Bulbbul, Axone, Kadakh, Chintu Ka Birthday: Tracing the popularity of content-driven films on OTT platforms
Freedom from pressures of box office release and mainstream limitations has drawn smart filmmaking and writing talent to generate content for OTT first.
Prakash Jha’s gritty films with leading heroes brought complex social- politics realities of the Hindi heartland to mainstream cinema. His upcoming film, Pareeksha, doesn’t feature big names. Starring Adil Hussain, Priyanka Bose and the young Shubham Jha, it adapts real life experiences of a reputed IAS officer and explores the challenges of quality school education. With credible actors that have become popular on OTT and a universally resonant story, Pareeksha has made up for the lack of a theatrical release by opting for a platform that offers steady visibility and more time for discovery.
Even as star driven films like Gulabo Sitaabo, Shakuntala Devi and Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl have chosen splashy digital releases, relatively smaller independent films continue to hold audiences on OTT platforms. People watch these stories rooted in Indian experiences and the absence of glamour or noise around a film doesn’t seem to matter.
Anvita Dutt, who has written and directed the applauded Bulbbul on Netflix, says, “If the content is good people will watch it. And therefore it will trend. And that can happen with or without stars. For Clean Slate Filmz and me in particular stories take the lead. Always. But it is also true that historically, regardless of the platform, stories have always been the hero.”
Dutt’s visually arresting film with enigmatic characters set in late nineteenth century Bengal plays out like a fable. Given its production quality, it appeals to audiences across age groups and languages.
Similarly, Nicholas Kharkongor, who has made a slice of life comedy about North East Indians living in Delhi has found a huge audience on Netflix. Axone, named after a Manipuri dish, trended amongst top 10 films on the platform for nearly two weeks. Initially looking to release theatrically in April, the lockdown set the balls in motion for a deal with Netflix for producers Yoodlee Films. “It’s not something that I necessarily desired, but the Netflix releases has turned out for the best. I have friends all over the world. So I had a lot of people calling out the blue that they just saw my film because I don’t actually talk about my work. It was discovered accidentally. In the UK it was a banner film on the Netflix home page. It also trended in the Middle East and was also widely watched in the USA. It had global exposure, which is overwhelming,” says Kharkongor.
Axone features North Eastern actors in lead roles along side Sayani Gupta, a popular face on streaming. As the region remains underrepresented in cinema in India, the film has resonated because of its true to life feel. “ While writing it, I felt was just a small story about North Eastern Indians, but it’s also a universal story as it’s primarily about food and food smells. What smells divine to me might smell terrible to someone else,” explains Kharkongor.
As leading GECs launch OTT platforms, films have become big draws to introduce audiences to their content slate.
On Sony Liv, Kadakh, a comedy by Rajat Kapoor has won praise. This week, Bhonsle, featuring Manoj Bajpayee in the lead and directed by Devashish Makhija, has become a top choice for critics. Made exclusively for OTT, or acquired at cost-effective deals, these films don’t break the bank but sustain audience interest with engaging stories and positive word of mouth publicity. For filmmakers, they bring room to actually release a film that would otherwise not survive the competitive theatrical exhibition business. A good example is the sweet dramedy, Chintu Ka Birthday, featuring Vinay Pathak, Tilottoma Shome, and Seema Pahwa, has won strong word of mouth praise on Zee5. While it got a very limited release in theatres across some cities in India, many more have watched it online during the lockdown.
Freedom from pressures of box office release and mainstream limitations has drawn smart filmmaking and writing talent to generate content for OTT first. Anvita adds, “In my personal experience with Netflix I had complete freedom to tell my story the way I wanted to. Everything I needed to do justice to the film was given. I guess you become braver in your choices when box office is not at play. But you still can’t be foolhardy if you are making content for OTT. I am sure when you have a theatrical release the economics of it might influence how you approach the making of the film. But even in a theatrical release the story has to resonate. “
Original web series from India is still an evolving format for a country where TV has sustained on mediocre and melodramatic stories for decades. As web series build gradually on writing binge-worthy, gripping stories, quality films on OTT platforms might become an alternate draw in the long run. Nothing can quite replace a theatrical experience. But stories from India’s countless lived experience can definitely add a valuable dimension for the movie buff.
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