The Indian web series found a niche audience with daring, offbeat content. Now, it’s getting overrun by big production houses, familiar faces, and family dramas.
We are at Studio No 2 inside Film City, Goregaon. A crew from India’s web content powerhouse, The Viral Fever (TVF), is building a set. It’s a Chinese food stall, with basic plastic tables and chairs.
Next to it is a more elaborate set: flow-y white curtains, mirrors strung together, hanging off tree branches. Massive wind blowers are being pushed towards the set, and floodlights have been requested to create the perfect morning light.
The only thing dividing the two sets is a large board that reads “Bhansali Productions” — the company owned by filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who has created big budget, overwrought dramas such as Devdas (2002) and Bajirao Mastani (2015).
The two sets are a study in contrast: this side, the crew is comparatively miniscule, as are evidently production budgets. Yet, it shows how far the Indian web series has come: from shooting inside apartments to hiring movie-style locations.
However, it also points towards what now seems was inevitable: as the audience base grows, the content, too, is getting safer, and more mainstream.
Two years ago, the web series first made a mark with a handful of shows. TVF’s Pitchers and Permanent Roommates (PR), and ScoopWhoop’s Baked were among the early success stories. Since then, sensing business potential, and attention from a young audience, big production houses have jumped into the fray. Sony LIV, Viacom 18, and Bindaas are now commissioning and broadcasting web shows.
Suddenly, what was a trickle became a flood. The second half of 2016 saw new shows popping up on our social media timelines almost every week: second seasons of popular series such as PR and Baked, and brand new ones with higher production values, such as Viacom 18’s Shaadi Boys, and Bindaas’s Girl in the City.
The bigger production houses did bring with them a larger audience base, courtesy brand loyalty and the promise of grander stories. But there’s an unmistakable shift in content as well. As the audience base expands, web series have begun to borrow elements from Bollywood and mainstream TV.
The new launches are far from offbeat. Consider The Trip. Starring Lisa Haydon, Shweta Tripathi, Sapna Pabbi (all have films to their credit) and comedian Mallika Dua, it’s about four friends on a bachelorette road trip from India to Thailand. Judging by the trailer, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the female version of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011).
It’s shot as slickly as your latest Bollywood film. Not surprising, considering its director, Lakshya Raj Anand, has been an assistant director (Ek Tha Tiger, 2012; Bang Bang, 2014) in Bollywood for 10 years now.
Besides, the youth are not the exclusive target audience any longer. Launched this November, The Timeliner’s The Aam Aadmi Family was marketed as a web series for the entire family. It features stories and banter that takes place in the average middle-class Indian household. And the language is clean too. No F-words flying around.
“Indian viewers are comfortable with a decided formula for stories: family drama and slapstick comedy. So, the creators of web series have to adhere to the same,” says Arushi Bedi (24), a Mumbai-based journalist and an avid web series follower.
And the makers aren’t shying away from admitting the shift to mainstream either. “Going ahead, the content is going to be more mass than niche, but it’s not a bad thing. For directors, the web is another medium to showcase our skills,” says The Trip’s Anand.
The struggle to create familiarity, however, is not limited to the content. With popular faces coming in, the medium might no longer remain a platform that attracts new talent. So far, it’s made stars out of actors like Sumeet Vyas (Permanent Roommates, Tripling) and Shreya Dhanwanthary (Ladies’ Room). But now, thanks to bigger budgets and a dedicated audience, known faces are preferred.
Akansh Gaur, channel head, The Timeliners, says, “It makes sense from an economic perspective. Experienced actors take lesser rehearsal time, and are professional.”
The Aam Aadmi Family features Lubna Salim (Oh My God!, 2012), Brijendra Kala (Paan Singh Tomar, 2010), and Kamlesh Gill (Vicky Donor, 2012).
Beyond the bigger banners and known faces, however, the most significant shift the medium has witnessed is in gaining funding from leading brands. While Ola, the radio cab app, was the title sponsor for Permanent Roommates’s second season, TVF’s first big budget series, Tripling, was used by Tata to sell its new car, Tiago.
Brand tie-ups have been a major source of income for web series, and in-story product placement is not unheard of. Yet, while originally the promotions were worked subtly into the story, the newer ones unabashedly showcase the product. So much so that PR’s second season had an important character who is an Ola driver, and seems to have a mandate to talk about the brand in each episode.
For now, though, the genre is riding on the hard-fought attention built in the first two years. Each episode of PR’s season two, the ad plugs notwithstanding, has an average of 3 million views. Even a relatively new show, The Aam Admi Family, has already been commissioned for four more seasons, with twice the number of episodes in each season, says Gaur.
While the formula for a successful web show might have changed, the boom is nowhere close to ebbing. But we are getting dangerously close to logging on to YouTube and discovering a web show with the dreaded, triple-echoed “nahin”.