MW 20TH Anniversary Special: The Big Screen To OTT Transition Story
As a film-maker, whether it’s a mainstream movie or a web show, I’m ultimately telling a story and I’m going to do what is good for that story. Ultimately, OTT is just a platform. The onus remain on the story. The story has to be engaging. When I took on Forgotten Army–Azaadi Ke Liye, I thought to myself if there’s a difference in how I will approach it. Should I be studying it, I thought to myself. And then I answered my own question with a no. I’ve always approached my projects — my films — with my gut instinct. I decided to put the idea that I’m making a web series out of my mind and approached it from the point of view of telling a story. I wrote it, scripted it, shot it and executed it as what is best for the story. So, in my mind, I’m making just another film. Yes, there was a reconfiguration while I was writing — I had to write it in episodes but once I jumped into actually shooting it, it was all the same for me. And that’s how it is, irrespective of the platform you’re showcasing on.
There’s a freedom in working with fresh faces and the script as the hero. There were massive amounts and rounds of auditions that went on for the role in my series. Our brief was to get new actors. And I feel that’s an advantage when you’re doing something for a web platform. Amazon wanted the story to be the star, and as a film-maker, I felt really empowered by that. It’s a refreshing change to be able to work with new faces at the scale that it was. Usually, when you’re working with new faces, you tend to bring down your budgets, but here, we were going to make the scale as large as any of my films. I dare say that it was on a larger scale than any of my films.
I’ll also talk a bit about the the business of web platforms. To be honest, I’ve never approached my films from a business point of view either. I’ve always approached it from a story point of view. Sometimes, they work with the audience and sometimes they don’t. I don’t let myself get burdened by that. Even in terms of the web platform, for me, it was just exciting to tell the story and the fact that somebody like Amazon was ready to back me at the level that they did, was great. So, I was not looking at the economics of it or the business or the burden of it.
We’re in a new decade now. And as someone who is a part of the business, I can say that in 2020 and every year from here on, there will only be growth of the web space. I think that the numbers the OTT platforms have in India are very small because there are lots of issues like broadband penetration and access to the platform but slowly and steadily, they’re going to grow the way they have in the West. I think OTT platforms are here to stay. It’s an exciting platform for actors and film-makers and ideas. Actually, if we look at what’s happening in Hollywood – either Hollywood is making really small productions of two or three million dollars, or they’re straightaway doing a 100-million-dollar production. The medium budget, drama-telling genre has already shifted to the OTT, whether its Amazon or Netflix or HBO and now, Apple and Disney have also come. Maybe, that’s what’s going to happen over here.
Let me tell you, there’s already chatter among film-makers that you can hear people say “ab agar logon ko film dekhne laana hai to scale dikhana padega, spectacle dikhana padega”. I don’t know how true that is in India today but I think, ultimately, it might go there. If it’s a good, intense drama that doesn’t need a lot of scale and big canvas, people will watch it on OTT platforms and when there’s truly a spectacle, they’ll watch it on the big screen. Having said that, in my own experience, what I have done in The Forgotten Army is that this is the biggest scale thing I’ve ever done. So, my biggest project in terms of the scale and spectacle till now happens to be on an OTT platform. As a film-maker, what attracted me to the web space was the platform I was collaborating with. James Farrell, the VP of International Originals at Amazon, was in Tokyo. He came and met me and he knew that there’s this idea, which is ridiculously expensive, but he came to figure it out. He had a half-an-hour chat with me about the idea and at the end of the chat, he said: “I want to make this story with you because when you speak about it, I can see your passion”. And that’s all it was. He did not even hear the full script. That’s where it began and it ended up being one of the most expensive projects till date. You know, I’ve seen a lot of studios back films and do mid-course corrections, but Amazon was rock-solid.
What’s the measure of success? Well, as a content creator — it could be films or on the web space — success is only one thing: The liberty to pick up the projects that excite me and make them. As long as I see a story and it excites me and I feel that I want to make this and people say “Please make it”, I think I’m successful. When people say “Why do you want to make it?”, I know that my success is going down. It’s that simple. The rest of the paraphernalia, whether its money or your fees or the publicity and everything else that is there, that’s peripheral. True success is the freedom to tell the stories you want to tell the way you want to.