2021 will go down as the year over-the-top (OTT) platforms cemented their position in the entertainment landscape in India. They are no longer just an alternative with few filmmakers even crossing over to make films and web series exclusively for OTT. The grandmaster of Indian cinema, SS Rajamouli, too was seen recently backing a Telugu family drama web series, Parampara, an epic tale of power and corruption on Disney+Hotstar. The project was produced by Baahubali producers, Prasad Devineni of Arka Mediaworks Production.
Veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah, who was part of the art cinema movement in the 1970s, too backs OTT streaming platforms admitting that he gets “better work” here than in the movies. It is not just gore and rom-coms that dominated the streaming platforms in 2021, there were Nordic noirs, Korean series, anthologies to movies on caste (Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan and Pa Ranjith’s Sarpattai Parambarai), fluffy comedies (Decoupled & Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives), effective political satires (Mandela), local superhero movies (Minnal Murali), dystopian and sci-fi films (Leonardo De Caprio’s Don’t Look up and Dune) that ruled.
The Indian film industry swallowed humble pie and released most of its big budget films on OTT. In cases where movies released in cinema halls, filmmakers did not wait for the mandatory 30-40 days to debut new releases on OTT.
Underlining the fact that OTT has emerged stronger in 2021, Uma Vangal, a Chennai-based film research scholar currently doing a fellowship at Brooklyn College in New York, said that it was the freedom to explore genres that empowered OTT this year. “Filmmakers could freely tap into a global genre without having to convince a producer about the story or the approach,” said Vangal. Also, well-made Indian series with original content like Sacred Games, Family Man, and Delhi Crime were game-changers that gave OTTs some kind of heft at first, she added.
“The makers of these series understood television writing because writing for OTT is like writing for television. You have time on your hands to build the character, extend emotional arcs of the characters and give insights into their motivation. The ones who understood this have made an impression on OTT,” she said. Vangal gave the example of Vetrimaaran’s short in Paavai Kadhaigal and Vasanth’s Payasam in Navarasa for providing “rich content” in OTT-driven anthologies.
According to Vangal, people also turn to OTT to relive old movies they have loved, going in search of MGR films or a memorable movie like Mouna Ragam.
“Many small Telugu and Malayalam movies with great stories like Middle Class Melodies and Home definitely contributed to the appeal of OTT,” said Soorarai Pottru director Sudha Kongara. Middle Class Melodies, a Telugu comedy by debutant Vinod Anantoju is set in a small town near Guntur. Currently, streaming on Amazon Prime, it has been described by reviewers as “unarguably one of the most charming films to have come out of Telugu cinema in recent years”.
OTT also offered Malayalam cinema a platform to assert itself on the national scene and showcase some of its best. The industry began the year with a bang with The Great Indian Kitchen, a brilliant take on patriarchy embedded in our daily lives, which incidentally Netflix and Amazon had rejected at first according to director Joe Baby. (It is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.)
A film like Rojin Thomas’ Home (Amazon Prime Video) on a technologically challenged father’s attempts to connect with his adult sons touched a deep chord with audiences. Explaining the phenomenon, Vangal said, “Malayalam cinema was very quick to jump onto the OTT platform and even made films exclusively for OTT. It was an evident trend, they decided to leverage this platform very differently and they worked with very young crews who knew what the audience wanted. My student Ahammed Khabeer, (the director of June) who has made Madhuram has fortunately found success online, unlike Kabir Khan’s ‘83 which released in theatres amid the threat of an Omicron wave and flopped.”
The filmmakers have now understood that they can make films with minimalistic budgets and enter into lucrative arrangements with these platforms, she pointed out.
The OTT platforms also ensure they provide good marketing support for these films. “Good Malayalam films like Joji and Minnal Murali would not have got the widespread recognition they got if not for OTT. For example, Netflix had put all their might behind marketing Minnal Murali and it managed to reach a wider audience,” said Alleppey-based cinematographer Salu K Thomas, who was the lensman for The Great Indian Kitchen.
Thomas, who passed out of Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute, said that OTT has made it so much easier for technicians to get work. Incidentally, Thomas is currently working on a Malayalam anthology for which he has shot two short films. One of the shorts has been directed by The Great Indian Kitchen director, Jeo Baby, he said.
OTT will grow bigger in 2022, predicted Thomas, and more big stars will sign up to work for these platforms. “Vijay’s Master got a good deal with Amazon. And, look at how film producer Allu Aravind’s (father of Telugu superstar Allu Arjun) platform aha has grown, they are eyeing Malayalam film industry as well, he said.
With new platforms like aha and a bigger rival like Disney+Hostar giving them a run for their money, streaming giant Netflix had to slash their basic price to Rs 199 at the end of year. aha reportedly has notched up 1.5 million subscribers, (they bagged the streaming rights of the Naga Chaitanya and Sai Pallavi starrer Love Story) and is all set to make deeper forays into the Tamil film market next. SUN Nxt, the OTT app from the stables of Sun TV Network, has a strong presence in Tamil but they are currently not investing in any original content for the platform, instead choosing to relay its TV content and films so far.
For film buffs on OTT facebook groups, Disney+Hotstar turned out to be the top platform because of its strategic tie-up with HBO. One Mumbai theatre veteran of an OTT Facebook group wrote: “The greatest show for me have all been streamed here, Succession, Mare of Eastown, The Deuce, The White Lotus, Vinyl and Only Murders in the Building. Such great great writing, plotting, humour (both LOL and laconic). Netflix obviously is great for Nordic Noir. But Hotstar is the hottest, in my book.”
Not all are gung-ho about OTTs however. Filmmaker Arun Karthick, an independent filmmaker, who has made the acclaimed, award-winning Indo-Dutch production Nasir, has his reservations about the growth of OTT. According to him, OTTs are inherently self-censored companies. “It is like the creator who censors himself while making a scene for the sake of a larger popular appeal, these OTTs make choices that seem safe for their organisation to get wider viewership. I don’t see OTTs as guardian angels of anything,” he said, adding that they were just a new exhibition model, a necessity of this increasing virtual culture.
“When the OTTs soon start to accept the more noticeable censoring of scenes/dialogues, it will be a more difficult battle for the filmmaker than with a public institution like CBFC. So these monopoly companies are by no means ‘democratic’ or ‘game changers’, pointed out the young filmmaker. While the quality of many of the films and series that make it to OTT may be questionable, and disliked by purists of cinema, OTT is steadily carving out a strong niche for itself.
For viewers, it has opened an entirely new world and new cultures. With time, viewers too have gotten smart and know it is best to separate the wheat from the chaff and pick what works for them from such a vast and varied offering. So, here’s some recommendations from a few directors and a cinematographer on what they liked in 2021:
Pawan Kumar, director, Lucia and U-turn:
Mini-series Scenes from a Marriage on Disney+Hotstar: “It is a very well done, very intense show and I loved it. The show contained amazing performances and it is very close to reality to what a couple go through. They use a technique where they start each episode as actors and not the characters they play. Within a simple shot they switch over to being the character, breaching the fourth wall concept. That was very well done. The opening of each episode was well thought and interestingly done.”
Salu K Thomas, cinematographer, The Great Indian Kitchen
The 2018 Thai film Manta Ray by debutant writer director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng. Centered on a mute Rohingya man rescued by a Thai fisherman after having washed ashore near the Thai-Myanmar border, this simple tale of identity, displacement and friendship is wrapped in layers of symbolism. It is set near a coastal village of Thailand, where thousands of Rohingya refugees have drowned. A local fisherman finds an injured man lying unconscious in the forest and he rescues the stranger, who does not speak a word, offers him his friendship and names him Thongchai. But when the fisherman suddenly disappears at sea, Thongchai slowly begins to take over his friend’s life – his house, his job, and his ex-wife. “I loved the mood set by the filmmaker and the cinematographer,” said Thomas.
There is Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria as well, a remake of the 1977 Dario Argento horror classic about a prestigious German dance academy, which is a front for a witches’ coven. “He is one of my favourite directors and it is fantastic that I can watch all his films on OTT. It is a horror psycho film and it is unbelievable that the director who made such a sensitive coming of age film like Call Me by Your Name made this movie as well,” said Thomas.
Sudha Kongara, who had 2020’s acclaimed film to her credit, Surya’s Soorarai Pottru
“My most important film on OTT this year was Jai Bhim. It was an important film in many ways. It’s a story that needed to be told and a voice that needed to be heard. And, a superstar like Surya doing this film brought huge audience attention to the atrocities of power and caste oppression. It is a game-changer on OTT, bravo! Also, it was a work of art hence it worked for me. Overt message films don’t work for me. It was a courtroom thriller and kept me hooked. Kannada film Dia, Middle Class Melodies are gems that you find on OTT.”
Kannada film director, Priya Belliappa, whose short film, Frayed Lines explored the complexity of identity at the backdrop of NRC
“The End of the F…ing World. It is a little show that delves into the lives of people who do not “fit in”. And it is special because of the characters, they are all unique and somehow anyone can identify with them. The treatment of voice over really works for me as well.”
Based on the comic book series by Charles Forsman, The End of the F…ing World sees two 17-year-old outsiders, James and Alyssa, embark on a road trip to find her estranged father, who left home when she was just a child. James, who is convinced he’s a psychopath, has decided it’s time to graduate from killing animals to something bigger — and he already has a target in mind. Alyssa, the embodiment of existential angst, feels like she doesn’t fit in at her new school despite being quite popular. Together, they get caught up on a trail of violent events that grow increasingly more ominous as their quest progresses.