Cinema in the time of a pandemic: Why 2020 belonged to the platform-agnostic creator
From Gulabo Sitabo taking the route of digital release, to Achint Thakkar's overnight stardom, the entertainment industry experienced a complete shakeup, as OTT platforms took centre-stage for a captive audience.
It's safe to say that Achint Thakkar was still a relatively unknown name till about three months ago. A week later, Hansal Mehta's Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story changed everything. Thakkar's opening theme for the show has over 12 million views on his YouTube channel, and has been the subject of several memes related to the wildly successful show. About three weeks later, while the phenomenon of Scam 1992 seemed to be still going strong, Thakkar's magic made another appearance in Bejoy Nambiar's Taish, where the song 'Saawan Mod Muhara' (a song from Thakkar's 2018 album ft The Khan Brothers) is used in a jailbreak sequence. "It's really bizarre, and it's been overwhelming. I remember how I'd had like 4k-5k followers, and I was really happy with that. So now whatever is happening is a bonus for me," Thakkar told Firstpost over the phone. Thakkar's YouTube channel currently has around 55000 subscribers, and the views for his album songs have shot up from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand in the last three months. Showcasing persistence through what seems like a lonely journey as a musician since 2011, it's taken Thakkar almost a decade to become an overnight success. There's a strong argument to be made about Thakkar's limelight being partially owed to a pandemic in the midst of a largely uncertain year, where OTT platforms took centre-stage for a captive audience comprising millions.
In a year marred by a global pandemic, which consequently resulted in the shutting down of multiplexes/theatres, 2020 was the year when the spotlight was firmly on platform-agnostic content creators.
When theatres closed without a reopening date seemingly unclear, most of the producers, and in turn, the audience turned to OTT platforms to distract themselves through quarantine.
Streaming giant, Netflix, reported its most profitable quarter, as the world struggled to come to terms with a new way of life. "With the impact of the pandemic, we know our customers are turning to streaming as a primary form of entertainment while they are in lockdown. In India, we've seen a strong growth of the average amount of content being viewed by Prime members, as well as a surge in first-time viewership and overall membership. Customer habits are rapidly evolving as they are spending larger amounts of time on video-streaming platforms. In the next three to four years, we anticipate we'll have as many people streaming as viewing TV; and we see a big growth in SVOD too," says Aparna Purohit, Head of India Originals, Amazon Prime Video India.
When the PM addressed the nation on 24 March, and there was uncertainty looming for an entire year's slate of films, one of the first makers to announce their 'audacious step' of taking the route for an OTT release was Gulabo Sitabo producer, Ronnie Lahiri. "At first, many of us thought that this was only happening for 10 days, and then probably another 10 days. Our release date was a month after the lockdown. In May, we realised this was going to take a while, which is when we decided to go ahead and pursue an OTT release," says Lahiri. Written by Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar, Lahiri recounts how many reacted to the film's OTT release, as if they had 'ditched' the system. There were a few bitter press releases from the multiplex chains 'expressing their disappointment' in Gulabo Sitabo's release on Amazon Prime, which set a precedent for several modestly-budgeted films like Gunjan Saxena, Dil Bechara, Shakuntala Devi taking the OTT route.
"One cannot be rigid about anything. Both Shoojit and I come from the Armed forces background, where every 2 years you move to a new city and make new friends and adapt differently, and that's the simple tenet we live by. Given a choice, we would always want to screen the film in a theatre, but there are times when you can either be idealistic or realistic. We had the foresight to take that first step, and when you do something like that you will always have detractors. But since we made the film with our own money, we were obviously free to do whatever we like with the finished product," says Lahiri, who also had Vicky Kaushal-starrer, Udham Singh, in production through the pandemic.
It's also poetic that, director Hansal Mehta, whose Bollywood journey has been the embodiment of chaos, turns out to be one of the most loved filmmakers during the pandemic. Showered with near-unanimous reviews for Scam 1992, Mehta feels that it is also the onus on filmmakers to know a film that might reach more people on a streaming platform, compared to a few days in a theatre. "There's this fake machismo you know, that one makes films only for the big screen, it's all fake bravado." He even offered his own film, Omerta, as an example to make his point - "That film did not leave any mark whatsoever during its theatrical release. It came and it disappeared. The entire team was very sad, that all their effort came to nothing. Then it was carried by Zee5, and it got a second lease of life. We actually had a celebration two years after the theatrical release of the film." Mehta said how he sought an OTT release for Omerta in 2017, which was met with befuddlement by both the platform and his own producer - "I even suggested this (Omerta) could be an interesting Netflix original. Netflix India, at that time, had not produced a single original. At that point, they were still chasing the big stars, the family audience, so they hardly even got back to me. On the other hand, my producer thought that I did not have enough confidence in my film."
Mehta is of the opinion that it is the lean team of decision-makers between him and the management of Applause Entertainment (the producers of Scam 1992) that allowed them to make the show as authentic as possible. "One of the clinchers for this, was the choice of Pratik Gandhi. And that set the tone for backing a new cinematographer, composer and even production designers, who had not worked on a scale like this. What a great ensemble it turned out to be! I think this might be Mukesh Chhabra's best work after Wasseypur and Delhi Crime." Scam 1992 had some of the year's most inspired casting in Shahbaz Khan as Ajay Kedia, Nikhil Dwivedi as Thyagu, most of these actors who had been deemed 'not bankable' by the big screen.
Amazon Prime Video has had an impressive 2020 slate of shows and films. While having one of the best reviewed shows in Pataal Lok, the platform also had one of the most watched original Hindi shows in Mirzapur season 2 (if memes and general fan-fare on the social media are an indicator). While also acquiring films like Gulabo Sitabo, Soorarai Pottru for an OTT release. "Our 2020 slate has had an incredible collection of stories that are relatable to audiences across genres – from a gangland drama such as Mirzapur Season 2, a musical - Bandish Bandits, a socio-political drama – Paatal Lok, a female-forward show dedicated to urban female friendships – Four More Shots Please! to our most recent Original launch – Sons of the Soil: Jaipur Pink Panthers, that marks our entry into the space of sports docu-series, we haven’t shied away from experimenting and bringing different stories and perspectives to the fore. Our Originals are passion projects for our creators, the story that keeps them up at nights, the story that needs to be told. That is where The Forgotten Army emerges from, or a musical like Bandish Bandits springs out of. With over 23 original show launches, many of which have become franchises, we are happy to say that the bet paid off,” Purohit says.
Hansal Mehta, however, is also wary of OTT platforms' 'arrogance' getting in the way as they become a 'messiah' for new-age content.
"When I made my first release, Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, there were no multiplexes. When the multiplexes came in, there was a lot of joy that 'smart films' will have a platform (laughs), and before you know it the messiah becomes the monster. We were still left in the lurch. OTT shouldn't go the multiplex way. Everybody has a job to do, so you latch on to the next thing that works. Suddenly we see everyone flock to OTT platforms, not realising that the show has worked for its uniqueness. Instead, you try and co-opt that person's individuality and you tell them to adhere to the system." Mehta surely has a point here.
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