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Thursday, Oct 17, 2019

The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: The future of entertainment looks promising

In this week’s column of The Taste With Vir, Vir Sanghvi talks about some of the best shows on Indian streaming services including Sacred Games and the more recent, Made In Heaven, and how the future of entertainment looks promising.

art-and-culture Updated: Mar 13, 2019 15:25 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times, Delhi
The most recent breakthrough and probably the best thing I have ever seen on Indian television is Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar’s Made In Heaven.
The most recent breakthrough and probably the best thing I have ever seen on Indian television is Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar’s Made In Heaven.(Amazon Prime Video/YouTube)

I wrote a few months ago about the problem with the Oscars. In the US, I said, the box office-busting, big movies tended to be super-hero pictures, full of special effects, while quality drama had shifted to TV/Streaming services. The Oscars, which could not give awards to TV shows, had to give them to small, artistic movies because the Oscar Academy was too old fashioned to honour superhero movies. This meant that relatively obscure films won Oscars and audiences switched channels when the Oscar telecast was on.

This year, the Academy tried to move with the times but could only get so far. Rami Malek would not have won an Oscar in the old days, despite the brilliance of his performance, because the Academy would have been unwilling to honour a mediocre (and untruthful) film like Bohemian Rhapsody despite its phenomenal box office success. (It was roundly trashed by the critics.)

So, the Oscar to Malek was one sign of how the Academy is swallowing its old reservations. But otherwise, it was business as usual. Hardly anybody in America knows who Olivia Colman (Best Actress) is or has heard of the movie she won the Oscar for. And while the smart move might have been to give the Best Picture Oscar to Black Panther (which is a real breakthrough movie), the Academy funked it regarding it as a step too far.

The ratings reflected the Academy’s ambivalence. The Oscar telecast did better this year than last year’s telecast. But ratings are still at historic lows.

I have often wondered whether we will get to that stage in India. One of the ironies of Indian entertainment is that while there are more channels than ever before and TV audiences are at a historic high, very few people I know watch a lot of TV. One problem is that more and more people find news TV too loud and too annoying. English news TV is of zero consequence with something like 0.2 per cent of the TV universe but Hindi news channels do perform well in the ratings even though the sort of person who reads English-language newspapers and appeals to advertisers may find them too shrill.

It is the same with Hindi entertainment channels. Older people have warm memories of the early days of Hindi entertainment TV and of such serials as Neena Gupta’s Saans or even Ekta Kapoor’s shows. What they don’t always realise is that the so-called cable and satellite universe was urban (if not metropolitan) and tiny in those days. Now, satellite TV has spread to every corner of the country and urban middle to upper middle class viewing habits count for little given how large the universe is.

In the US, the shift away from network TV started with such channels as HBO which challenged the conventional wisdom that Americans would not pay for content. HBO started out as a movie channel but it soon began commissioning its own content eventually creating such shows as The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex And The City and perhaps most famously, Game of Thrones.

The success of the subscription channels (HBO, Showtime, etc.) took away a large chunk of network television’s high income audiences and by the time the streaming services arrived (Netflix, Amazon, etc.), technology had advanced to the level where nobody had to watch TV in real time. You watched it on demand.

I have long believed that something similar will happen in India. But it is only over the last year or so, that the streaming services have begun creating content aimed specifically at the Indian viewers. I liked Inside Edge about a cricket franchise. It was (admittedly) low-brow but it was slick, engaging and had some great performances. (Richa Chadda, for example.) I am still slightly ambivalent about the changes the script writers made to Sacred Games (when you have such a great book as your source material, do you really need to add your own two bits?) but that could be because I am one of those bores who likes it when adaptations are faithful to the originals. And it is hard to deny that Sacred Games was an incredible achievement, possibly the best thing made for Indian TV upto that point. (You could argue that it was actually made for international TV, not just Indian, but I watched the Hindi version.)

There have been other breakthroughs since then. I loved the spirit and the gumption behind Four More Shots which captured the ethos of a certain kind of Mumbai so well and celebrated the urban Indian woman with such flair. Nothing like it had ever been made before. And I am sure it will now lead to a flood of imitations.

The most recent breakthrough and probably the best thing I have ever seen on Indian television (to the extent that Amazon can be called TV) is Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar’s Made In Heaven. The premise sounds simple enough: two friends run a wedding planning agency and the show follows their lives.

But this is no Band Baaja Baraat. The idea of the big fat Indian wedding where people show off their wealth has always struck me as being bizarre and ridiculous and clearly, the writers share my contempt. They seem as appalled as most of us are by the cliches that surround weddings: “most important day of a girl’s life”, “it is a father’s duty to give his daughter a grand wedding”; “all brides look beautiful” etc. And they are as disturbed as all of us should be by the societal norm that people must squander their savings or borrow money to get their children married.

So this is not a show that celebrates the big Indian wedding. Rather, it is a subversive exercise that rips the heart out of every wedding cliché and kicks the vulgar rich Indian wedding that the media like to glorify and celebrate where it hurts.

There is a strong gay rights subtext and the brilliance of the writing is such that no character (except perhaps for the photographer) is entirely good or entirely bad. Though Zoya only directed the first few episodes, it is difficult to tell the difference between the ones she handled and the ones that her co-directors made, because the overall standard is so high.

The show is helped by strong performances all round but ultimately, Made in Heaven belongs to Sobhita Dhulipala who steals every scene she is in and becomes the complex heart of this subtly written show. I have not seen her onscreen before but she has one of those faces that the camera loves and, if she gets the right breaks, will be a huge star.

So, what next? Well, I imagine that the success of these shows will change the conversation about entertainment and television in our country just as the early HBO shows did in America. One of the strengths of the streaming services in America is that they can now attract top talent to the small screen. The same thing seems to be happening here: Saif Ali Khan, Zoya Akhtar and so many others.

The future of entertainment looks promising. If the streaming services remain focused on India (and they would be mad not to) then we will get a very different home viewing experience. Just as it has in Hollywood, this will affect the movie business too.

Exciting times lie ahead!

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First Published: Mar 13, 2019 15:20 IST

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