India's OTT revolution - The rise of our homemade content
A discussion of the trends that best encapsulate the kind of Indian content that was lapped up by a rapidly growing audience
Back in 2012, there was a heated debate that had the potential to kickstart a revolution in entertainment consumption in India. It was started by Kamal Haasan when he wanted to release his Vishwaroopam on DTH services hours before its theatrical release. His idea was snuffed out quickly. Eight years and a global pandemic later, every studio across the world has adopted variations of this model. There are now 10-plus OTT streamers used by content creators to showcase their products. People who swore by theatrical releases not only warmed up to direct OTT premieres but became ambassadors of this growing market too. While audiences logged in in droves to watch direct-to-digital films that would’ve been theatrical releases if not for the pandemic, the reception to original Indian OTT content in 2020 was quite heartening. It was nothing short of a tectonic shift in entertainment consumption.
Here are a few trends that best encapsulate the kind of Indian content that was lapped up by the rapidly growing audience.
Sequels - The new status symbols
Audiences who started following OTT content even before the lockdown have bragging rights of sorts. These were the ones who waited almost two years for the sequels of Sacred Games (Netflix), and Amazon's Breathe and Mirzapur. They include fans of Criminal Justice (Disney+ Hotstar) and Four More Shots (Amazon Prime Video), who waited a year to see the return of Madhav Mishra (Pankaj Tripathi) and the awesome foursome in Behind Closed Doors and Four More Shots, Please, respectively. These sequels were more than just about their marquee names. They not only cemented the OTT star status of established actors like Pankaj Tripathi, Kirti Kulhari and Sayani Gupta, but shone the spotlight on strong talents like Divyendu and Isha Talwar. An interesting experiment this year was Aashram, fronted by Bobby Deol and directed by Prakash Jha. The series' second season was released just weeks after the first.
Lockdown stories and anthologies - A match made in confinement
Art reflects life. With a pandemic locking all of us in our homes, it didn’t take long for filmmakers to dish out content based on this new reality. It began with Gautham Menon using the lockdown to rekindle our nostalgia with Karthik Dial Seidha Yenn, a sequel of sorts to his hit 2010 film, Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya. Another YouTube release was the Malayalam series, Survival Stories, which dealt with the pervading sense of being trapped. Shot and released during the lockdown, it was among the first of many that followed suit. Two Amazon Original anthologies — Putham Pudhu Kaalai (Tamil) and Unpaused (Hindi) — aimed to tell stories of hope during the bleak times. Headlined by top names, both anthologies were warmly received. Netflix released Ghost Stories in Hindi and made its foray in Tamil with Paava Kadhaigal. The streamer is also making one of India’s most ambitious projects, Navarasa, produced by Mani Ratnam and directed by nine eminent filmmakers. The Malayalam experimental film, CU Soon (Amazon Prime) was one of the first films to be headlined by a superstar. An interesting anthology shot during the lockdown, but not based on it, was Aha’s Addham, while Voot Select’s The Gone Game, a tight four-episode series that ended with the promise of a sequel, was another stellar lockdown story.
Saving India… one series at a time
Who doesn’t like espionage films, especially with underdog spies who get no credit whatsoever? 2019 gave us The Family Man, and this year, we had multiple series where India was saved from the clutches of wars, terrorist attacks, etc. Avrodh (Sony LIV), Special OPS (Disney+ Hotstar) and Crackdown (Voot Select) were notable additions to the genre. Fronted by established names like Kay Kay Menon (Special OPS), Amit Sadh (Avrodh) and Saqib Saleem (Crackdown), and ending with teasers for sequels, it is expected that most will return for a season 2. We’ve already seen the success of sequels, and with Family Man 2 also gearing up for release, the covert agents of OTT are surely up for saving India from any potential threat.
Comedy is a serious business
Comedy should have been the most-attempted genre on OTT considering the success of comedies from the West. But, it hasn’t been so. Perhaps this is because of the aim to make shows cross linguistic barriers and reach a wider audience; humour gets lost in translation, after all. When we did get comedies, they came with additional layers like magical realism (Rasbhari), thriller elements (Hasmukh) or were set in small towns (another burgeoning trope) like Panchayat. Towards the end of the year, we also had Sandwiched Forever that was reminiscent of the Dekh Bhai Dekh era with laughter tracks and familial humour. Once streamers decided to concentrate on regional fare, comedy was explored more and we got content like Time Enna Boss (Amazon Prime Video) and Triples (Disney+ Hotstar) in Tamil, and Honeymoon in Telugu. Mixed results notwithstanding, it was a start.
Small towns, big stories
Gone are the days when everything revolved around the urban populace. The pandemic made everyone look longingly towards the slow-paced nature of small towns. This was reflected in this year’s shows like Panchayat, Rasbhari and Bandish Bandits. The soundtrack of Bandish Bandits by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy became chartbusters and opened up a new avenue for Indian content - the musicals. The year kickstarted with Jamtara, a gritty series on the phishing mafia, and a bunch of newcomers took OTT by storm. The small-town setting helped makers toy with genres and as a result, we saw similar landscapes being used for films of diverse genres — Raat Akeli Hai (Whodunnit) and Chaman Bahaar (Socio-political romcom). This is one trend that shows no signs of subsiding.
Crime pays… and how!
Considering Sacred Games and Mirzapur were the first major web series that broke into the collective consciousness of the country, this path is often chosen by content creators. This year, we saw Amazon's Paatal Lok shake up the audience. There was Voot Select's Asur too, which was a solid serial killer mystery. Sony LIV delivered some excellent web series in this space — Undekhi and A Simple Murder. The underrated She (Netflix), Flesh (Eros Now) and Aarya (Disney+ Hotstar), which marked Sushmitha Sen’s comeback, were all heralded for their storytelling and for being fronted by women.
Stories of people we thought we knew
The time and space offered by the OTT is well-suited for telling real-life stories in an entertaining way. There is also no need to cater to a star at the centre. In fact, stars can be created on OTT while telling real-life stories, and one such star was Pratik Gandhi in Sony LIV's The Scam 1992. Another such show on the same platform was Avrodh, based on the book, India’s Most Fearless by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh, telling the story of the ‘surgical strikes’ of 2016.
Another interesting facet explored by the OTT space, especially Netflix, this year was the ‘orchestrated reality’ TV format. It began with Indian Matchmaking and ended with the glam-sham of Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives. In between, we had Masaba Masaba, a semi-fictional series starring real-life mother-daughter duo Neena Gupta and Masaba Gupta.
'Settling' for OTT
With the pandemic shutting down theatres indefinitely, it was but a matter of time before filmmakers bit the OTT bait and 'settled' for direct-digital releases. Jyotika’s Ponmagal Vandhal became the first bound-for-theatre film to go the OTT way. It was soon followed by Keerthy Suresh's Penguin, also on Amazon Prime Video. Before this could be written off as a trend of ‘female-centric’ projects, we had Amitabh Bachchan-Ayushmann Khurrana’s Gulabo Sitabo. Then came a long list of others. Sushant Singh Rajput’s swansong, Dil Bechara, and Akshay Kumar’s Laxmii went Disney+ Hotstar’s way, Vidya Balan's Shakuntala Devi went to Amazon. One of the biggest releases of the year, and a game-changer in South Indian markets, Soorarai Pottru was bagged by Amazon. The streamer also released several Telugu films like Nani’s landmark 25th project V, Anand Deverakonda’s Middle Class Melodies, and Gatham, as well as Malayalam films like Halal Love Story and Sufiyum Sujatayum. Amazon Prime Video also made its foray into Sandalwood by releasing four films, namely French Biriyani, Law, Mane No 13 and Bheemasena Nala Maharaja. It covered a variety of genres like horror, family drama, social satire, and a courtroom procedural. Netflix, meanwhile, premiered Andhaghaaram (Tamil), Keerthy Suresh’s Miss India (Telugu), Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya (Telugu), and Maniyarayile Ashokan (Malayalam). Much like television, streaming giants too started to mark festive occasions with premieres. RJ Balaji-Nayanthara’s Mookuthi Amman (Disney+ Hotstar) and Coolie No 1 (Amazon Prime Video) were Diwali and Christmas releases, respectively.
Streaming sites like Aha and SunNxt developed series and films to cater to their regional Telugu and Tamil audiences. Aha gave us well-received films like Bhanumathi and Ramakrishna, Colour Photo, and Krishna and His Leela, which also had a Netflix release. Netflix too created its own originals like Bulbbul, Ludo, Chaman Bahaar, Guilty, Axone, and AK vs AK.
Probably the most telling move by OTT platforms this year was the pay-per-view format. Zee5 experimented with this through the direct-to-OTT films, Ka Pae Ranasingam (Tamil) and Khaali Peeli (Hindi). Such experiments were aimed at exploring the feasibility of reaping commercial success outside theatres. It is only a matter of time before someone cracks the code.
Kamal Haasan, who once had the vision for this parallel medium, recently said, “OTT might seem like competition to cinema, but competition adds to our strength. I see both these formats travelling together, just like TV and cinema did.” How true will his prediction be? We’ll see in 2021 and beyond.