an immersive experience best enjoyed on 70 mm or IMAX. In the movie-crazy India at least the big screen’s closure all through 2020 has meant that filmmakers and stars would, at some point, have to face the changing reality. ‘Coming to a theatre near you’ is out, ‘Streaming now’ is fashionably in. That fate struck much-hyped star vehicles like Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl featuring Janhvi Kapoor, Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Man, Sanjay Dutt starrer Torbaaz and Anurag Basu’s Ludo. Of these, Disney + Hotstar’s alliance with Akshay Kumar’s Laxmii Bomb was hailed by many as another example of the growing clout of streaming behemoths who are now replacing even stars and studios. But to its horror, Hotstar may have burnt its fingers with the horror comedy whose rights it reportedly bought for a whopping Rs 125 crore in what was clearly one of the costliest digital deals. Following a controversy, the film underwent a title change, without much luck. Akshay Kumar is usually a safe bet, but Laxmii bombed. According to trade reports, Amazon Prime Video has snapped up David Dhawan’s Coolie No 1 for half that price: Rs 65 crore. Slated for a world premiere on December 25, Prime Video is expected to go all out to capture the Christmas audiences — a holiday season that has seen better days thanks to Aamir Khan. Box-office’s Perfectionist Santa Claus is now reportedly in talks for his own streaming debut. More are following. Fresh off the success of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, Dimple Kapadia will appear in her maiden web series titled Tandav for Prime Video alongside her Being Cyrus co-star Saif Ali Khan.
Even though digital’s newfound heft has reasons to unnerve and challenge the authority of top studios and dyed-in-the-wool Bollywood bigwigs, many filmmakers refuse to write off the big screen. One of them being Zoya Akhtar. She’s a curious mix: an OTT evangelist while remaining stubbornly devoted to the idea of promoting big screen commercial movies and their communal joys. Her Made in Heaven was rolled out on Amazon Prime Video and remains an OTT pioneer along with Sacred Games while her anthology Ghost Stories was released on Netflix this year. Streaming may have killed TV, but Akhtar appears to believe in the staying power of theatres. Speaking recently to The Wire, the Gully Boy maker said, “Nothing is going to replace the theatre. When TV came out they were like this is the end of cinema. Then, videos, LEDs and surround sound came out, they were like why go to the theatre now. But since the OTT platforms came to India the footfalls to cinemas have just increased.” The internet has long killed Indian cable TV. And whose fault is it? Failing to see the writing on the wall, TV refused to cater to the smartphone-wielding audiences even as it continued to subject millions of Indians to the old chestnut of Bigg Boss, dance reality shows and saas-bahu wrestling matches. Around the same period, American cable networks reinvented TV with classics like The Wire, Mad Men, Homeland, Two and Half Men, Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad.
Meanwhile, once off the radar, OTT’s nonconformism is now raising rational concerns over censorship. What is more alarming is that occasionally its artistic choices are marked by scandalous subjects which tend to make conservatives (particularly staid politicians) uneasy. After the Information and Broadcasting ministry announced in November that online content would fall under their purview, some filmmakers attacked the move, describing it as “moral policing” and the Indian political mandarins’ apparent fear of free speech. Talks about bringing OTT into regulation are nothing new. Union I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar had earlier expressed concerns about the free leash that OTT seemed to enjoy. Recently, Monika Shergill, VP content, Netflix shared her views on the issue, telling journalist Rajeev Masand in a tête-à-tête that they are working with the government “to eventually make sure that the consumer has the freedom to choose.” Despite their ‘viewers know best’ diktat, the streaming sites follow a self-regulation code to some extent, having measures like maturity ratings and parental control in place. But some fear the new rules might curtail creative freedom and put filmmakers through the mill with respect to getting their products past the Censor.
For content creators, the party at OTT is decidedly over — but let’s be clear, the happy hours have only just begun.