Indian cinema has a new element to acknowledge in its history: the OTT boom. Streaming platforms struck gold while theatres fizzled out during the pandemic. A population that only lackadaisically watched shows on the platforms suddenly grew exponentially. OTT platforms have now become near indispensable in India, and have become a welcome avenue for Indian studios.
Two factors led to the hallmarking of Indian cinematic content on the digital space. A colossal population of a billion was forced to lock themselves home. Usual lifestyle routines were disrupted, and people had no choice but to chart a new normal for themselves. Entertainment became a problem as most families had a common source to derive it from. Television had variety, but rarely do members of a family share the same interests when it comes to entertainment. OTT platforms were seen as lucrative venues to watch content that was happening, and would never find the light of day on TV. And secondly, the titles released in 2020 on streaming were simply – and coincidentally – too good to pass on. The pandemic saw India’s best year in terms of quality Indian releases.
This resonated more in the case of episodic content. Gems like Scam 1992, Paatal Lok, and Special Ops were ruling the screens for weeks. Existing franchises like Mirzapur saw a new surge of viewers with new seasons released during the pandemic. Who wouldn’t want to access content that paralleled theatrical releases in terms of quality, available for a price? A study shows that 29 million OTT users paid for 53 million subscriptions during the initial bout of the pandemic. Netflix said that India had the largest viewership of the platform’s movies across the world in 2020. Despite the world being brought to a standstill, cinema was still up and running; or at least, its distribution was.
A whole new world of choices was available to Indians, especially in the realm of regional content. People could watch any genre they wanted to, anytime and anywhere, and in languages of preference. There is no medium in India that can provide the audiences with such crucial choices, all at once. Regional content saw an exponential rise as well, and influenced fan-culture across India. It was a known fact that South Indian cinema usually falls under the mass category. They are remembered more for the larger than life presence of heroes, and over-the-top action sequences by regular audiences up North. OTT however, bridged an unlikely gap with subtitles and dubbing. In the next year, films like RRR and KGF 2 were ruling screens and breathed life into theatres across India. This had never happened before in the history of Indian cinema, where South cinema was celebrated in the whole country with the same zeal that the dominant Bollywood film would enjoy. In fact, the Telugu film Pushpa: The Rise became the highest grossing Indian film in 2021. South Indian content was no longer something that was enjoyed by those who spoke the native tongue of the region.
The rise in OTT viewership also gave India some of its best actors of the modern times. These are actors who have been part of bigger films before, but often in extremely small parts. Today, actors like Jaideep Ahlawat, Pankaj Tripathi, Shefali Shah, have become actors with filmography that rivals those who rarely do OTT projects. Shah has also been nominated for Best Actress in the International Emmy Awards. Her show Delhi Crime also won Outstanding Drama Series for its first season. The digital space has also been an avenue for existing actors to renew their careers, like Sushmita Sen. Already a leading lady in Bollywood, Sen said she had phoned the heads of Netflix, and Hotstar in search for work. And she came with a force to be reckoned with, in a Hotstar’s Aarya. The show has just released its 3rd season this November, and already earned itself a nomination in the International Emmy Awards (Best Drama).
Given their newfound popularity, streaming platforms are now rushing to get new originals out and have more existing titles featured. The race is so maddening that there’s always some or the other show releasing on one platform. There is so much content that the variety overwhelms the audience. The average viewer would usually have 2, or maybe 3 subscriptions at best, and then there are 5 more that are churning out content. Not everyone can watch all of them, even if they wanted to. Now that theatres are up and running, OTT platforms need to rethink strategies to ensure their longevity in the Indian market.
But come what may, cinema in India has to do a run on the digital space. Everyone hopes to see theatrical releases be made available for streaming, especially those who weren’t able to during theatrical runs. OTT platforms store scores of under-appreciated Indian gems, that most of the world, and even India, are left to see. They serve as a reserve for quality content whenever big screens fail and instill fatigue in the audience. And given their current popularity, streaming platforms are set for a long, long stay in the Indian market.