If we had to look back at 2016 and talk about its highlight in terms of an international pop culture phenomenon, we wouldn’t be talking of a film but instead a Netflix show – Stranger Things. This is not an anomaly. In India too, from Permanent Roommates Season 2 to Ladies Room this year, content on digital platforms has broken out among the youth in a way films haven’t managed to.
The fact is that narrative on digital across the world caters to the same audience that buys movie tickets: the young 18-30 segment, who constitute not just the target demographic but also the protagonists in most films made today. But save a few inventive movies that side step the Bollywood formula (most hits this year, from Neerja to Pink to Airlift, have little to no ‘masala’ in them), movies in India are still predominantly star-first, content-second.
As attention spans of audiences decline, and smartphone usage and internet consumption continue growing at a rapid pace, we are today on the brink of a content revolution led by internet creators and creative talent on the web. Fortunately, it’s never going to come down to an either-or choice between film and any other medium, as audiences have proven that medium is temporary, storytelling is permanent. But there’s still a lot that Bollywood can learn from the internet content revolution to stay relevant to its core audience:
Focus on stories that *must* be told: If there’s one thing that web has proven as a fact today, it is that there are no substitutes to good stories. A myopic way of looking at the internet is only through its freedom from censorship, but creators and digital studios know that while sex and SRK can get you views, the kind of cultural impact that a Pitchers or Man’s World can have stems from just one basic truth: the audience wants good stories.
‘Actors’ are the real ‘stars’: The internet has also gone against the grain by diverging form the ‘star’ system and putting its faith and backing behind good actors who may not be names, or even traditionally chiselled and sculpted. The viralability factor of the internet today comes from not how big the star is but how able the actor is and how convincingly he/she can act. From Naveen Kasturia to Angira Dhar, the internet today creates the star.
The force is with the writers: On the internet, the writer is king. Whether or not the show has scale or stars, whether it caters to the urban elite or the rural cool, unless the writing is great on paper, the audience will see through it. The internet never forgives or forgets so it is imperative that the writers take lead to give the audience content that doesn’t take them for granted.
Risktaking is the key: Fortune favours the brave and there is no better case in point for this than the success of the digital narrative. From tackling issues like abortion to sex education, the internet has shown that the riskier the content and the more it pushes boundaries in terms of cast, producer and director, the more likely it will attract good filmmakers who thrive by doing content that is off-mainstream, in that, it tries to represent the under-represented or voiceless.
There is no formula! Ultimately, digital has convincingly proven, in more cases than one – there is no formula to what works. On this medium, a massy show about two crazy families is just as big as a seemingly niche show about conversations between women in loos. Until you follow up something that has worked, with something that you have no idea will, you will never truly achieve a cult following of loyal fans on the internet who will support your brand in any form, manner or genre!
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Note: This interview first appeared in Super Cinema Magazine in the October 2016 issue.
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