Are OTT platforms changing streams, asks Anupama Chopra
February has a dazzling, star-studded line-up. But will big-ticket projects edge out quieter narratives, lesser-known names?
February is set to be a star-studded month on streaming platforms. This week, Amazon Prime premiers the suspense-filled series Farzi, directed by Raj and DK, starring Shahid Kapoor and Vijay Sethupathi. Next week, Hotstar premieres The Night Manager with Anil Kapoor, Aditya Roy Kapur and Sobhita Dhulipala. And on Valentine’s Day, Netflix drops The Romantics, a four-part documentary series on the legendary filmmaker Yash Chopra, which features three generations of actors, including Ranveer Singh, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. It’s dazzling.
There’s more. Rohit Shetty is making a cop series called Indian Police Force, starring Sidharth Malhotra. (The teaser insists it will be the biggest action series in India). Sanjay Leela Bhansali is making his first web series, Heeramandi, a lush fictionalisation of the lives of courtesans in pre-Independence India, starring Aditi Rao Hydari, Sonakshi Sinha and Manisha Koirala.
While this is exciting, here’s why it also has me worried. One of the most thrilling consequences of the rise of streaming platforms in India has been the emergence of a parallel star system. Freed from the shackles of the more rigid aesthetic, of nepotistic and box-office requirements, the streaming ecosystem has nurtured a whole new galaxy of artists.
Think of Jaideep Ahlawat of Paatal Lok, Shefali Shah of Delhi Crime, Pratik Gandhi of Scam 1992, or the astonishing Rajshri Deshpande of Trial by Fire. A slew of once-reigning female stars also re-established their careers, including Madhuri Dixit, Sushmita Sen and Raveena Tandon.
Mainstream Bollywood stars came to streaming early. Netflix India’s first original series, Sacred Games, featured Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. But the ecosystem was still populated largely by talented but lesser-known actors; people who had spent far too many years hustling on the periphery, waiting to be let in.
The current scenario makes me wonder: Is streaming in danger of being Bollywood-ised? In the quest for eyeballs, will we lose what made these platforms so magical in the first place? Will they alter their identity as spaces for more personal, surprising, authentic storytelling? Will big-ticket projects edge out smaller, quieter narratives headlined by actors who don’t come with a ready fanbase? Will the talented hustlers find themselves excluded all over again?
Raj Nidimoru of Raj and DK told me that Shahid was cast in Farzi because the project started out as a film with that actor. “We were not able to fit the world into a feature, so we rewrote it as a series, and Shahid stayed with the project,” he said. He added that for their upcoming streaming ventures, the duo was opting for a mix of known and lesser-known faces. “The fun is in that,” he said. “Besides, the volume in OTT is very high. One can’t have only stars. And series are meant for strong actors and not necessarily stars, because the artist has to hold the narrative for eight hours.”
Vikram Malhotra, founder and CEO of Abundantia Entertainment (producers of the crime-thriller series Breathe: Into the Shadows featuring Abhishek Bachchan and Amit Sadh) believes that the presence of stars is in fact necessary to widen the reach of streaming platforms in India.
“The size of all the OTT platforms put together in terms of number of subscribers is so small that we need the content to go super-wide,” Malhotra said. “Big movie stars getting on to OTT will give it that much-needed depth and width of reach. It will boost subscriptions, but in the mid to long run, it will be the content that will hold good and not any star.” Which is as it should be.
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