And The Best Indian Streaming Platform of 2021 Is…, Film Companion

The landscape of cinema and television has been radically, perhaps irreversibly, altered by streaming. This was clear last year. This year, too, the trend of direct to OTT releases continued, with a swelling slate of films acquired and shows commissioned. The ‘Streaming Wars’ continue to be waged. 

Also Read: And The Best Indian Streaming Platform of 2020 Is…

The Altered Streaming Landscape

But there have been some curious new developments. For one, streaming platforms have started curating regional content with a feral, ferocious ardour, with SonyLIV acquiring Tamil releases, JioCinema picking up the rights of Malayalam films, and Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Zee5, and Disney+ Hotstar jostling for the rights of upcoming and recently released big-ticket films. RRR, releasing in January 2022, went to Zee5, Kurup went to Netflix, Marakkar Arabikadalinte Simham went to Amazon Prime Video, Maanadu went to SonyLIV. 

The other new development is a recognition that the status quo of streaming — with so many platforms proliferating, more regional streaming sites mushrooming — is unsustainable for the viewer. How many accounts can we, after all, have? 

So, for example, ALT Balaji has content sharing agreements with Zee5 and MX Player. Their biggest show, the third season of their diabetic romantic drama Broken But Beautiful, among others from their slate can be found on both ALT Balaji and MX Player. Amazon Prime Video also launched “Prime Video Channels”, which gives its subscribers the option to purchase add-on subscriptions at a chapter rate from Discovery+, Lionsgate Play, Eros Now, Docubay, MUBI, Hoichoi, Manorama Max, and Shorts TV. In the midst of this, Netflix — in a desperate bid to increase its plateauing base —  dramatically reduced their monthly subscription price, from ₹499 per year to ₹199 for their basic plan. 

Now, with the duration between a theatrical and a streaming release being reduced to a sliver — Marakkar Arabikadalinte Simham, for example, came to Amazon Prime within two weeks of its theatrical release — the turf wars between theaters and OTT, too, will continue to be negotiated into the next year.

About The Ranking

This streaming year-end ranking, however, is a ranking of the platforms we think have provided enough content to judge their artistic validity and overall quality. This report is not based on, nor is it swayed by the commercial prospects and viewership data. While we do have more robust data, which we put out through our weekly Ormax reports, and even platforms like Netflix are making their viewership numbers transparent, these are merely contextual to our ranking. For this list, we have only taken into account the Indian content on the streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ Hotstar. 

This list does not include regional platforms — like Neestream (Malayalam), Hoichoi (Bengali), Aha (Telugu), Oho (Gujarati), Aao (Odia), and Planet Marathi. Neither does it include platforms like MX Player, ALT Balaji, and Voot. This is because — in the case of MX Player and ALT Balaji — there is no point beating a dead horse. These platforms, it is clear, have zeroed in on their target audience with an eagle-eye like clarity and are providing exactly what they want. It is either ALT Balaji’s alternating soft-porn (Hai Taubba) and sincere family values (His Storyy, Pavitra Rishta) or MX Player’s replicable, reckless violence. Thus, the criticism of one show can also be replicated across their slate. Voot, on the other hand, has not produced shows prolifically enough to gauge in which direction the platform is going. We have not included YouTube here for the same reason, though Bhuvan Bam’s Dhindora deserves a special mention for breaking through this year with weekly episodes that always brought in the viewership numbers, often higher than the latest Netflix or Amazon Prime releases. Following are the top 5 streaming platforms, ranked from worst to best. 

5. Disney+ Hotstar

The most massive streaming platform — in terms of subscriber base and thus viewership numbers — Disney+ Hotstar treats this largesse with such disrespect it is hard not to take offense. (It is the  HBO dramas like Succession and Mare of Easttown that stream on the platform which stands between the renewal and a cancellation of my account.) But this disrespect doesn’t dent its commercial prospects. Without fail, its shows, especially both seasons of The Legend Of Hanuman which came out this year, always nestled a top spot in our weekly report on viewership numbers. 

With unbearably pretentious shows like OK Computer or self-serious dramas that mistake boredom for slow-burn like Criminal Justice Season 2 or even the tepid, devoid-of-personality The Empire, it feels like they are just throwing money at the wall, hoping it is made of glue. Most unforgivable, though — apart from the tonal catastrophe that was Bhuj: The Pride Of India — was how the platform has failed to produce a single exciting South acquisition: Maestro, Netrikann, Boomika, Bhoomi, Teddy, Pon Manickavel, Annabelle Sethupathi, November Story, Seetimaarr, all dullards. 

The saving grace of the platform was the second season of
Aarya, which combined corny exuberance with urgent drama. It also showed that, unlike Out Of Love and City Of Dreams, they could pull a show through its second season. 

Best: Aarya Season 2

4. Zee5

Zee5 has, perhaps, been the most reckless this year, with acquiring Radhe for ₹190 crores. They released it in a chaotically brought out pay-per-view model (₹249) that failed miraculously in the face of rampant piracy. The film’s general, campy awfulness was merely incidental to its failure. That apart, Zee5 has had an unusually mediocre year — despite beginning it with a promising, if trite, courtroom drama like Nail Polish with dull films like Rashmi Rocket and Bob Biswas being their crowning jewel. Even their attempts at subversive quirk, with Sunflower and Helmet, fell flat. 

But what they got right — much like what they got right last year with
Never Kiss Your Best Friend — was the romantic sugar rush. Qubool Hai 2.0, an OTT reincarnation of the 864-episode soap opera Qubool Hai, got the viewership conversion from television to streaming, while Dhoop Ki Deewar, its cross border love story, was sweet without being startling, treating teenagers as teenagers are — lanky, indecisive, headstrong, confused, but not willing to be accused as such. 

Also Read: Qubool Hai 2.0: Why Did A Soapy Television Rom-Com Go The India-Pakistan Route?

Their other Pakistani show, Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam, touted to be this year’s Churails — the sensationally feminist Pakistani show from last year, also on Zee5was an unspeakable noir mess. Then, there was 14 Phere, Zee5’s lifeless hat-tip to Bollywood’s glorious Imran-Khan-Romcom phase, not to forget the usual bashful patriotism with Jeet Ki Zid and State Of Siege: Temple Attack, about which the less said, the better. 

Operation Java (Malayalam)

3. Netflix

This year continues its worrying trend of Netflix India riding the wave of Netflix’s global success — including Netflix Korea which gave us Squid Game and Netflix France which gave us Lupin. Which is to say, this year, Netflix India has commissioned nothing of lasting cultural or artistic value. It is the sustained intrigue of their global blockbusters — Money Heist, You, Never Have I Ever, Sex Educationthat makes Netflix worthy of its subscription price, which has since fallen from ₹499 to ₹199. 

Bombay Begums was their most compelling show, they have followed it up with the pathetic, overperformed, overproduced Call My Agent: Bollywood, and the needlessly provocative and the troll-like Decoupled. They have been consistently terrible with their anthologies — the cruel and unforgiveable Navarasa, the pretentious Ray, the patchwork Ankahi Kahaniya, the inane Feels Like Ishq, each with perhaps just one film worth thinking about after the credits roll, like Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi in Ajeeb Daastaans. In between there was a sweet, aesthetic reprieve with Meenakshi Sundareshwar that was unable to differentiate between simplicity and simplistic. 

Also Read: Neeraj Ghaywan On Exploring Caste And Sexuality In His Ajeeb Daastaans Short

The second season of Kota Factory and the fourth and last of Little Thingsboth were commissioned only after the success of their previous seasons on YouTube — held them in good ground. What must be appreciated is their incredibly innovative promotional ecosystem — their YouTube page is a sterling example of marrying form and content, their Tweets have a sly, situational plug for their shows and movies — that gives the effect of content worthy of that level of intelligent promotions.

There is also a concerted swerve away from their early experimental phase, which gave us the sledgehammer nostalgia of Taj Mahal 1989 and Maska, or the quirk aggression of House Arrest. Their shows have also started looking like each other — the oddly tinted colour correction. The one film that could have broken this spell of visual ennui is Cobalt Blue, which has curiously been removed from their slate. (It was to be released on December 3rd, but on the day of the release, Netflix announced that the film would be postponed indefinitely.) 

Where Netflix has saved face, is with their acquisitions i.e. the movies they have acquired after they were made, not movies or shows they green-lit. Chaitanya Tamhane’s
The Disciple and Basil Joseph’s Minnal Murali, the Tovino Thomas-starrer Malayalam superhero film, gilded this rotten year for them, along with other phenomenal acquisitions like Nayattu, and commercially speaking, Sooryavanshi. 

Best: The Disciple, Minnal Murali

2. SonyLIV

The thing about SonyLIV shows is that even when they are spectacular failures, like the visually and narratively experimental Chutzpah or The Whistleblower’s dramatization of the Vyapam Scam, or spectacular mediocrities like the retelling of Rabari Devi’s life in Maharani, they show promise, sparks of the greatness that could have been. Either it is the meticulous production design, or the ambitious cinematography — the long takes that simmer characters — or the attempts at creating character depth and diverse dialects. Even when the collective effect of the show is ennui, something still strikes as fresh. 

Even their acquisitions betray an artfulness — the stylistically rich mood-piece anthology Tryst With Destiny, and film director Vasanth’s ode to the hacked yet thriving feminine spirit in Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum. Both films were acquired after they won accolades at film festivals, which shows where the attention of SonyLIV is being directed. Even their regional acquisitions are odd yet cinematic — the cutting quirk of Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam, the wanderlust in Vaazhl, the montane rootedness in Thaen, the seasickness in Churuli. Even when the films don’t work — and they often don’t — you cannot but appreciate the audacity of it. 

But even as they provide some of the most compelling drama on OTT —
Tabbar, which is certainly one of the best shows of this year, and the second season of Gullak, — they are not nearly prolific enough to pull a subscriber. Nor is the platform user-friendly, with the subtitles often on their own trip. All eyes are on Rocket Boys, the story of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, which had one of the finest teasers of our time — yes, our time — scored by Achint Thakkar (behind the Scam 1992 earworm title track). 

Best: Tabbar

1. Amazon Prime Video

Five of the top 10 Indian movies on IMDb this year came from Amazon Prime Video (Shershaah, Jai Bhim, Sardar Udham, Karnan, Drishyam 2), compared to 3 on Netflix (Mimi, Sooryavanshi, Haseen Dillruba), one on Disney+ Hotstar (Shiddat), and one on Zee5 (Master). Not that IMDb is the verdict on artistic excellence, but it certainly is a signal. 

From successfully coasting along their franchises — some, like
Inside Edge are onto their third season, while others like The Family Man, Mirzapur are leaping excitedly, with validating wind behind their back, into their third innings — to creating stand alone pieces like the tense Mumbai Diaries 26/11 or the cinematic and unintelligent Tandav, Amazon Prime Video, under content head Aparna Purohit’s leadership, has churned out some of the best Indian shows. The Family Man: Season 2 was the definitive streaming moment of this year — in terms of hype, quality, and the robust conversation it generated around representation, brown-face, and a-politics in cinema. 

The show — released 5 months later, after a fresh round of cuts — also brought to the fore conversations around self-censorship that streaming platforms are practicing following the Tandav controversy, where scenes had to be chopped off from the show due to Twitter outrage that calcified into court cases calling for the arrest of Purohit, among others.

Also Read: How Censorship – and Self-Censorship – Came to Indian Streaming in 2021

Amazon Prime Video was also the receptacle for some of the best Tamil and Malayalam movies — Malik, Sarpatta Parambarai, Kala, and Jai Bhim (part of a partnership with Suriya and Jyothika’s 2D Entertainment). While it is still flailing around the comedy genre, with the unbearable LOL: Enga Siri Paappom, and the patchy second season of One Mic Stand, it certainly has its finger on the diverse cinematic pulses that be, giving dull streaming blockbusters like Shershaah and Toofaan along with meditative stretches of cinema like Sherni and Sardar Udham.  

Also Read: What Makes A Streaming Blockbuster?  

Best: Sardar Udham, Sarpatta Parambarai

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