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India’s OTT space is changing the landscape rapidly

Jitendra Kumar.

Altered State

By Jamie Alter

I spent much of my spare time during the last week – which means around midnight once the IPL matches are done – straddling between season two of Mirzapur on Amazon Prime Video and Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story on SONYLIV. I began Scam 1992 a couple of days before Mirzapur 2 dropped, but once it did, I found myself torn between the two. They are vastly different web series in nature, writing, scale, budget, production value and directorial craft and, yet, each in its own unique way is engaging.

And this is the wonderful part of the changing landscape of India’s viewing experiences thanks to the OTT (over-the-top) media platforms which offer us a wide range of web series to consume.

The fact that, in 2020, we have had diverse web series like Jaamtara and She (Netflix), Mirzapur 2, Panchayat, Paatal Lok, Breathe: Into the Shadows, Bandish Bandits and Four More Shots Please season two (all Amazon Prime), Aarya (Hotstar), Asur (Voot), Scam 1992, Avrodh and JL50 (all SONYLIV) is proof of how expansive the OTT scene is in India. And these are just a handful of the shows released this year.

During the lockdown, I had spoken to actors such as Gulshan Devaiah, Rasika Dugal, Jitendra Kumar, Sharib Hashmi, Vipin Sharma and Aasif Khan as well as actor-producer Faisal Malik. We covered many topics during our chats for a YouTube chat show I had conducted during lockdown, and one common theme among all my guests was how web series and OTT platforms have given far more opportunities to artists than films have in India. And each of the aforementioned actors spoke of how web series allow them to sink their teeth into meatier roles and go places as performers that they seldom get in movies.

Khan, a familiar face among OTT viewers because of his head-turning performances in Jamtara, Paatal Lok and Mirzapur, said that without such web series he would have been nowhere. “Where else would I get the opportunity to play characters as diverse as the three shows you’ve mentioned in the span of a year?” he said. “The OTT audience doesn’t see whether you’re a Shah Rukh Khan or Akshay Kumar. It wants good and unique content, that’s it.”

Dugal, who has performed remarkably in web series as different as Mirzapur, Delhi Crime, Out of Love and Made in Heaven, said that she jumped at the opportunity to play Beena Tripathi in Mirzapur because, frankly, such roles are extremely rare for her. “When has an actor like me got the chance to play a woman as bold and feisty as her? There was no way I was going to say no to that role,” said Dugal. “I had so much fun playing Beena Tripathi.”

Devaiah has been a part of two released web series, Smoke (Eros Now, 2018) and Afsos (Amazon Prime, 2020), and in each his characters are vastly different. Though he maintained that his focus was carving his niche in films because that is what he set out to do from Bangalore years ago, Devaiah told me that he has enjoyed his time acting in web series because of the chance to explore his craft. In Smoke, he played the Bihari-speaking JJ, a somewhat mysterious mercenary caught up in a drug war in Goa and, in the black comedy Afsos, he is Nakul, a struggling writer who unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide, several times.

“JJ and Nakul are two completely different people, and I had to go deep into myself to figure out how to play them,” Devaiah said. “We shot them at different times in my life and career, but each gave me a chance to experiment.”

Hashmi, whose web series credits include The Family Man, Asur and Scam 1992, stressed on the fact that in a web series an actor gets a chance to pause and soak in a scene more than in Hindi films because unlike on the big screen, here the camera lingers on an actor’s face longer.

Malik, who co-produced Smoke, told me that the fact that we had series like Panchayat and Paatal Lok vying for the audience’s attention in the span of weeks was indicative of how the viewers’ tastes have changed. As a producer, Malik and his team are constantly on the lookout for ‘hatke’ scripts because they are committed to giving India’s OTT audience more.

Jitendra – known fondly as Jeetu – is unique in that his fame has been largely due to his participation with The Viral Fever (TVF) which began in 2010 as a YouTube channel targeted at India’s youth, but which has now expanded into branded entertainment. Having been a part of several successful TVF shows, for him Panchayat was an extension of that but on the scale of an OTT platform like Amazon Prime Video. He spoke during our chat about he owes his success – he co-starred with Ayushmann Khurana in Shubh Mangal Zyada Savadhan this year – to TVF and how he cannot imagine anyone else giving him such opportunities.

In 2020, Jeetu was seen as the crotchety government-appointed secretary in the wonderfully simplistic comedy-drama Panchayat, also starring Malik, Raghubir Yadav, Neena Gupta and new find Chandan Kumar. This, for me, is the best show of the year because it takes us back to the times of Malgudi Days and Wagle Ki Duniya when storytelling was the focus.

Listening to these actors speak about their craft was enlightening, and to hear them each speak about the opportunities that web series have provided them was to underscore emphatically what a fascinating time this is for Indian entertainment.

(Jamie Alter is a sports writer, journalist, author and actor).