Since last week, when Amazon Prime Video finally went live in India, the buzz has been not so much about its award-winning global shows like Man in the High Castle and Transparent, but more about the kind of original content Amazon is planning to ‘make in India’.
When the company sent out a press release listing the kind of shows it has commissioned (no doubt harnessing the $300 million investment that we wrote about here), shivers went up the spines of content-watchers in India. Amazon has managed to rope in not just misunderstood artists with a cult following — think Q’s Brahman Naman on Netflix — but a veritable who’s who of Bollywood intellectual royalty.
If it works, serialised long-form narrative shows can usher in the kind of golden age of television in India that the US has been witnessing for several years
There’s Bodhidharma: Master of Shaolin, a project featuring Ram Madhvani, Prasoon Joshi and Sunil Doshi; Breathe, starring R Madhavan; The Ministry by All India Bakchod and Vijay Nair’s OML; Powerplay by Ritesh Sidhwani and Farhan Akhtar starring Vivek Oberoi and Richa Chadda; Mirzapur by Ritesh Sidhwani and Farhan Akhtar; Stardust by Phantom Films and its league of extraordinary gentlemen — Vikramaditya Motwane, Madhu Mantena, Anurag Kashyap and Vikas Bahl; and Made in Heaven, a project by the quirkily talented group of Ritesh Sidhwani, Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti.
Even looking at this list with a certain amount of skepticism — knowing that creatively ambitious projects sometimes don’t see the light of day in India does make one cynical — I can’t help but be excited. This is game-changing stuff; if it works, serialised long-form narrative shows can usher in the kind of golden age of television in India that the US has been witnessing for several years now (to the extent that Hollywood movies are scrambling to get their five minutes of fame).
In the US, this golden age was ushered in by cable channels like HBO and AMC with their genre-bending, pathbreaking shows that broke out of the tyranny of advertising-linked, crowd-pleasing content. The baton was then picked up by streaming services like Netflix, which unleashed new practices like releasing all episodes of big-ticket shows in one go. In India, we can’t look at our stodgy, lethargic TV channels to bring about any kind of revolution, which makes it all the more important to back original content from the likes of Netflix and Amazon.
“We want to enable them to kick off projects that were shelved or kept on the backburner because they were too ‘ambitious’” — Nitesh Kripalani, India head, Amazon Prime Video
In an interview with FactorDaily, Nitesh Kripalani, director and country head of Amazon Prime Video in India, said that with these shows, Amazon’s aim is to “help creators work without constraints.” “We want to enable them to kick off projects that were shelved or kept on the backburner because they were too ‘ambitious’. We have been in talks with most of the creators for over a year, and I can tell you that the excitement about doing long-form shows on such interesting themes is very, very high… they feel like they can truly challenge themselves,” said Kripalani.
There is also a fair chance that many of these shows may end up on Amazon Prime Video’s global catalogue, and be seen in the over 200 territories it currently serves. In fact, the global head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price, has visited India a couple of times in the past year to meet content creators, revealed Kripalani.
“We want to change the way TV shows are made in India… in this way of doing things, the story arc is the Bible and creators are given unconstrained control over the narrative,” said Kripalani. While he refused to reveal a specific timeline for the shows going live, Kripalani said we are likely to see the first series on air in Q2 2017 (sometime between April and June, then).
Kripalani also said that Amazon would make sure hit movies in several Indian languages would be available on its platform “within weeks” of their theatrical release — a first in India.
Amazon has kept in mind the challenges faced by Indian consumers when it comes to data consumption. A majority of users the company is targeting with its ridiculously low introductory pricing of Rs 499 a year are not on robust WiFi networks, but depend on expensive mobile data packs. Kripalani says that while inbuilt constraints make sure that the user consumes less data to stream content without appreciable loss of quality, the bitrate (the number of bits per second that can be transmitted along a digital network) can be controlled by the watcher.
The company has faced some flak for its censoring (blurring) of nudity on many of its shows like The Girlfriend Experience, Californication and The Man in the High Castle, and Kripalani admits that it has done this keeping in mind “local laws and local cultural norms while maintaining the structural integrity of the shows”. That’s management speak for “we are censoring some content voluntarily because we don’t want some oversensitive viewer to take us to court over nipple show.” When I pointed out to him that the I&B ministry has said in a recent answer to an RTI query that it’s not going to interfere with on-demand online video, Kripalani stuck to his guns and said that “our assessment shows that there are local laws that are applicable.”
Will this somewhat heightened sense of caution leech into Amazon’s attitude towards its content, which promises to be free and fearless on the face of it? One hopes not.
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Update: This story was updated on Jan 26, 2017 by removing a series of tweets from Vijay Nair of OML (@vijay_nair) because the tweets are no longer available. Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.