The plot opens with the risqué, setting a straightforward tone as to the nature of the content you’re about to consume—four thugs barge into a house where a couple is having sex. The scene that follows details the couple, in various stages of undress, now bound by the thugs, giving a total of eight minutes of screen time to the actress caught in the situation. But even before, what made you click on that link had squarely cracked its target audience’s interests. This short-film, available on the OTT (over the top) platform Ullu, is suggestively titled Ghapaghap. It’s just one of the many titles crafted to suit an emerging market that, as of now, bypasses the proverbial scissors of the censor board.
Netflix and Amazon Prime appear to be on top of the OTT pyramid. Last year’s Netflix web series Sacred Games showcased frontal nudity, a first for a mainstream Indian production, with Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane as co-directors. The two big platforms, though, prize their products on being ‘quality’ content. Beyond these two, lower down the pyramid, but with promises of a broader base in terms of audience numbers, a few other OTT platforms have sprung up. They offer quick productions under a controlled budget that can be consumed as quickly by audiences. On account of time-tested sellability, erotica and innuendo have become key themes of most of the content on these other platforms. The subscription rates of these services are way cheaper than Netflix and Prime and target audiences have been focused upon too—viewers in tier 2-3 towns and those beyond the demographic that pays for more expensive OTT platforms in urban India.
Ullu has been around since the fag end of December last year and has already crossed over five lakh downloads. “There are three kinds of audiences in India that can be targeted,” explains 28-year-old Harshvardhan Joshi who heads the digital and IT infrastructure at Ullu. “The first are the ‘classy’ folk who binge on Netflix and may venture towards an Amazon Prime. Then there’s the middle segment. They want to see content akin to a movie and ‘above’ a TV serial. That kind of audience goes to Amazon Prime and few others. We have targeted the masses, who want to watch edgy and bold topics.”
The intelligent owl forever on the lookout at night, is what Joshi likens Ullu’s audience too, one that will not have to shell out a fortune every month to stay hooked. While a single-screen Netflix subscription starts at Rs 500 and Amazon Prime sets one back by Rs 129 for a month, Ullu has an introductory price of Rs 36. Joshi says the most watched shows on Ullu are Singardaan—the story of Guptaji and a sex-worker starring Amar Upadhyay (the once-famous Mihir of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi) and Shraddha Das—with over 50k views in a week and Wanna Have a Good Time, starring Flora Saini, which has already crossed 100k views.
“It’s clear that there are two ways to go about it,” says Gaurav Sharma, a Mumbai-based writer and director who is shooting episodes for an up-coming web-series on Eros Now’s OTT platform. Sharma says that now, creators who thought on the lines of “raw and edgy” content don’t have censorship to deal with and can picture it how they imagined it. “The other side goes out with the brief that sex sells,” he adds.
Another writer from Mumbai who wishes to remain anonymous says that “creators know what is selling—they are finding ways to make content within this brief. They are trying to be quirky. “It’s not just a ‘bhabhi’ story anymore, they are finding ways around it while surrendering to the ‘sex sells’ dogma.”
The terms of acceptability on internet TV have already been tested by Sacred Games and Prime’s web series Mirzapur, both have nude scenes. But they have claims to quality content too, where bold scenes are part of a much larger plot under a much bigger budget. Shows on other OTTs are yet to cross those boundaries, strictly visually speaking. “As far as Prime and Netflix are concerned, they show much bolder content, they’re on the next level of edgy,” says Joshi.
The OTT number game is still not clear, with the players unwilling to divulge such information. But a detour to torrent land helps in providing a basic picture. According to 1337x, one of the most popular torrent sites around, aside from Sacred Games, the most downloaded OTT content over the past few months has been from ALTBalaji, the OTT arm of Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms, and now, content from ULLU.
A still from Mirzapur.
ALTBalaji has been blunt with the formula here too. The titles XXX:Uncensored and Gandi Baat speak for themselves. While the former looks at different kinds of sexual relationships over five episodes, the latter tackles themes from rural India with erotica providing the backdrop in all eight episodes.
Industry insiders believe that Kapoor has cracked the OTT market like she did with television. “Ekta is a very intelligent content producer and she has been vocal about making a strong foray into the digital space. She knows the pulse of Indian audiences,” says Darshan Ashwin Trivedi, media and entertainment head at MICA, Ahmedabad.
“She knows her market very well,” says a producer who has worked on multiple web-offerings for ALTBalaji and wants to remain anonymous. “Ekta has strong marketing skills. For instance, she knows sexual content sells and she has put the scenes accordingly. So you’ll go through the entire web series to locate that one scene in the trailer that has sold you the show. She markets it that way,” he adds.
A still from Sacred Games
Trivedi was the lead author in a 123-page report for 2018 titled ‘Indian OTT platforms’. The study mentions that by 2020, Indians will become the second-biggest video-watching audience worldwide. The report hints at the massive potential of the rural markets: “Thirty per cent of the total internet users live in the rural area in spite of having close to 70 per cent of nation’s population.” A report by Boston Consulting Group which came out in November last year said that India’s OTT market size, currently at $0.5 billion, is estimated to grow to ten times by 2023. While the urban, ‘classy’ folk, as Joshi puts it, have, more or less, been snared in, the rural market is far from saturation.
“Even satellite TV did not penetrate rural areas like mobile phones now with unlimited data have. OTT platforms give a boost to individual viewing and when there is individual viewing, people will look at edgy content,” says Trivedi.
The MICA report highlighted that YouTube takes 48 per cent of the media and entertainment space in terms of unique visitors from India, followed by the song-platform Gaana.com. Video analytics firm Vidooly analysed what India consumed on YouTube in 2018 and the top-20 most-viewed platforms were Hindi music related or entertainment channels.
If erotica is a sure-fire seller, it looks like regional content will be taking a lot of storylines forward. Ullu already streams content in Gujarati, Marathi, Bhojpuri, Punjabi, Tamil, Kannada and Bengali. There is a big demand for Gujarati, says Joshi. OTT platform Hoichoi caters to a predominantly Bengali audience. “I’m looking out for the likes of Hoichoi. These are the ones who will be defining the regional space,” says Trivedi.
A still from Amazon Prime’s latest show Four More Shots Please
“About 75 per cent of overall watch-time viewership for originals on Hoichoi is spread across these four genres, namely crime, thriller, detective and erotica. Therefore we try to maintain a balance to cater to the needs and wants of the audience,” says Vishnu Kant Mohta, Co-Founder of Hoichoi, an OTT platform. Mohta says that the platform sees the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities to be a good space to target audiences as well. “We do get a number of requests from the market there showing the popularity of the platform and its original content,” he says. Mohta however feels that regional language content has already done its bit of “exploding, especially the Bengali language-driven content”, pointing to the “half a billion minutes of streaming duration” so far on Hoichoi. The platform also experiments with edgy content with the OTT platforms being unregulated so far. Regulation and censorship may not be that far away with some platforms reportedly considering self-censorship. Joshi and Mohta are clear about it too. “From its inception, we’ve had an internal self-regulatory committee to QC the content produced and acquired to make sure sentiments are not hurt and any unnecessary sexual content is not used to run the platform,” says Mohta. Joshi says they “self-censor certain projects.”
Already a strong contender, the OTT market will undoubtedly take on a life of its own in the time ahead. What will the landscape look like though? “The family space will always make for hugely popular content. But adult content will keep emerging. The segmentisation of visual spaces has made for an interesting landscape.” Speaking of the future, he says that it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the same film has multiple levels of existence—one on OTT platforms, one on the big screens and one on TV, all with different implications.” He explains that consumption is going to be more dependent on the connections people have made with various platforms. “It’s a reverse engineered process. Some mediums have strong access and that’s why people are sampling them. In the long run, the strong players will be those who are subsets of the TV players, with the engagement on TV being pushed to the OTTs. So the Hotstars, Zee5’s and SonyLivs of the world will be strong.”
The ‘Hot Stuff’ On Air
Anniversary Surprise on Ullu The story of a boss having an affair with his secretary while apparently maintaining a “balanced” relationship with his wife, says the show’s blurb. One of them gets murdered when the married folk head over to a resort
on their anniversary.
Singaardan on Ullu A sex worker’s makeup box is left with the married man she was having an affair with who takes it home. “The box turns his wife and daughter into a prostitute,” says the blurb of the six-part series.
Black Coffee on Ullu This two-episode story is of an intern who falls for his older boss who seems vaguely intrigued by him, enough to sleep with him. Foreplay involves an odd scene where the former sprays perfume on the latter. Because, why not.
Wanna Have A Good Time on Ullu Another one from the Ullu stable involves wife (Flora Saini) going off to visit her parents while her husband calls for a sex-worker who ends up looking like his wife. Or does she?
Gandi Baat, Season 1 and 2, ALTBalaji The second season of ALTBalaji’s popular offering had four episodes with close to 50 minutes of runtime. The first one, titled ‘Bai-Sexual’ doesn’t leave much for the imagination and the stories target sexual taboos that women from villages face in their daily lives.
XXX:Uncensored, ALTBalaji Six episodes with around 20 minutes of content each is erotica with a bit of a twist.
Dupur Thakurpo on Hoichoi The story of boys attracted to older women in their neighborhood on Hoichoi got wings with the addition of former Bigg Boss contestant and Bhojpuri star Antara Biswas aka Mona Lisa.
One Night Stand on Addatimes A five-part show on Addatimes.com, this Bengali web-series starts off with the premise of
three strangers meeting on a lonely night.
Spotlight on Viu The 10-part episodic mini-series on Viu looks at Sana Sanyal, a famous Bollywood actress who has lost her way. Directed by Vikram Bhatt, Spotlight also depicts a queer relationship.
Twisted on VB on the Web An erotic thriller which has two seasons out, Twisted was one of the first offerings by Vikram Bhatt on his own app and also streams on Jio Cinema. Starring Nia Sharma, the story begins with a murder and a chase.