It’s another clear blue day in Mumbai, tailor-made for sitting outside at a café and having a leisurely lunch with friends. And that is what a group of young men and women, no different from the others around them, is doing at a hip restaurant in upmarket Bandra. There is excited banter, confusion over what to order and dilemmas to sort, such as to drink or not to drink. When they finally settle down, they discuss films and television, like so many in the land of Bollywood do.
But listen closely, and you’ll hear them talk Daniel Day-Lewis instead of Salman Khan, dissect the plot twists of Narcos instead of Sasural Simar Ka, discuss the genius of GRR Martin instead of Ekta Kapoor.
Somewhere in there, they also talk of their own new found stardom: of being approached on the streets for an autograph, of clicking selfies with excited fans, of delivering their most popular dialogues on demand in front of thousands at college fests. There are no pretensions here, no airs, just the unadulterated excitement of a few regular youngsters who have now become the new face of Indian television – on the Web.
These are the new stars on the block, the talented actors and actresses of two of the most watched webseries in India, and they, like the shows they acted in, and the slew of others that are following in their wake, are all changing the game one episode at a time.
What do you watch on TV?
If I had asked you this question a year ago and if you’re in the 15-35 age bracket, chances are your answer would have been one of these: 1. Sports and news. 2. English shows on English channels. 3. Music videos. 4. Nothing. The state of Indian television is such that there is no original content that the average young person can relate to.
“We’re not that evil a society yaar, as these saas bahu sagas on TV make us to be,” says Nidhi Bisht, associate creative director of online entertainment company The Viral Fever, popularly abbreviated as TVF. “We don’t mix poison in milk to get back at someone, or spend our days plotting revenge. Doodh pe itna bawal nahi machta hai. We have more real, more basic problems in life.”
So while traditional production houses are stuck in the rut in the race for TRPs, spending time and resources mass manufacturing terrible, over the top, un-relatable TV serials year after year, a more unconventional and smaller company came forward and gave what the young viewers desperately wanted – an alternative.
It all began late last year, when TVF – of those viral Qtiyapa and Barely Speaking With Arnub videos – released a series online called Permanent Roommates (PR), under its new wing, TVF Play. They, mostly known for their funny, light hearted, short online satires and spoofs, hedged a bet by making PR into a drama in the international format of seasons with a limited number of episodes.
Riding on their existing fanbase of over a million people on both YouTube and Facebook, the folks at TVF estimated just about a million views for all five episodes of the show combined. It was, after all, an experiment, a deviation from the norm. But the simple romantic drama of a young couple faced with the prospect of getting married crossed a million views in its first episode itself!
“This was a 30-minute long episode which didn’t have any viral content; it was just a kahaani of a couple, a drama far removed from the theatrics we’re known for. But it clicked and how,” says Arunabh Kumar, founder and CEO (chief experiment officer) of TVF. “The second episode got the most views; by the fourth we were making everyone cry; and before the fifth and final episode released, we were getting thousands of messages from viewers eagerly waiting for it. That’s when we realised that our whole idea of building a youth content destination in which we can tell our kind of stories in our kind of way can actually work.”
The Second Pitch
TVF Play promptly followed up the big success of Permanent Roommates with the still bigger hit Pitchers in June this year. A story of four friends who give up their 9-to-5 jobs to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams touched a nerve across the booming startup ecosystem of the country.
Young professionals in metros and engineering students in Tier II and III towns started following the lives, loves, trials and tribulations of Naveen, Jitu, Mandal and Yogi. A big chunk of the English shows-watching population began buffering Pitchers on their laptops. And even those who only watch cricket on TV began throwing the catchiest punchline that this show has given us – “Tu beer hai.”
Bangalore-based sales professional Arnab Bhagawati, 29, is one of them. “I have friends who keep using lines like ‘You know nothing, Jon Snow’ (from Game of Thrones). I don’t really watch English shows. But I got hooked on to Pitchers when a friend made me watch the first episode; it was a simple story that I could easily relate to. And now even I deliver comebacks in all kinds of situations with ‘Tu beer hai’!”
The excitement around Pitchers is palpable but there are some reservations too. “From an entrepreneur’s point of view, the premise of the show is oversimplified,” says Lohit Sahu, 28, founder of Phyzok, a startup in the education technology sector. “The idea of a startup is to create value, but instead of focussing on that, Pitchers is all about portraying emotions: with respect to your boss, your father, your girlfriend, your wife.” He says that American shows like Silicon Valley, to which Pitchers has been compared to on numerous Quora discussions, depict how the whole ecosystem works towards creating an idea, the problems you face and how you solve them. He says, “Family problems are the least of all that comes in the wake of building a startup. So let’s just call Pitchers what it is – an emotional drama, and not a representative of the startup ecosystem in India.”
A Newslaundry review of the show also stated, “A new-age theme notwithstanding, the twists and turns in the series were too mainstream for it to claim any alternative space. The characters were young, perhaps the romance was fresh. But the highs and lows followed the clichéd pattern of traditional Indian storytelling.”
Nevertheless, Pitchers has had more highs than lows, and as Arunabh Kumar recounts, “There was a time when it was sandwiched between Seinfeld and FRIENDS at #38 on IMDB’s list of Top 250 TV Shows; it went further up to 27, House of Cards was on 24 then. And then it broke even that and has now settled at 21 beating all Netflix shows in the world.”
Both the webseries from TVF’s stable have also made celebrities out of their actors. “Last time I went home, I was travelling by train,” says Jitendra Kumar, who plays the highly loved character of Jitu in Pitchers. “A lot of people came up to me and asked, surprised, why am I travelling by train! I had to make up something and said that I had already missed two flights. It didn’t strike me then that they would think, ‘Arre kaisa star hai, he has money for only two flights’,” he laughs.
These pioneering webseries, more importantly, have opened up the floodgates to a deluge of such shows, which could collectively drown Indian TV in the time to come.
And then there were many
Yash Raj Films (YRF), Star, Sony, Eros... you name it, and they’re all there marching online. The biggest, strongest players in the market are making a foray into the webspace with a line-up of series that have production values, sets, actors, and scale comparable to films. All of them are dedicating entire new divisions to the generation of content specifically for the Web.
Take for instance, Y-Films – the youth content division of YRF – that is already surfing the wave of success with its two releases, Man’s World and Bang Baaja Baaraat (BBB). While the first is a quirky, albeit clichéd, take on gender equality, with a series of star-studded cameos by actors like Parineeti Chopra and Kalki Koechlin, BBB is Y Film’s take on YRF’s signature Indian weddings. “We’re the studio that did shadis like nobody’s business, be it in DDLJ, Veer Zaraa or Band Baaja Baaraat. So Bang Baaja Baaraat is Y Film’s tweak of those wedding films,” says Ashish Patil, VP, Y-Films - brand partnerships and talent management.
Like Kumar, he too explains the popularity of his shows through numbers, “The Y-Films YouTube channel was pretty much dormant for the last three years with just about 18,000 people who were probably too lazy to unsubscribe,” he says. “Then in just one month of waking up and launching Man’s World sometime in October, followed by Bang Bajaa Baaraat, we had 1.5 lakh subscribers and clocked close to 10 million views. And it is all organic; we haven’t spent a penny buying any of them.”
So why are these webshows drawing viewers by the millions? What is making us sift through all the chaff that is there online to take notice of these new entrants? The answer is simple: good, fresh content. While online ads and social media posts may get us to these shows, what keeps us there is the quality. “Every minute, one hundred hours of content gets uploaded on YouTube alone,” says Patil. “Everyone with a simple phone camera is making content for the digital today. So there is no scope for complacency. You can’t make the same kind of stuff that is already out there -- candid camera gags, vox pops, pranks -- and hope to go viral. We’d like to stay true to our core competency which I’d loosely call storytelling, in the movies-music-masti space.”
Eros Now, the digital content arm of Eros, will soon announce six webshows, details of which they refused to divulge at this point. But Ajit Thakur, CEO of Trinity Pictures that is producing these shows, stresses on the need to create content that is different and edgy. He says, “Our strategy is building the first generation of high drama content for digital. Whatever is out there is in the space of comedy and reality. The three things we’re looking at for our webshows are big scale, big talents, and big bold themes.”
Now or never
Presumably this is the best time to make a webseries. Ashwin Suresh and Anirudh Pandita, co-founders of digital entertainment company Pocket Aces, talk us through the whys, “The growth of Internet has been very high in the last 24 months. YouTube has expanded its India presence by making sure creators have access to consumers. And also, there is a 4G revolution coming in.”
What it all means is that now you, your family, your friends, your driver, your liftman, your security guard, everybody has access to fast internet speeds and everybody is increasingly spending more time on their smartphones watching things on the go. Also, your televisions are now becoming just a screen on to which you can project whatever you want to watch through download, buffering and Chromecast.
Ekalavya Bhattacharya, AVP and head of digital at MTV calls the 14-35 audience ‘screenagers’. “They consume content on the fly on multiple screens,” he says. “Webseries don’t require appointment viewing unlike TV serials (in which you tune in to a particular show at a particular time) and that is what is most appealing to this particular demographic.”
This is also where the quality check comes into play again, as only great content will ensure you have your viewers watching an entire episode through and clicking on to the next. “If you go to watch a movie, you’ve already paid for it, so even if it’s boring, you’ll most likely sit through it. On the Web, we don’t have that luxury,” says Suresh. “So even though big studios are reacting to the scene and jumping on to the bandwagon, it’ll eventually find a steady state. But at that point, there won’t be many players left because there is no way that in a medium that is as democratic or meritocratic as the Internet, mediocrity will survive.”
Perhaps that is why traditional TV channels like Colors do not feel threatened yet by this latest wave of webshows. “We are looking at it as a positive trend rather than a segmentation of the audience base. We do not feel that it will hamper our opportunities in the long run,” says Sapangeet Rajwant, marketing and digital head, Colors.
“Television, though, continues to remain a mass medium reaching out to viewers across the length and depth of the country. Even as the trend of webseries catches up in evolved markets, it is imperative for us, as a general entertainment channel, to bear in mind that most of our viewers tune in to watch television in the evenings. As such, while we could potentially look at developing webseries, we would not make changes to our programming line-up solely due to their growing popularity.”
We wouldn’t be surprised if that was Colors hinting at developing webseries too. As Uday Sodhi of Sony LIV (the digital video-on-demand platform of Sony) says, “The space will be occupied by many other players launching and providing a wide array of content for the users. This will make the ecosystem evolve further; there is still room in here for everyone.”
The Curious Case of Baked
Even before the first episode of TVF Play’s Pitchers hit your computer screens, and much before the big players sat up and took notice of the gap in the entertainment space for their young audience, a group of Delhi-based youngsters had already made and released what some called “India’s best show for youth.” Chronicling the lives of three university flatmates, Baked had all the adventures and misadventures of college life with some great acting by fairly new actors.
Brunch caught up with the creators behind the show, Vishwajoy Mukherjee and Akash Mehta of Pechkas Pictures, as well as Manik Papneja who plays the character of Body, in their airy 3BHK studio in a relatively leafy neighbourhood of Delhi over chai, smokes and lots of laughter. An excerpt:
1.What was the idea behind Baked?
Vishwajoy: I was working with a production company and they did mostly boring corporate films. I wanted to do fiction, but I didn’t want to do an underfinanced feature film. Or go to a television channel pitching a random youth show. So I thought the best thing to do would be to make something true to my own experiences and put it out online. So we thought let’s do it about these three guys in university which feels authentic, unlike what’s that Karan Johar movie... Student of the Year, is it? So our parties weren’t glamourous, but sweaty and filthy.
Akash: It took a lot of convincing when we started, but now that TVF and other big guys are doing it, it’s good for us – we don’t have to go explaining what a webseries is to anyone anymore.
2.Why do you think all these webseries are coming out now?
Manik: People have less time now, we don’t the patience to go through three-hour movies anymore. What people want are 20-minute shows that you can watch while sitting in the loo. I for one, love watching stuff when I’m sitting there attending nature’s call.
Vishwajoy: Really? You’re not a newspaper on the pot guy?
Manik: What are you even saying? I am not a news guy at all.
3.How did Baked make money? Did you have any product placements?
Vishwajoy: We just sold it to Scoopwhoop.
Akash: Oh, we had a lot of products, but none of them were placed by any brand. They just happened to be there.
4.What’s happening next?
Vishwajoy: The next few webseries we’re making are not going to be about yuppy young people. But advertisers love young people, no? Because young people are stupid and it’s easier to sell them your products. So one of our next shows will be about journalists such as yourself, then there’s this other one on five parallel narratives about different sets of people who inhabit the city at the dead of night. It’s quite an exciting time ahead!
A list of all things Indian we want to watch on the Web right now
1.Not Fit by Dice Media, in association with TVF
A unit of Pocket Aces, Dice Media is coming up with India’s first mockumentary for the Web, Not Fit. It showcases the world of struggling actors and is made like Modern Family or The Office with people talking directly to the camera and getting interviewed. “A lot of people we showed it to say that it feels very American,” says Ashwin Suresh, co-founder, Pocket Aces. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it means we’ve treated humour differently.”
2.Jumbo Jutts by Y Films
A musical series of songs and music videos by Rishikesh-based band Jumbo Jutts. Ashish Patil, head of Y Films, describes it as, “Very left of centre, marries music and comedy – the two hot buttons on the web.”
3.On Air With AIB by Hotstar
All India Bakchod’s 20-episode news comedy series (10 episodes in English hosted by Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya, 10 in Hindi by Tanmay Bhatt and Gursimran Khamba) that first released on Star’s web channel Hotstar, and eventually is being aired on weekends on Star World India and Star Plus.
With a format similar to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, AIB picks one topic and discusses it through most of the 22-minute episode. “I remember someone once approached us and said you should make something similar to John Oliver’s show,” says Arunabh Kumar of TVF. “I told him right away that the only guys who should do that and would do justice to it is AIB. And I think they’re doing well so far.”
4.Standing By by OML in collaboration with Red Bull Media
A six-part documentary webseries that explores India’s independent music scene through the decades. “After completing all our interviews and collecting a significant amount of archival material, we realised we had over 400 hours of footage to compress into the documentary,” says director and host Arjun S Ravi. “We thought of various formats to release it in – as a lengthy film, a four-part series, a ten-part series, et al – but eventually the content itself dictated how long this could be.”
The series is complemented by a massive digital archive hosted on Standingby.in, which comprises of an interactive timeline that allows users to explore various stories, anecdotes and events from India’s alternative music culture over the years.
From HT Brunch, November 29
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