Inside Edge is a mega, 10-episode web series featuring Richa Chadha, Vivek Oberoi and Sanjay Suri about the murky world of Indian cricket. It is produced by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani and is available on the ‘Over the Top’ (OTT) content platform—Amazon Prime Video. Crime, sex and conspiracy are as central to the plot as cigarette smoking actor-owners of cricket league teams and bratty, aggressive cricketers.
Khujli is a short film by Terribly Tiny Talkies, starring the handsome oldie Jackie Shroff and the radiant but rarely seen Neena Gupta. The film, freely available online, lovingly captures the attempt at ‘spicing up’ life between “over-the-hill” couples.
These two ventures, which seem poles apart in concept, are bound by two common threads. One is the freshness of their content, and the second is that both will be viewed over the internet, largely on the more personalised screens of smartphones and laptops.
Recently, Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, a hugely popular Indian TV serial, was resurrected by another OTT, Hotstar. Now, Inside Edge, an Amazon Prime ‘Original’, has taken the game several notches up with its high-profile star cast and lavish production. Produced on a blockbuster budget, the series is showcased as ‘binge-watch’ material. All its ten episodes, each of approximately 40 minutes, came out simultaneously.
Though online content, largely comprising web series and short films, has been steadily growing over the past few years, the space is likely to become the next big thing with major players from the Indian film industry announcing multiple projects with the likes of Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and Hotstar.
“Our goal with launching Amazon Originals in India is to change the way content is created for Indian and worldwide customers,” says Nitesh Kripalani, director and country head, Amazon Video India. “For Amazon, Inside Edge marks the beginning of our journey in delivering new, episodic, original series in India. We are proud to partner with Excel Media & Entertainment for our first original series. Farhan and Ritesh come with an acute understanding of the industry and a great talent for storytelling. We are already working with some of India’s top talent, filmmakers, writers and producers for our 18 Indian original series.”
Apart from Amazon’s 18 original series, platforms such as Netflix and Hotstar are partnering with production houses like Phantom Films and Balaji Films (as Altbalaji) to make original web series. The latest announcement from Netflix was about getting Saif Ali Khan on board for their production of a series called Sacred Games in partnership with Phantom films. Then there is Kabir Khan making a series on Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. These international players are also acquiring regional films and providing a platform for classics and critically acclaimed films in Bengali, Marathi, Malayalam, Tamil and others. And then there are experiments such as CinePlay, by Nandita Das wherein popular, acclaimed plays, which were recorded for posterity are now available on Hotstar.
“We don’t make a distinction between Malayalam, Hindi or any other language. The audience now has a huge appetite for content.”
Ajit Mohan, CEO Hotstar
Hotstar, which is currently the most popular video streaming platform, has its own strategies apart from having exclusive sports content including IPL live streaming. Ajit Mohan, CEO Hotstar, explains that they decided to explore the space created by the addition of second or third screens in one-TV households with the rise of smart phones and easy access to broadband. Hotstar believes that people will gravitate to long form and high quality content, if it is made available along with serious technology chops. Today, it has content in eight languages and several formats. “We don’t make a distinction between Malayalam, Hindi or any other language. There is a large and meaningful audience with a huge appetite for content in every part of the country. We treat our audience as a single discreet user, for whom we are customising our service. They are watching Yeh Rishta as well as Game of Thrones,” adds Mohan. “For the longest time, we have indulged in stereotypes as an industry and categorised people in neat buckets. Now, there is richness in content preferences.”
It is one thing to make already-released movies available for watching on this platform, but it is a whole new challenge (and opportunity too) to dedicate time, money and energy to make content exclusively. Actors and makers are willing to take this leap of faith for a number of reasons.
“There are too many systemic problems with the way films are going—high taxation, diminishing footfall, no piracy control, there are fewer screens for niche films with only a big star guaranteeing an opening weekend,” says actor Richa Chadha. “Often, the cost of a film is lesser than its distribution like in the case of Masaan. I thought about it and it echoed well. Here we don’t have to wait for the box office, where the business is reduced to 3 days,” adds Richa, who plays the character of Zarina Malik in Inside Edge, an actor-owner of a league cricket team whose stake in the team is being threatened by the villainous Vikrant, deliciously played by Vivek Oberoi.
Karan Anshuman, the director of Inside Edge, is excited about the future. He’s working on another show with Amazon. “We already had the subject but it was too ambitious for a film,” he says. “We always wanted to do a show but were waiting for the right moment. And we were the first because we were ready with a story. The challenge was to create 450 minutes of content for binge watching. We were extremely systematic and did not compromise. Hollywood was the model…It’s the way forward, no doubt. There is scope for so much on this platform—original writing, good roles for actors. Not to mention freedom and flexibility.”
Chadha, who has experimented with roles and formats before, values these pros: “The freedom you get here is an opportunity for creative people to express themselves. I know people will compare us to international shows and we bare ourselves to criticism. But we have surely set a good precedent.”
Sarabhai vs Sarabhai
Directors and actors from the indie cinema space view these developments as a major push for content. “These platforms are exposing the audience to things which are normally not shown by mainstream cinema or television,” says director Onir, who made the film My Brother Nikhil. He has also produced a Netflix original. “It will make the audience more demanding and push the boundaries of mainstream cinema. The new medium will create bolder, stronger and unexplored content and it will also create new talent. Available in 15-20 languages, it opens up a whole world for audiences and is a terrific platform for independent cinema.”
Before the big players joined the OTT bandwagon, a steady supply of content was already testing the waters. YouTube channels such as TVF and AIB, for instance, have been cultivating an audience. Terribly Tiny Talkies, as a social media platform, already has 20 films to its credit. Sharanya Rajgopal, Chief Writer and Creative Producer of TTT, says the primary focus of their content is the story. “We don’t have big names and actors. We believe in honing talent by taking absolute freshers who need showcasing. Actors are drawn because of the stories. Then, the ‘virality’ of the film depends on whether it resonates with the audience. The digital space is going to be cluttered, but keeping our integrity and having world class stories will work in the long run. What we should watch out for is that the stigmas of mainstream films should not creep into this space. We don’t care for profits, but we want a bigger platform to be available for interesting stories.”
Every player has a different strategy for their idea of the future. “We believe that the bandwagon of ‘original’ is a bit distorted,” says Mohan. “Everything that we have is exclusive to us on digital. We don’t really need to invest in the so-called originals and the content proposition is compelling for our viewers, given that we have crossed 100 million users in June. When we have an opportunity to create something truly original, such as On Air with AIB or CinePlay, we go ahead.”
And as Kripalani says about the times to come, “We continue to bring the best of our global originals to India and you would soon hear about our next Indian original on Amazon Prime Video, the R. Madhavan-starrer Breathe. We are just getting started!”