New Delhi: Actor Ranvir Shorey has never had a schedule so chock-a-block. While his thriller Web show Sacred Games launched its second season earlier this month, Shorey is also prepping for a feature film called Loot where he stars alongside Kunal Khemu and Rasika Dugal, which is slated for an October release. In the last eight months alone, he has seen the release of three other Web shows—crime thriller Rangbaaz and sports drama Bombers on ZEE5, and family drama Metro Park on Eros Now.

“I’m very happy with the addition of Web series to my calendar because I used to sit without work for long periods of time earlier," said the actor known for critically acclaimed performances in films like Titli, Sonchiriya and A Death In The Gunj. “As far as the casting in films go, there is a lot of politics, backbiting and marketing involved, which I’m not great at," he added, laughingly.

“This gives me another avenue to work on," Shorey said, echoing the sentiment of a roster of creative talent across India—actors, writers, and directors who have turned to 30 odd video streaming platforms to either escape the grinding battle inside a box office-driven movie industry that doesn’t always recognize merit or in order to add to their own repertoire, by taking to the Web to tell the kind of offbeat stories that compelled them to get into the movie industry to begin with. The resurgence in their careers and fortunes is evident. For the likes of Emraan Hashmi and Dia Mirza to Shorey and directors like Zoya Akhtar, online streaming has become the most exciting thing in town.

In many ways, the streaming business has truly come of age. According to Asia on Demand, a report by economic and strategy advisory AlphaBeta Advisors, globally, video-on-demand operators spent around $21 billion in 2017 and this could more than double by 2022. While Asia accounted for only around $2.7 billion in content spending in 2017, this could rise to $10.1 billion by 2022.

Watch video: Web streaming and the new careers for Bollywood stars

Box office mania

Beyond the influx of money, however, the single biggest reason for talent going digital is an inherent disillusionment with the existing economic logic of the movie industry.

“Films are more calculated risks. It starts with the investment and then turns into box office numbers," said Divyenndu, who started with hits like Pyaar Ka Punchnama and Chashme Buddoor and was most recently seen in Mirzapur on Amazon Prime Video and Badnaam Gali, a ZEE5 original film. “It’s all about the opening day and the opening weekend. What that does in the process is you start to compromise on the creative aspects, be it casting, the kind of subject you’re working on, or even a small thing like the kind of language you’re using because you need a U/A censor certificate."

Dealing with the cluttered Indian movie market that makes over 1,000 films in at least 27 languages for 9,601 screens, producers have learnt the hard way that the first three days can make or break the fortunes of a film. The cast, marketing, release strategies, and spends are all geared towards making the best of that narrow window. What that often results in is not enough leaps of faith.

When producer Ashi Dua was ready with her anthology Lust Stories, she realized that the audience for a film like hers would not be found in a theatre. “So, instead of spreading my wings to places in India where people may or may not appreciate content like this, we decided to go ahead with a platform that is tailor-made for it. And I’m thrilled with the response we got from across the world, which I’m not sure we would have gotten theatrically," Dua said.

What over-the-top (OTT) platforms like Netflix have done is they have given content creators a voice without the unnecessary, accompanying fear of a slew of other factors that come in the way while making a film in India. The country is so huge that marketing a movie far and wide can get difficult and expensive. Most filmmakers also never know if they’re reaching out to a preferred target audience. A streaming platform, on the other hand, comes directly to people’s homes.

“There is no politics in the distribution of this product. There will be no bitching or elbowing people out for theatre space. Your networks and contacts which are normally used to get prime shows, all of that is not here," said Shorey, recalling how many of his smaller films didn’t manage to get attention or box office numbers simply because of the available show timings, after being edged out by bigger films.

Merit speaks

While Web streaming may be the new Wild West in the world of Indian entertainment, new forays often come with their own set of challenges. Nobody has figured out a viable and sustainable way to make money on the Web yet. And producing a good movie or mini-series costs money.

Netflix India reported a marginal profit of 20.2 lakh in 2017-18, according to filings with the Registrar of Companies. Given the fact that the market is at a nascent stage and competition is intense, most players, including foreign entities with deep pockets like Netflix and Amazon, are not even looking at returns. The attempt is to just keep head above water, for now.

And it is precisely this lack of expectation, at least for the time being, that is encouraging a lot of B-town aspirants to make a beeline for the world of streaming.

“Bollywood has shot itself in the foot a little bit," said Arjun Mathur, known for films like Luck by Chance and Angry Indian Goddesses and who played the lead in Amazon’s Made In Heaven created by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti last year. “The norms it has been running on have not allowed a lot of talent to emerge. That is not a system we can shake and we don’t care to either. All the actors that were waiting in the wings are getting opportunities. Their work is being appreciated way more than many mainstream actors and the content is doing better than a lot of the A-list films."

Divyenndu also admitted that casting for the Web is much more democratic and merit-based... precisely because it’s not just about numbers or contacts anymore. The good thing is the Web doesn’t throw up box office numbers, Mathur said, so there is no stress to meet those pressures.

“It helps that film-makers like Zoya Akhtar actually go ahead with a cast that she believes will bring nothing but performance to her series. She would have never been able to do the same for a feature film without A-list stars," Mathur said.

While Dia Mirza played the lead in ZEE5’s original series Kaafir
While Dia Mirza played the lead in ZEE5’s original series Kaafir

Conventional television, on the other hand, is still driven by the need for ratings and continues to be a medium catering to the most common denominator. Siddharth P. Malhotra, who conceptualized and produced Kaafir and has also directed Rani Mukerji-starrer Hichki, apart from doing a lot of television work, said that on TV, you have to take approvals for every small thing—from dialogues to themes and the rough cuts after editing. Kaafir, on the other hand, he said was his vision, put together by him piece-by-piece.

“Around 1998-99, the television scenario changed entirely and there weren’t that many roles for actors like us," said actor Rajesh Tailang referring to the saas-bahu sagas that took India by storm. Tailang was seen in Netflix’s Delhi Crime and Selection Day and Amazon’s Mirzapur. He, however, started his career with television shows like Shanti.

“I kept doing films though (Phantom, Haseena Parkar). Things in cinema have changed only recently. It’s not like there is no space for good actors or that they don’t want them, but earlier people either didn’t want to experiment with new actors or the writing was such that it only revolved around the protagonist. So, there was no focus on sub-plots or supporting actors," Tailang said.

Television offered actors like Tailang length, but no depth, while films didn’t guarantee either. The world of Web streaming seems to have both. Given that a show has at least six episodes, actors have much more time to flesh out their characters, giving them a story arc, regardless of where they stand in the plot.

“Even if you aren’t playing the protagonist, you have scope to perform. The Web is a great space for actors like me, not as an alternative (to films or television) or a back-up but as an entirely new space to explore," Tailang said.

Busting stereotypes

A lot of people are also looking for a change of image, a feat impossible to achieve when typecast in cinema. Divyenndu, for example, was saddled with the fun, boy-next-door, comic image after Pyaar Ka Punchnama. In Mirzapur, he plays a power-hungry, sexually aggressive, small-town lout.

“In the film industry, things change very slowly. Every once in a while, there would be something new that comes out and that would work, but at the end of the day, 80-90% of the producers and actors are still stuck in that old rut," said director Ken Ghosh, known for hits like Ishq Vishk. He is now helming ZEE5’s crime thriller Abhay.

As a filmmaker, Ghosh said he always wanted to do something new but the success of Ishq Vishk ensured his producers only asked him to come up with campus romances, even though he attempted a thriller (Fida) and a children’s film (Chain Kulii Ki Main Kulii) later.

“With the Web, if there’s anything even halfway clichéd, they will reject you. They’re looking for something new constantly and that is very exciting," Ghosh said. “Having said that, once you get to making what you’re making, the old rules still apply—you still have to tell the story, you still have to tell it well, and you have to connect with the audience."

Perhaps, the pitfall of the stereotype is strongest for female actors. Dia Mirza, who played the lead in ZEE5’s Kaafir, said the digital platform has really given women the opportunity to shine within narratives.

“We’re not reduced to mantle pieces. Stories are now being driven by and for very strong women. That, for me, has been, the most liberating aspect of the digital medium," said Mirza, who plays a Kashmiri woman accused of militancy in Kaafir. She cited the example of two other shows that stand out in terms of how their female protagonists have been conceived —Leila, where Huma Qureshi plays a woman dealing with a dystopian, intolerant world, and Delhi Crime, where Shefali Shah leads a racy investigation in a high-profile case of sexual assault, both on Netflix.

“Many more examples will continue to emerge in the coming years. Stereotypes of ageism and sexism that the box office and industry was limiting us (women) to have all been unshackled," Mirza said.

Guidelines and restrictions

Apart from the absence of any need to cater to a theatre-going audience, there is no attempt to appease the censor board either on the Web. Earlier this year, nine OTT video-on-demand services including Hotstar, Voot, ZEE5, Arre, SonyLIV, ALTBalaji, Reliance Jio, Netflix and Eros Now decided to adopt a self-regulatory Code of Best Practices under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai)is looking at the possibility of bringing OTT digital communication services that provide same or similar services as telecom service providers (TSPs) under the similar licensing or regulatory norms. But things are fluid at the moment, offering far greater leeway for experimentation in a fickle social milieu where protests outside cinema halls have become far too common.

Bhavani Iyer who had written the script of Kaafir 13 years ago, intending it originally to be made into a movie, said the fact that one doesn’t have to worry about pushing a particular scene to the limit is unprecedented for a writer.

“OTT platforms are a thriving place to be in today, principally because it is a free zone. Your ideas can be unusual. You’re not limited by language or genre and pure good content rules," said Rangita Nandy, executive director and creative director at Pritish Nandy Communications (PNC) Ltd that produced Amazon Prime’s Four More Shots, Please! In 2005, the company had released Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi that was held up at the censors for ages and then couldn’t find distribution because it was an unusual film for its time. Their musical comedy, Jhankaar Beats, couldn’t find casting for the longest time because of its unconventional script.

“PNC has taken so many risks but yet there were times when we had no option but to look away from a script because it was box-office-risky, censor-board-impossible, or just plain too-ahead-of-its-times. Now, we don’t need to," Nandy said.

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