Seizing scripted opportunities in India

Sacred Games

Streamers are piling investment into India and invigorating local scripted content creation, but regulatory changes could change all that. Mark Layton speaks to producers and streamers about this giant market

India is the world’s fastest-growing streaming market, with US SVOD giants trying to carve out a firm foothold in competition with established local leaders, in a territory that analysts say is still years away from saturation point. All this activity is creating numerous opportunities in the region, but perhaps for nobody more so than the local creators who have been able to break into new genres for the first time.

“Traditionally, Indian television has stuck to just one style of content, which is soaps, the kitchen politics,” explains Chaitanya Hegde, head of content at Mumbai-based talent and content management company Tulsea. “When OTT came in there was just this plethora of opportunities for everyone, irrespective of what genre you wanted to explore. That was just a godsend for most of the writers and directors.”

This is a point echoed by Shibasish Sarkar, CEO of Mumbai production giant Reliance Entertainment, who elaborates: “Suddenly the genres have opened up; there are niche and edgy stories, thrillers and crime, and at the same time stories with lighter humour and the quality of production is like, or better than, film. It’s a moment that all content creators are thriving upon.”

Selfie With Bajrangi

Emerging opportunities

Reliance’s Phantom Films banner was one of the first companies to strike gold in this changing landscape, producing the crime thriller Sacred Games as Netflix’s first Indian original series. Working with the streamer was a huge learning experience, says Sarkar, who reveals “we learned the pattern, we learned the format, what worked for their platform.”

Sacred Games went on to receive global acclaim, with two-thirds of the show’s audience coming from outside India. This exposure to international audiences, coupled with higher budgets, new genres to work in and less-restrictive episode counts, has proven very attractive to both Bollywood and indie film creators and talent, with Sarkar noting many are turning to television because they won’t be limited to telling a story in just two hours or committed to a daily soap.

Reliance’s relationship with Netflix continues, with multiple projects in the works, as well as with Disney+ Hotstar and Amazon, the latter of which will host the upcoming Stardust, a fictional take on 1950s Bollywood, from Vikramaditya Motwane, who was also the showrunner on Sacred Games.

“With the growth of content consumption on streaming services, one thing is manifestly clear – local is king,” says Anish Mehta, CEO of Mumbai-based animation studio Cosmos-Maya, who reveals that the streaming boom has also been a boon to the local kids’ content industry. “We have released five new projects in the Indian OTT market, and this was just in 2020. Moreover, it has allowed content creators like ourselves to release content simultaneously on pay-TV and the digital streaming space to maximise the audience base.”

Mehta adds: “Since the arrival of big name SVOD platforms in India, we have carved out a new medium for our content, with bestselling titles like Vir: The Robot Boy and Selfie With Bajrangi topping viewership charts consistently.”

The Final Call

Standing out from the crowd

While content creators are reaping the benefits, streamers are also striving to make the most of this rich battleground with a strong roster of local originals and their own USPs.

Rohit Jain, MD at Lionsgate South Asia and Networks – Emerging Markets Asia, says that US company Starz’s Lionsgate Play, which launched in the country last year, has found “an edge over other new global streamers still looking for the right entry strategy in the Asian markets” by securing deep integration for its service with telcos and device manufacturers.

Lionsgate Play is busy at work on its debut slate of Indian originals, with a remake of US streamer Hulu’s dramedy series Casual and new college drama U-Special recently announced as its first offerings.

Jain reveals the company is “always on the lookout” for original content with a focus on “untold, edgy, urban stories” as well as ‘slice of life’ comedy and young adult humour.

“We are trying to differentiate ourselves by not over indexing on the crime/thriller genre, which is the flavour of the season,” says Jain, who reveals the streamer is also partnering with notable local content creators “who understand Indian audiences as well as the nuances of storytelling and OTT”, including Kunal Kohli and Akarsh Khurana.

Manish Kalra, chief business officer for ZEE5 India, says that the indigenous service is likewise working to stand out from the crowd by presenting itself as a prominent local language streaming destination, with original content not necessarily in the more widespread Hindi and English languages. “Over the past three years, we have invented and reinvented ourselves and carved a strong niche as India’s platform of choice and a multilingual storyteller for a billion Indians.”

ZEE5 launched in 2018 with content in 12 different languages, and Kalra notes that this “extensive language focus and subsequent need for hyperlocal content has made ZEE5 the perfect conduit between local original creators and their Tinseltown aspirations.

“Since our inception, we have produced over 120 originals in local languages and diverse genres, which is at least 10 times more than any other OTT player. Some of our most watched shows have been created by content creators like Siddharth P Malhotra (Kaafir), Vijay Lalwani (The Final Call), Bhav Dhulia (Rangbaaz) and Ken Ghosh (Abhay 2) to name a few, and going forward, this number will only increase.”

Abhay

Taking Indian content global

As early successes like Sacred Games have shown, the streaming boom is very much a two-way street, with Indian-produced content travelling out of the country, as well as a new pipeline of global content coming in.

Archana Anand, chief business officer at ZEE5’s international arm ZEE5 Global, says the company has seen success with dramas and thrillers such as Abhay and Rangbaaz, with “substantial demand for regional content driven by specific segments of diaspora audiences,” such as in MENA, where there is nearly as much viewership for Malayalam and Tamil Shows as for Hindi content.

Mehta at Cosmos-Maya, meanwhile, notes that Indian animated content is also in demand and taking the place of shows from North American or Japanese/ Korean studios. “Our show Eena Meena Deeka is a shining example of this, streaming digitally in over 100 countries and recognised by kids worldwide.”

Tulsea’s Hegde believes it is only a matter of time until India produces its first global ‘watercooler’ show. “We’re very close to it but we haven’t had our Fauda or Narcos or Tehran,” he says, “It’s just around the corner.”

As for international content proving popular in India, viewers are tuning in to the same things doing well everywhere else in the world.

“We have seen a fantabulous response to Normal People, The Girlfriend Experience, Love Island and Spartacus,” reveals Jain, while Sarkar says Fauda, The Night Manager and The Queen’s Gambit have also been a hit with Indian audiences.

“That gives me a strong belief that language is not a barrier and that audiences across language, across geography, like similar shows.”

A Suitable Boy

Censorship concerns

There is, however, a storm cloud on the horizon of all this streaming sunshine. India’s Supreme Court recently ruled that it would implement a ‘streaming mechanism’ allowing state control over content deemed unsuitable or politically unacceptable by the government.

Netflix has faced calls for censorship over BBC Studios series A Suitable Boy in November, while Amazon was forced to issue an apology over its political drama Tandav for allegedly offending Hindu religious beliefs, with Aparna Purohit, the company’s head of original content in the country, going so far as to submit an anticipatory bail plea.

Reports indicate that Amazon has already delayed the latest season of spy thriller The Family Man as a result of the scrutiny, while Netflix is also looking to vet their output.

Hegde raises concerns that the ruling could stifle India’s new avenue for creativity. “Most creators are responsible, they know where to draw the line. I think you should allow them to do their job – if you’re going to curb their creativity by putting boundaries then you can’t venture into certain areas such as religious or political or anything that is going to be remotely controversial.”

Kalra at ZEE5 meanwhile adds that “self-regulation is a high priority for us” and that “through a logical lens, the content can be manoeuvred and should not be a reason for restriction,” while Jain at Lionsgate Play says the company would “welcome clarity.”

Whatever impact the ruling might have on India’s future content creation, Hegde believes that the key to success in the territory lies, as always, with whoever is creating the best shows.

“We have six to seven players right now. There is Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, indigenous OTT players like ZEE5, Voot, ALTBalaji and SonyLIV, as well. I think the days of being enamoured by a platform are gone. The playing field has become somewhat level in that way,” says Hegde.

“Recently we had a show called Scam 1992, which came out of SonyLIV, which was one of the most popular shows of last year. This was a show that actually drove subscription to a platform. The minute you have two-to-three such shows then the dynamics are going to change. Everyone has to be on their toes, because you don’t know where the next good show is going to emerge from. Content is going to speak, so you really have to start investing in good shows and nothing else.”

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