AltBalaji: Online shows that hit a new low
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Two weeks ago, a headline screamed that Ekta Kapoor was out to build her own Netflix. This sounds immediately like a fine idea: the all-powerful queen of the daily soap opera has amassed hundreds of thousands of television hours making people cry over spilt milk (sometimes literally), and it would make sense to create a one-app-fits-all storefront for that vast library of content. Planned right, it could be something like Vince McMahon’s WWE Network, bypassing the power of television networks while turning all its produce into pay-per-view. It makes sense, and done right, it’d be an essential, popular service — something we wished our mothers would choose not to download, but who are we kidding?
Instead, the folks at Balaji Entertainment launched a homegrown streaming service last week called Alt, in competition with Hotstar, Amazon and Netflix. The app is called AltBalaji and, priced at 300 rupees a year, is by far the most inexpensive offering on the market. Unfortunately, no service has been more visibly representative of the “you get what you pay for” diktat, and the content offered on this service is, above all else, cheap.
This I mean in every way. The movie library is unbelievably slim, made up of Balaji’s own home productions — from Krishna Cottage to Kya Super Kool Hai Hum, with Love Sex Aur Dhokha and Lootera sticking out like unsore thumbs — while the international shows on offer are basically a couple of Korean soaps and a couple of old British mysteries. There is nothing close to premium content.
This is even truer of the new productions. A bunch of streaming-only shows have been trotted out, and it looks like Balaji produced them on a dare. “Can you make all those shows, every single episode of every season, for the price of a single primetime episode of television?” Yes, yes you can, and clearly you have. This doesn’t mean you should. These new shows, foulmouthed wannabe shows trying their best to appear young and sexy, are embarrassingly tacky. It is as if a camera crew stood outside audition rooms in Lokhandwala and filmed a group of fortunate strugglers with no requirement of talent or aesthetics.
The absolute nadir is something called Dev DD, which happens to be “directed” by filmmaker Ken Ghose. Yet another retelling of the cinematically overflogged novel by Sarath Chandra Chatterjee, this take casts a “feisty” girl in the lead, and celebrates the way she gets back at lecherous flirts by inviting them into her bedroom and making them hump pillows, or the way she berates a shopkeeper for giving sanitary napkins in a plastic bag. “It’s not my aunty, mom, it’s my period,” she yells, shrill and utterly unbearable. This show is so ghastly I would tear up the newspaper I’m writing this in and eat the page that carries this column if any reader — one whose name doesn’t rhyme with, say, Glenn Close — would tell me they actually like it.
Nearly as awful is Boygiri, a show about juvenile delinquents that makes the Pyaar Ka Punchnama films seem subtle. This show, where men talk of threesomes and a gay character hides his sexuality from his boss by making the boss order him to pretend to be gay, is kinda like American Pie — if you took out all the writers and let Stifler write and direct. These shows are getting their jollies from being able to swear and curse — India being a country where a colourful swearword in a serious film, in a serious context continues to get a laugh in a theatre — but there has to be more to entertainment than such moronic and artless vulgarity, doesn’t there? Selina Meyer and Malcolm Tucker, masters of poetic profanity, would be bored unstiff by this load of losers.
Romil And Jugal is more ambitious, a homosexual take on Romeo And Juliet that casts two boys, sons of rival fathers, in a small-town romance. Here too the writing is frequently cringeworthy — especially the dialogue — but there is a sincerity to the performances from the two boys in the lead, and the overall intent is unquestionably progressive. If these shows are to work, then I hope a show like this makes an impact. This is something to aim for when freed of absurd television censorship. I also look forward to a show about a woman in the military, starring Nimrat Kaur and directed by Nagesh Kukunoor, called Test Case, that looks more promising. But, for now, we’re outnumbered by idiotic shows that abuse a lot.
The fear is that these shows do work. That — after decades of weaning families onto scheming mothers-in-law and, more recently, shapeshifting snake-women — the soap opera people actually know what they’re doing and this inexpensive offering will penetrate small-town India and give a hungry audience swearwords (and threesomes) to aspire to. Maybe the headline didn’t get it wrong by that much. Netflix’s biggest international hit is a show called Narcos. Ekta Kapoor might not be our answer to Netflix, but she may well be our very own Pablo Escobar.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print.