Over-the-top platforms or online streaming sites represent the new frontier for India’s filmstars and talented scriptwriters and directors
There is growing excitement in the suburban Mumbai office of Red Chillies Entertainment, actor Shah Rukh Khan’s film production company. The team is in the midst of putting together a new series for Netflix after delivering what promises to be two exemplary works — Bard of Blood, a retelling of author Bilal Siddiqi’s espionage novel with Emran Hashmi in the lead; and Class of 83, which brings the underrated actor, Bobby Deol to the small screen. Directed by Atul Sabharwal, Class of 83 is the story of an upright police instructor who has to convince his students about the complexities of honour, morals and devotion to the nation in an increasingly corrupt world. The third Netflix Originals from Red Chillies would be a horror series, Betaal, written and directed by Patrick Graham.
As big as it gets
Over the last year or so, actors and directors from Indian cinema including Shah Rukh discovered a gold mine in over the top (OTT) media platforms, or online streaming entertainment platforms. Netflix and Amazon Prime have taken over the business in India like greased lightning, investing millions of dollars to develop critically acclaimed local series and cinema.
“They (content on OTT platforms) are far more radical than anything you do in cinema, which is too controlled by censors. Here, you can tell stories that are sensitive, politically or socially, and are considered off the table by mainstream cinema.”
Shah Rukh says Bollywood can no longer ignore streaming platforms. “They are far more radical than anything you do in cinema, which is too controlled by censors,” says the star while speaking exclusively to GN Focus. “Here, you can tell stories that are sensitive, politically or socially, and are considered off the table by mainstream cinema.” He believes Netflix offers opportunities to young filmmakers to showcase their movies or web series. “Earlier, they had very few platforms to showcase their content; big producers were too wary.”
Khan’s candid comment about a deal with Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, to make films and content that you would never find in theatres in India, is rather telling of how online streaming channels reject prevailing cinematic conventions. “Cinema in theatres is a mass phenomenon, with a lot riding on it. Some of the content you make for Netflix is very experimental and meant for a niche audience.”
Saif Ali Khan was among the first Indian actors to make an impact on Netflix, starring in the Mumbai noir series, Sacred Games. Based on Vikram Chandra’s novel and directed by Anurag Kashyap, it staged the conflict between the police and Indian mafia. Its success has now ensured a second season, with Sacred Games 2 returning to Netflix today. As Sartaj Singh, Saif’s gritty portrayal of the angst and frustration faced by some of India’s best police officers, is now the gold standard for nuanced performances. But what’s thrilled the actor most were the positive international reviews.
“My idea was to adopt an acting style that many people didn’t think came out of mainstream Indian cinema,” says Saif while speaking to GN Focus. “It had to be more natural, more international. The medium does not put the kind of pressure that Bollywood puts on us.”
Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s portrayal of Ganesh Gaitonde, a rather complex character from Mumbai’s dark underbelly, in the same series is brutish yet sentimental. “The advantage of shooting a series is that it allows you to go into the complete details of the character,” he says while speaking exclusively to GN Focus about his first forays into OTT. “Also, some of the world’s best talents are making original content for these platforms and you end up working with a very creative team.”
Siddiqui has since worked in various OTT- based productions including Mirzapur and McMafia. Next up will be Netflix’s Serious Men, an adaptation of author Manu Joseph’s book, to be directed by Sudhir Mishra.
Freedom to experiment
For Siddiqui, OTT content is part of a long-term career plan, just as it is for Radhika Apte. The actress, who has worked on three series for the streaming platform with Ghoul, Sacred Games, and Lust Stories says, “The fact that Sacred Games was the first Indian Netflix original was exciting for me, as was the fact that Vikramaditya Motwane would be directing the plotline involving my character,” says Apte, who spent weeks researching her character in the series, that of an Indian intelligence officer. While the shift in medium did not change her approach to acting, it did offer her the freedom to experiment with them. “Netflix gives you the chance to portray a sentiment, a character, as it is meant to be. While acting in Sacred Games or even Ghoul, there were no restrictions. I could improvise on the spot. I did not have to fit my thoughts into some sort of structure,” she says while speaking to GN Focus.
You can portray a flawed character in a web series or a movie for OTT platforms, without making them seem like a caricature or a failure.
Kalki Koechlin, another mainstream actress in Sacred Games 2, also starred in the 2018 Amazon Prime success story, Made in Heaven, playing a vulnerable woman in need of therapy. “I may not relate to the elite background that she belongs to, but, in terms of her emotional baggage, I could associate with her. You can portray a flawed character in a web series or a movie for OTT platforms, without making them seem like a caricature or a failure,” she says.
Among the most searing performances in 2019 was that of actress Huma Quereshi’s, on Netflix’s dystopian series, Leila, directed by Deepa Mehta. The series makes a commentary about an oppressive socio-political-religious order, environmental crisis, and the caste-and-class divide. Quereshi, while speaking to GN Focus, says, “Take any page out of history, and it is riddled with strife. It is through art and art alone that we try and make sense of our world. And increasingly, such brave storytelling of our times is finding space only on independent platforms.”
Leila also starred south Indian superstar Siddharth, who says choosing to work in Leila was a no-brainer. “An actor’s job is generally not very safe or satisfying. You are not the first person to have the idea, or execute the idea. You are just a pawn. It doesn’t matter, then, where you choose to act — on the big screen or in a Netflix original.”
Next best option
Another southern superstar wooed by OTT was R. Madhavan, seen in the Amazon Prime Series, Breathe.
“Our audiences are already conditioned to a certain quality thanks to the international exposure they’ve had with Game of Thrones or House of Cards,” says Madhavan while speaking to GN Focus. I wanted to enter the web with a series that competes with these international players. Breathe offered me that platform,” says Madhavan, who starred as Danny Mascarenhas, a father pushed to extraordinary circumstances by his son’s illness, a character with grey shades.
Much like Madhavan, Vicky Kaushal, who delivered some of Bollywood’s biggest blockbusters last year, had no qualms of being on OTT media with two movies — Lust Stories and Love Per Square Foot. “Ronnie Screwvala (the latter’s producer) is a man with extraordinary vision,” says Kaushal. “He explained to me how torchbearers are always questioned. It’s a statistical reality that cinema footfalls are in decline, so we must consider what the best possible scenario for our film is,” he tells GN Focus.
While neither Amazon Prime or Netflix chose to divulge details on the kind of audiences individual series or movies attracted, Gaurav Gandhi, Amazon Prime’s director and country manager for India, makes a surprising revelation to GN Focus about several of their series such as Breathe. “One-third of the viewers’ came from outside India. And we’re getting a lot of love abroad for Made in Heaven. The growth in interest has been very organic.”