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The dream is one where the creator stands tall. The boundless world of the Internet holds infinite promise. It is a world where there are no censors, where television magnates do not get to set a mandate, where anyone can stroll out and make a short film or a series. It is a land where audiences are won over and lost in real time, and where—unlike the faceless users of set-top boxes dubiously distributed in order to gauge TRPs, or television rating points—we actually know who’s watching.
Then again, we knew that last bit already. We are the ones watching, the ones turning away from traditional television, the ones hungry for the next big binge. As Netflix spreads its welcome tentacles, Hotstar serves up new HBO content, and Amazon prepares to market its considerable entertainment wares, it is clear that India holds a sizeable audience that is elite, intelligent and curious.
This is a point of massive potential, a point where originality comes to the fore and we shrug off excuses regarding access or guidelines or what the producer said. In an Internet world, we are each but a step away from turning producer and dishing out entertainment content, content that can live forever even if it’s seen only by a handful. The possibilities are staggering, and media houses across the country are currently scurrying to find the first truly great Web series.
Tragically, this has led merely to many attempts at aping the great shows of the West, at looking at what we love and making some sort of ill-fitting, low-rent clone. ‘Pitchers’, for example, made by The Viral Fever, is a valiant attempt at a dramedy involving young entrepreneurs. It is decently acted (particularly the bits with a constantly beleaguered, recently married young man, played by Jitendra Kumar) but is, disappointingly enough, a ‘desi’ version of HBO’s superb ‘Silicon Valley’, one that shamelessly even “borrows” plot points from the original.
‘Pitchers’ was a raging success, however, and now we’re inundated with shows that try their hand at being Hinglish cover-versions of American hits: OML (Only Much Louder) and Hotstar tried ‘On Air With AIB’, their take on ‘Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’, a dud which, despite perhaps earnest whistleblowing intent, only showcased the fact that all stand-up comics cannot double up as political commentators. Now, OML has tossed up something called ‘Better Life Foundation’, which basically feels like you’re watching schoolchildren act out ‘Parks And Recreation’. They might be talented, certainly, but would you watch them indulgently when the real thing is just a click away?
It is an aspect of Indian Web entertainment I find most befuddling. It is one thing for a movie, or a television show, to try and steal ideas from established content elsewhere because their target audience might not be able to access the original. This, though, is the Internet, and getting to the original content is a matter of a minute, albeit illegally so. Why, then, are we trying to mimic the familiar instead of exploring the unknown?
Lest you suspect exaggeration, I must here reveal that I have personally attended meetings where producers have, without a trace of irony, expressed their desire for “a ‘Fargo’ set in UP” or a “Delhi-based ‘The Thick Of It’” or something “a lot like ‘Narcos’.” Back in the day, Hindi film producers notoriously approached writers with VHS tapes they wanted repurposed into scripts; the new Web-lot essentially email their people URLs and tell them to start scribbling. We still don’t seem able enough to think ahead without a dreaded “reference point”.
The other problem with Web entertainment in India is that we’re treating it like television—only more profane. Lack of censorship is a boon, granted, but most Indian shows are far too constricted by television formats and structures—22/44-minute episodes, ad breaks, sitcom-style jokes, etc.—which is exasperating, considering how furiously the online medium is evolving. Elsewhere, creators are exploring the ephemera of increasingly popular tools like Snapchat to create more immersive horror movies. We, however, are turning Snapchat clips into YouTube videos, thus taking something new and dynamic and converting it into something older and more static.
Add to this the headlessness that comes from nobody quite knowing how to monetize the content properly, and we have a feeble TV substitute where producers are trying to pay talent in “fame” instead of money, which is why Mumbai’s young writers and directors spit out the words “Web series” with venomous disdain.
There is the odd bright spark, like Y-Films’ ‘Ladies Room’, a genuinely bright and loony show with refreshingly foul-mouthed female characters, but even this has to be watched with a certain amount of patience, and isn’t something you can recommend without caveats. There is nothing that can be hailed as an unqualified success. This is perhaps because we would rather make ‘Breaking Bad’ in Bihar than do something that breaks new ground. A market, then, of cheaply produced knockoffs not worth examining closely—just call us China.