Aparna Purohit has worked in the Mumbai film industry for 15 years during which she’s held various positions, from being an assistant director to working for studios. A little over four years ago, she brought her rich experience to Amazon Prime Video when she joined as Head of India Originals. She’s commissioned and helped develop popular shows like Inside Edge, Mirzapur, Made in Heaven and The Family Man, among many others. Purohit has been instrumental in shaping the streaming narrative in India. She’s watched closely as the medium brought new creative voices, stories and practices into its fold. We spoke to Purohit about her learnings on the job.
It’s a great time for streaming. We’re all at home devouring content like never before. How has the pandemic has changed your life? Have there been unforeseen challenges you’ve had to deal with at work?
I think the pandemic has affected everyone’s lives. As far as we are concerned, a lot of our productions were stopped because we had to prioritise lives over anything else. We are very glad that we had a good pipeline of shows because of which we were able to bring out a lot of good shows during this period starting with Four More Shots Please and Paatal Lok and the recently released Breathe: Into the Shadows. Our work on development has strengthened more than ever before because the writers are at home and getting time to write. We are definitely continuing to seek compelling and interesting stories.
Are you getting more pitches during this time?
Most definitely! It’s the most fertile time for writers. We have much more work than we ever had. A lot of new and fresh stories are coming to us. It’s an exciting time.
We often hear the term ‘streaming wars’. In real terms, what does it mean? Is it about making sure Amazon can find the best stories and commission the best talent first?
Quite honestly, for us it is the customer who is at the front and centre of all our decisions. For us, every decision is backwards from our customer. What is it that they want to watch?
The second thing is for us it’s always the story and the storyteller that comes first. What is the story that they want to tell? Why do they want to tell that story? Why must that story be told now? Also, how passionate is the storyteller. So it’s basically that – the customer, the story and the storyteller.
Over the last 4 years, you have had the advantage of knowing what the customer wants. I think everyone wants the answer to that question. Have you had any learnings about what people want that took you by surprise?
Yes, I think every show is a pleasant surprise. There have been some key learnings and one of them is that there is a great appetite in our country for good stories. We love to tell stories and we love to celebrate good stories. Secondly, everybody wants to watch the content that they connect with in their language. That was a great insight for us and hence now we have content in 9 languages and in English. We now we are developing new and fresh content in Tamil and Telugu. We also have the same show in different languages.
Also, the lines between local and global are blurred. Today people enjoy a Marvelous Mrs Maisel or a Jack Ryan as much as they enjoy a Made in Heaven or a Forgotten Army. So great characters and great stories have the legs to travel and transcend all borders and barriers and nationalities.
Comicstaan was a great revelation for us because we realised that the youth wants to talk and be heard and this show became their platform to connect with everyone else across the country. I am so happy to share that Comicstaan made stand-up comedy aspirational. It’s so heartening to see our contestants travelling across the country and performing at various places.
A lot of the directors and writers that you are working with have written films, but never a show before. Is there a common mistake that you see creators make while dealing with an episodic format?
Everybody is learning along the way. You are right, a lot of our directors had not done it before. I also came from the world of films but I learnt along the way. But a common thread that connect everyone is the passion to tell stories. Yes, there is a lot of new muscle that you have to exercise such as working in a writers room and jamming with them. The important thing to note is that whatever you deliver for the show has to be immersive, vast and interconnected. For instance, the proceedings of episode 1 of season 1 may have a bearing on the story line in episode 7 of the same season or perhaps in episode 3 of the next season. Also the cliff-hangers are important. You have to leave the audience at a point that they want to come back and watch the show.
Is there a secret to making a show binge-worthy?
Just that the cliff-hangers must leave you at a point that just takes your breath and you come back. But I also want to tell you that thanks to Amazon Studios in the US we were able to lean into their expertise. We have brought in experts who have been working on the format for many, many years to work on our stories and workshop with our writers.
How have the writers adapted to the new way of working? We now hear terms like Writers Room and Bible which we had no concept of earlier.
Yes, all these terms were new when I joined four and half years back. But I think the creative community was waiting for this kind of Renaissance to happen, so everyone has adapted really quickly and really well. They are learning more about the new format, they are watching the best shows from across the world, they are reading, and they are writing, and so on. I think the artistic community was waiting for this moment and it came at the right time.
Filmmakers making web shows are relieved that they don’t have to deal with the pressures of Friday opening figures and that a show will be judged for what it is and not how many watched it. But that said, how do you gauge the success of a show on an online platform since the rest are not privy to the numbers?
We have our own internal metrics to gauge whether a show is successful or not. But the fact that there is a second season to a show means that the characters have become a part of our lives or that this show become a part of common parlance. These are major indicators of the success of a show.
When you go into the second season of a show, are the creators given insights on what worked or did not work in the first season?
Not really. We just let the story take precedence over everything. But basic things like, ‘The first 10 minutes could be tighter’ and so on are things that are often told. But we don’t let the data constrain the storytellers. We let them take the arc of the characters forward.
Before Amazon, you held a varied number of roles in the film industry. You’ve been an assistant director, in casting, worked in studios… When you had the chance to start something new with Amazon, was there any practice from the movie business that you decided you don’t want to carry forward or do differently?
Just that the story should be at the front and centre of everything. And that is the culture of Amazon. We are really the home of talent. We want to create a safe space for creators to come and think, unrestrained. We want to really build creative bridges with them and let them tell stories the way they want to tell them. That is my focus.
Is there show you are most proud of?
It’s difficult for me to say one show but right now I am most excited about Bandish Bandits. Primarily because it’s a melange of folk and classical and modern music which makes it very unique. Shankar Ehsaan Loy will tell you how difficult it has been composing music for this show. So at this point of time, I’m damn excited about this.