Lockdown and OTT: The Rising Popularity of Desi Content

If Rajesh Khanna’s Bawarchi was recreated in the age of online platforms, it would have featured a diverse array of skilled actors alongside Khanna. In a new-age story, the spotlight that Rajesh Khanna had would be shared – with characters across the board getting intricate backstories.

The history of cinema is reckoned as an order of film icons, songs, and an enchanted gaze at the (super)stars. With the rising popularity of content on over the top (OTT) platforms such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hotstar and others, we are arguably entering into a cinematic revolution where it is not just the likes of Jai, Veeru or Gabbar shinning on the screen – but also Kaalia and Samba hopping on the hall of fame.

Self-made actors like Abhishek Banerjee, Jeetendra Kumar and Shweta Tripathi – to name a few – have had their own share of triumph over the past few years.

And now, with the world under lockdowns of various kinds, the hungry audience has been marvelling at content with layered stories and characters. Amazon Prime’s Paatal Lok, with its hair-raising narrative, is only the most recent illustration of the teeming depth and dimension available in our country.

Rushing to online platforms to watch shows like Paatal Lok has brought us closer to the hidden layers of society, which we generally read of in news reports. The show excels at linking individual dilemmas with the larger social narrative.

Localised story-telling

The raw depiction of caste, class and religious animosities in Pataal Lok; the means of livelihood of those left behind in the education boom in Jamtara, the stubborn yet driven-by-circumstances attitude of skeptical villagers in the second season of Laakhon Mein Ek –  each of these harness a localised story-telling technique that sheds the over-the-top theatrics found in most mainstream Bollywood films.

At at time when scores of migrants have been rendered voiceless, these shows act as a much needed reality check and reflection of what generally goes unnoticed.

Over the past few years, stories that were routinely sidestepped by our filmmakers are now seeing the light of the day. TVF’s Kota Factory showed the widely differing cultural backgrounds of students who flock the city from various corners of the country. Despite the differences, the students stick together for a common goal – to crack the entrance test of Indian Institute of Technology.

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The writers show us the human side of the young lot who have to suppress their grief to achieve a goal, which may or may not be their own. Even though Jeetendra Kumar, who plays the mentor, is quite popular; the spotlight of the show are the young actors.

Similarly, the season two of Laakhon Mein Ek raises quite a few disquieting questions around political motives and corruption. On the other hand, Panchayat portrays larger issues pertaining to the rural hinterlands through the eyes of Abhishek Tripathi (Jeetendra Kumar), an engineer who grudgingly accepts a government job offer.

This circles back to the overall influx of thoughtful content on OTT platforms, becoming a creative genre in itself – one being consumed by thinking, aware and conscious viewers.

However, we also have a choice to switch between programmes, which isn’t a luxury available to those depicted in the series mentioned above, to those suffering quietly and meekly in the real world. Not that we forget the lessons, plots and storytelling when we switch to other shows, but a new show to temporarily lift our minds off the grim realities, is only a recommendation away.

Where our films fell behind

Hindi films have faced an artillery of criticism for being unable to stun and stagger its audience, who are slowly moving towards content on OTT platforms for its in-depth storytelling. A few exceptions aside, it seemed as if Indian filmmakers have either been incapable or have had to hold back due to censorship, and other constraints.

The stringent certification process in India has particularly hampered the creative liberties of directors, with mandatory disclaimers and patronising public service videos being bundled with visual and audio cuts to get the universal rating. In some cases, even the A-rating is coupled with a few modifications.

Contrast this with OTT platforms, where only a suggestive rating is mentioned for viewer discretion.

Back in the golden days, when public marvelled more at actors, and less at plots and cinematography;  film theatres were the only fictional bubbles one could resort to for distraction.

Not anymore, as now we have a whole lot of series and characters to invest in.

The onset of content on OTT platforms has certainly reshaped the landscape of theatrical and digital release. A lot of filmmakers and actors are either playing roles themselves or producing content for various digital platforms. As consumption patterns has levelled up even in second and third-tier cities, an ambitious clan of content-creators are emerging in the scene – with relatable characters and engaging plots.

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For many years, we have seen shinning posters of films hung around the city featuring actors in a certain style. Times have changed with the rise of OTT platforms. Here, the gaze is towards the sheer glory of characters illustrating the country’s myriad shades, and not at the heroes. Often, through word-of-mouth, these characters and shows become Twitter trends, Instagram mentions, and start gaining traction a few weeks into release. In essence, the sleeper-hit phenomena has transcended the multiplex medium to enter the digital.

Prompted, perhaps by our prime minister’s clarion call of being ‘vocal about local’, the audience is gradually showing signs of fawning over desi stories too; instead of the usual western ones that feature in must-watch lists.

Niki Sharma and Abhimanyu Hazarika are 2020 graduates of the Asian College of Journalism. You can find them on Twitter @nikisharmaa and @AB_Hazardous.

Featured image credit: Amazon Prime