Those who switched their attention and investments towards streaming services at the right time were able to make profits
In the late 1990s, when today’s streaming giant Netflix first started business, the organisation had no idea how many of us would be thanking them in 2020. When the world was on hold due to Covid-19, what helped us survive (other than social distancing) was various OTT platforms. These platforms provided us much needed entertainment and relief during tough times. Things were not always in the favour of these streaming services, even though they provide filmmakers and TV creators with more ways to share their art.
With time, these streaming services gave power to the viewers – to choose what to watch and what to reject. This meant that studios and theatres had to share their power, which created a sense of loss among them. That’s why in 2019, we saw the rise of a lobby that resents content produced on these platforms. Even director Steven Spielberg argued that streaming giants like Netflix should not be allowed to compete in the Oscars. It came as a surprise when some in Hollywood wanted to exclude movies released directly on OTT platforms like Netflix from competing for awards, arguing that there is no box office record for these releases. Interestingly, the same year, Netflix-original Roma received 10 nominations at the Oscars. Who knew this whole debate was about to end once and for all when the world entered the 2020 crisis. Before the pandemic, people had the liberty to go to cinemas. But when cinemas shut down due to the lockdown, there was a sudden increase in the viewership of these OTT platforms.
Before the big production houses, like Dharma Productions, started investing in web series, independent filmmakers from India were posting original content on YouTube. Large Short Films and TVF on YouTube are two of the more notable channels that are creating really good content. Emerging actors with good acting skills are making waves amongst viewers and creating their own niche audiences. Until 2018, major Bollywood stakeholders did not get on board and the only movies that they shared on streaming services were movies that had already been released in theatres. Unlike theatrical releases, these OTT platforms provide filmmakers with more freedom. On the web, censor policies are more relaxed and the content can reach a variety of audiences at the same time.
As soon as Bollywood producers realised the importance of this medium, they jumped on the bandwagon and some really interesting content came out, such as Lust Stories, Delhi Crime, Made in Heaven and Mirzapur. These series were bold both in terms of topic and treatment, and the production quality was good enough to compete in the international market. What started as a side business for some of India’s big production houses thus became mainstream in 2020. Many major films were released on these OTT platforms due to lockdowns, whereas many theatrical releases were postponed.
During this time, the entertainment industry realised the importance of online portals. Those who switched their attention and investments towards these streaming services at the right time were able to make profits, while those of us who were hoping that these portals would cause the studio giants to lose their dominion over theatres were disappointed. Although OTT platforms provided independent filmmakers with more opportunities in the early days, it seems that now both sides will need to work together. This is the reason why we are witnessing such diversity of content from Indian directors nowadays.
Recently, the international streaming service Amazon Prime released a new web series, Tandav, directed by Ali Abbas Zafar. Ali Abbas is well-known for his previous work, i.e. Tiger Zinda Hai and Sultan. Tandav is a political drama, a Bollywood version of House of Cards. One gets to witness political lows and highs performed by Saif Ali Khan, Sunil Grover, Mohammed Zeeshan, Dimple Kapadia and Kumud Mishra. It’s a classic storyline, in which power struggles between different groups create chaos that ultimately benefits people in positions of political power.
Saif Ali Khan has played the role of a young politician who manipulates circumstances in order to become prime minister. It seems that Saif’s character is inspired by Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. Sunil Grover’s character reminds one of Doug Stamper (played by Michael Kelly). He fits the character perfectly and it is a pleasant change to watch him act as Gurpal Singh. Some actors had rather minor roles in this series of 9 episodes, like Dimple Kapadia and Tigmanshu Dhulia. Many questions remained unanswered, which indicates that there might be a second season. Interestingly, after the release of Tandav, some of the actors received death threats from Hindu nationalists, especially Mohammed Zeeshan, who played Shiva Shekhar in Tandav. According to his lawyer, he was just playing a character, yet several FIRs have been filed against him and other cast and crew members of the series. The Supreme Court has denied any protection to the show’s creators. The makers of the show had to issue a public apology but it seems that the nationalists have not been placated.
Bollywood is rewriting its creative style. They understand that they are no longer just catering to local audiences. In order to keep their international viewers interested, they have to focus on the stories they tell. Apart from international giants like Netflix and Amazon, some national streaming platforms are also active in India, such as Zee5, ALTBalaji , Disney+ Hotstar, Eros Now and Mubi. These platforms are not only giving opportunities to their own filmmakers but also buying content from Pakistan. Pakistani creators still need to improve their content to compete in the international market, but thanks to these portals they are getting ready to expand their audience pool.