The Sameer Nair interview | Dubbed and subtitled content have always been there but adaptations make global shows Indian
'Call My Agent: Bollywood was not supposed to be an authentic documentation of the industry. Everyone loved Scam: 1992 so much. But if you actually spoke to financial experts, they'll call it nonsense for so simplistically explaining away complicated finance,' says Sameer Nair.
At the turn of the millennium, television in India was undergoing a massive transformation with Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahani Ghar Ghar Kii, and Kaun Banega Crorepati. Sameer Nair was then the programming head at Star Plus, the channel at the forefront of the change. A little more than two decades later, he again finds himself as a key player in a new medium that is changing the landscape of Indian entertainment.
The 57-year-old heads Applause Entertainment – a content studio that is backed by the Aditya Birla conglomerate – and is responsible for some of the best loved shows on desi streaming sites. While there are similarities in these two phases of his career, he maintains there is one key difference. “TV always had a geographical and language block. The streamers are full global villages. The next 10 years will really be the golden age of content – it will allow audiences to consume content from everywhere,” he says during a recent Zoom interaction.
Applause came into being in 2017 when Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hotstar (now Disney+ Hotstar) had just established themselves in India, and platforms like ZEE5 and SonyLIV were yet to launch. In the past four years, the studio has produced and released 26 shows across platforms, including the sleeper hit Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story.
“When we started out, we designed a three-pronged strategy – to adapt international shows for India, adapt books to series, and original ideas. While one gets a sense that we do a lot of adaptations, the ratio is evenly divided among the three. Some of the books we adapted were Avrodh, Mannphodganj Ki Binny, Scam 1992. The originals we did were Mayanagari - City of Dreams, Hasmukh, Bhaukal, and shows like Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors, Hostages, Your Honour were part of the adaptations package.”
While the success of Money Heist and Squid Game might indicate that language is not a barrier among viewers anymore, Nair maintains that there is continuing demand for adaptations of international shows. “While the dubbed or subtitled formats have always been there, what an adaptation does is to reimagine a story in an Indian context with Indian actors. Then it's no longer a foreign show, it's an Indian show. Take (Who Wants To Be A) Millionaire for example – everyone in India knows KBC. I would argue that was the first of the adaptations 21 years ago. It was a very successful show all over the world but India got to see Millionaire in its Indian avatar with Amitabh Bachchan as the host. It’s the same for Aamir Khan making Laal Singh Chaddha or Martin Scorsese making The Departed, which was a remake of a Hong Kong film.”
Among the shows that Applause has on the floor currently is Rudra: The Edge of Darkness, an adaptation of the Idris Elba-starrer hit British series Luther. The shooting for the Disney+ Hotstar show, which marks the digital debut of Ajay Devgn, has wrapped, and it should drop in 2022.
Each adaptation is different. A few come with ‘stringent protocols,’ where not much can be changed but most are flexible enough. “We try not to tinker with the original plot because that's what drew us to it in the first place. Beyond that, in the context of how we retell it and what kind of characters we cast, there's a little bit of tweaking. On Criminal Justice Season 1, the default position was to make the Vikrant Massey character a Muslim because that's what it was in the original HBO version of The Night Of. But we decided not to do it here because it very quickly others the show. So we made him into Aditya Sharma, middle-of-the-plate Hindu boy from central Mumbai. When Hostages was being adapted, one of the most basic differences was that people in the West don’t have domestic help while we do. Or in Your Honour, we don’t have a jury system,” he points out.
One of the most high-profile shows that Applause has recreated for an Indian audience is Netflix’s Call My Agent: Bollywood, which is based on the French runaway hit Dix Pour Cent (Call My Agent!). The show, starring Rajat Kapoor, Aahana Kumra, Soni Razdan, and Ayush Mehra among others, was heavily panned for being a scene-by-scene copy of the original, right down to its art-deco setting and characters walking on the streets of Mumbai while sipping coffee.
Nair believes that some of the criticism is unfair. “Some folks wondered how a talent agency could be set in South Bombay. Why not? I know talent agencies in Worli; my office is in Worli! The industry doesn't have to be in Aram Nagar.” After a short pause, he adds, “When the media looks at any show or movie that's based in the media business, our lens is very different. Do you really think that doctors behave the way they do in ER or Grey's Anatomy? Do you really think army people in general behave the way they do in military shows and movies? They don't.
For a larger audience though, it's a lighthearted take on an industry. It's not supposed to be an authentic documentation of anything.
Everyone loved Scam so much. But if you actually spoke to financial experts, they'll call it nonsense for so simplistically explaining away complicated finance.”
About the same time that Call My Agent: Bollywood was getting a drubbing, Nair and Team Applause was celebrating their first feature film – Aparna Sen’s The Rapist, that won the Kim Jiseok Award at the 26th Busan International Film Festival. Also, in the pipeline are an untitled rom-com starring Vidya Balan, Pratik Gandhi, Ileana D'Cruz, and Sendhil Ramamurthy, and one with director Tahira Kashyap Khurrana that has wrapped filming. “We are also to do two movies with Sudhir Mishra, which are currently being written. And there is also one with Saurabh Shukla, which is in post-production. We also have co-productions with a few Hollywood studios. The minute we decided we're a content studio, the plan was to do everything – documentaries, animation, gaming, and of course, films. We don't have a clear demarcation of films for OTT and those for theatres because we all need to see how the world plays out.”
While Applause is still in its early days, Nair’s laser-sharp focus continues to be on ‘better and bigger’ as the studio scales up. “And bigger not just in terms of stars or budget but bigger in ambition and audacity,” he clarifies. In the works also is a Gurinder Chaddha series called The Seeker that he describes as "Succession meets Wild Wild Country." And a Sudhir Mishra series called The Nawab, The Nautch Girl and The East India Drug Company, which was announced in 2011 as a feature film starring the late Irrfan Khan and Saif Ali Khan. “It's set in the period 1837-1850, and is the story of a Nawab, a nautch girl, and the East India Company, which was also the world's biggest drug trafficker at the time. We were really taken in by the idea, and are trying to develop it.”
The pandemic has been a strange time for those in the entertainment business. As the world shut shop and all us of hunkered down, the demand for content has surged like never before. While projects have been back on the floors since last December, it has been tough going with shrinking budgets and stringent COVID-19 protocols. But Nair is optimistic. “It's not been easy to produce content in these conditions. I think the whole industry should just give themselves a pat on the back for continuing to exist through this period. That being said, it's been a great time for streaming platforms because adoption has been going through the roof. That part of the market has grown, but it's been a terrible time for theatres because they've all been shut. It's been a mixed bag. Hopefully, we'll all come out of this a bit wiser but better off at the end of it all.”
Author of Parveen Babi: A Life, Karishma Upadhyay has been writing about movies and movie stars for almost two decades. On Twitter, she goes by @karishmau.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui shot to fame with Aamir Khan Production's Peepli Live in 2010. Since then, he has worked in numerous films and web series and carved a spot for himself in the industry.
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