Three years ago, when actor-comedian Naveen Richard filmed his first YouTube sketch for his Bangalore-based comedy collective Them Boxer Shorts, he barely knew how to work a camera. Since they couldn’t afford frills like light and sound equipment, the budget for the video added up to a grand total of zero. Cut to 2016, Richard and his co-writers Rahul Hota and Navaneeth Sriram were shooting at a bungalow in Madh Island, just outside Mumbai, filming a five-episode Web series- Better Life Foundation (BLF). This time around, they had powerful sponsors backing their script and a lavish budget of 8-10 lakh per episode. “I was used to shooting things for free at my home in Bangalore. And suddenly there’s a friggin vanity van on the set. We entered and went, ‘Oh shit, there’s even an AC in here’,” exclaims Richard, who’s both an actor and writer on the show.
As is evident, writing for the Web has quickly progressed from kids goofing around with a camera to serious business. Web shows in India are now a dime a dozen and the biggest production houses – Yash Raj, Balaji, Star, Viacom 18, and Eros – all want a part of this. “Essentially what happened about 2 years ago is that the big guys realized there’s a huge opportunity to raise money by promising to be India’s Netflix. When the intentions are so speculative, I don’t think people really know what the hell they’re doing. The plan is not to raise money to do something you’re passionate about. Your passion is to raise money, and therefore you need to do something,” says a filmmaker who’s been in talks with a major production house for a Web show.
Things started shifting after the first Web show, Permanent Roommates by The Viral Fever (TVF), broke ground in 2014. Today it’s hard to even keep count of how many others are floating around. Arunabh Kumar, the CEO and Founder of TVF, estimates there are about 42 currently. The competition is stiffening, but the good news, he says, is that while the subpar content (of which there is plenty) will lie unwatched in some app, young and fresh writing talent will emerge victorious.
For years we’ve heard creators use the phrase ‘content is king’. Cinema and especially Indian television don’t entirely subscribe to this adage. But if there’s a medium where this actually rings true – it’s the Web. Here a script has to stand without the crutch of a big star, fancy locations and overblown budgets. So that makes the writing, and thereby, the writer, the hero. Let’s go back to examining Better Life Foundation – the first episode that dropped in July clocked over a lakh views on YouTube. This is no small feat. The YouTube channel of Them Boxer Shorts had a meagre subscriber base of 4000 at the time (it’s now 18,000 plus). An English comedy set in the offices of a small NGO isn’t an instantly gripping premise. Also, its dead pan humour was a tough sell. Yet Richard and team have already been commissioned another season.
“If you can write for this medium then you can write for anything. This is the most brutal and toughest,” says Kumar. Last Sunday, the first episode of TVF’s new show Tripling, a tale of three troubled siblings on a road trip, premiered on their app TVF Play. Its trailer was uniformly lauded for its rich, almost film-standard production values. Kumar says if the writing doesn’t hit home, none of his million viewers will bother with the pretty frames. “I think making Web shows is harder than film in terms of creativity. When you’re sitting in a dark room and watching something on a 70 MM screen where you can’t click ‘close’ and you can’t comment that it sucks, it’s much easier.”
This then puts added pressure on a writer to bring his/her A-game to every scene. If a show doesn’t arrest you in its first five minutes, chances are you’ve lost the viewer to one of the 20 other suggested videos by YouTube. According to YouTube statistics, there’s over 400 hours of material being uploaded every minute. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee, the writer of Y Film’s hit show Ladies Room, says she’s “massively” conscious of the viewer’s online ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) while scripting. “The writing for Web has to be to the point, it has to surprise you, and it has to make you inquisitive enough to watch one more minute and then another,” says Bhattacharjee.
Having said that, she adds that the medium also allows writers to express uninhibitedly. In Ladies Room, her two female protagonists Dingo and Khanna are introduced while one is rolling a joint in the dingy loo of a railway compartment and the other is fretting about missing her period. These girls are loony, foul-mouthed, and relatable.
It’s safe to say that characters like these would most likely be lost in a pile of untouched scripts if they went the TV or studio way. “In the film and TV world there are so many hierarchies. If a writer has an idea and goes and pitches it to somebody- those meetings don’t finish then and there. The script will be sent to one boss, then another. And so and so forth,” she says. Richard, too, says that he’s pitched a bunch of ideas to Comedy Central in the past but they all “got lost” somewhere.
In fact, some of the best discoveries on the Web are all television rejects – the folks at TVF included. Sudev Nair, the writer, director and actor of the Web show Not Fit, shopped around for a TV producer for long but eventually tired of hearing the same feedback – ‘this script is too smart for television’. Not Fit documents the ‘struggler’ life in Mumbai through the escapades of the hilariously wannabe actor Neerav ‘Nero’ Kapoor, played by Nair. “These are all based on my real experiences. I was getting frustrated with the mediocrity out there. Then I decided this is not really worth my time. That’s why I stopped going for these random auditions and spent my time writing,” says Nair.
He eventually shot a pilot episode for Rs 15,000 at his own home with the help of his batch mates from (Film and Television Institute of India) FTII. The show was picked up by first-time producers Dice Media for YouTube and later discovered by TVF who then included it their app. “What I found on the Web I could have never got from TV. In fact, I would never get this experience as an actor in cinema too,” says Nair, who’s an award-winning Malayalam actor. He’s currently scripting the next season of Not Fit.
But the fear now is watching the same TV producers who once deemed these scripts as ‘too smart for TV’ take over the Web as well. Between Balaji ALT Digital, Hotstar, Eros Now and Voot – all the powerful players have sniffed out the potential of this medium and promptly joined the ring. In an interview to Screen International last year, Rishika Lulla Singh, CEO, Eros Digital, said, “With India about to cross one billion mobile users and total internet users estimated to reach 500 million in a few years, this is a perfect time to go all out on digital.” She announced a handful of flagship shows like The Client- a thriller starring Bipasha Basu, and directed by Rohan Sippy.
And there’s plenty more to come. Recently, newspaper reports suggested Balaji Motion Pictures was putting film production on hold to divert attention to its digital video-on-demand business, ALT Digital, which it plans to launch in 3-4 months. Voot, a Viacom 18 venture, says it has grossed 1 million app downloads on Android, and intends on producing at least 10 to 12 Web shows every year.
“With these big players coming and throwing their money around, I’m worried about them lowering the standard. As creators we feel that the more rubbish you put out there, the more people watch it. If you keep shoving junk food down their throats, they’re going to eat it because junk food is tasty. But if you starve that and put out more thoughtful stuff, people will get more used to that. We just try not to think about it and keep doing our work,” says Richard.
Kumar, on the other hand, is less frazzled about this development. He believes the mad scramble to churn out a Web shows may die down once producers realize that here massive billboards and advertising does very little in pulling in viewers. “The Web is not captive to a one page Bombay Times ad and crores spent in marketing,” he says. He predicts that soon they will realize that Web is hard work, and leave the medium to those who deserve it.