Stories have always been about our inherent quest to define and understand the world around us. The Mahabharata, one of the oldest religious texts, tells the tale of two families fighting each other for the throne of Hastinapur. But it is also much more than that. In the best traditions of oral storytelling in India, grandmothers sat grandchildren down and narrated the stories of the long-drawn battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The Mahabharata stories were rich in themes that are as relevant today as they were centuries ago. Deceit, manipulation, the dharma of doing the right thing or examples of large-heartedness and sacrifice — oral storytelling allowed for far greater variation and embellishment, as every storyteller narrated a tale in her distinct style. The absence of visual elements meant that children had to create their own imageries.
The march of human evolution, accompanied by the frenetic pace of industrial revolutions, had a significant impact on storytelling. In the 15th century, the Gutenberg Printing Press began recording tales on paper for posterity. In the 19th century, the Lumiere Brothers showed the world how motion pictures could bring stories to life. After the end of World War II, television became the principal instrument to shape imaginations for over half a century, till the arrival of personal computing devices. In the 21st century, the internet and over-the-top entertainment content (OTT) capture the zeitgeist of our times.
The impact of technology on entertainment during the COVID-19 pandemic has heralded a paradigm shift towards OTT. As movie halls shuttered, people logged on their phones, tablets and smart TVs for riveting content. Production houses, hit hard by the shutdown, read the writing on the wall and released feature films on online platforms. The OTT market in India is predicted to grow at 21.8 per cent CAGR, from Rs 4,464 crore to Rs 11,976 crore, between 2018 and 2023, according to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report. But it isn’t just the viewer who is rejoicing at the prosperity of OTT content in India.
For individual content creators, who didn’t have the financial or infrastructural support to express themselves on traditional media, OTT has been a godsend. They can now make diverse, niche and high-quality content and be assured of a large audience. YouTube’s highest earning content creator for 2018 and 2019 was Ryan Kaji, an eight-year-old, who started his career by reviewing and unboxing toys. In 2019, he earned $26 million, up from $22 million in 2018. Similarly, many Indian storytellers have found their voice online and represent the regional, linguistic and cultural diversity that is a distinctly Indian preserve.
Another change lies in the more private nature of OTT viewing. The viewer has a greater degree of control over what, how and where she consumes content. It has also shattered viewing habits instilled in us by television. For instance, a consumer now has the power to watch a psychological thriller at 7 am on her mobile phone rather than catch up with the breakfast news on TV at that same hour. OTT has also led to the creation of breakthrough feminist narratives that are no longer solely dominated by male characters.
However, OTT content is just one of the many ways in which technology has changed the way we entertain ourselves. It has also impacted storytelling itself. Earlier, tales just had readers, listeners or viewers who flipped through the pages of a book, looked at a screen or heard a podcast. Today, augmented and virtual reality and artificial intelligence allow consumers to participate in the storytelling process. A consumer is no longer imagining descriptions of characters or locations; she plays a vital role in shaping them. Perhaps, the most visible manifestation of this is in the gaming industry, which is increasingly competing for a larger chunk of the entertainment pie.
Online games such as Fortnite, a free-to-play game, have innovated with content and business models to become platforms themselves. Fortnite has over 350 million players, who spent a total of 3.2 billion hours playing the game in April alone. While players do not pay to play, they can choose to buy bonus content — the primary driver of revenue. This approach towards monetisation has made Fortnite a formidable presence in the market. In a 2019 letter to its shareholders, Netflix identified it as a bigger rival to its operations than HBO. Within the game itself, Fortnite has a space for players to participate in various activities, including virtual concerts by Grammy-nominated musicians like Travis Scott and Diplo. Commentators say this is only the beginning of such online experiences, especially after the disruption caused by the pandemic.
The gaming industry has also pioneered immersive storytelling through open-world games, both online and offline. These are virtual playgrounds where listeners/viewers use their own imagination and, combined with the scenes provided, create their own story. For instance, in the game Middle-earth: Shadow of War, a player is transported to the world of JRR Tolkien’s creation, and given a character to play. As the game goes on, the player can decide which adversary to go after, how to approach a particular adventure and what abilities to upgrade. A unique mechanic called the nemesis system tracks his encounters with various enemy Orcs and evolves its memories of past actions. Consequently, the player might come across an Orc who is scared of him or is seeking revenge. Thus, every player has an unique experience, including distinct relationships with enemy characters.
Some Indian studios, too, have jumped on to the immersive entertainment bandwagon. Nodding Head Studios in Pune is translating Indian stories into next-gen entertainment products. Raji: An Ancient Epic is an action-adventure game that tells the story of a young girl called Raji destined to face the demon lord Mahabalasura. A common thread that ties popular OTT content and Raji… is that they are distinctly Indian cultural products, rooted in the country’s rich heritage and history. In 2019, 1,600 hours of original OTT content were produced in India — 33.3 per cent higher than in 2018, according to a FICCI-EY 2020 report on the media and entertainment sector.
In the last few years, it has become apparent that rapid digitalisation has ushered in a sea change in India’s entertainment industry. It must now mine the country’s rich cultural heritage to make the great leap forward. Epics like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, as well as the Hamzanama, on the exploits of Amir Hamza, are non-linear, layered sagas. India’s creative ecosystem should take advantage of such stories and show the world that, when it comes to technology-enabled storytelling, they are ready to seize the opportunity — one immersive story at a time.
Shekhar Kapur is an award-winning filmmaker and president, Film and Television Institute of India, Pune
Vani Tripathi is an actor, producer and member, Central Board of Film Certification
* This article is based on their forthcoming joint report on the future of India’s entertainment Industry, to be published by the think tank Esya Centre, New Delhi
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