How Digital Platforms Are Shaping Indian Cinema

While browsing through the endless catalogue of Netflix on a lazy weekend, I came across an unassumingly named film that promised nothing but the mundane from the poster art and the description. Aadish Keluskar’s Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil was fashioned in the format of the Before Trilogy where an invisible camera follows a couple around a city as they are deeply engaged in a captivating conversation. Unlike the romantic setting of a European evening, Keluskar’s characters were a ragtag couple roaming the grimy, dusty streets of Mumbai under the scorching sun. Even though there was hardly any exposition about their backgrounds, one could clearly make out that they were the children of want, a faction of the society that was sexually repressed and had accepted the inevitable despair of life. Their conversations were anything but romantic. The guy constantly demeaned the woman for her appearance, claiming that no one would spit on her if he left her, while the woman established her worth as the only person in the world who cared to tolerate his abject bitterness. In a discomfiting scene that would make you squirm in your seat, they make out aggressively in the backseat of a moving kaali-peeli grabbing at each other while the Haryanvi driver regales the guy with his tales [not sic] – “Kuch nahi hua sirji. Yeh to hota hai…”. As an audience, you would either completely reject this film as being too unrealistic, or you would think to yourself – ‘This film would never have seen the light of day but for Netflix.’ So, here we are.

In an industry where muscular Production houses, monopolistic distributors and a reactive audience hold sway, Digital platforms barged in like rebels and challenged the status quo that had existed for decades. They had ridden the wave of smartphone penetration and the rise of a data-hungry generation, and had found the only window they needed to establish a whole new ecosystem. Suddenly, the “Friday opening” had been diminished in its stature as people knew that the film would eventually end up on one of the myriad of platforms which they could watch anywhere and on-the-go. What’s more, these platforms were not bound by all those stringent (and often nonsensical) rules that governed traditional releases. Even though the Supreme Court, in a recent judgement, directed the Centre to ‘regulate’ OTT (Over-The-Top) media platforms, there is no law as of now that mandates their censorship. And this is good! Film-makers who had to scrimp their creative liberties to adhere to the whip of the CBFC could go all out to bring their stories to your digital screens exactly how they wanted it being shown. It’s even better for us, the audience, as we get unfettered access to a wide variety of films and series that we otherwise couldn’t have seen. What had started out as “just another media channel”, had now become the great leveler – the players, who had removed financial clout from the equation and made content king.

For film-bloggers like myself, the theatre had always been sacred ground. Watching a movie was a ritual that was akin to meditation, where I would immerse myself into the world concocted by the director, the writer and the actors. Even so, the medium has always been a one-way street with fixed rules. A film-maker can gauge the reaction to his work only after the numbers came in from the faceless masses. Although social media has changed the level of engagement over the years, a film-maker would still largely be prone to using the same template that had helped him get a good ROI. Besides that, a film had to be of a certain length. If a writer wanted to flesh out the story or the characters, he/she couldn’t, unlike on  a platform where the script could be turned into a limited series. So, the producer’s money was being put on a product that was an abridged version of the original and which still had to be promoted widely through hoardings, ads, TV space, etc. There was far too much at stake, and failure would always hurt. This again feeds into why film-makers keep on making the same kind of films. The simple answer is – because they are the least risky. Now, skip track and jump onto a Digital platform. Here you have only one distributor who takes the onus of promoting your film on its own social media handles, and amongst its users. That platform, let’s say Amazon Prime Video, knows exactly how big the audience is going to be for that film, all thanks to the humongous data they have about their audience’s preferences and watch-patterns. What’s more, the pressure of a Friday release is completely taken off the shoulders of the film-maker. Now, the film can remain on that platform for as long as people want to watch it, which can technically be forever. And all this for a fraction of the cost! Once this crippling financial load is shifted, the film-maker would now dare to experiment and try out new things. He would like to test the limits of this new, all-embracing audience. The result – the same old, stale, formulaic content goes out the window. 

Netflix and Prime Video are not just mere ‘Media Middlemen’ now who survive on creating partnerships with content-creators. They have now evolved into venerable production companies who have the wherewithal to finance independent film-makers who usually have nothing but a good story to tell. There are aggregators today who have created a business around helping new filmmakers refine their pitch to platforms like Netflix. Based on who you pitch to, your royalty may vary. For instance, Netflix would pay you a flat licensing fee as well as an amount for the number of hours your film is being watched by their audience while Prime Video doesn’t pay you any licensing fee and pays you just for the hours. Once Netflix picks up your film, they will purchase global distribution rights from you. In many cases, subtitles and artwork are also provided by the film-maker or the aggregator. The discussion thereon would be between Netflix and the aggregator, who will basically represent the film-maker. This entire process makes for a very interesting system where selections are made on sheer talent. A film-maker who is the son of a sister of a bigshot producer does not automatically get financed. There would still be loopholes, but by and large it is far more impartial than the industry right now. Precisely because of this nature of these platforms, they have become petri dishes for experimental content from every conceivable language with every single region where films are being made. They have become this huge melting pot where a Bollywood fan may be driven to watch a Super Deluxe, a Tamil film which had gotten a very limited release, just because his friends had watched it on Prime Video and couldn’t stop talking about it. The language and regional walls that had existed in the theatres earlier, are now being torn down. Audiences have become fluid, just like the content they are now consuming. 

Now, this begs the question – in this new ecosystem, are Theatres going to become obsolete? Would they become the unwitting casualties? In a 2018 article by Variety, they brought a research study done by Ernst and Young’s Quantitative Economics and Statistics group into the spotlight. The study basically debunked this notion that Digital platforms were eating away into the market share of Theatre chains and were gradually pushing them towards bankruptcy. In fact, the study found that the two mediums were “more complementary than cannibalistic”. Among the 2500 participants in the study, those who had visited a movie theatre nine times or more in the last year, consumed far more streaming content than their peers who visited the theatres just once or twice. While the former spent an average of 11 hours on a digital platform, the latter spent 7 hours. This fundamentally meant that people who were passionate movie-goers, were passionate streamers as well, and vice-versa. What this proves is that, there is ample space for the two mediums to co-exist and thrive. In this symbiotic relationship, it is inevitable that the culture and ethos would pass from one to the other through osmosis. Once the industry sees what writers and film-makers can do when given a free creative hand, they would want to replicate that in their own space. Is it surprising now that we have seen a paradigm shift of sorts in terms of content in Bollywood right from Andhadhun to Tumbbad to Gully Boy? 

No matter who loses in this system, if at all, Indian Cinema would have won.

About The Author

Screengobblr was created by a couple of die-hard cinephiles who strive to spark a conscious conversation around cinema, not just as a form of entertainment but also as an art-form. Since its inception, Screengobblr has become an active community of movie-buffs which is evolving through active conversations every single day. You can follow their work on their various social media handles on Facebook, Instagram, and Quora.