Be Kind, Rewind: Streaming Turns Five in India

Remember when Amazon Prime and Netflix were the only two streaming platforms to which you subscribed? The OTT space has changed dramatically since its early days and it’s also transformed the Indian entertainment industry
Be Kind, Rewind: Streaming Turns Five in India

Officially, of course, it's been more than five years of streaming on the Indian internet. While All India Bakchod and several Youtube channels had kick-started an era of short-form skits and musical spoofs, The Viral Fever (TVF) were the first movers in terms of full-scale narratives. Their Permanent Roommates, in 2014, signalled the arrival of the Indian 'web show' – a new-age storytelling medium for content that was too specific (or cool) for television. I remember being resistant to the casual tone of these productions. Like many a myopic Bollywood enthusiast, I thought it was a passing fad. Then TVF Pitchers came, as did Humorously Yours and Bachelors. Dice Media crashed the party with Not Fit and, finally, Little Things. And there was no looking back. The foundation was set. 

Five years pertains to the subscription OTT space – and the precise moment this space entered the consciousness of our culture as a financially viable and original medium of entertainment. The first season of Inside Edge dropped on Amazon Prime Video on July 10th, 2017. To use a cricketing analogy, the (free-streaming) openers played out the new ball, leaving the (paid-subscription) middle order to feast on the fruits of their labour. The unprecedented response to the pulpy cricket show paved the path for other aspiring streamers. Prime followed up with Laakhon Mein Ek later in the year, while Netflix rolled out Sacred Games the next. Platforms like Disney+ Hotstar, SonyLiv, Voot, Zee5, MX Player, ALTBalaji (whose Bose: Dead or Alive rounded up 2017), Aha (Telugu), Neestream (Malayalam) and Hoichoi (Bengali) followed suit, building self-sustaining web models that emerged as genuine 'threats' to the old-school theatrical experience.

The OTT space is prolific as ever today. Not a week goes by without long-form or feature-length titles dropping somewhere. Only last month, Amazon's first Tamil web series, Suzhal: The Vortex, opened to good reviews. Over these five years, the streaming (r)evolution has been palpable – one that's been accelerated by the Covid-19 lockdowns. But the question is: Has it changed the way we tell stories? 

While half a decade is a good time to take stock, perhaps it's too early to identify an absolute answer. What it has done is democratise – and widen – the language of Indian film-making. It has also changed the way we consume art. 

Here, then, are five talking points from the first five years of Indian streaming:

A POTTED HISTORY

Up until the pandemic hit in 2020, the Indian OTT space grew primarily as a destination for long-form web originals. Much like the evolution arc in the West – where Netflix went from online movie library to landscape-altering studio – production houses here tied up with streaming companies to create an alternative medium to television. Excel Entertainment was the first to summon the future with the success of Inside Edge and Mirzapur, two of the most popular shows in the country today; they also introduced the term "binge-worthy" to our daily vocabularies. OML started with Amazon shows designed to platform the standup comics on their roster – Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare (Zakir Khan), Die Trying (Kenny Sebastian), Shaitaan Haveli (Varun Thakur) and others – with only Pushpavalli (Sumukhi Suresh) really making a mark. 

Others like ALTBalaji and MXPlayer zeroed in on massy, sex-driven niches that raked in the male Indian middle-class demographic, while Disney+ Hotstar took the remake+adaptation formula and ran with it. Mubi India became the destination for acclaimed festival films and shorts, and SonyLiv became a household name with Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, followed by Tabbar and Rocket Boys

The initial idea was to produce the sort of edgy stuff that traditional family mediums like television and cinema halls had no place for. And for a while, this happened. 2018 was an awakening to the versatility of streaming, with shows like Sacred Games, Mirzapur, Breathe, Yeh Meri Family, Ghoul, Gandii Baat and Little Things S02 making headlines. 2019 consolidated in style, with the debut of diverse long-form hits like Delhi Crime, The Family Man, Made In Heaven, Gullak, Four More Shots Please!, Selection Day, Kota Factory, Criminal Justice, Out of Love and more. By the time the Golden Year of OTT came around in 2020, the stage was set for the world-class likes of Paatal Lok, Scam 1992, Panchayat, Aarya and the massy likes of Ashram to hijack the imagination of a nation reeling from a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. 2021 saw several successful follow-up seasons, as well as the arrival of Tabbar and Mandaar – slow-burning, non-Hindi, non-mainstream stories that might have never seen the light of day in a year as recent as 2017. 

THE YEAR OF RECKONING

2020 was a banner year for long-form storytelling. But it was also the year the movies came home: OTT platforms officially diversified – from collective to procurer and producer – in terms of feature-length entertainment. The shutting down of cinema halls due to the pandemic forced the distribution system to adapt almost overnight. This meant that the term "OTT film" – previously read as a surrogate for substandard direct-to-video titles (Drive, Chopsticks, Rajma Chawal), anthologies (Ghost Stories, Lust Stories) or niche arthouse releases (Soni, Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil, Music Teacher) – became the new normal. Even though Netflix originals like Love Per Square Foot and Guilty preceded the lockdowns, it felt like Shoojit Sircar's Gulabo Sitabo, which premiered on Amazon Prime Video in June 2020, became the first of its kind: a high-profile Hindi film embracing the pandemic-era rulebook. Others, across languages, followed.

This rearrangement of the landscape proved to be a godsend for distinct mid-range titles that might have otherwise been measured – and judged – with the parameters of box-office returns. Suddenly, fascinating narratives like Raat Akeli Hai, Bulbbul, Class of '83, Choked, Serious Men, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitaare, Sherni, Ludo, Jalsa, AK vs AK, Pagglait, Haseen Dillruba, Cobalt Blue, Kaun Pravin Tambe?, Gehraiyaan, Sardar Udham, Looop Lapeta and Thar were no longer shackled by limited/boutique release schedules. They shared the same space – and lens of scrutiny – as big-budget superstar titles forced into a digital release, many of which triggered subscription-hybrid formats like Disney+ Hotstar Multiplex and ZeePlex: Dil Bechara, Khuda Haafiz, Sadak 2, Laxmii, Bhuj, Sanak, Shiddat, The Big Bull and, most notably, the Salman Khan-starring Radhe. Movies like Sooryavanshi and 83 held out for a theatrical release to mixed results. 

While the pandemic clearly led to a change in the kind of stories that were being conceived and told, it also brought all the commercial clutter of the big screen to the small one. This resulted in a sort of receptive dissonance, with the core ambition of OTT – initially tailored towards narrative freedom, lack of commercial constraints and experimental craft – often at odds with massy movies that threatened to hijack the space. But with theatres reopening across the country, some balance has been restored. Movies like RRR, KGF 2 and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 have cemented the divide between the small and big screens. 2020 will also be remembered as the year the streaming rights would become an integral part of the shelf-life of an Indian theatrical release. Dozens of films, whose theatrical runs were either curtailed or affected by the pandemic, have found a fresh life after dropping on OTT platforms. Cases in point: Badhaai Do, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, Jhund, Atrangi Re, Karnan. 

PAN INDIAN AWAKENING

While Netflix navigated their way forward mostly through Hindi originals (The Disciple, Milestone and the odd anthology aside), platforms like Prime Video, Zee5 and Disney+ Hotstar secured titles across languages – especially Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam – to highlight film industries and cultural narratives that were leaps and bounds ahead of Bollywood. The Jyothika-starring legal drama, Ponmagal Vandhal on Amazon Prime, was the first Indian digital release of the pandemic era. Hot on its heels, compelling titles from the South seeped into the cracks of other regional belts. C U Soon became a rare well-received computer-screen thriller. Halal Love Story, Soorarai Pottru, Middle-class Melodies, Drishyam 2, Joji, Malik, Jai Bhim, Sarpatta Parambarai, The Great Indian Kitchen, Maaran, Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana, Pushpa: The Rise (theatrical+streaming) and Karnan (theatrical+streaming) – which were films whose exposure might have previously been limited – now became the drivers of national discourse and cinephile debates. The barrier of language, subtitles and tunnel-vision sensibilities ceased to exist. 

SECOND INNINGS AND UNTAPPED TALENTS

Perhaps the biggest boon of the streaming era is the renewed focus on Indian artists – old and new – that the mainstream film industry has struggled to slot. Film-makers like Hansal Mehta, Raj & DK, Ram Madhvani, Richie Mehta, Karan Anshuman and Shefali Bhushan have found new leases of life in the Hindi long format. Then there's the universal platform – and resolute identity – for rare talents that might have risked getting lost in the hustle and bustle of the box-office culture. Neeraj Ghaywan (Masaan) co-directed Sacred Games 2 and has arguably the best segment from the deluge of OTT anthologies to his name: Geeli Pucchi from Ajeeb Daastaans. Prosit Roy (Pari) and Avinash Arun (Killa) joined forces to direct the brilliantly dense Paatal Lok. Television director Sidharth Sengupta entered the limelight with smart efforts like Apharan, Undekhi and Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein. Ajitpal Singh, whose film Fire in the Mountains premiered at Sundance, came to the OTT fore with the excellent Tabbar. Abhishek Sengupta has helmed both seasons of the solid Laakhon Mein Ek. Mihir Desai directed Masoom and co-directed Mirzapur 2. The list is long. Even established names like Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane and Neeraj Pandey have managed to reveal different facets of their voices. 

More importantly, the OTT space has become a haven for all the acting talent pigeonholed – and unrealized – by commercial cinema. The most accomplished actors in the streaming industry today were reduced to caricatures and peripheral turns on the big screen. Credit is due to the casting directors for upping the standards set by the Anurag Kashyap gang in the Wasseypur movies. Recent examples include Pawan Malhotra (Tabbar), Sakshi Tanwar (Mai), Kulbhushan Kharbhanda (Mirzapur, Guilty Minds), Tahir Raj Bhasin (Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein, Looop Lapeta), Boman Irani (Masoom), Shweta Tripathi Sharma (Mirzapur, Laakhon Mein Ek 2), Amruta Subhash (Bombay Begums, Saas Bahu Pvt. Ltd.), Rasika Dugal (Out of Love, Mirzapur, A Suitable Boy), Vikrant Massey (Mirzapur, Criminal Justice, Love Hostel), Ali Fazal (Mirzapur, Ray), Divyendu Sharma (Mirzapur), Vijay Varma (OK Computer, She), Shreya Dhanwanthary (Scam 1992, The Family Man), Geetanjali Kulkarni (Gullak), Gagan Arora (Tabbar, The Fame Game), Jameel Khan (Gullak) and Shriya Pilgaonkar (Guilty Minds, The Broken News).



One could feel the tectonic plates shifting under us with Gujarati actor Pratik Gandhi's star-making turn in Scam 1992. Ditto for Sushmita Sen's return in and as Aarya, which paved the way for fellow '90s actresses like Raveena Tandon (Aranyak), Madhuri Dixit (The Fame Game) and Sonali Bendre (The Broken News). Big-screen veterans like Abhishek Bachchan, Ajay Devgn, Saif Ali Khan and Bobby Deol have done some of their most interesting acting work in this space as well.  

THE ORIGINAL OTT SUPERSTARS

The finest performers in the country are now legitimate superstars of the subscription-based OTT space: Jaideep Ahlawat (Paatal Lok, The Broken News), Pankaj Tripathi (Mirzapur, Criminal Justice), Manoj Bajpayee (The Family Man), Raghubir Yadav (Panchayat), Neena Gupta (Panchayat, Masaba Masaba) and Shefali Shah (Delhi Crime, Human, Jalsa). 

But prior to 2017, a group of performers became the Indian internet's first bonafide superstars. They monopolized the homegrown void that 'young' Hindi films were struggling to fill. To date, actors like Sumeet Vyas (Permanent Roommates), Jitendra Kumar (Pitchers, Kota Factory, Panchayat), Naveen Kasturia (Pitchers, Aspirants), Mithila Palkar (Little Things) and Dhruv Sehgal (Little Things) boast of the sort of fan-bases that most movie stars can only dream of. But with their popularity rooted solely in the student/millennial demographic – and with the heavy hitters and moneyed studios changing the game – most of them have strived to update their image across mediums. Some, like Jitendra Kumar and Adarsh Gourav (Hostel Daze), have succeeded at crossing over and shedding what I call the F.R.I.E.N.D.S. syndrome. Yet, even if their early fame might today be viewed as a stepping stone to feature-length and commercial opportunities, there's no denying that the five years of post-2017 evolution owe a great deal to its founding members. They softened our relationship with an alien medium, opening the floodgates for the stream to flow. As a result, the future is here for the average OTT subscriber. The same might soon be said for the average storyteller.

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