In 2020, streaming mattered. It went from an exciting source of entertainment to the source of entertainment. While stuck indoors, we turned to OTT platforms for all our entertainment needs and streamed a lot of content. A lot. Netflix reported an increase of 15.8 million subscribers in the first quarter of this year alone.
A whole lot went down this year. Disney+ arrived in India with its massive medley of Marvel movies. Movie theatres closed down for most of the year, and many of the year’s biggest films ended up releasing on streaming platforms. There were new players on the block. In February superstar Allu Arjun launched Aha, a platform for Telugu content. More recently, it appears that the scourge of censorship may have finally hit the world of streaming.
There were also twists we never saw coming. MX Player’s show Aashram, starring Bobby Deol as an evil godman became one of the most watched things of the year, perhaps ever. Elsewhere, a biopic set in the world of finance led by a relatively unknown actor stole the year.
As the year draws to a close, we look back at how India’s ever-expanding roster of streaming players performed this year. We’ve graded them only on the Indian content they put out and how much of it is worth was worth our time. We applied the following grades to each platform:
A: The No Brainers – Platforms consistently hitting it out of the park. You can blindly watch anything on these with some degree of confidence.
B: Watch This Space – Streaming players who’ve had a promising year with some great shows that feel like they could be the first of many. We’re excited to see what they do next.
C: Binge And Ditch – Those worth tuning into for a handful of worthy titles and then duck out of till the next good thing comes along.
D: Content for the sake of content.
We’ve only graded platforms that produced Indian originals. So players such as Jio Cinema, or arthouse specialists like MUBI India or Cinemapreneur who curate and acquire, weren’t included. Some didn’t have enough releases this year for us to get a proper sense of their standing (TVF Play, YouTube’s Dice Media and Voot Select). The same is true for Eros Now, though they just announced a fresh slate of upcoming originals.
From the good, the bad and the unbearable, here’s our assessment of what India’s top 9 streaming players had to offer this year:
How much of a grace period should the major streaming giant be entitled to till it ‘finds its feet’ in India?
The arrival of Netflix heralded India’s streaming content boom with Sacred Games in 2018 and another big win in 2019 after acquiring the now Emmy-winning Delhi Crime. But aside from these exceptions, Netflix has seen little success in its Indian originals and this was its most disappointing year yet. For Netflix India, 2020 felt like a factory line of noble but underwhelming content (Jamtara, She, Taj Mahal 1989, Bhaag Beanie Bhaag), misfires (Guilty, Maska, Hasmukh, Class Of 83, Ginny Weds Sunny, Kaali Khuhi) and straight-up embarrassing duds (Mrs Serial Killer, Betaal, Miss India).
None of these came close to their international heavy hitters in terms of generating conversation, with the exception of Indian Matchmaking, technically an American show. 2020 further cemented Netflix India’s brand of backing intriguing concepts which are poorly executed. Our rating, therefore, reflects not just the consistent string of disappointments, but also the expectation of what a Netflix title should be. We can only hope the intriguing AK Vs AK allows them to end the year on a much-needed high note.
Best Stuff: Vir Das: For India, Raat Akeli Hai, Serious Men, Gunjan Saxena, Bad Boy Billionaires, Cargo
Amazon Prime Video
Amazon Prime Video continued to lead the charge this year as the best streaming platform for Indian content.
While they certainly weren’t devoid of duds (Rasbhari, Breathe Season 2, The Forgotten Army, most comedy specials), Amazon ticked more boxes than any other platform this year. From many of the best shows (Pataal Lok, Panchayat, Pushpavalli 2), to some of the best films in Malayalam (C U Soon, Halal Love Story), Telugu (Middle Class Melodies) and Tamil (Soorarai Pottru). Even Mirzapur, despite a somewhat shaky second season, was a thunderous success in giving India its very own homegrown fandom universe.
Amazon was also the first-mover in kicking off the direct-to-digital release trend with Gulaabo Sitabo back in June, laying the groundwork for many others to follow. Not only is Prime Video singularly responsible for most of the best movies and shows of 2020, it may also have forever disrupted how movies are released in India. Quite the year.
Best Stuff: Pushpavalli Season 2, Panchayat, Paatal Lok, Soorarai Pottru, C U Soon, Middle Class Melodies, Gatham
While the arrival of Disney+ in India is considered one of 2020’s most exciting streaming developments, bringing with it Marvel, The Mandalorian, Mulan and more, the same can’t be said for its Indian content slate. The newly formed Disney+ Hotstar had close to 10 Indian originals this year, made up of series and Bollywood films.
While the acclaimed Sushmita Sen-starrer Aarya gave them a much-needed win, the remainder of its series ranged from competent at best (Hostages 2, Special Ops) to utterly forgettable (Hundred). On a more encouraging note, they did announce a slate of upcoming Tamil originals for which we remain hopeful.
On the Bollywood acquisition front, the platform released all the Fox Star-produced films (now owned by Disney) which happened to include the year’s most dumbfoundingly bad movies (Laxmii, Sadak 2). In short, if it ain’t the Avengers or Aarya, there just wasn’t much to entice, as good Indian content on Disney+ Hotstar continues to remains rare.
Best Stuff: Lootcase, Aarya
SonyLIV was the new player on the block in 2020. While the platform has been around for a while, they relaunched the service this year with a new look and a shiny new slate of close to 10 originals.
The SonyLIV success story was, of course, spearheaded by Scam 1992, the most talked about series of the year. But Scam aside, even their other titles showed competence, promise and originality even if they didn’t entirely work (A Simple Murder, Gullak, Uncommon Sense With Saloni Gaur) giving you a sense that there are capable, creative minds behind the wheel. Their film acquisitions too were among the year’s best (JL50, Bhonsle, Kadakh).
Much like Scam was the underdog no one saw coming, there’s much to suggest that SonyLIV may well be the underdog to watch out for in India’s streaming wars going forward.
Best Stuff: Scam 1992, JL50, Bhonsle, Kadakh
ZEE5 is by far the most prolific Indian streaming platform, and this year was no exception. They had more than 60 titles. And to give credit where it’s due, it also commissioned originals in more languages than any other platform.
But it’s also a content machine, churning out projects for the sake of it, putting quantity over quality with some of the year’s most unbearable titles (Topless, Virgin Bhanupriya, 47 Days). But there were surprises amongst the sea of shoddy shows.
Aside from pulpy guilty pleasures of Never Kiss Your Best Friend and some winning film acquisitions (Chintu Ka Birthday, Taish), they had one of the year’s best shows in Churails. Asim Abbasi’s Pakistani series, a result of ZEE5’s tie-up with Zindagi Originals, was layered, thrilling, refreshing and distinctive and a rare gem amongst the ZEE5 line-up, indicating that there might just be hope for them yet.
Best Stuff: Churails, Chintu Ka Birthday, Taish, An Essay Of The Rain
I could write words here to comment on MX Player’s shoddy storytelling, strategy and execution. But when they have a show (Aashram) with reportedly 450 million streams and over a billion minutes of watch time, does anyone really care what I think? I don’t know what those metrics mean but even my limited brain knows they suggest a sizeable audience. Clearly what matters for a large base of Indian audiences is price over prestige content, or in this case a lack of price. MX Player is the only major streaming player that’s free of cost.
While there were noble attempts amongst their 30-odd titles this year (High, Pawan And Pooja), most of it felt interchangeable. You know those sanksari aunties and uncles who think Indian streaming content is just extreme violence and sex? Well, in the case of MX Player that’s not only true, it’s basically their strategy (Madhuri Talkies, Mastram, Dangerous, Damaged, Naked). No seriously, I dare you to sit through the trailer of Madhuri Talkies.
Best Stuff: Times Of Music, Pawan And Pooja
Much like MX Player, grading ALTBalaji’s performance feels futile. They sort of exist in their own universe with their own dedicated audience.
ALT has had a healthy slate of close to 20 originals this year, made up largely of sex stuff, violence stuff and romantic stuff. But few of their titles this year seemed to have made much of a mark or warrant much discussion, with the exception of ensemble parenting drama Mentalhood. Even the latest Gandi Baat didn’t feel like it delivered the goods.
But at their humble price point of Rs 300 a year, maybe it isn’t fair for us to expect quality or substance. And to their credit, at least they’re consistent and honest to their brand of shameless, irreverent sexuality, and hardcore escapism.
Best Stuff: Bichhoo Ka Khel , Mentalhood (both co-produced by ZEE5)
Hoichoi’s disappointing supply of original productions continued this year. There were bright spots, like Detective, a comedy set in pre-partition Bengal, and commendable efforts shot during the lockdown like Tasher Ghawr and Case Jaundice. But a large number of them — from the downright tacky to the titillating — leave a lot to be desired in terms of quality.
What has made the streaming platform — owned by SVF Entertainment, the largest production house in West Bengal — a one-stop shop for everything Bengali cinema is its wide-ranging library, which includes classic cinema as well as exciting offbeat acquisitions like Sthaniyo Sanbad and Rajlokhi o Srikanto, or the films by Bangladeshi filmmaker Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, besides the mainstream fare.
Best Stuff: Detective, Sthaniyo Sanbad, Rajlokhi o Srikanto, Nagarkirtan
Aha is a relatively new platform that focuses only on Telugu content. It’s too early to weigh its pros and cons, but it’s definitely looking to get bigger and better. Many shows and films are currently being made exclusively for this streaming platform and one of them is an adaptation of Chalam’s Maidanam. If Aha does this well, it can easily get into the akhara of desi OTT sites.
As of today, there are just a handful of recent releases that are watchable. Even though there’s a small portion of older films that are available for free, you can also find them on YouTube. But if you want to watch the Telugu dubbed versions of Malayalam and Tamil films, this is the app you need to download.
Best Stuff: Bhanumathi & Ramakrishna, Colour Photo, Moothon (Dubbed), Jallikattu (Dubbed)