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The streaming video boom and the windfall of opportunities

In the run-up to the theatrical release of Aligarh in February 2016, director Hansal Mehta met with stiff resistance from the censor board as well as an array of political outfits.

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On the one hand, then censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani had demanded a litany of cuts in the film—a biographical drama about a gay professor at the Aligarh Muslim University. On the other hand, a fringe group called the Millat Bedari Muhim Committee (MBMC) had begun to put pressure on film exhibitors in Aligarh to desist from screening the movie, claiming that its title and contents were an attempt to defame the city’s culture.

Two years later, Mehta’s crime drama Omerta on the life of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British terrorist of Pakistani descent, again ran into trouble. The director barely managed to find any takers among film distributors and exhibitors. Until the very last minute, he was busy scrounging for theatres.

Cut to the 2020s and things have changed dramatically. Now, revelling in the success of his crime drama Scam 1992-The Harshad Mehta Story—which is streaming on SonyLIV and happens to be one of the highest-rated Indian shows on the online movie database IMDb—Mehta knows that he’s come a long way. The turnaround in his fortunes is, in part, a product of the web streaming boom. And there are many other unknown, unnoticed behind-the-camera professionals whose careers have gone through a similar trajectory over the last few years.

“The long format of OTT (over-the-top) allows you to blossom,” said Mehta, who is currently working on the second instalment of the Scam franchise, Scam 2003. “It creates a more equal playing ground for writers, directors and actors… many of whom could (either) not be adopted or co-opted by mainstream cinema since there was only so much work available to do,” he added.

Most in the movie industry tend to prefer working with people with whom they have some prior experience or at least share a certain comfort, said Mehta, who made his feature film debut in 2000 and has been privy to the Bollywood rigmarole for over two decades. “Here (in web streaming), you’re not limited by the format and you get to unlock a lot of talent, including in acting, which has been languishing for years,” Mehta said.

Actors and the on-camera faces that headline projects may be perceived to be the biggest beneficiaries of the OTT boom, which has democratized entry into an industry renown for its entrenched nepotism, in India. However, the behind-the-camera creative forces including writers, directors, show-runners, costume designers, casting directors, music composers, and even talent management and publicity agencies have also seen a significant spike in the quantity and quality of work.

As these new entrants navigate towards better contracts and higher pay while learning the art of balancing several projects at a time, much of India’s under-recognized and under-utilized talent seems to have finally come of age.

Rise of content studios
The rise of these new creative forces stems from the entry of foreign players like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video around 2016. These OTT platforms challenged the existing norms that were in vogue within India’s traditionally star-driven entertainment industry.

“OTT became a place where talent could find a space (that was) unfettered from commercial considerations and (could) grow happily,” said Deepak Segal, head of content at Applause Entertainment, which has produced shows like Scam 1992 and Criminal Justice. Applause is owned by the Aditya Birla Group.

While “OTT stars” like Pankaj Tripathi and Jaideep Ahlawat may have emerged today, these stories are barely ever led by one person and this allows screenwriters of this format to move away from the gimmicks of television, Segal pointed out.

Segal’s team works with a core creative group of about 20-24 people and is aiming at produce 16-20 shows per year. “We took a conscious decision to make premium drama (web) series…which was an unexplored category in India,” Segal said. The gamble seems to have paid off since nearly all of Applause’s shows are scheduled for season renewals.

“The greatest gift that (the) digital (web) series has given me is duration,” said filmmaker Imtiaz Ali, who is in the middle of producing and creating the second season of his crime drama She for Netflix. “While writing screenplays for films, I often did not have the time to go into plots or characters in detail.”

Not having anticipated the kind of time that it would take to finish writing a show with multiple episodes, Ali found himself busier than he had expected to be during the lockdown last year, as he was simultaneously developing feature film scripts while writing for the web series.

Streaming platforms tend to own the rights to everything that they commission, which makes almost anyone who collaborates with them a paid worker, Ali added. “They (the creators) don’t own what they make. So, obviously, they demand the kind of money that they feel is appropriate for their effort, knowing that they will not really partake in the rights sharing,” he said. As a result, many people who work on OTT shows make a lot more money upfront.

Several years ago, television served as the alternative habitat for those whose dreams and aspirations didn’t organically fit into the rigid structures of Bollywood. But television’s loss has been web streaming’s gain. “Indian television may have started off with shows like Hasratein and Sailaab, but then never moved on from the daily soap model,” said Ashvini Yardi, founder of Vineyard Films.

Understandably, even companies that have a footprint beyond movie-making in the entertainment ecosystem have tried to carve out a niche presence in the world of web streaming. Take for instance, OML Entertainment—a music, live events and talent management agency that has been a part of the industry since the early 2000s. It is now credited with Amazon originals like Pushpavalli and Comicstaan. The reason for the pivot: OTT has become the de facto experimental space where creatives of all stripes end up converging.

“At least 70% of the credit for turning stand-up comedy into a relevant category in India goes to OTT platforms,” said Dhruv Seth, chief operating officer at OML, adding that a lot of comics have become celebrities because of the streaming boom. “We have expanded our teams and are working longer. It is this kind of collaboration that has given an ideas studio like ours the same footing as a seasoned company like Dharma Productions,” Seth said.

Writer’s delight
The disruption caused by the pandemic has only hastened the ongoing surge in streaming. And with the rising emphasis on taut story arcs and well-written narratives, one class of professionals has particularly benefitted.

“If theatre is an actor’s medium and film is the director’s, OTT is definitely the writer’s,” said Gazal Dhaliwal, writer of Netflix’s romantic comedy Mismatched.

The fact that several platforms have come up with the concept of a writers’ room, where those engaged on various projects brainstorm together, proves that writing is being taken seriously, Dhaliwal said. Besides allowing for a larger creative canvas, OTT shows also involve an array of characters beyond the hero and heroine, which only benefits the narrative and adds value—“just like the many people in our own lives,” said Pushpendra Nath Misra, writer and director of Netflix show Taj Mahal 1989.

“The difference in writing a web show is that you can leave loose ends… you don’t have to tie it all up like in a film,” said Saurav Dey, co-writer of Scam 1992, adding that open-ended shows allow more discussions among viewers. Writers, he added, have been struggling to find a foothold in the entertainment industry without adequate pay or credit for years. “People would often quote arbitrary rates and only a few writers could command or negotiate (the) right prices,” Dey said.

But a lot of that has changed now, according to Kanika Dhillon, writer of Haseen Dilruba. “Writers are paid and credited now and the trend of not short-changing them is recent,” said Dhillon.

More than remuneration though, web platforms have also altered the supportive levers that a writer working on a particular project might have access to. “It’s heartening to see that (many) platforms are willing to invest in research,” said Soumendra Padhi, director of Netflix original Jamtara-Sabka Number Ayega, adding that a show like his “cannot be written in a Mumbai office with merely the help of Wikipedia. It would require one to go to Jharkhand”.

Emerging creative forces
These days, casting director Nandini Shrikent has the liberty to choose from a vast pool of good actors who may not necessarily be established stars. “Each episode (of a web show) is infested with characters,” said Shrikent who has worked on web series such as Amazon Prime Video’s Made In Heaven. She says her work has doubled, if not tripled, in the past few years.

Unlike the film industry, which likes to play it relatively safe and offers the creative department head a limited set of options, there are more risk-takers on OTT platforms, said costume designer Poornamrita Singh, who has worked on shows like Made In Heaven and films like Gully Boy (2019). “The difference is that the narrative of a web show is far longer; there are more actors who have a lot more screen time and you have the freedom to go into so much detail,” said Singh, who admits that it’s a lot of work but pay is also better, making it “a great time to be in the industry”.

The changing structure of storytelling has also meant that songs don’t feature in a web show the way they did in films, said Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor, music composers for OTT originals like Paatal Lok. For the duo who used to primarily work on independent films and festival favourites before the OTT wave, this is an opportunity for their music to reach a far wider audience. “It helps you think out of the box and sink your teeth into some really interesting parts of the film that may have otherwise been taken up by songs,” said Taylor, referring to feature films that often break the narrative for a song sequence or montage.

“They (web directors) don’t set goal posts,” said Achint Thakkar, whose trippy background score was an integral part of Scam 1992. “It doesn’t have to be a certain way… they give you more broad strokes to play with,” Thakkar added.

Despite all these evident advantages, not all is fun and rosy on the web though. As they get used to India’s entertainment ecosystem, many platforms are creating their own rules of the game. Intense competition among the 60-odd services and a low success rate have resulted in a subdued focus on quantity and muted appetite for risk-taking.

The emergence of more players and an increase in the quantity of content doesn’t necessarily have to translate into better quality, said Sumit Purohit, co-writer of Scam 1992. “The danger now is a lot of producers want to turn a subject (that was) written with a film in mind into a show,” Purohit said, while emphasizing that the secret to the success of several web series lies in their long format.

Other than that, writers and technicians across the board agree that while platforms had started off with big-budget productions, many of them have learnt to rein in investments with time. “Some of them (platforms) now also ask for known names and want to make stuff with the typical look-and-feel, which ruins the vibe of experimentation. It results in mediocre content,” said a casting director, who did not wish to be named.

While there is still scope for experimentation on a digital platform, there is also increasing resistance to it, filmmaker Ali said. “Like in films, people tend to repeat what has already been successful. Having been in the business for a long time, I realize that this is something that I or any other creative person will face wherever he goes to sell his wares,” Ali said. Live Mint

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