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The begums of binge

The Covid-19 pandemic may have confined Indians to their homes in the past year and a half, but amidst the gloom and doom there was one sector that was experiencing a boom: streaming entertainment. A whole new breed of content creators and distributors from the brave new world of Over The Top (OTT) platforms brought a quiet revolution to the way Indians spent their days of confinement. Instead of the tyranny of appointment-viewing and re-runs of old movies that cable TV offered, OTT platforms used the internet to stream entertainment in all genres, formats and languages. Most importantly, the content could be viewed at a time, place and on a device of our choosing: a cellphone, a laptop, a tablet—or, of course, a TV screen.

2020 was in fact a watershed year for the Indian entertainment industry. At long last, Indian viewers were spoilt for choice. The plethora of films, series, anthologies, documentaries and shorts that OTT offered wasn’t limited to desi fare but was a massive buffet from across the world. Be it the anthology series Ray or the professor’s exploits in Money Heist (Spain) or bingeing on 16-episode Korean dramas, there was something for everyone. So even as uncertainty reigned in the film industry, the 40-odd OTT platforms including the big-daddies Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+Hotstar, Sony­LIV and ZEE5 treated viewers to an esti­­mated 1,200 hours of fresh content in 2020.

An EY-FICCI report from March 2021 confirms that the pandemic accelerated the growth of the industry last year with 28 million people—up from 10.5 million in 2019—paying for 53 million OTT subscriptions last year (which includes subscriptions for multiple platforms). Bollywood can no longer overlook the growing might of OTT. It’s where the money is and, consequently, the jobs too. According to Media Partners Asia’s ‘The Future of India’s Online Video Market’ report, OTT platforms are expected to invest $1 billion for content in 2021. Taking to OTT isn’t a sound career move; it is a no-brainer. Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Shahid Kapoor are some of the many stars who are set to make their digital debuts (see Coming Soon). And it is only going to get more competitive with Indian streaming platforms like ZEE5 vying with international ones like HBO Max which is planning to set up shop in India.

The film industry has also seen a powershift with traditional film producers giving way to the head honchos of OTT platforms who now play a crucial role in deciding what India watches. Three women have been at forefront of this streaming revolution, leading the creative wings of three of the most popular platforms: Aparna Purohit, head of India originals at Amazon Prime Video; Monika Shergill, vice-president, content, at Netflix; and Ekta Kapoor, joint managing director, Balaji Telefilms. Brought together for the first time for an india today magazine cover shoot, they are the new Begums of Binge.

The rise of the begums

Each of the three begums has a fascinating tale to tell about her rise to the top. Purohit, for instance, grew up in Delhi enjoying Doordarshan shows like Tamas, Buniyaad, Hum Log and later world cinema at film festivals. An alumnus of Jamia Milia Islamia’s mass communications programme, she shifted to Mumbai and had stints at companies like Sony TV, UTV and the National Film Development Corporation before joining Prime Video in 2015 to convince filmmakers to make their passion projects for the yet-to-launch SVoD (subscription video on demand) platform. “First reaction [we’d get] was ‘You guys are a big mall. What do you know about content?’” recalls the 42-year-old Purohit. “A filmmaker, who I admire a lot, said, ‘We still have a few films left in us. So please don’t ask us to do these web shows’.” Purohit no longer has to chase stories. She now receives almost 10 pitches a day. Back in 2018, one of these included a crime drama with action, rivalry, revenge and humour set in a town in UP. “Data told us that there was nothing really for men to enjoy,” says Purohit. Today, Mirzapur is one of Prime’s most popular shows, greenlighted for a third season, and with a following even among women.

At Netflix, Shergill took charge of how to make optimum use of the Rs 3,000 crore, set aside in 2019 and 2020, to develop Indian originals—films, shows, documentaries and comedy specials—and acquire and license content. It’s not the only investment Netflix has made in India. The streaming giant is developing a post-production facility in Mumbai, a first-of-its-kind venture. “If we have to tell the best stories to audiences, we have to contribute to the community and invest in infrastructure,” says Shergill. “A creative wave is happening and it has just begun. Everyone is looking for the best stories and storytellers.”

Shergill has been searching for them for over two decades now, beginning as a journalist who travelled across India in the early 1990s to report on environment and social justice for the TV series Living on the Edge. The need to tell impactful stories in a longer format led her to switch to entertainment. She went on to develop shows like the Aamir Khan-hosted Satyamev Jayate as well as work on fictional ones like Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin and CID. At Netflix, Shergill finds herself wearing “many audience hats at the same time” as she curates a line-up for a “heterogeneous audience with nuanced tastes”. It has resulted in shows like Masaba Masaba where the lines between fiction and reality are often blurred and Jamtara: Sabka Number Ayega, a crime drama inspired by the phishing scam in Jharkhand.

Ekta Kapoor may have one-fifteenth the budget of Netflix but that hasn’t deterred her. Having already won over the women with TV dramas like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Pavitra Rishta, Kapoor realised there was potential to tap into two key demographics: the youth and the men. So began ALTBalaji in 2017. “I would have become old and rusty if not for ALT,” says the 46-year-old who started out as a TV producer in 1994. “There was a time when I didn’t lose sleep over content. But now I do, and I love it. It drives you, frustrates you, excites you, it is part of being alive at your job.”

ALTBalaji is now one of the most prolific SVoD platforms with a library of 86 web shows, many of which can also be seen on other platforms including ZEE5 and MX Player. It is seen as the “bad boy” of apps (as Kapoor calls it) with shows like Gandi Baat, XXX and Virgin Bhaskar which explore youth sexuality. “We have so many shows but I don’t know if it is the expectations given our TV background or the obsession with women doing clutter breaking or edgy content that gives us that reputation,” says Kapoor.

Together, the three platforms vie for internet time, but for the three women there couldn’t be a better time to be telling stories. Purohit watches OTT content up until the wee hours, following what her competition is up to and trying to identify the talented writer or actor. Shergill is a workaholic who is swiftly signing deals with the who’s who in Bollywood, be it Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Karan Johar or Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani. Also a film producer, Kapoor is seeing the ripple effects of OTT’s growing influence on cinema where filmmakers now have to think of how to “make the experience bigger” so that audiences return to theatres. Says Shergill, “The sheer number of projects in development, there’s so much zest in writing, there’s so much more work and space for voices to come in, both experienced and new.”

The pandemic boom

The begums agree that it was the pandemic that saw their viewership and fortunes soar. Many Indians such as Purohit’s 76-year-old father and 67-year-old mother began watching OTT for the first time. A 2020 study by Ormax, a media analytics and consulting firm, found that between April-August 2020 nearly 23 million television viewers started streaming content; 57 per cent of them were women. “This highlights how younger audiences and men initiated older audiences and women into sampling original OTT content when TV shows were off air,” says Shailesh Kapoor, CEO of Ormax Media.

The OTT boom also flourished because cinema theatres across India have largely remained shut since the pandemic raised its ugly head. In key markets like Maharashtra they were shut until August 2021. The outcome was that Bollywood’s home base, Mumbai, had no posters of Bellbottom, supertstar Akshay Kumar’s latest release. In its place were hoardings of Disney+ Hotstar’s The Empire, starring Kunal Kapoor, Dino Morea, Drashti Dhami and Shabana Azmi.

In many ways, OTT has become a great leveller, altering, temporarily at least, our definition of stardom. Talented actors are no longer confined to the margins. On streaming platforms, they are getting to headline shows. Manoj Bajpayee speaks of how, thanks to The Family Man, he now gets mobbed at airports; Divyenndu has had fans in South India pour milk over cutouts of his character Munna from Mirzapur; Aaditi Pohankar of Aashram and She fame is recognised at a DMart in suburban Mumbai even when she has a mask on. “It has allowed Pankaj Tripathi to become a superstar,” says Rohit Jain, managing director of Lionsgate, South Asia, which entered India in December with Lionsgate Play. “You’d watch a show because he features in it.”

Moment of reckoning

The FICCI-EY report estimates that OTT content will double to over 3,000 hours per year by 2023. It’s no surprise then that the roster of filmmakers who want to tell stories, equivalent to three to four films, on digital is growing—including Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who will make the epic series Heeramandi for Netflix. Writers are thriving too, encouraged to tell longer, more layered narratives and in some cases create a universe which they can keep returning to. “Earlier, it’d be like we have got the star and director, let’s figure out some project,” says Purohit. The attitude was “Kuch na kuch toh likh lenge [We will put together something]”. With OTT, the ingenuity of the vision itself is the biggest sell and the actor who brings it alive need not be a box office star.

Bollywood knows that getting audiences back to theatres at pre-pandemic levels will be an uphill climb. “People will be wary of going into theatres often,” says Saugata Mukherjee, head, original content, at SonyLIV, “OTT is a habit now.” As a nation with some of the cheapest mobile data in the world, Indians top as consumers of online videos, spending an average 10 hours and 54 minutes per week.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em seems to be the approach of film studios. Nearly every big one in Mumbai has opened a separate wing—from Dharma’s Dharmatic and Viacom 18’s Tipping Point Productions—to make shows or films for streaming. Some like Excel Entertainment and RSVP dabble in both under the same banner. The surge of OTT platforms is keeping everyone busy. “It’s quite a challenge to get good stories,” says Nimisha Pandey, head, Hindi Originals, at ZEE5 India. “Demand is increasing at such a pace that it gets crazy trying to match up. It’s not enough to do one great show.” As streamers battle to expand their customer base as well as hold on to existing subscribers, it is not enough to offer fresh programming regularly. Quality plays a significant role. If the content doesn’t deliver, a click on ‘cancel subscription’ means the end. “You have to give the consumer value for their money and think not just about enough big scale shows but also achieving volume and consistency,” says Pandey.

Great expectations

OTT viewers don’t settle for less. It’s a “discerning audience”, says Purohit, whose taste is evolving fast given the exposure they have to international shows. The Indian Netflix subscriber can pick Japanese anime while at Disney+ Hotstar HBO dramas like Mare of Easttown and White Lotus as well as a Marvel series like Loki are on offer. “You have a global selection of content to watch and compare,” says Sameer Nair, CEO of Applause Entertainment, one of the leading studios making OTT content. “That is in turn making Indian streamers and creators more ambitious.” But doing that requires imagination, time and money. At Applause, the budgets per episode range from Rs 1-2 crore to Rs 5-6 crore. It took Applause three years—from acquiring Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu’s book to post-production—to ready Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, one of the most successful web series of 2020. “The process of telling an 8-10 part series is a time-consuming, excruciating experience,” says Nair. “It requires a different discipline and mindset.”

Gaurav Banerjee, president and head, Hindi and English entertainment, Star India, would agree. “The gestation time of shows has gone up,” says Banerjee. So have the “resources spent on getting the quality absolutely right”. For Banerjee, that’s no longer restricted to the SVoD’s most valued property, the IPL. India’s biggest OTT giant, Disney+Hotstar, recently announced a new slate of 14 specials under the tagline ‘Har Watch, Top Notch’. Its latest release, The Empire, a period drama on Mughal emperor Babur, offers proof that the platform is not afraid to spend to tell a story on the scale of a feature.

The investments that OTT platforms are making are transforming the entertainment industry at large. Writer’s rooms are now the go-to way to create a project. The concept of a ‘showrunner’ to make a series has gained traction. “Our industry is becoming a lot more vigorous and strategic,” says Banerjee. “It is hopefully creating the infrastructure and bandwidth to make some parts of our content global.” But before spreading its wings internationally, India’s OTT players are looking to increase their footprint in India.

Language no bar

Soon after finding success with Scam 1992, its leading man Pratik Gandhi starred in Vitthal Teedi, the maiden show of newly launched Gujarati OTT platform Oho. It was one of the many language-specific platforms to launch in the last 18 months including Aha (Telugu), Neestream (Malayalam), Heeroz (Punjabi), Katte (Kannada), to name a few. For Disney+ Hotstar’s Gaurav Banerjee, new audience share will come from the non-Hindi markets. “Sitting in Mumbai, we think Hindi is India’s largest language but it only talks to half of this country,” he says. “How do we talk to the other half?” The platform has already released shows in Tamil and Telugu and is developing more.

Watching dubbed titles and shows with subtitles are already integral aspects of watching streaming content. OTT, with its large library of regional titles, is blurring the linguistic barriers quickly. Last year, Amazon Prime and Netflix upped their Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada content by acquiring a host of films for direct-to-digital release. Netflix went a step ahead and roped in Mani Ratnam to helm Navarasa, a Tamil anthology which featured Suriya, Vijay Sethupathi, Arvind Swami, Siddharth among other actors. SonyLIV, which collaborated with The Viral Fever for a Marathi series, is also rolling out Tamil and Telugu shows. Voot Select will also foray into the regional space in the coming months. The FICCI-EY report says that by 2025 regional language consumption on OTT platforms will peak, crossing 50 per cent of total time spent.

Future perfect

While most sectors in the entertainment landscape saw revenues dip, digital media and online gaming were the only ones to see growth in 2020. An RBSA Advisors July 2021 report estimated that the number of smartphone users in India would reach over 760 million in 2021, second only to China. While nearly 70 per cent of India watches video content on mobile, the smart TV market is also gradually building with prices of TV sets falling. A 32-inch smart TV cost Rs 7,200 in 2020, down from Rs 8,499 in 2019. SonyLIV’s Mukherjee believes it will lead to “a big change in quality and narratives” as from individual viewing OTT becomes a co-viewing option.

Ferzad Palia, head, SVoD & international business, Viacom18 Digital Ventures, says that innovation is the need of the hour. “Every platform will look to differentiate itself,” said Palia. “If nothing stands out, the consumer will see through you.” In August, Viacom18 launched an OTT edition of its popular reality show, Bigg Boss, on Voot Select, running a 24-hour live feed of activities in the house on the AVoD (advertising-based video on demand) platform Voot. “We’ve given the [OTT] industry a model on how shows can be monetised,” he says, citing a rise in subscribers, viewership and ad revenue.

The OTT boom, though, comes with a caveat. While the success of theatrical films and TV shows can be measured through box office collections and TRPs respectively, the streamers are still not transparent on viewership figures. How does one measure a successful show? “If you are getting to do a season two, it’s a good marker,” says Mukherjee of SonyLIV. For Disney+Hotstar’s Gaurav Banerjee, OTT is not a T-20 match but “a long game”. “It’s the baby who is learning how to flex its muscles and has started to run a bit,” he says. “There is a lot to learn and massive amount of growth ahead.”

Challenges lie ahead too. The Union ministry of information and broadcasting introduced guidelines in February which mandated that OTT platforms set up a grievance redressal board to deal with complaints from viewers. After having a relatively free reign with programming, the Begums now have to be more cautious than ever on what they are commissioning. Kapoor already has over a hundred legal cases filed against ALT shows such as Virgin Bhaskar. Recently, Amazon Prime Video’s political drama Tandav faced a backlash for a scene in which a lead character dresses as Lord Shiva. It was later cut out. Rather than censorship, streamers would prefer self-regulation. Shergill, though, doesn’t find the guidelines restricting. “Nothing is stopping us from telling the diverse stories we are telling,” she says. “We believe in striking the right balance between creative excellence and telling stories responsibly.”

Another hurdle is that most of the OTT subscriber base is currently concentrated in the four metros and other big cities. The next wave of growth will need to come from Tier II and III cities and rural regions. The job of luring them to streaming lies with the likes of Kapoor, Purohit and Shergill. They are up to the task. Kapoor plans to up ALT shows from 24 a year to 40 in 2022. Purohit has 70 projects in various stages of development. Shergill is expanding the Netflix slate to include a stand-up special by Kapil Sharma. They aren’t insecure about eating into each other’s market. “If all of us challenge each other, we better our craft and audiences get the best in stories,” says Shergill. Pandemic or no pandemic, OTT platforms are here to stay.


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