The closure of cinemas because of the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the excitement of Friday releases to streaming platforms. Movies that would have been released in cinemas are now showing up on streamers on any day of week. There has been a surge in original programming too, with fiction-based shows rushing in to keep existing and newer subscribers entertained in work-from-home and quarantine situations.
Among the busiest content pushers is Amazon Prime Video. The Forgotten Army – Azaadi Ke Liye and Afsos arrived in January and February respectively. Between March and early August, the streaming platform rolled out a bunch of comedy specials as well as the shows Panchayat, the second season of Four More Shots Please!, Pataal Lok, Rasbhari, Breathe: Into the Shadows and Bandish Bandits.
“It’s hectic, but we are quite fortunate and privileged to be able to provide some relief, some format of entertainment to our customers in these very challenging and difficult times,” said Aparna Purohit, Head of India Originals at Amazon.
While Amazon Prime Video, like its rivals Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, Zee5 and Sony LIV, doesn’t share viewership data, Amazon is easily among the leading destinations for Indians looking for better written and produced alternatives to television. Amazon Prime Video has been astutely balancing genres and viewer tastes ever since it rolled out its first series, Inside Edge, in 2017.
Panchayat explored the rhythms of small-town life. Season two of Four More Shots Please!, like its predecessor, was aimed at fans of Sex and the City escapades. Bandish Bandits, in which a young Hindustani classical singer is torn between his commitment to his musical tradition and his love for a pop singer, targetted millennials.
“The show talks about the conflict between old and new, modern and traditional, classic and pop, discipline and freedom, family and individualism,” Purohit said about Bandish Bandits. “Also, the music is a melange of folk and classical and modern. This coming together of two Indias is what was most exciting for me about the show.”
Purohit is closely involved in a show – “from the time it is pitched to when it is fully written out and ready to go into the production process”, she told Scroll.in. This can last anywhere between nine months to a year and is “collaborative and very feedback-driven” in terms of the writing and characterisation, Purohit added.
Amazon Prime Video also gives casting suggestions – which might explain why several shows feature prominent names from Bollywood to increase their appeal.
The star factor is important but not a deal-breaker, Purohit clarified. “It is the story and the vision of the creator that is more important than anything else,” she said. “The good thing is about this medium is that we can really cast for the character, whether it’s Jaideep Ahlawat in Pataal Lok or Manoj Bajpayee in The Family Man or Pankaj Tripathi in Mirzapur or Ritwik [Bhowmik] and Shreya [Chaudhary] in Bandish Bandits. In long-form cinematic storytelling, you are not there with them [the characters] for two hours, you are going to be spending eight to ten hours with them.”
If a show demands star value, it has to be obtained from an actor who can bring out the nuances of the character, such as Saif Ali Khan in the upcoming political drama Taandav, Purohit added.
“No matter what we put out, the first question asked is, when is Mirzapur 2 coming,” Purohit observed. “The fact that some of the characters start inhibiting our lives is amazing.”
The bulk of Amazon Indian viewers is, broadly speaking, between the ages of 25 and 40. They are spread across the 4,000 cities and towns in which the parent company, the retail giant Amazon, has its presence. “We are not programing for one target group or one cohort but for a country,” Purohit pointed out, adding that the streaming platform is looking to ramp up its programming beyond Hindi.
Among the insights from internal assessments of what subscribers are embracing or rejecting is that there is a strong hunger for original comedies and thrillers. If a second season it is announced, it means a series has worked.
“The other big learning is that people prefer content in the languages they are comfortable in,” Purohit said, which is why shows are dubbed in nine languages.
The novel coronavirus pandemic that has driven up consumption on streaming platforms reinforces the “appetite for good content”, Purohit observed. “As far as the creative community is concerned, this is an amazing time – everybody is developing and writing and we have doubled down on our development,” she added.