Decoding the rise of streaming services in India and the way forward
If we want to talk about the rise of streaming services in India; we need to look at the reception and acceptance of artistic freedom by the entertainment industry, the impact of social media that helps in creating hype for the products, and the changing attitudes of the population. It has been a slow, but progressive evolution that has made people realize they now have more options about what, and how they can watch a particular show and movie.
In the beginning, Netflix and Amazon Prime’s decision to invest in Indian entertainment markets, were observed with skepticism. How in the world could two companies known for their wanton spending on shows and movies even persuade people to buy a subscription of their channels? What could they possibly show people of India that was unique and also surprising? There was a lot of content already being made overseas that filtered primarily through piracy, so the companies had to work twice as hard to catch the attention of the viewers.
It was certainly a gamble, but if the companies could tap into the right vein, they had a jackpot waiting for them.
Netflix’s big hit was a venture from the indie darlings of Bollywood, the industry so famous for being risk averse. Erik Barmack, the vice president of Netflix, saw a cinematic opportunity in Vikram Chandra’s book, Sacred Games. He approached Phantom films, and conducted meetings with director Vikram Aditya Motwane. Sacred Games was Netflix India’s first original offering. It’s first season was directed by Vikram Aditya Motwane and his director peer Anurag Kashyap. The show starred Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radika Apte in prominent roles, and covered an epic scope timeline. It had a budget of 100 crores; a very big investment, for certain, and involved actors who weren’t as big stars in Bollywood.
Sacred Games was a huge success. It sped up the meme machine on Social media. It got great reviews, and also was praised for its frank discussion of Indian politics. Of course, even controversy; a snide comment about Rahul Gandhi, only made it more alluring to people. The show arrived at the right moment, just as Netflix India needed to prove to its competitors that it had an upper hand in the streaming wars. Amazon Prime wasn’t far behind Netflix, as shortly after Sacred Games, it released Mirzapur, another story of crime and revenge with multiple narrative threads. Mirzapur was hurt a little by the obvious comparisons with Sacred Games, but it still proved to be a winner for the service. Suddenly, there was a boom of announcements being made about web shows helmed by Bollywood stars. Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma, Abhishek Bachchan, Kajol are only the few stars headed to the streaming networks.
Netflix and Amazon are the titans of the streaming industry, but they’re not the only ones. Hotstar, a streaming service of Star India and owned by Disney, has seen a surge of viewers and subscribers. It’s VIP plan costs INR 365 for a year and premium plan, INR 999. The difference in the VIP plan and Premium plan is crucial. The Premium plan allows subscribers to watch more content, including movies, shows, and more importantly, series that are telecast on HBO. It has popular shows like Game of Thrones, Euphoria, Watchmen, His Dark Materials, and acclaimed miniseries like Chernobyl, Big Little Lies and Veep. The service has an impressive catalog of shows and movies that people can select to watch; and for a 999 a year, that’s not a bad deal at all. And another thing that works in its favor is the availability of Hindi shows. Hotstar is host to Star Plus dramas like Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, Sanjivani, Kahaan Hum Kahaan Tum, and many more. These shows are routinely discussed on social media like Twitter these days and have certainly led to a spike in subscriptions as viewers try to find what happens to their favorite characters in upcoming episodes; subscribers can access the episodes in advance.
Similarly, Zee5 gains subscribers because of the presence of Zee serials online, and has been able to collect 4.64 million of them as of now. ALTBalaji, a subsidiary of Balaji Telefilms has acquired 6.27 million subscribers with the help of its shows that use the freedom of online streaming to provide more risque content.
Rasika Duggal, Vikrant Massey, Shweta Tripathi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Arjun Mathur, Kalki Koechlin and others have found mainstream success because of their shows that are available on different streaming services. Radhika Apte’s performance in Anurag Kashyap’s short film, which was the part of anthology movie, Lust Stories, garnered her an International Emmy Award nomination. She has already nabbed her next role in the International series, co-starring Hollywood star Charlie Hunnam, Shantaram; an AppleTV original series based on the book of the same name.
The streaming platforms have provided a chance for character actors, like Manoj Bajpayee to flourish in shows that give them expansive character arcs and challenge them as performers. Television personalities like Divyanka Tripathi, Sakshi Tanwar and Shweta Tripathi have also dipped their toes in the concise storytelling mode: their series are available as ALTBalaji. Bollywood is notorious for its preference to nepotism, but the streaming services are steadily opening doors for actors with talent to show their skills without the fear of being sidelined to coddle the egos of the biggies. This also creates a curiosity among people, and when the burden of a big star if lifted, they can also lower their expectations and be pleasantly surprised with the results.
Hits and Misses
Of course, not everything that comes on streaming services with carefully cultivated hype can sustain the interest of the viewers. Amazon Prime’s Made in Heaven, and The Family Man stood out because of the treatment of bold content and the coherent vision of their creators. On the other hand, Netflix’s Sacred Games Season 2 was met with a tepid response. Without any compelling new characters and lack of emotional attachment, the show felt a lot like a rehash of the first season, minus the audacious bits of political commentary. Bard of Blood, with a production cost of 50 crores, and starring Emraan Hashmi was relative failure because of its inability to thrill audiences with the espionage storyline like it had intended. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Midnight Children series, to be adapted from the book of the same name by Salman Rushdie, was supposed to be launched by Netflix, but has been put on hold because of budget issues. It’s clear that the companies need to be certain about the interest, and number of returning viewers before they can invest in projects.
This year, Netflix launched a mobile plan that costs only Rs. 199 per month. It’s the cheapest subscription plan the company has announced yet. Netflix has a strong hold of 46.15 million subscribers in India, which it plans to push to 92.32 million by 2024. It plans to roll out 24 feature films and 16 web series in the country next year.
It’s also going to spend $420 million on original content for the Indian audiences. Hotstar, which has a healthy subscriber population of 15 million. Amazon Prime is a little behind, with a reported 7 million subscribers, but it looking at the recent spike of popularity of its content, it certainly will see a lot of increase in viewers.
All this being said, the local television networks still have a firm hold on the Indian viewers. What’s new, may not always be interesting to people who just want to enjoy daily soaps on television. And the arrival of various apps and streaming services, like Hotstar, Zee5, which have a library of all these serials may hinder their interest in anything else. The streaming services have come a long way in India. They’ve created a niche for themselves. Let’s see if they are successful at expanding it or not.