Amol Parashar, who will be seen in the much-awaited third season of the show Tripling (releasing on Zee5), had no intention of acting on screen. Parashar saw himself as a theatre actor. “It’s only when I came to Mumbai that I realised that I couldn't survive on theatre. It was hard to pay rent,” said the actor. Parashar started working in ads and did small roles in films, but it was after he was cast as Chitvan, the weed-rolling sibling in The Viral Fever’s (TVF) Tripling, in 2016, that his career truly took off. The humour of Parashar’s Chitvan and his laid-back attitude were a hit with the viewers and Parashar has since played significant roles in Alankrita Shrivastava’s Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (2019) and Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham (2021). He also headlined Disney+ Hostar’s film Cash (2021). “A year before Tripling happened, I remember thinking that I don’t see a lot of great opportunities in film for a person like me. I didn’t see myself leading a film. [But it] is a reality today – I am leading films. The idea that this is possible is due to the OTT revolution,” said Parashar.
From Inside Edge’s Amit Sial and Panchayat’s Faisal Malik to Scam 1992’s Pratik Gandhi, streaming or OTT platforms have launched many theatre actors to fame. The roles and stories written for episodic series often feel more grounded and nuanced, which in turn offers the actors more opportunity to showcase their talents. When TVF launched its web series Permanent Roommates in 2014, it signalled an era of storytelling radically different from what we had seen so far in films or on television. Web series were experimental, realistic and cool — they used the luxury of time to dive deeper into even minor characters, breaking away from stereotypical narratives. All this made web shows too edgy for those with aspirations of working in mainstream films or television entertainment. Actors who worked in theatre came with little such baggage. Additionally, they were usually more affordable in financial terms. “[Theatre actors] are appreciated but not paid,” said Geetanjali Kulkarni with a laugh. The actor is best known for her roles in Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court (2014) and TVF’s Gullak. “Kam paise ho yaa paise hi nahi ho toh aise bohot kaam aate hai mere paas (Projects with less money or no money often find their way to me),” she said wryly. Kulkarni, whose career boasts of a long and significant stint on stage before she was seen on screen, credits her rigorous theatre training for her success as a screen actor. Months of rehearsals and re-performing the same show for different audiences hone acting skills in a way that films simply cannot afford to, she said. “I see a lot of theatre actors doing well on-screen because their foundation is very strong,” said Kulkarni.
Unlike the film industry, theatre – especially experimental theatre – doesn’t indulge in stardom. While this might foster a great culture within the theatre community, to the outside world its large pool of talent is reduced to what Kulkarni calls “the generic term of ‘theatre actors’”. Being on some of the most watched shows in India allows these actors to have their own identity – especially in the public consciousness. This recognition can spell the difference between headlining a movie and being passed over for a more recognised face. When Parashar almost lost out on a project because he was competing with a more popular actor, he understood that popularity was a game-changer. “The director was keen on me, the crew was keen on me. But the marketing department was like ‘Why don’t you take this guy who’s more popular?’ It was eye-opening for me,” he said. After the success of Tripling, popularity stopped being a stumbling block for Parashar. “It’s not like I became a better actor over the three months of the show’s release. It’s just that now I’m more marketable,” he said.
Theatre actors might be more affordable to streaming platforms but the sheer number of opportunities the sector offers, along with its reach, results in a win-win situation for both the show and the actors. In 2015, Maanvi Gagroo had a small role in TVF Pitchers as Shreya, the protagonist’s girlfriend. She appears briefly during the series’ five episodes, but her scenes (particularly the splendidly written break-up scene in a supermarket) established her acting skills and caught the attention of both audiences and creators. The role in Pitchers led to bigger projects: Tripling (opposite Parashar and TVF’s Sumeet Vyas) and, of course, Amazon Prime Video’s Four More Shots Please!. “With Pitchers I gained recognition in the industry and with Tripling I gained recognition with the viewers,” said Gagroo. The actress admits to being attracted to the two projects for the way they were written. Pitchers was the first script that Gagroo received which did not describe her character with her physical attributes but through her personality. The dialogues felt familiar, rather than stilted. “Their characters were talking the way that we talk! On TV and in films, we heard conversations that were either aspirational or something that we would never relate to. [Here] were people we either were or knew,” recalled Gagroo.
This points to the main reason why theatre actors gravitate towards web shows – better writing, even for minor characters. “Film doesn’t allow that much talent because it’s not a long format. It’s usually two leads and other supporting characters who don’t have any kind of an arc. In a long format, you have an arc,” said Kulkarni, whose recent noteworthy roles include the dirty cop Sushila Shekhar in the second season of Disney+ Hotstar’s Aarya. “An actor like me wouldn’t like doing a minuscule part in a film, but wouldn’t mind doing something like Aarya because it has an arc,” she said. For Kulkarni, it’s important that her roles and projects make a difference. “Today, most courtroom dramas on OTT are inspired by Court – many makers have told me this,” she said. With a good streaming show, an actor enjoys being part of something that has cultural value and attracts more eyeballs than a theatre production or an independent film. Kulkarni said streaming shows have “empowered” her as an artist. Speaking of her theatre projects, she said, “Aisa lagta tha hum jo kaam kar rahe hai usko koi dekh hi nahi raha hai (It used to feel like nobody cares about what we’re doing).”
If films were once considered to be the dream for most theatre actors, the popularity, access and prestige of web shows have surely shifted the paradigm. “Now, OTT people are trying different things, different formats,” said Gagroo. “We need to have a range of shows to choose from so that the audience feels empowered to make that choice.”