Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur
India is leapfrogging to catch up with technologies that are changing the way we approach or invest in stories, and this will fundamentally alter the entertainment experience
This is, in no uncertain words, the best time for filmmakers, producers, writers, actors and technicians. If you have a good story to tell or a craft to showcase, you have multiple platforms and mediums. In 2013, we struggled to put out a crazy zombie film like Go Goa Gone
. We used to hear quite a lot, supposedly as a compliment, that our films were ‘ahead of their time’. Conventionally, you get that line only when your films don’t do well in the box office. It’s cool, but a consolation prize. Today, it’s time. People need not hold on to their work because others will call their ideas crazy or ‘ahead of its time’.
Today, we can put out a silly idea like Stree
, which has a strong subtext, and it’ll work phenomenally well even without a star. At the same time, we can make a successful web series like The Family Man
, with all its layers, and geopolitical and communal narrative. We think that if both of us were to start out today, we would have had a faster path. Because you no longer need to worry about films not having a star or even a theatrical release. You can change formats or pick different lengths—from a one-minute short film to a 10-hour web series or anything in between. Everybody is inviting all kinds of options.
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We are part of a global change where everyone is looking a little more inwards, be it politics or films. The taste has shifted toward being a little more homegrown, a little more native. As a country, we have always had to leapfrog to the next level. We went from trunk calls to smartphones in no time. In other places, people evolved gradually from home phones, pagers, cordless phones etc. Similarly, we do not have the experience of making web series, unlike the US or the rest of the world, where people have been making original series or sitcoms beyond soaps for the last 20 years. HBO or Showtime existed during The Sopranos
But India has caught up fast. Our steps have been huge. We can now use our existing expertise in storytelling, writing and making films in acquiring new skills. That way, we will do good going forward. Right now, there is unlimited content you can create, but you will lose out if you don’t keep honing your skills. As writers and filmmakers, we have always wanted to be part of the wave where we are the first to try out something new, be it genre films or for over-the-top (OTT) platforms. It has always been about accepting and being excited about anything new in film frontiers. Learning everything there is to learn.
Writing or creating a web series for OTT platforms takes a lot of effort. There is more logistical investment in creating the structure than in a film. The story itself—told across multiple episodes and acts—has many layers, characters, subplots and themes. The number of minutes we shoot is also way more than for a film. So the next set of filmmakers will have to approach their writing differently, which they can do by adapting themselves. As it stands now, OTT is a game of quantity over quality just because of the sheer number of platforms. Projects made in this format are easy enough to fund. But once you start flooding the audience, only quality content will shine through. That’s how it has been with films as well.
Thankfully, India is among the few countries where people still enjoy regular cinema in theatres. That’s not going to last. Films like Forrest Gump
or Pulp Fiction
, or simpler genres like romantic comedies, have gone out of theatres in America. They don’t make Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan kind of movies anymore. Any film that is not a spectacle has gone out of theatres across the world. We, on the other hand, are lucky that films like Stree
or Badhaai Ho
, which are just stories, are working well and even outdoing mega films. But this is the last phase.
There is no doubt, unfortunately, that entertainment will become more lonely. It will be more personal, rather than the community experience that it is today. You are going to be watching a film on your phone no matter how well I shoot it. And you will be watching as you walk, take the train, and consume it over 24 hours in a day. There might also be virtual reality (VR) or other goggles soon, where you’ll be watching a film even as you fall asleep. People will have to work harder to pull the audience out of their homes and into theatres, using all kinds of frills and attractions. Films in the future might become an event or a spectacle like a concert or a game. It’s going to be a trip or a day out at the theatre, rather than regular cinema-going.
We have started seeing how promotions are changing the calculations completely. Even if somebody tells us that producing their film will not cost us even ₹
10 lakh, you will run into a few crores to just mount it or market it. A theatrical film has to be conceived keeping profitability in mind. We have started labelling films based on how well they can be marketed: Whether it has a known face, if it is a genre film, etc. This labelling will only intensify in the future. Theatrical releases will become tougher tomorrow, given that we have to drag people to the theatre. So you need to find those many factors or marketing angles before you finally put a film out there.
Films made on books, based on a strong foundation of research, might catch up in the future. Different kinds of literature will be translated on screen. We will also see more cross-collaboration. The latter will be because too much of content will create a dearth of talented artistes and technicians. You will really need to look across regions, formats and languages to be unique.
● (As told to Divya J Shekhar)
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(This story appears in the 17 January, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)