Media veteran Sameer Nair anticipated the growth of streaming platforms when he launched creative studio Applause Entertainment three years ago. He is the face behind bringing multiple hard-hitting stories to our OTT space, including everyone’s favourite Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story. 

It is profitable to be in the right place when change takes place, especially if you are the person bringing about change. Media veteran Sameer Nair has brought about multiple changes in the media landscape in the last 20 years. At the turn of the millennium, he brought in Kaun Banega Crorepati, and approved TV projects like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii. It not just changed the fortunes of Star Network, but also the way Indian audiences viewed television programs. Nair is an entrepreneur, and a visionary in a true sense. He anticipated the growth of OTT platforms in India.

In 2011, as the group CEO of Balaji Telefilms, he launched ALT Balaji, a homegrown OTT platform owned and curated by Ekta Kapoor. When Nair was completing his contract at Balaji, he was thinking about what to do next. In the interim, he had discussed a few ideas with Mr. Kumar Mangalam Birla, and one of them was a content creation studio, which turned out to be Applause Entertainment, a Content and IP Creation Studio. He believed that the business of streaming platforms would grow with time, and so would the need for quality content. So he decided on a studio that caters to all streaming platforms. Today, he believes the ecosystem can absorb about 200 shows easily.  Applause recently turned three, and in this short period, the studio has released 18 shows, of which seven were during the pandemic, on various streaming platforms like Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video, Sony Liv, MX Player, and Netflix. Their latest production, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, made it to the 14th spot on IMDb’s list of Top Rated TV Shows, globally.

Applause

About the success of the show, Nair says, “More often than not, people say the audience is dumb, and that is why they don’t appreciate quality shows. But that is not true. With Scam 1992, it is clear that the audience is smart, and enjoys good content. As creators, we always knew what we were making, because we supervised it from conception to execution. We made the show the way we intended. We knew the story we wanted to tell, and how we wanted to bring it to the screen. The excitement and relief of all the projects is that the audience understood the true essence of the show.” Nair confesses that they set out to make Scam three years ago. “We got rights for the book The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Got Away from author Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu in late 2017. By then, we were also in conversation with director Hansal Mehta. I told him I have the rights to this book, and he said, ‘Oh. I really like that story, and I want to do it.’ When we were looking to cast for Scam 1992, we were looking for people with a reasonable resemblance to the real people in the story. Many characters in the show have a resemblance to the actual character, except for Pratik Gandhi, who plays Harshad Mehta. We believed in Hansal’s conviction, and went along,” he adds.

One of the yardsticks to measure the success of any show is the conversation it sparks among the viewers. Scam 1992 raised the question: Was Harshad entirely wrong, or did Sucheta Dalal have an interest in Harshad’s downfall? Nair shared a funny anecdote, “We had a conversation with Dalal after the show was released. She told us that even though we made the show, it was she who was getting trolled (laughs). I told her if she had not broken the story (500 crores missing from SBI’s books) on that day, we all would be living in an alternate reality of Harshad Mehta. It is the crux of great journalism, and also our story. You feel bad for Harshad because he feels he was not solely responsible for it. It was like a butterfly effect, where one thing led to another, setting a chain of irreversible events.” So here’s how the business model of Applause works. Nair brought in the Hub and Spoke Model of doing business.

“We are a creative studio that creates content, and owns the Intellectual Property rights of our content. Our studio will be the creative and commercial hub, and we would work with a variety of spokes. We are looking to create cinematic television. Our models allow us to work with a lot of people. For example, we are currently collaborating with Gurinder Chadha on a project called Seeker. The writer’s room for it is very eclectic — we have one writer in New York, a few in Los Angeles, and some in Mumbai. The creators don’t have to wait for a streaming platform to approve the show, the studio (Applause) picks subjects, and develops it. We commission the show, we produce it, shoot it, edit it, do post-production, make a fine finished product, and then set out to look for streaming platforms to license it. If you watch a show and you think it is good, it is because of us. If you feel a show is not good enough, we take full responsibility for that as well. Our focus is really on design. Like Apple is designed in California and made everywhere, we design everything, and work with everyone,” he clearly explains.

Another fine aspect of the hub and spoke model is that the studio can create content suiting the needs and requirements of different platforms. Saugata Mukherjee, head of original content at SonyLIV, says they work with Applause because they like the content they produce. “During our discussions, we always knew that Scam… was the biggest show we wanted to pick, and we knew it was going to be the tentpole show for us this year. Our others shows with them have also done well,” he adds. The question of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) has gained a lot of momentum in today’s time. Applause owns the IP rights for all the shows it produces. One would assume that it would have faced resistance from the streaming platforms, given how they love to own the IPR, but none of the streaming platforms present in India had an issue. Nair explains that the licensing deal model is practised all over the world.

“Our deals are usually long term, says five years or seven years or nine years. These streaming platforms have specific acquisition and licensing teams. We invest the money, and make the content. The streaming platform gets to pick and choose the final product off the shelf. If you don’t like the final product, you don’t have to take it. When I put in my money, it is my financial risk, and it is alright with me,” Nair explains. Even the platforms that have worked with Applause are in unison with the studio. Mukherjee says, “It’s fine, as long as we can see a long window of monetisation. We have multiple years of the show, and we should be able to monetise it within that time period. Both of us have been very clear that it should make business sense for us, and Applause acknowledges that.” Theoretically, it means that if the production studio owns the IPR, and licenses the show to a streaming platform, the show will be aired on another platform after the licensing period expires. Nair says, “Yes, that is possible. But why would a platform not want to stream the show after the licensing expires? We attempt to make a good season so that we make subsequent seasons in the future. We are still at a nascent stage. In a more mature market, it is a common practice.”

Adaptations of international shows are also a common aspect of the repertoire of Applause. The company is in the process of adaptations of three international series like Fauda, Luther, and Call My Agent. Nair explains that making adaptations has been a part of the strategy to reach out in the market at the earliest. He reveals, “We always wanted to achieve a certain speed to market, so we had a three-pronged approach. First was the international adaptations of shows that we believe can find resonance in a local market. These are acclaimed international stories, and we are confident about adapting it locally. We often question why we should make adaptations, and I find that very odd, because KBC was an adaptation of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

The second one was to find books, and literary material that we could adapt, like Scam 1992, Avrodh: The Siege Within, was a military drama series adapted from India’s Most Fearless by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh. Hello, Mini was an adaptation from a book called Marry Me, Stranger,” adds. For Nair, “original content” is the third prong of his approach. He elaborates, “I don’t think there is any calamity in adapting. We need to take the story or the content and make it palatable for our audiences. Criminal Justice was a crime thriller web series based on British television drama series of the same name, produced by the BBC and Peter Moffat. We were not dubbing Criminal Justice in Hindi, but we are making it with a new milieu. You take Criminal Justice or Hostages (Adapted from the Israeli show by the same name) or Your Honor (Adapted from the Israeli show Kvodo), all of them are terrific adaptations. We took the story and set it in a new environment, and it has found its target audience.”

Applause doesn’t believe in limiting itself. The company has already produced shows in Tamil, and will be venturing into more regional content, movies, animation, short-form video, reality television, and infotainment category very soon. Nair reveals, “After Iru Dhuruvam, a Tamil Original Series for Sony Liv, we have done two Tamil shows with MX Player. We have one show with Danish Sait which is a series sequel to his film, Humble Politician Nograj. We are also doing a show in Gujarati with JD Majethia, which is a modern comedy set in Ahmedabad. I think making content in various languages is very important, and the market is only going to grow tenfold. Until now, our focus was towards Hindi language content, but we will explore content in various other languages as well. We will be doing it as per our Hub and Spoke model.” Nair is currently watching Schitt’s Creek, and loves watching science and history documentaries, and a lot of Indian content that his peers are putting out. And what’s his dream for Applause, going forward? “I want Applause to be known for its strong content and creative brand. We want people to look at our content and say: This is from the house of Applause.” To 2021, and bigger dreams.