Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 August 2019

Indie in India: How the landscape of Bollywood is shifting away from the blockbuster

The old Bollywood guard’s reign is under threat thanks to new streaming services

Abhay Deol in 2016's 'Happy Bhaag Jayegi'. Courtesy Eros International
Abhay Deol in 2016's 'Happy Bhaag Jayegi'. Courtesy Eros International

In the golden days of ­Bollywood, aspiring writers descended on the city that was then Bombay from all nooks of India’s hinterland, spouting pristine Urdu or immaculate Hindi, living in dingy tenements in the northern suburbs of Yari Road or Malad and struggling to make ends meet. The producers were king, and the dime-a-dozen writers struggled.

But now, the advent of streaming services hungry for a slice of the Indian film industry pie has turned the tables. If you have the talent to write a story and the edge to lend it the necessary nuance, you are a prized part of the industry.

Content is king

It’s a welcome twist in which the producer, for a change, is hungrier than the writer. Why is it happening? Because a term that has been rather casually tossed around this decade is now king: content.

Some see it as a fad, but many see this moment as a seismic change in Bollywood’s topography and history – a phase in which the Indian film industry is becoming more conscious and respectful of the creative process in the hope of making more meaningful cinema for an increasingly fickle audience spoilt for choice on their smartphones and tablets.

But then, a more sophisticated variant of the producer is now also emerging, hoping to seize the opportunity of the shifting canvas that is Bollywood. Abhay Deol is Bollywood aristocracy – the nephew of superstar Dharmendra, the face of some of India’s biggest blockbusters in the 1970s.

A trailblazer for Indian indie cinema

As an actor, Deol has become a trailblazer for Indian indie cinema over the past decade, but as beloved as he was, he proved to be too much of an outsider in the Hindi film industry despite his family’s insider status.

It’s not that the acting offers dried up. They just became boring or inconsequential. So the poster boy of Indian indie cinema pivoted – and became an indie producer instead. “It was inevitable. I did not chase the mainstream, I was on the lookout for fresh ideas and it helped that I was from an established film family [but it also meant] being mainstream was expected of me.

The old guard was too comfortable in their space

Abhay Deol

"But fresh ideas come only with fresh talent … the old guard was too comfortable in their space as they were already successful and sat on top of the food chain,” he says. “I ended up making all my first five films with debut directors and I continued to work with directors who were at best one film old for the next five films.

“So I was surrounded by young minds and all the idealism and inexperience that comes with it.”

The producer recently starred in The Odds, a coming-of-age drama series that received rave reviews after an extract of it was shown at the 17th Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles on April 14.

Exploring 'uncharted territory'

Similarly, for Siddharth Roy Kapur, the former managing director of Disney India and now head of his own independent studio, the decision to branch out of the corporate space came from the urge to reconnect to the new realities of Indian cinema.

Siddarth Roy Kapur has opened his own production house — and creating content for streaming services is very much on his agenda. 
Siddarth Roy Kapur has opened his own production house — and creating content for streaming services is very much on his agenda. 

After producing some of the most genre-defining films of the last two decades for UTV Pictures (which then morphed into Disney India), Kapur chose to branch out on his own in 2017. To develop a rapport with cutting-edge writers, he kick-started his innings as an independent producer with a masterclass for select writers by Chris Brancato, creator of the internationally acclaimed web series Narcos.

Streaming platforms provide the opportunity for creators to tell layered narratives and to explore uncharted territory

Siddharth Roy Kapur

“Streaming platforms have made it possible to tell stories that can no longer be told on the big screen. The theatrical experience today has to offer either a ‘cinematic spectacle’ or ‘high concept’ for audiences to make the effort to drag themselves from their TV screens or smartphones to a cinema hall,” says Kapur of the new Bollywood order.

“Streaming platforms provide the opportunity for creators to tell character-driven stories that build over multiple hours, to tell layered narratives and to explore uncharted territory without being subjected to arbitrary censorship. This makes it a very attractive proposition for writers, directors and producers. A producer today can see himself as purely a content creator and enabler, and build a production schedule that is agnostic to duration, genre, mode of distribution and the necessity for a star cast to justify a budget.”

The advent of web series

Nestled somewhere between indie maverick (Deol) and media mogul (Kapur) is the feisty and sassy Shreya Vaidya, 26, a writer working out of Oshiwara, a neighbourhood in northern Mumbai, which almost all of India’s aspiring actors descend upon to be “discovered”. Vaidya recently wrote the quirky web series Closeted Comic, which is split into eight zany, four-minute episodes.

A graduate in media ventures from Boston University, she returned to India two years ago after stints in New York and Los Angeles. She says she found “liberation” with the online format as a filmmaker.

'Closeted Comic' web series was shot on an iPhone.
'Closeted Comic' web series was shot on an iPhone.

“There are zero middlemen, and that can be very liberating. I’ve never restricted myself to the online format, but it did serve my initial purpose,” she says. “I was set on doing something different and I wanted to push myself beyond just writing scripts. Luckily, a few of my friends were also experiencing a creative rut and I took full advantage of the situation.

Closeted Comic came out of that. It was an experimental web series that my friends and I made in five days. We shot it on an iPhone and distributed it straight to YouTube. It didn’t need anyone’s final approval. I was just happy to be able to exercise full control and do it so easily.” Vaidya is now writing two web series for top streaming operators.

As Bollywood takes into account the shifting landscape of the media industry, and as outsiders break the barriers that previously forbade them entry, the texture of Indian cinema is changing. And most see it as a breath of fresh air after years of embarrassing dates at multiplexes.

Updated: June 8, 2019 04:31 PM

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