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Has Covid-induced OTT boom been helpful for Indian cinema?

By the end of the 2000s, the term “landfill indie” gained currency to describe the proliferation of generic guitar-based bands inspired by the likes of The Libertines, The Strokes etc., The Indian movies that have been landing straight on the over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platforms in the aftermath of Covid pandemic are asking for a similarly dismissive term like “landfill cinema”.

Apart from Malayalam movie industry, I have started getting this sinking feeling that rest of the country’s movie industries can’t be bothered to generate interesting content or are preserving the crème de la crème for the opportune time when the movie theatres eventually open their doors.

After 16 months of poring over the dreary content, I would like to posit that most Indian movie producers who have been opting for the OTT route know it in their bones that their content is essentially dead on arrival at cinemas.

Every day we see actors and movie makers galumphing that this is the gilded age for cinema and that the audience has been more receptive than ever before for edgy content. However, so far the audience has been subjected to big-ticket torturous cinema like Coolie No 1, Radhe. These movies wouldn’t have survived the cinemas for more than a week while the OTT platforms lapped up these movies for prestige value by paying astronomical prices. A news report said Zee paid a ridiculous Rs 230 crore for Radhe, while another report said Rs 100 crore was given for acquiring that memefest of a movie called Coolie No 1.

One can’t find fault with Amazon and Netflix for being this giddily obsessed for latest and exclusive Indian content. Both of them have reached near saturation in the developed world and their next big frontier is the untapped Indian audience.

In terms of new customers, Netflix added the least number of new customers in the second quarter of current financial year for the first time since 2013, which led to worst stock decline in three months. Clearly, time is running out for Netflix and it doesn’t seem to mind burning cash to get hold of solid content, which seems chimerical at the moment.

In India, both Netflix and Amazon have lately been acquiring cinema that are short of fresh ideas and are mostly lazy. Make no mistake, it’s heartening to see OTT platforms encourage vernacular cinema because of the sheer volumes of the audience. However, it’s bloomingly obvious that movie makers would rather sit this one out rather than sell off their premium content for straight-to-OTT prices, which, make no mistake, can be sizeable but theatrical profits can amount to a lot more in case the movie clicks.

The offshoots of OTT culture, like MUBI, a global curated film streaming platform, are to be missed at one’s own peril. And one’s heart also goes out for the quickly snuffed out Quibi, an American short-form streaming platform that generated content for viewing on mobile devices.

However, Indian OTT space is a whole different kettle of fish. Almost every major movie producing state now has its own streaming platform, like Sun NXT in Tamil Nadu, aha in the Telugu speaking states, Hoichoi in West Bengal. Anecdotal evidence suggests Hoichoi has the most avid audience while the others don’t have enough compelling content. Allu Aravind-backed aha was launched with much fanfare and with backing from Chiranjeevi’s family but ultimately, the content turned out to be vapid and only modicum of movie acquisitions is keeping it going. Every original aha production is an embarrassment to say the least, be it Samantha’s talk show Sam Jam or Tamannaah Bhatia starring series 11th Hour.

Even in terms of web series, for every brutally addictive Family Man there are at least 15-20 web series that should have been asphyxiated at the very stage of conceptualisation. It’s as if these seemingly thriving avenues are willing to burn cash on everything except concise storytelling.

That begs the question if Indian OTT space is condemned to be a landfill for movies made with half-baked ideas funded by apparently bottomless coffers? The answer is a resounding no. Of course, this OTT organism is constantly evolving and pay-per-view can be a monetisation avenue (yes, despite the Radhe misfire) for these platforms should they wish to wean off their audience from monthly subscription service worth a large popcorn at a multiplex.

Until they figure themselves out, the Indian OTT platforms should stick to acquiring films after they have had their theatrical run. Let’s face it, without cinemas, the OTT emperor has no clothes. Business Standard

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