A film that is also a web-series?

With Bejoy Nambiar’s Taish set to enjoy the unique distinction of getting released both as a feature film and a web-series on ZEE5, we ask content creators what this experiment means
A film that is also a web-series?

The daunting runtime of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman—3 hours and 29 minutes—drew a public sigh. “The Irishman was amazing,” Ricky Gervais declared at the Golden Globes. “Long… but amazing.” A more proficient viewer went a step further. On a chart, he broke down the crime drama into decisive plot points, effectively turning it into a four-part mini-series. The sentiment was becoming clear.

This idea, though mockingly applied in The Irishman’s case, has now been turned into a real-time experiment in India. Bejoy Nambiar’s Taish—a revenge thriller set in London—is up for release on ZEE5. Streaming from October 29, it will be available as both a feature film and a six-part mini-series.

This isn’t unprecedented though. Emir Kusturica’s Palme d'Or-winning Underground (1995) was split into a five-hour miniseries for Serbian television. Locally, too, films like Gangs of Wasseypur and the NTR biopic have been released in two parts to accommodate their original lengths. However, this is the first time a simultaneous release is being offered on the same platform—you can watch the snappier version and be done with it, or kick back and enjoy the full series.

The idea, Bejoy reveals, stemmed from an early focus screening of the film. So taken were the viewers with his initial cut (around three hours) supposedly that they wanted more. Later, when the pandemic hit and an OTT release was proposed, he sensed an opportunity. Along with editor Priyank Kumar, he decided to extend the story into a series version. “The film was already edited, so we had to cut it out in an episodic format maneuvering the cliffhangers. We essentially found a new way to tell the same story.”

There are several advantages to a release pattern like this. Ever since the lockdown, both films and web-shows have been jostling for space on the same platforms. While both bring in subscribers and share in overall viewership, there are notable distinctions. Feature films are watched for plot, engagement, narrative momentum. Web-shows, though affiliated to the same qualities, also offer depth, psychology, catharsis. By releasing Taish as both, the makers are clearly broadening the audience overlap. “Feature films and web-shows appeal to different pockets of viewers,” explains Aparna Acharekar, Programming Head at ZEE5. “Through this new innovation, we hope to see if we can engage both.”

There is another reason. Across the world, the consumption of content on laptops and mobile screens have resulted in shrinking attention spans. This is directly reflected in the reduced runtime of feature films on the web. Director Randeep Jha, whose debut feature Halahal ran at a taut 97 minutes on Eros Now, attests to this phenomenon. “There are just too many distractions on OTT,” the filmmaker says. “At a theatre, an audience member is reluctant to get up and leave. But he can just change the film on a streaming platform. Also, our visual memory on the small screen is not the same as on a 70mm display.”

Asked if he’d be willing to experiment with a two-format release, Randeep affirms, “I would like to try something like that. It would also be interesting if a film could have two climaxes. Of course, there must be scope in a story to do that.”

Since Taish was originally intended for theatres, the question of ‘scope’ hangs over the film. This is what bothers director Honey Trehan, whose noir mystery Raat Akeli Hai had released on Netflix in July. At 150 minutes, the Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer stood out as an exception to the reduced runtime fad. “I was clear I wanted to make a slow-burn experience,” Honey says. “Thankfully, Netflix was all too happy with the two-hour-plus length. They agreed that a jacked-up pace would harm the film.” Honey feels the Taish experiment is a business decision above all. “Bejoy is an excellent filmmaker,” he says. “However, I highly doubt I will ever do something like this. I need to know the starting and ending points of my film before making it.”

Still, the director agrees we are living in a ‘fast-food world’ and snappier offerings are being preferred. What’s interesting here is that although web-shows are a longer commitment (five seasons of Better Call Saul plus the entire Breaking Bad back catalogue, for instance), the use of cliffhangers and episodic breaks make them a breeze.

Yet it isn’t always the case. A nearly three-hour film like Kabir Singh, for instance, ran in theatres with a single interval and still cleaned up at the box-office. So did Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, at a solid 153 minutes. “The perception that audiences are getting impatient is a myth,” says Gully Boy’s editor Nitin Baid. Nevertheless, he praises the potential of the Taish gamble. “The depth and engagement that a show like Better Call Saul can offer cannot be matched up by a feature film. I’m fascinated to see how (Bejoy and Priyank) have delivered both experiences.” Given a chance, Nitin would be game to cut a film in two formats. “I would enjoy it if it is well thought-out. If it springs up in a later stage then it will be a challenge.”

Traditionally, production houses don’t approach streaming platforms with a single film. Instead, they pitch a ‘slate’ of upcoming projects — of which suitable ones are picked. Often in these negotiations, the potential of turning a feature idea into a series or vice-versa is brought up. “I’ve been in at least two conversations where they’ve asked a feature to be turned into a show,” reveals director Ashish Shukla, whose recent comedy Bahut Hua Samman was premiered on Disney+ Hotstar. Given the interest, Ashish too would like to explore a story in two runtimes. “Obviously, the subject should lend itself to the format. It shouldn’t be a gimmick.” This trend, for the moment anyway, seems set to stay.

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