The Digital Dragon!

article

Unrealistic drama, cacophonic news…. That’s all from Indian television. Naturally, with OTT services showing reality, from Ram Mandir to rural women’s sexuality, youth are going off the TV

GEETA SINGH

GEETA SINGH

Geeta Singh has spent 20 years covering cinema, music and society, giving new dimensions to feature writing. She has to her credit the editorship of a film magazine. She is also engaged in exploring the socio-economic diversity of Indian politics. She is the co-founder of Parliamentarian.

Who are Pablo Escobar, Ganesh Eknath Gaitonde or Sartaj Singh? Why are they coming into the conversations of Indian youth? Pablo Escobar, the protagonist of Narcos, a show famous worldwide, speaks in Spanish but he is still captivating youngsters of small cities like Jaipur or Jalandhar.

Riots of 1984, Shah Bano, demand for a new religion, mob lynching, Ram Mandir, sterilisation, Congress’ 70-years, Emergency, cow meat, Muslims, Hindus, the dazzle of film industry - ‘Sacred Games’ talk about all of them, mainly in foul language, while rummaged through small-time hustling to armed gang wars.

Ganesh Gaitonde, the antagonist, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, gives Sartaj, the protagonist of the show, played by Saif Ali Khan, a challenge of saving Mumbai city in 25 days and says, ‘Save your city.’ Show directors Anurag Kashyap and Vikram Motwane tried to tell the tale of the unholy alliances through ‘Sacred Games’.

The show is based on the eponymous book by Vikram Chandra. The eight episodes of ‘Sacred Games’ have many names inspired by Hindu mythology. Netflix acquired the copyright of epic novel in 2016, and Chandra, who is also a professor at the English department of UC Berkeley, California, is associated with the show as a script consultant. The show is Netflix’s first Indian original show, was released in nearly 200 countries and garnered close to 130 million subscribers.

Within a week of its release, the show emerged as a new craze among youngsters. With frenzy and tremendous viewership, it generated controversy too. Political parties like Congress and Trinamool Congress are demanding a ban on it, whereas BJP’s IT Cell used it as a weapon to malign Congress through social media.

In fact, Amit Malviya, chief of BJP’s IT Cell, posted a clip of the show on Twitter. The Congress made a huge noise over the shot where Ganesh Gaitonde mentioned Rajiv Gandhi’s name while narrating about the situation after the death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and how Rajiv became the next Prime Minister and was dragged into the Bofors scandal. Adding to this, the show’s nude scenes are also in the spotlight. Newbie Kubra Sait played the role of transgender Kukku and became the talk of the town with such scenes.

Stories Abound

Another most-watched show, Narcos, is based on the rise and fall of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. It retells Pablo’s life from the 1970s, how he ventured into the cocaine business and the political turmoil during that period. Narcos interweaves the main events of Colombia and Pablo’s correlation to them. The directors of ‘Sacred Games’ somehow kept their treatment and storytelling similar to Narcos.

‘Sacred Games’ is not alone. ‘Lust Stories’ is another Netflix show that created quite a buzz. Directed by noted names of Bollywood - Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar - the four stories of this movie far delve into the real-life relationships of four women through their sexcapades, personal desires of self-pleasuring, vibrators and lust. Manisha Koirala, Bhumi Pednekar, Radhika Apte and Kiara Advani are the four protagonists who put the focus on love, sex and everything in between. On the other hand, in the movie ‘Veere Di Wedding’, which was released in cinema halls with censor certificate, there was one scene in which the character played by Swara Bhaskar uses a dildo to masturbate. Swara was trolled by the implacable moral police on social media for this scene. But no one says anything about the ravishing scenes in ‘Sacred Games’.

Recent data released by International Business Times tells a different story. As per the stat, sale of sex toys for Indian women have increased by 44 per cent in the month of June from an online store called IMBesharam.com. Pertinently, both the films – ‘Veere Di Wedding’ and ‘Lust Stories’ released in that month.

On the lines of Netflix, our Desi digital platform ALTBalaji, owned by TV czarina Ekta Kapoor, made a four-episode web series around rural women’s sexual desires called ‘Gandii Baat’. “Tum Karo to ‘Lust Stories’, Hum Kare Toh Gandii Baat.” Ekta Kapoor also tried her best to take advantage of Netflix’s popularity through such provocative digital promotion on social media sites Facebook and Twitter.

So now the question arises, are we now free to watch the stuff which we are not allowed on TV or in the theatres?

Audience Freedom

Yes. Nowadays, Netflix and Amazon Prime can free Indian audiences from the boredom of our TV channels and also through the intervention of censorship. These global streaming services try to seep into the cinematic consciousness of Indian viewers uncensored. Netflix is armoured with the latest technology that makes it the global leader. The shows and films produced by Netflix have the unique aspect of multi-linguality. Shows like ‘Narcos’, ‘Fauda’ and ‘Crown’ helped Netflix to make a huge impression in India. All of them even proved cash cows for Netflix.

We are still coy about exploring women’s sexuality on-screen as our society is male-dominated. And the films like ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’, ‘S Durga’, ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’ that tried to tell the stories of women’s sexuality faced ire and had a long and bitter fight with censorship for release. On the other hand ‘Sacred Games’, ‘Lust Stories’, ‘Gandii Baat’ and many other shows are doing this explicitly, without any outcry, since they are easily available on Over the Top (OTT) services.

OTT is a subscription-based service that provides video on demand, including existing series acquired from other producers, as well as original content produced specifically for the service. These content providers distribute streaming media as a standalone product directly to consumers over the Internet, bypassing broadcast television platforms that traditionally act as a controller or distributor of such content.

Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, HBO Go, Hotstar and Hooq are some of the giant players of OTT in the world, and there are now more than 35 of them in India. Their Indian counterparts are ALTBalaji, Jio TV, Voot, Eros, Zee5, SonyLIV, and some independent platforms like Spuul and TVFPlay.

These streaming services can be accessed via their websites as well as via apps on smart mobiles or smart TV platforms through paid subscriptions. India has nearly 432 million internet users and this number is growing at a rate of four to eight per cent.

With falling data cost, thanks to Jio, and small subscription fees, these streaming services are emerging as a big threat to traditional TV and films. All of them want viewers and to get them they are aggressively focusing on creating niche content to build a loyal customer base.

Catching Eyeballs

Since their launch in India in 2016, global giants Netflix and Amazon are putting their utmost efforts and spending millions to get more and more subscribers. For this, they are using various marketing strategies, too. Both are creating their original content apart from looking to Bollywood and regional cinema. They are signing deals with leading stars, production houses and filmmakers. Netflix has signed deals with Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment and Aamir Khan.

After ‘Sacred Games’ and ‘Love Per Square Foot’, a romantic film about a boy and a girl who try to find a house in Mumbai, Netflix is expanding its India slate with more new originals. After the release of ‘Sacred Games’, three more productions are already under work which includes ‘Selection Day’, ‘Again’, and ‘Bard of Blood’. And another four shows are in the pipeline – ‘Leila’, ‘Ghoul’ and ‘Crocodile’, including the recently announced adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s popular novel Midnight’s Children. Amazon has tweaked its strategy to challenge Netflix, and they are making a multi-season series based on the fantasy novel, Lord of the Rings. Amazon has already produced two India-original shows – ‘Inside Edge’ starring Vivek Oberoi and Richa Chadha made by Farhan Akhtar’s Excel Entertainment, and a crime thriller ‘Breathe’, starring R Madhavan and Amit Sadh.

Amazon is also taking possession of film titles aggressively. Adding to this, it has also earmarked Rs 2,000 crore worth investment for its video streaming service. Not long ago, Amazon has struck a deal with Salman Khan for all his films and with other production houses like Yash Raj Films, Excel Entertainment and Dharma Productions. Amazon is also tapping large subscriptions by penetrating into the vernacular medium. So recently it released its first Telugu series, ‘Gang Stars’ with Telugu superstar Jagapati Babu.

Veteran actor Manoj Bajpayee will be seen in ‘The Family Man’ series, in which Amazon pays tribute to everyday heroes whose sacrifices go unsung. ‘The Family Man’ tells the story of a middle-class man who works for a special cell of the National Intelligence Agency.

Diverse Genres

Black humour and comedy are the new in-thing for young generation and to attract the youth, Amazon and Netflix have left no stone unturned. Amazon has contracted with 14 Indian standup comedians such as Mallika Dua, Saurabh Pant, Kanan Gill and Zakir Khan and started a nine-episode series called ‘Comicstan’. Netflix is also shortly coming up with two comedy shows of Veer Das and Aditi Mittal. And both Amazon and Netflix have ensured that none of their jokes or satire will be censored.

Divya and Anshuman are a cool couple of Delhi working in an MNC. There is no DTH connection in their house. They watch the news and their favourite programmes on their mobile phones on digital platforms. She loves to watch the ‘Riverdale’ show on Netflix. Tapasya Gaur and Prerna Sharma, working at Expedia in Gurgaon love to watch ‘Game of Thrones’ and other latest Hollywood flicks on Hotstar. And for news and other shows, these girls rely on YouTube.

Although HBO continues to be a major revenue performer, rising seven per cent in 2017 to $6.3 billion. Whereas, Netflix’s subscriber growth fell short of its own projections. It added just 5.2 million new subscribers worldwide in the second quarter of 2018, well below the projected number of 6.2 million. At present, subscription-wise Netflix has over 117.6 million subscribers worldwide and 57 million US subscribers. HBO has 134 million subscribers worldwide and 54 million in the US.

Still, Netflix revenues are nearly more than twice of HBO’s 11 billion dollars.

Indians are the biggest binge watchers on the platform in the world, therefore, Netflix sees a potential of adding 100 million subscribers here. At ET Global Business Summit, talking about Netflix charges (Rs 500-800 depending on the plan), Reed Hastings, the chairman and CEO of the pioneer online streaming company, said that the objective at the moment is to have such great content that consumers start comparing Netflix not with cable TV services, but with movie price tickets. Hastings stressed that the company plans on optimising the gap in India where Indian TV production value is much lower than the rest of the world. “What we are doing is investing in shows like ‘Sacred Games’, in hi-tech series like ‘Narcos’ that it has such great looks and a global appeal. I think we will be a giant exporter of Indian stories”, Hastings said.

Currently, the Indian streaming market grew 116 per cent in 2017 in terms of the number of subscribers. As per HIS-Markit report, Netflix has 4.5 million subscribers and Amazon grew from 4.37 million in 2016 to 8.5 million in 2018. The other OTT, Hotstar, saw a jump of 100 per cent, from 33 million in 2016 to 68 million. With more than just two million subscribers, Eros is trying hard to improve the subscription base. It is primarily responsible for producing Bollywood films, and has a galactic library of more than 3,000 Indian films, including Hindi and regional hits, and is the largest in the country. So far, Netflix has focused on pushing its global content such as ‘House of Cards’, ‘Orange is the New Black’, ‘Master of None’, ‘Narcos’ to Indian subscribers. While it has made significant progress in adding original regional and Hindi content, it still has a lot of ground to make up on competitors. Players such as Hotstar and Voot have higher access to Star India and Viacom 18 media libraries. Therefore it makes more sense for them to leverage their strength to penetrate the Indian market.

Newer Players

Although native digital platforms ALTBalaji and SonyLIV are also trying hard, subscribers accessibility is not possible for them in the near future. Therefore they opted for other routes. ALTBalaji launched its first regional Tamil show Maya Thirrai in May. They are expanding by introducing regional shows in Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Telugu, and Gujarati. And SonyLIV launched Marathi web series called Yolo with plans to launch regional short films.

Another desi OTT service, TVF Play, has over 38 lakh people as its subscribers. Its viewers are young and show makers are also young like them. AIB and TVF are quite ahead of the content companies which are winding up on this small screen.

Sameer Saxena, one of the TVF founders, said: “There are different ways to tell a story. One is silver screen and other is TV, but now the new round of entertainment has started with a new medium where you can see all the things on your mobile”. He adds that unlike TV serials when they make love stories they keep it real. “Young people can relate to our stories.”

Data Dash

With the availability of low-cost 4G data, the equation in the data market has changed, and it is changing our habit of watching films and TV shows. The facilities which were earlier restricted, offered in metro cities, are now reaching small towns and villages. Until recently, the data pack of 1 GB on the mobile phones would last for one month, now 1 GB has become just a day’s requirement.

A report by Cisco says that by 2023 we will have 83 million Internet users. As per the report of research firm Media Partners Asia India’s online video market, valued at over $700 million, is expected to grow to $2.4 billion in value by 2023. The merging of broadband and smart TVs will make streaming services like Netflix and Amazon our everyday habit. Perhaps after some time, this digital bazaar of Internet TV will spread into tier two and three cities at the same pace, which we saw once upon a time for DTH companies like Tata Sky and Airtel.

Recently, Reliance Industries CMD Mukesh Ambani portrayed the future of Indians living in smart homes with Jio GigaFibre, the high-speed fixed line broadband. The company will provide the connectivity of fibre to 1,100 towns and cities with a router, set-top box and a fixed line phone and it will target 50 million broadband users. And as per trade pundits, it is expected that Reliance’s entry in this segment will pose challenges for the film and TV industry because the biggest beneficiary of the Jio GigaFiber would be OTT services such as Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hotstar.

Media industry experts say OTT is already posing an adverse impact on DTH. Therefore, operators like Airtel and Videocon D2H have rolled out connected set-top boxes allowing consumers to stream online content. They have tied up with Netflix to integrate its app to their set-top boxes as it will double down on the growing base of its television viewers in the country.

Today’s young generation plays a vital role in adventing the revolution of online streaming services because TV has ignored the youth. We may have a thousand channels but none of them is catering to the choices of youth. Saas Bahu dramas, cacophonic dramatic news and immature stories drove the youth from television.

At present, India does not come in the top ten countries where OTT rules. US tops the list, followed by Japan, China, UK and Canada. But as per the Price water house Coopers (PwC) report, revenue-wise, in India OTT services have earned Rs 2,019 crore. And by 2023 it is expected to reach more than 5.5 000 crores.

Adieu, TV!

As more and more viewers are switching to this medium, so are advertisers. They are following their customers and booking slots on OTTs. As compared to 63 million in 2016, right now 176 million OTT viewers are driving revenues in excess of $500 million.

On the other hand, overpriced film tickets also meant that many loyal moviegoers are now spoilt for choice. The powerhouse of Bollywood, Karan Johar, who is also expanding his business on OTTs, is worried about online streaming services invasion.

“Right now digital is a revenue source for Bollywood, but even that is tied with how a film does at the box office. If a star doesn’t do well in theatres, his film won’t have as much equity in the digital market. And if the audience loses the habit of going to theatres, then it is difficult to bring them back,” Karan Johar said.

This is Digital India. This is the world of youth, where TV is out and digital platform is in. The young generation, which spends most of their time on mobile phones and social media, is ahead of all in this digital revolution. In the past year, millions of viewers have adopted digital streaming platforms and bid Adieu to the TV. As per PwC report, online streaming by subscribers is expected to grow to 35.5 crores and by 2022, with a growth of 22.6 per cent, India will be in the top ten countries.

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