Finding hope, fun and laughter at the end of OTT's 'dark' tunnel
There are more guns, gun-toting criminals, bombings, killings, torture, deceit, police, investigators, lawyers, underworld, politicians, blood, gore and more, than roses in the world of Indian OTT content.
"A dark comedy"; "Set in the backdrop of quaint dark jungles of Jharkhand"; "...engulfed into the universe of dark netherworld"; "The show's second season becomes far more grittier and darker than the first"; "The show sheds light on the dark realities of human nature", "It gives us a peek into a seemingly peaceful world that nurses a dormant, dark and dangerous underbelly"....
It doesn't end.
For weeks, my eyes are tired, as is my mind, looking at descriptors of shows and films that the world of digital streaming platforms have been or are serving up to an audience that is seemingly lapping it all up, in the middle of a mind-boggling pandemic. Not that I am not watching some of these shows myself with rapt attention. But really, sometimes I want to scream, "Arre bhai, kuch halka, kuch happy ho jaaye?"
In a subtle appeal, which one assumes resonates with the "I'm tired of crime dramas and thrillers" sentiment of a decent percentage of the OTT-viewing population in India, filmmaker Onir's recent tweet read: "Wanna watch a web series minus MC BC and other abuses functioning as punctuation marks and not tons of dead bodies at the end of the series. Too much noise... can’t handle."
True. There are more guns, gun-toting criminals, bombings, killings, torture, deceit, police, investigators, lawyers, underworld, politicians, blood, gore and more, than roses in the world of Indian OTT content.
But the question to ask is what Suchitra Krishnamoorthi asked back in May, "Why are all the hyped Indian web series so dark and violent?" Yes, there have been a Little Things and Four More Shots Please (ummm) for a feel-good factor. A Panchayat for that rustic simplicity or the old school romantic telling in Taj Mahal 1989. But we need more and better in a space, where the shades of dark continue to be explored in diverse ways.
During a light-hearted conversation earlier in the lockdown, senior actor Supriya Pathak and I discussed how content on a 'democratic' platform was unfortunately tilting towards a kind. "We have to come up with different things. There's been so much of the similar stuff about the dark side, the underbelly, in recent times. We need something else also. We need to change that. Bring some new stories, something nicer, something happier thing na,"` Pathak shared in her inimitable style.
"Of course we need to show the audience what the reality of life is," she added, "But the reality is not always dark."
Actor Patralekhaa also admitted she didn't feel "comfortable" watching dark stuff in the midst of the lockdown. Back then, she had just finished watching American TV show Outsiders. "It was an amazing series, but I wasn't happy watching it," she told me. "Entertainment is our only way out to something happier. So, definitely, happy content is what I would want to watch and will consume in the near future."
That search of happy 'desi' content is, I guess, what led a huge chunk of audience to prefer being dependent on Kapil Sharma's show repeats for entertainment than explore new 'creative' content coming their way through streaming platforms, while locked within the parapets of their house. "Kuchh hassi, mazaak toh hota hai," says my father, with my father-in-law, in tow. There's a need, Pathak believes, for everyone to "look at hopeful things".
Well, hopeful or not, we don't know yet, but new bouquets of content from across streaming platforms Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Sony LIV, ZEE5, MX Player, ALTBalaji and the like, hint that there's hope for a better mix of content in the times to come.
Netflix, which drew in audience with such shows as Sacred Games and Leila, recently unveiled a line-up of 17 upcoming originals, including six new films and two new series, spanning from thrillers to romantic comedies to lighthearted dramas. There's A Suitable Boy, based on Vikram Seth's critically acclaimed book; contemporary drama Bombay Begums; fun dramedy Bhaag Beanie Bhaag; inspirational film Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl; romantic comedy Ginny Weds Sunny; and young adult romance Mismatched, to name a few.
Amazon Prime Video, which announced 14 originals back in January, is coming up with Bandish Bandits, touted as India's first-ever musical drama series, after the gritty Pataal Lok and Breathe: Into The Shadows. The offerings are more and diverse, aimed to cater to an audience that cannot be defined by age, geography, gender or socio-economic status.
Aparna Acharekar, Programming Head, ZEE5, which recently launched a show titled Mafia and will has crime thriller Abhay 2 #TheRoadToJustice slated for next month, says the answer about the perceived profusion of crime and thriller content in the Indian OTT milieu, lies in understanding how creating content for the streaming space began in the first place in India.
"From an OTT point of view, the digital target audience is between 18-34, of which the subscription paying audience, for all of OTT platforms is largely between 25-34. Within that also, the males have a higher propensity to make a payment as against women. This is how it all started," Acharekar pointed out.
And so, with that TG in mind, some of the most obvious genres that emerged in the early days were action, crime, thriller, suspense, drama. But with time, the target and trends have changed and evolved. "We have seen different taste clusters evolve. By taste clusters, I mean groups of people who become a cluster because of the kind of content they like to watch. These are not bound by age, geography or gender. So, there's something for everybody," Acharekar said.
Director Raj Nidimoru of the Raj & DK duo, who helmed The Family Man, draws an analogy between the OTT space and a library. "Every show can be specifically geared for an audience. It's like you have a library at your disposal. You just pick the book you want. There's everything for everyone, and no one has to jostle for space," said Raj.
Raj & DK's The Family Man is one of the few shows that walked the right rope of being a "balanced" thriller -- the kind that would pull in a family audience in India. Raj admits it was a conscious effort to avoid "dark, dreary and sad bits" in the show, about a man juggling his life as a husband and father, and as an intelligence officer.
Drawing in a family audience, at a time when OTT consumption has graduated from being just a private viewing platform to a family viewing option amid the pandemic, has assumed importance. Actor Jimmy Sheirgill, who was recently seen in "dark and morally complex thriller" Your Honour, said the father-son sub-text in the story, widened the appeal of the show, which could have otherwise been bracketed as yet another thriller.
Similarity, however, is also a virtue, in senior media executive Sameer Nair's opinion.
"For audiences, how do you think does Netflix's recommendation engine work? It says 'You may also like...' It means if you like a type of show, say a dark drama, then you may also like these other dark dramas. And guess what? You do like them. If that was not a true insight of the human nature, you wouldn't have recommendation engines," Nair explained. Having seen content creation, distribution and consumption evolve for years in the country's media and entertainment landscape, Nair is now at the helm of affairs at Applause Entertainment, which is among the few content creators bringing diversity to the table.
If there have been Criminal Justice and Hostages, there has been a Mind The Malhotras. If there have been Bhaukaal and Your Honour, there has been The Office. "Crime and crime thrillers," Nair said, are "the most popular genres globally for audiences".
"As an audience, you transpose yourself into that world. You are drawn to crime, to people doing bad things, to the fact that some people are going to solve that thing, and the bad guys are going to get caught eventually. It's a very interesting format, and let's admit it, all of us are drawn to that nail-biting thrill," he said. That's not something that has found takers in the streaming world alone. The long-term success of television shows such as CID and Crime Patrol also prove that the crime genre has an audience.
Considering these are early days as far as premium limited episode series in India are concerned, it's safe to say this is just the beginning of such content. If the buzz is right, a lot more crime and action shows are likely to happen.
"There are so many stories to be told, so many places to be explored, so many different types of crime and convoluted drama that's possible. I don't think this will stop anytime soon.I think we will just get better with it," Nair added.
Content, as industry bigwigs have constantly maintained, remains the king in the world of entertainment. It can make or break a product. According to media and entertainment industry veteran Amit Khanna, one of the reasons for the slow off-take of streaming video in India has been the wrong content.
"A minute section of the audience, the early adopters of Netflix, Amazon etc may be hooked on to dark content both foreign and Indian. However, the mainstream audience is still looking for entertainment they are used to," Khanna wrote in a recent opinion piece.
And so we ask, where are the sitcoms, where's the laughter and where's some fun?
Views expressed are author's personal opinions.
Journalist. Perennially hungry for entertainment. Carefully listens to everything that start with "so, last night...". Currently making web more...