It’s not about auditions, it’s about emotions: Deepak Dhar
Banijay Asia’s founder and CEO Deepak Dhar on plans for India and South-East Asia, the evolution of content across film, television and digital platforms in India, and catering to different audience segments in the country
New Delhi: More than a decade ago, when Indian television was all about daily soaps, Deepak Dhar brought reality shows to the country. Spearheading Endemol Shine India, he introduced shows like The Great Indian Laughter Challenge and Bigg Boss to the small screen. Having quit the independent production house last November after an 11-year stint, Dhar moved to Paris-based content creation company Banijay Group last week. The latter, which plans to expand operations to India and South-East Asia, has entered into a 50:50 joint venture with Dhar, as part of which he will head the company’s operations as founder and chief executive officer of the newly created Banijay Asia.
In an interview, Dhar talks about Banijay’s plans for the subcontinent, grappling with the evolving film, television and over-the-top (OTT) space in India, and the learnings acquired at Endemol. Edited excerpts:
What are Banijay’s plans for India and South-East Asia?
India is at the centre of this evolution where content is really amplifying and exploding. Banijay had been waiting to enter the Indian market and we’d been talking for a long time. The idea was to bring its entire catalogue and all the intellectual property rights which are rightly poised for India and for the South-East Asian region. There are classic hits like Survivor and Temptation Island but there are also a whole lot of newer game shows, reality shows and dating shows which are the flavour right now (that we plan to bring to India).
Are there plans to create local content?
Absolutely. The emphasis really is on original content which shall have appeal for the television broadcasters and all other (OTT) platforms, besides the traction to travel to international markets. A lot of it would definitely be in the reality show area; a lot of new formats are being created and curated by the teams here in India for the larger international markets. And of course we are looking at a lot of original scripted stuff that we feel has the potential to go into international markets and bring business back into the country.
Where will you showcase this content?
India as an ecosystem has witnessed an explosion of platforms in terms of both broadcasters and OTT players, which is great for content creators and producers like us. Earlier, we had an outlet with broadcasters where we could tell certain stories of certain length. But now, the vocabulary and medium have changed. It has worked well for stories that couldn’t find space on the broadcast platform but are now making it to OTT platforms. So it has just expanded the space for creators and executive producers like myself. There couldn’t be a better time to pick stories up and see how we can fit them on to the right platform. We’ve kick-started production and development of scripts, so very soon there will be announcements for a couple of television and digital projects. We’re also in the process of developing a couple of film scripts.
How much is Banijay is investing here?
To me, it’s directly proportional to our ambition to be present across all platforms and we do want to provide content for all screens. I can’t put a number to it but we are in the business of entertainment and it takes what it takes to go about it.
Is there a target group in mind for the kind of content you will produce at Banijay?
There’s no target group as such. It really depends on what our partners want, the time slots, media and platforms. I come from the school of creating content for a household that watched television together over dinner. But obviously, times have changed enormously and the variety of content is adding to the change.
Both the Indian television and OTT markets are already very cluttered. Does that make you nervous?
I think there’s space for more and I see that as a big opportunity. Without the right set of people, the first-mover advantage is mitigated completely. Every company is known by the team it has. I think we’ve got a very strong development and acquisition team and that’s our biggest strength; we recognize our people and we’re bringing in the right talent and skill set. In a short span of time, we’ve managed a team of 20 creative producers. That completely mitigates any first-mover advantage.
Television is going through its own set of challenges from OTT and in understanding what content will work for audiences. Your thoughts?
I think it’s a healthy environment where everyone is waking up to what’s happening in the OTT space. But there’s so much to be delivered in the traditional television space as well. I think India is divided into two parts—one is a generation that’s waking up to OTT content but there’s also a huge mass of population which is so consumed by television. I don’t think OTT is a challenge. It’s a case of the more, the merrier. Different kinds of content are being delivered and we specialize in catering to all screens.
What do you think of the quality of content currently being made in India on different platforms?
I’ve always been a big believer of differentiated content. If you see the kind of shows and formats I’ve been involved with, there’s been disruption at the core. So we’ve always pushed the envelope and I think there’s room for all kinds of content now. There’s the usual fare which family audiences lap up, while the younger audiences want something that’s surprising and out of the box.
Has OTT brought in that cutting-edge content compared to traditional film or television?
I hear very often that the process has started now (with OTT). But I would say it had started 8 or 10 years back with shows like Laughter Challenge or Popstars—these were ahead of their times. There was no “reality television” when we did Popstars. In fact, I remember this one time my then super boss Sameer Nair told me (in the context of reality television), “It’s not about auditions, it’s about emotions.” That stuck with me and I’ve only chased emotions since. Or Fear Factor, for that mater, which was a testosterone-driven show and was unlikely to work on a general entertainment channel. We produced an all-female version of it. So it would be unfair to say that the OTT players have started this revolution of content. It was started many years ago by the broadcast platforms, albeit slowly—from a Sunday, it moved to a Saturday and then to weekdays. But broadcast started all of that and with OTT coming in, the playground has only doubled.
How have audience tastes changed?
The mindset has changed, the country’s mood has changed from what it used to be when we were delivering content 10 years back. A few months ago, I remember asking my 13-year-old daughter if she wanted to watch a movie. We went into the TV room, I picked up the remote while she went for the laptop. That is a business model change right in front of my eyes. Themes, media, platforms, content—everything has changed. My own daughter said we can both watch two different movies in the same room, so that shows content has doubled. Today, in a family, you have the wife watching something on an iPad, the husband on the TV and the child on the laptop. And all three are very different kinds of content. So imagine the amount of content that can be created.
What are the learnings you’ve brought from Endemol to Banijay that you intend to use here?
I’ve been an executive producer from my early days, and I’m very hands-on with scripts, stories, projects and formats. Under the brand of Banijay Asia, we’re creating content not just for India but the entire region of South-East Asia where we see a lot of traction. Be it creating Laughter Challenge, Bigg Boss, Fear Factor, Deal Ya No Deal to a whole lot of scripted stuff at Endemol, I’ve realized the biggest strength for any company is the team it can have. I’ve always been either a player or the captain or the coach. So for me, it’s all about bringing the right people together for the job.
What are you currently watching from around the world?
I’ve loved shows like Breaking Bad, Narcos and House of Cards. For me, it’s not about Netflix or Amazon, it’s about the content of the show. A lot of my shows like Bigg Boss have moved channels, and audiences have moved with them.
The Cannes Film Festival recently disallowed Netflix productions from being part of the competition. Any thoughts?
I don’t know whether this is fair or unfair but I think there will come a time when they will make a special category for these films. It’s a new, groundbreaking genre and kudos to Ronnie Screwvala for doing Love Per Square Foot for Netflix India. We, at Banijay, may also look at films for OTT. We are content creators and we don’t want to restrict ourselves. If I love a character or storyline, it could turn into a short film, a multiple-episode Web series or a daily soap running into 300 episodes or a two-hour film released theatrically or on an OTT platform. The first step is to see if you connect emotionally with something as a producer and then gauge how it’ll work commercially.
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