India is supposed to be home to one of the largest entertainment industries in the world. Despite the all-pervasive national influence of Bollywood or Hindi cinema, even the vernacular Film industries in the country have played a crucial role in terms of catering to, and also shaping the entertainment consumption practices of the Indian audiences. Thus, in response to changing trends in such practices, visual content too, be it on the big screen or small, has been evolving.
I still have vague memories of having spent hours at end, glued to our home television set, binging K-serials on channels such as Star Plus. This was probably around 2004 or 2005, which meant that this eventually made way for more teenage-oriented shows on Disney or Hungama With time and age, I developed a better understanding of the tropes that my supposed childhood favourite shows made use of, and the sense of middle class Indian morality they catered to. The same could perhaps be said of content on the big screen. Just think of the kind of response that a film like the 2004 Abbas-Mustan drama Aitraaz had garnered. It seemed like a revolutionary concept to see a married woman claim agency, in order to defend her falsely accused husband in a court of law. The film also accorded a degree of agency to Priyanka Chopra’s character of Sonia, but even in doing so, painted her as a ‘vamp’.
It was common for Bollywood to fall into binaries of good and bad, especially with regards to female characters. Television shows centred around school and college going students such as Hip Hip Hurray and Miley Jab Hum Tum, tried to go beyond such tropes and be ‘progressive’, and reach out to younger audiences. However, a large number of subjects such as sex or even mental health, still continued to be brushed under the rug or touched upon only very obliquely.
And then, India witnessed an online media revolution, with a steadily increasing number of internet users, alongside the advent of social media. It started with Reliance Entertainment launching BIGFlix, followed by Zee’s DittoTV in 2013. As of 2020, Disney+Hotstar is believed to be the most popular platform in the country. Even Netflix and Amazon have managed to garner a considerable viewership, with content specifically targeting Indian clientele.
So what does the online space signal for Indian entertainment? As of 2018, such streaming platforms constituted about sixteen percent of entertainment consumption in India. However, the significance of these platforms cannot simply be reduced to these numbers, because what they ushered in was a paradigm shift in story-telling. For starters, there was little concern for the possibility of being censored or having to work within a framework of mandated regulations. Part of the beauty of the online space lies in the amount of liberty that it accords to content creators. The kind of engagement and accessibility it offers is also unique and personalized. The nature of the online space has thus managed to make use of this to create content which is diverse, relatable, and also socially relevant.
Imagine a story like the Amazon Prime original Patal Lok, being shown on Indian television or even cinema. It would have been unlikely for such a show, with its blatant representation of politically motivated violence, and casteist and communal tensions, to even get a commercial release in the first place! However, these trends go beyond those of violence and bloodshed, and eventually venture into dynamics of personal relationships like in Sacred Games. The Radhika Apte-starrer Ghoul too, directed by Patrick Graham, packed in considerable doses of a not so far-removed
reality for its audiences. It used the medium of dystopian horror to deliver a coded commentary. However, the very obvious engagement with the issue of communalism in India would have made it unlikely for the show to have been palatable for television.
Online platforms have also created a space for stories which don’t shy away from delving into subjects such as sex, sexuality or gender identity. The Amazon Prime show Made in Heaven, for instance, had a significant arc with a non-heteronormative character, without falling into the cliché of making that the most pivotal part of that character arc. The same platform also streamed another show called Four More Shots Please! revolving around the lives of four women and their friendship. Putting aside the cinematic merits of the show, what was remarkable was its attempt at giving its women agency and sexual autonomy without passing moral judgement. Once again, this is rare in case of Indian television or cinematic content. Shows like Netflix’s Delhi Crime and Sacred Games, or Amazon Prime’s Mirzapur or even Disney+Hotstar’s Criminal Justice, have not only redefined the style and treatment of Indian crime dramas, but also roped in enormous fresh talent, going beyond famous mainstream faces. The recognition of new talent, and greater liberty being accorded in the creative process owing to these platforms has of course been a blessing!
With the current health crisis, and difficulties involved in elaborate processes of filming, as well as the closure of cinema halls, the importance of the digital space is only likely to be augmented. Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo for instance, became the first Bollywood release following the lockdown in India. It garnered a heartening response from Amazon Prime viewers and critics alike. Indeed, unlike theatre or music, there’s greater scope for digitisation of film, owing to the nature of the medium. There’s already a PHYSICAL distance (in most cases) between the art and its audience. Some difference between television, the big screen and online platforms lies in the experience and scale. Which is why, as director Zoya Akhtar had once said in an interview, it’s unlikely for the online space to replace mainstream cinema meant for theatres. The culture of cinema theatres is irreplaceable unto itself. However, the online platform has managed to use its liberties in a way that gives active competition to the mainstream industry. These shows and films dare to speak truth to power and they don’t always conform to notions of pseudo-morality. They manage to engage with a diverse range of subject matter and give greater representation to newer talent. For mainstream or even television cinema to not eventually pale in comparison to the same, it would have to keep rethinking and reinventing its narrative and representative strategies.