The massive success of over-the-top (OTT) media services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in India has disrupted all the existing models of entertainment media, changing the way people consume video content. For today’s net-savvy urban viewers, television is history, writes Priya Singh.
Does anyone watch TV anymore? That’s the big question still keeping our entertainment industry on tenterhooks. Since the advent of the massively successful OTT (over-the-top) platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in India, the prospects for the old idiot box have looked grim. The best video content appears to be moving wholesale to the web, so is the best talent. Today, the average urban viewer seems more than willing to consume her daily dose of video content exclusively online. But more than that—and this is what gets the television industry’s goat—she is also willing to pay for that content.
Nobody could have predicted, say around five years ago, that popular entertainment would witness such a paradigm shift in such a short span of time. In fact, the production house moguls of Bollywood, who still fund the biggest TV shows, had thrived for so long in an unchanging media landscape that they’d become complacent. They weren’t quite prepared for the disruption that was to come, or for the scale of that disruption.
It was around two years ago that both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video first set foot in the Indian market. And it didn’t take long for both these brands to become household names. With subscription figures going through the roof, a demand opened up for exclusive India-specific content on both these platforms. Hence the profusion of “original” web series made by Indian artistes and filmmakers on Netflix, as well as on Amazon Prime Video.
“We have had a great start in India,” Jessica Lee, Vice President, Communications, Asia, Netflix, told Guardian 20. “We have focused primarily on content, partnerships and technology to build a great Netflix experience in the country. The first stage for us in India was when we launched in India two years ago. We are now in the second stage where we’re taking the best of Indian storytelling to India and the world. In the past year, we have more than doubled our catalogue in India.”
Currently, Netflix has 125 million subscribers in over 190 countries. It’s this global reach that has made even the biggest names in Bollywood acknowledge the power of online streaming platforms like Netflix. Lee said, “We are working with the best of Indian creators to tell great stories and reach diverse audiences worldwide. Our announcements of original productions in the country include Sacred Games, Ghoul, Selection Day, Bard of Blood, Leila and Crocodile. Last year we announced our first kids’ original series from India, Mighty Little Bheem. We believe that great stories can transcend borders and can entertain and inform, and bridge cultures and people.”
Actor Arunoday Singh features in the first ever feature-length India-exclusive Netflix original, Love Per Square Foot, which went online in April 2018. We ask him how the online experience differs from the big screen for an actor. “Honestly,” he says, “for me there’s no difference in the job. The acting process is the same across mediums. Only the delivery system changes. I approached it [the Netflix film], as I would have a project in any other platform or medium.”
But Singh acknowledges the dominance of the digital medium in the current pop entertainment hierarchy. “I think online platforms are the ultimate future of the entertainment industry,” he says. “Because they bring a serious amount of amazing content directly to your preferred digital device for rates far more reasonable than regularly watching movies at multiplexes, which have become far too expensive now.”
Another Bollywood actor, Pankaj Tripathi, who has featured in past in blockbusters like Gangs of Wasseypur, Fukrey and Newton, is now working on a Netflix original, scheduled to come out by the end of the year. He says, “I think actors and directors are taking online platforms seriously because these platforms are going to take over in the near future, even in India. In my opinion, the standard and quality of these web series is quite similar to cinema.”
Tripathi also features in an Amazon Prime Video web series, called Mirzapur. “As long as the content continues to entertain the audience,” he says, “these OTT platforms will stay. People get easily disconnected if the content quality declines.”
Matching quantity with quality is the big mission statement for all OTT brands. Amazon Prime Video, which is becoming hugely popular in India, is no exception. “In India, we had the highest number of Prime members in a debut year than any other country before, and India is growing faster than all other 16 countries Prime is in. We have seen viewership from over 350 cities across India, which is encouraging for us,” says Vijay Subramaniam, Director, Content, Amazon Prime Video India.
According to Amazon, there has been a significant spike in the number of Prime subscribers in India. Subramaniam says, “India’s streaming video space is growing rapidly, primarily driven by growth in mobile broadband, lower data charges, and significant investments in the digital media ecosystem.”
To expand its business further, Amazon Prime Video is looking beyond the English-speaking urban demographics in an attempt to reach out to new users in regional languages. “We see merit in opening up opportunities for regional cinema, content in more languages, newer formats and across genres. Our catalogue of content spreads across US TV, Hollywood and Bollywood movies and significant regional language content,” Subramaniam says. “Many new Bollywood and regional blockbusters will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime Video within a few weeks after their theatrical release, and some even before their television premiere. Popular movies from top Indian studios will be available on a digital video service in India including Yash Raj Films, Salman Khan Ventures, Dharma Productions, T-Series, Excel, Warner, Paramount, CBS, Everest, SVF, Green Gold, TV Asahi, Lionsgate, NDTV, CBEEBIES, Amazon Studios and more.”
Last year in July, Amazon Prime Video launched its first India-exclusive original web series, Inside Edge. The show, whose second season has just been announced, stars Bollywood actors Vivek Oberoi and Richa Chadha.
“I think mainstream actors are attracted to the possibility of getting to do something new that will reach an entirely different audience,” Richa Chadha tells Guardian 20. “In this case, a lot of viewers from the south and the Northeast, and even from countries like Oman and Kenya, reached out to me and it was surprising. Apart from this, it also provides exposure and not just the creative satisfaction.”
When did mainstream players from Bollywood begin transitioning to the online entertainment space? Chadha says, “Excel Entertainment, by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani, a big film studio, was the first to go headlong into this. Then Phantom Entertainment is also making web series with other platforms. A few big directors are being roped in by these companies to make quality content without the restrictions of the box office or opening day or item songs.”
The director of Inside Edge, Karan Anshuman, was among the early believers in the potential of digital media. “I got a chance to collaborate with Amazon Prime Video and made the first Indian original series on Amazon,” he says. “The show was well-received in the country as well as overseas, which was very encouraging.”
For Anshuman, the age of online stream platforms heralds a new beginning for the entertainment industry. “It’s not about these portals as much as it is about the quality of writing and content that attracts mainstream directors,” he says. “Web content is not restricted, the writers have a lot more freedom to express themselves, and they don’t have to think about the box office. This freedom of writing translates into good scripts for actors who appreciate good content. They have more freedom to explore their characters and delve into them. It is a lot of fun for actors as well as for the writers, as they can express themselves in a more creative manner.”
That’s why prominent filmmakers like Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar and Dibakar Banerjee have all stepped into the arena recently, with their new Netflix original short film, Lust Stories. Ayushman says, “Big production houses are moving quickly towards digital platforms. As we can see, Balaji has their own platform. On-demand content is the future. Films and shows have become quite predictable, and this is what makes online content stand out. Online content opens a whole new world for viewers.”
Earlier this year, acclaimed filmmaker Vikram Bhatt also started his own OTT app called VB: Theatre on the Web. “A few directors and actors are seeing the huge potential of the OTT space,” Bhatt tells Guardian 20. “But a lot of the others do not yet see the impact of what is to come. I think they will wake up soon and unfortunately, for some it might be too late by then.”