At the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, two Indian films premiered to great acclaim — Ajitpal Singh’s Fire in the Mountains and Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s documentary Writing with Fire (2021). While Writing with Fire went on to make history by becoming the first Indian documentary to get nominated for an Oscar, Fire in the Mountains was named amongst the best films of 2022 by publications like the New York Times and Vulture. Yet neither film has been seen by audiences in India because no streaming platform has picked up these titles, despite the critical acclaim and prizes awarded to them. Singh, who also directed the series Tabbar, believes Fire in the Mountains didn’t find favour with over-the-top (OTT) platforms because there are no famous names in his cast. “I assume the decision-makers are sitting with a piece of paper noting down which A-list star appears, which line captivates the audience, and how many memes can be made from the film. I think that’s the thinking at least,” Singh said.
At a time when there seems to be an abundance of platforms and not enough content to feed the beast that is the audience, it’s a strange fact that some of the best Indian independent films are unable to find buyers in India. Despite the warm reception they get when they’re screened abroad, there seems to be little interest in platforming these films in India. Of course, no OTT service is obliged to pick up any film (whether it’s independent, critically-acclaimed or a blockbuster) and there’s no arguing with a platform if it says it would rather focus on mainstream titles. However, part of the frustration with streaming platforms in India is the lack of transparency and communication. Film Companion contacted Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ Hotstar and Mubi, hoping to get their response to the observations made by filmmakers and producers. However, we received no reply to the questions we sent. This article will be updated if we receive any reply from them.
The word on the street is that post-pandemic, OTT services are only interested in mainstream, commercial content. Yet platforms that have rejected independent films, citing them to be too ‘niche’ for their subscribers, have picked up films like Double XL (2022), which failed at the box office. Is it unrealistic to think that with some targeted promotion, an award-winning indie film wouldn’t get as many views as a flop commercial film?
Producer Shwetaabh Singh made a dream debut in 2019, with Eeb Allay Ooo!, directed by Prateek Vats, and Aise Hee, directed by Kislay. Both films had their India premiere at the 2019 Jio MAMI Mumbai film festival, where they competed in the India Gold section. Both films got glowing reviews. Vats’s film went home with the prize for the India Gold section and got a streaming deal with Netflix. Aise Hee had no takers. At the time, the difference in the reception given to Eeb Allay Ooo! And Aise Hee had mystified Shwetaabh. “We were naive enough to think that if we made a ‘good’ film, then streaming services would pick it up,” he said. If you, like Shwetaabh, think he should have known better than to expect OTTs to be concerned with a film’s quality rather than its commercial appeal, then consider this. Speaking to , in 2021, Netflix’s global head of film Scott Stuber said, “At the end of the day, you’re trying to find the best movie you can. Obviously, we’re a company based on originals, which we’re developing and trying to make, but whether it’s in the spec market or whether it’s in the finished film market, we’re still going to be looking where we can to find the best things.”
Yet good Indian films, like Aise Hee, Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes (2022), P.S. Vinothraj’s Koozhangal (2021) and Natesh Hegde’s Pedro (2021), are not available on any streaming platform in India despite each of these having had glorious festival runs. (All That Breathes was picked up by HBO Max in America.) Filmmakers said that the few platforms that did express interest in indie films often made laughably low offers. Describing his experience with Aise Hee with one platform, Kislay said, “We were offered $1000 (approximately Rs 80,000 at the time), which is less than some of the festival application fees we shell out.” Singh is of the belief that Indian auteurs are not given the same respect or money as foreign counterparts like Park Chan-wook and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. “They’ll [platforms] buy the high-profile films from festivals, and whatever is left will be distributed like prasad amongst Indian filmmakers,” he alleged.
It seems as though films that don’t have some sort of celebrity attached to them are dismissed by platforms, but if that is the case, this is a mystifying decision for OTT services, which have seen many against-the-grain films find audiences. For example, Kaun Pravin Tambe?, starring Shreyas Talpade, made a lukewarm debut on Disney+ Hotstar with 1.8 million views in its first week, but remained on Ormax Media’s list of the most streamed piece of content for four weeks consecutively, with weekly numbers going up to 5.8 million views. This was despite minimal promotion by Disney+ Hotstar. Even if Talpade is relatively well-known, Kaun Pravin Tambe? is the kind of film that would be described as ‘risky’ by Bollywood pundits, but was a success for the streamer. The decision to focus on mainstream content — a lot of which is panned by critics — is one that non-mainstream filmmakers and producers question. “Everything seems to be tailored to find the 50 people [out of 100] who enjoy a spectacle,” said Ajitpal Singh. “What they [OTT services] don’t understand is some of the remaining 50, who don’t care about spectacles, will eventually unsubscribe to the platform,” he warned. Shwetaabh Singh pointed out that streamers should keep in mind that they’ve made an unspoken promise to deliver quality content to subscribers. “You’re not a free platform. You have people paying a monthly or annual subscription – it’s your job to give them content worth their money,” he said, arguing in favour of acquiring critically-acclaimed indie films.
Over the last two to three years, OTT platforms in India seem to be mirroring the actions of the entertainment industry that they could’ve overhauled. Just as Hindi films are judged on their opening weekend box office report alone, the verdict on streaming films and shows depends on their opening weekend views. Shows get cancelled depending on their opening week data, shutting out the possibility that it could be discovered at a later stage.
Ghosh contends that there’s an increasing need for an artist executive (like a former filmmaker, or someone deeply invested in the business of filmmaking) as against an algorithm executive. “I think we’ve entered the era of algorithm-linked storytelling – ‘In the eight minute, you should have this beat, the climax should be at a particular point’. How does one design an original story like this?” he said.
“Everything seems to be tailored to find the 50 people [out of 100] who enjoy a spectacle,” said Ajitpal Singh. “What they [OTT services] don’t understand is some of the remaining 50, who don’t care about spectacles, will eventually unsubscribe to the platform," he warned.
Streaming services have been around in India for eight years and when they launched in the country, it seemed as though OTT services were interested in backing high-quality storytelling. In February 2015, Hotstar became India’s first subscription video on-demand (SVOD) platform launched by Star India. Netflix, which had emerged as the sector’s most disruptive name, entered India in January 2016. Prime Video, the streaming arm of the e-commerce giant Amazon, opened shop in India around July 2016. At the time, it felt like a new dawn in Indian entertainment. Streamers acquired documentaries like Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Celluloid Man (2012) and critically-acclaimed films like Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot (2015). They announced shows led by reluctant stars like Saif Ali Khan and turned overlooked actors, like Pankaj Tripathi and Manoj Bajpayee, into celebrities. The likes of Vikramaditya Motwane, Sudip Sharma and Hansal Mehta were made showrunners and they delivered flagship shows that got numbers without compromising (much) on quality.
And then the pandemic struck. The already-struggling business of cinemas closed shop thanks to lockdowns and OTT platforms were faced with a deluge of content. At the same time, streaming platforms were also struggling to recover from the big spends that they’d made with the projects they’d commissioned. The tightening of belts across different parts of the entertainment industry has hit small films and indie cinema the hardest. Netflix India can claim they support independent voices by offering examples of Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple (2020), Ivan Ayr’s Meel Patthar (2020) and Soni (2018) – but filmmakers pointed out that these films got little by way of promotion compared to titles like Monica, O My Darling for instance. “If a conventional star project on a streaming service is Bandra, these films [by Tamhane and Ayr] are somewhere on the outskirts of Mumbai, or at least that’s the treatment meted out to them,” said Ajitpal Singh. “There was a huge backlog of things that didn’t release from 2020,” said Ghosh, one of the co-directors of Writing with Fire. He and Thomas were told by platforms that they “loved” the film, but haven’t heard why no one in India has wanted to buy the film. “I think the appetite of the streamers for a film like ours had significantly reduced,” he said.
Filmmakers also pointed out that streaming platforms became noticeably more cautious after what Ghosh described as “the Tandav fiasco” of January 2021. Multiple complaints were filed against Ali Abbas Zafar, the showrunner of Tandav, stars Saif Ali Khan and Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub, and India programming head of Prime Video, Aparna Purohit, for “hurting religious sentiments”. A month later, India’s Information & Broadcasting Ministry introduced The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which brought streaming platforms and social media under the ambit of Section 66A – thereby making it punishable to send any “offensive” information to another person using an electronic device. The scope of what’s “offensive” is wide and has left many understandably nervous about content that may be viewed as disruptive.
However, some filmmakers don’t think the country’s divisive political atmosphere has any part to play in how their films are received. Singh, at least, does not believe that Fire in the Mountains was rejected for its politics. “For that they would have to watch the film,” he said with a laugh.