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The rise of OTT platforms: Unleashing the power of the story

With the surge of OTT players, the most significant impact has been on the range and variety of stories that are now on offer for the viewer, says the Saregama MD.

Vikram Mehra

One of my most cherished and familiar memories of growing up in Jaipur, Rajasthan, is the experience of watching Hindi films at the Raj Mandir cinema hall. Every Friday, with the opening of a new Manmohan Desai potboiler or a slice-of-life comedy served up delectably by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, my parents and I would be theatre-bound, lining up excitedly to catch the latest saga from the starlit foyers of 'Bollywood'.

Inside the darkened theatre, as the reels unfolded, the power of compelling storytelling took over my kid brain and I lived a different life for those three hours. Every time Amitabh Bachchan hit the bad guys in Trishul (1978), I punched my imaginary villain in the air with him. When he sang astride a Bullet on Marine Drive in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), I sang along, sharing his swagger.

I was not alone. Every emotion, every action, every beat of the heart would ring true with the engrossed viewers around me: moving images that would flash upon their faces, as a bunch of film buffs, unconnected by caste, colour or religion but bound inextricably by a common love for cinema, would immerse themselves in the experience. Such a high it was, to watch films in theatres!

Cut to the present. As I write this on my laptop, three browser windows are sneaking up behind my working window, of various OTT video sites, all holding the promise of hitherto unseen and some seen-times-without-number entertainment content. Today our lexicon abounds with words and phrases like binge-watching, Netflix-and-chill, streaming, premium and freemium subscriptions, trending lists, netcrastinate, etc.

It is no secret now that the influx of video OTT platforms in the past three years or so has seen a significant change in the way audiences consume content. The shift from linear television to OTT viewing is a behemoth iceberg to move, but there are sure signs of that shift happening. Today the experience of watching a movie in the theatre with hundreds of others is rivalled by the individual act of watching a spectrum of content at the click of mouse on a laptop screen, comfortably ensconced in your own bedroom.

There are about 35 OTT players in India right now serving a plethora of content to cater to all kinds of demographics. This number is bound to rise, given that the gateways of cheap high-speed affordable data are opening up and there is a multicultural diversity that India inherently offers. And while there are other economic and business repercussions that come into effect with this surge of OTT players, I think the most significant impact has been on the range and variety of stories that are now on offer for the consumer.

For content creators, this is their time in the sun. The big-budget commercial movie, aimed for a theatrical release, comes with its own set of business expectations and limitations. More often than not, writers have compromised storytelling at the altar of commercial viability. And though the argument for content-driven films in recent times has seen a much needed upsurge, it is still true that the average Indian movie-goer is star-obsessed and is more likely to loosen his purse strings for a big-budget movie than a niche content-driven film at the theatre.

There is just a handful of story tropes that gets churned and re-churned in the commercial Hindi film space. New stories, real stories, stories that are left-of-centre don’t see the light of the big silver screen often enough. The advent of OTT players, investing in content across genres and scale, has set free content creators and writers, given them creative freedom like never before. In the OTT space, no subject is too sacrosanct to be explored and no story is commercially unviable to be translated on screen.

With the apparent lack of censorship — something that I admit can easily be misused — writers can construct milieus and characters, plot points and themes, that are true to reality, giving them free reign to talk about topics that would be considered too unpalatable for a big screen release. Our very own Yoodlee Films, alongside our theatrical releases, has ventured into the original space with three films — Brij Mohan Amara Rahe, Ascharyachakit and Music Teacher resting on Netflix — and a few more are in the works for another major OTT player. The topics of these films deal with everything from identity theft and its moral repercussions to the sexual dynamics among various strata of society, championing great stories more than stars.

In the early days of streaming, a lot of value was placed on library content and the high number of titles one had. It came to light quickly that mere catalogue content wouldn't drive usage. That would come from exclusive original content and OTT players started placing higher value in creating this for themselves. All major players in the OTT space, whether it’s the global heavyweights or the local ones, are now pushing the pedal in creating original Indian content.

With web-series also in the fray, writers are tackling topics and issues that are not dictated by traditional formats. The best storytellers in the country are on board and they are given time to work on their stories, freeing them of the convention of delivering a gripping narrative either every day (in the case of daily shows) or within two or three hours (as in the case of feature films). A look into the recent web-series produced by some leading OTT players will reveal what a wide palette of genres is being looked at, featuring some of the most well-known faces from Hindi cinema.

Clearly the space has got the biggest names in the business interested in venturing into newer avenues and formats. The focus on originals, be it web or films, shows that players will continue to invest heavily in delivering high-quality exclusive content. There is also a strong case to be made for investing in content in regional languages and we do see this trend picking up in the years to come. For any of these platforms to become profitable, they have to find their footing in the regional market with customized content, speaking in their language. This is something that content creators should be paying heed to. The beauty is that we now have a content playground for all kinds of content for every kind of user, and the power of choice lies with one press of the user’s thumb.

As we stand in the millennial gateway today, one looks back and realizes the journey that content has made. For writers and content creators, their digital pens loaded with interesting stories, there is a now a plethora of work which stands to get the right exposure. We have come a long way from watching films in darkened theatres with hundreds around, driven by a sense of community. Today you can watch alone, settling in with your favourite mini-series or the latest film that you missed in theatres, at your convenience. But what remains constant as the essence of good entertainment is the power of a good story — engaging, fresh and, above all, relevant. Thank our OTT gods then, it's full stream ahead!

Vikram Mehra is managing director of Saregama Ltd and producer, Yoodlee Films.