It’s 2am. It’s not quite the time to sleep. You decide it’s not quite the time to watch reruns of favourite Western shows either. Your fingers, as if on autopilot, reach out and click ‘play’ on the latest, and closer to home Indian web series.
It was new and exciting back around 2015, now it’s a lifestyle. Though the online space is known for a new revolution every other week, most resemble the lifespan of a firecracker; our indigenous web series however, have managed to sustain beyond the realms of a trend and evolved into a cult in their own right. Be it TVF Pitchers, a journey of four friends who leave their corporate careers to turn entrepreneurs; Permanent Roommates which showcased the relationships of today; or The Trip that brought a fresh take on female friendship (finally defining it beyond the vamp & the damsel in distress) – we knew that content has come of age, and the audience can now feed on sharp shows beyond the television sagas.
If the over-a-million hits per episode sans any star or major production house, weren’t enough to reflect the success of these web series, the industry bigwigs such as Y-Films (Yash Raj Films) and ALTBalaji (Balaji Telefilms) foraying into this space cemented the fact that these are here to stay and slay. Commanding a loyal audience and churning out consecutive seasons, the web series have the viewers glued to their screen; and as the internet enables, they’re free to pick the screen and time of their choice, making it a home run for the creators and the audience.
Delving into the depths, we got talking with Vishwajoy Mukherjee (Director & Co-Writer, Baked) and Sahir Raza (Director & Cinematographer, A.I.SHA) to decode the phenomenon of web series. Vishwajoy, who put out a series in 2015 on the misadventures of three college students who attempt running a midnight food delivery service, says that the popularity of web series picked up due to a two-fold rationale, “One, Indian users weren’t getting to see what they wanted, so there was a need for an alternative. Secondly, the DSLR revolution around 2006 helped provide affordable tools to aspiring filmmakers.” Coupled with distribution platforms like YouTube and publicity channels like Facebook, Twitter, etc., web series powered through their way into the viewers’ bookmarks. At the same time, the ease of accessibility cannot be sidelined when counting the major plusses of these series, “They’re free to watch!” as Sahir says. “For all other content, you have to take out time and pay, for web series you can watch it whenever you want and wherever you want,” says the man who brought quality sci-fi to our digital world in 2016 with the story of a tech geek whose virtual girlfriend helps him plot revenge against a bully-boss. The freedom over content was an added bonus for the makers to choose the web over traditional TV, “It is more liberating as we don’t have to be mindful of any kind of censorship or restrictions. And you don’t have to wait for somebody to give you the opportunity to make your show, we are the masters of our own content,” shares Vishwajoy.
Over the years The thriving market expectedly invited big production houses onto the web territory. While they have artfully treaded the line between putting forth great content and stars in their productions, we ask how this affects the existing, considerably smaller channels, “There is space for everyone at this point, but depends entirely on how the big production guys treat the internet. You cannot treat it the same as theatres, you cannot hope that a star will compensate for average content. On the internet, the content has to be king,” lends Sahir. Resonating with that thought, Vishwajoy opines that, “More platforms equal more opportunities and wider audiences for filmmakers like myself”. At the same time he voices concern over the web being made into a replica of our television sets, but concedes that, “It may be just my own myopia, because the internet as a medium is very democratic, and muscling your way only through money and no good content won’t be an option.”
The current scenario projects a hopeful picture of great content done on a larger scale. With the internet being one of the fastest mediums for changing landscapes, it promises to span across age groups, as opposed to the current label of being ‘youth centric’, and introduce a culture of people paying for content in the next 5 years. As Sahir puts it, “The age group watching the web now is not going to disappear, so automatically we’ll start catering to the 35-years and above bracket as well.” Vishwajoy on the other hand feels there is a more pertinent challenge at hand, “Make the content independent of sponsorships. Currently it forces us to make bizarre content to accommodate the advertisers’ needs. The reason why Netflix can make such on-the-edge material is because its user base enables them, and the show doesn’t have to look like a glorified advertisement.’ Though he acknowledges that the sponsors’ requirements are valid, Vishwajoy points out that, “A product shoved in their faces every few seconds is not going to let the audiences enjoy the show.”
Speaking of audience preferences, it is also a prime determining factor for the nature of content that is created, “Unlike any other industry, the audience interaction here is incredible. You get actual people writing actual thoughts on your work, so the analytics available now are more in-depth,” lends Sahir. However, he adds that, “Each comment cannot be allowed to dictate your content, but it can be used to enhance what you’re doing.” Noting the other side of online behaviour Vishwajoy expresses, “It’s a mistaken logic that if a formula worked once it will work repeatedly. So, we try to see online consumption patterns but the truth is that literally no one knows what will work, because it’s such an unpredictable thing.” While somewhere down the line the industry may be able to determine exact patterns, for now, “The best you can do is to make as many human beings aware of your show, and then pray that they watch it and like it. Because if those 15 minutes don’t hold their interest, they’ll just start doing something else,” according to Vishwajoy.
Sounds disorganised? But that would be an outward perception, with both Baked and A.I.SHA seeing two successful seasons and an expected Season 3, the two ace gents here certainly know how to make it function effectively. And the acclaim is not restricted within the Indian borders, the recognition is synonymous with the platform – the worldwide web – with A.I.SHA recently winning 5 awards at the L.A. Webfest among 300 entries from across the world. The present hints at upcoming content that will be increasingly fresh, mature, and most importantly, retain its throne as ‘king’. As for how it does pan out, take your couch, stream-play-pause-repeat, and we shall know.