Cinema is the art of storytelling: from tears to laughter, from anger to empathy, from music to romance, from narratives to stories, from legacies to classics, from cinema to classics! Whoever said they don’t believe in the power of cinema, has probably never watched enough cinema, to begin with.
Courtesy to technology, the online media space has been revolutionised with the Over The Top (OTT) media services. The Indian biggies such as Hotstar, ALT Balaji, Zee5, Voot, Eros Now and the likes find themselves in league with the global giants such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Apart from gaining streaming rights from Bollywood and regional industries, most of them also produce their own originals. Web-series and online content has surpassed the quality of the film format and keeps the audience on the edge of their seats!
Cinema garners huge popularity from both rural and urban areas leading to even nonsensical content touching the 100-crore club, whereas quality content such as indie films, web-series, documentaries or even non-mainstream Bollywood flicks don’t get their due. With the recent rise in rampant censorship cuts to the masala films loaded with cheap humour, item songs, and a pinch (read: excess) of sexism, the expectations from Bollywood have subsequently declined over the years. Although mainstream “actors” like Vicky Kaushal and Ayushmann Khurana—who are very well-deserving of the National Award—still try to keep up with the quality over quantity notion.
But, what about all those countless actors who never got their due, owing to multiple reasons ( read: nepotism) surfacing in the Bollywood industry? Is it our fault or the industry’s fault that “actors” like Suraj Pancholi and Athiya Shetty keep getting the limelight whereas actors like Shweta Tripathi and Vikrant Massey are overshadowed?
If you expect quality content, political correctness, terrific acting, great script and a great background score from Bollywood, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. Today, over 65% of rural India consumes OTT (thank you, Jio) posing a major threat to cable television and multiplexes. According to the latest Eros Now-KPMG report, Indian viewers are accessing content from more than 2.5 platforms at a given time. With such omnipotence and domination of the audience and its dependence on OTT, it seems important that viewers be served quality content.
I am of the opinion that Netflix Originals like “Lust Stories“ and “Sacred Games” were a MAJOR hit amongst the youth not only because of the content or story, rather, due to the dominance and relation to Bollywood. A newly-married woman orgasming in front of her in-laws surely seems Bollywood-esque, all courtesy to Karan Johar. This country runs on three things: religion, politics and Bollywood; and what better than eight episodes of the same?
The rise of Kiara Advani as a successful mainstream Bollywood actor can be credited to her so-called “revolutionising” scene because, of course, showing female sexuality is still quite revolutionary in Bollywood. The idea of female sexuality is often hushed up as shown in “Lipstick Under My Burkha“ and Swara Bhaskar’s masturbation scene in “Veere Di Wedding”. Even though it took Bollywood decades of confidence and millions of censorship cuts to portray female sexuality, online media has been centuries ahead of them. In Prime Originals “Four More Shots Please“, a divorced single mother is introduced to the world of self-exploration and takes things in her own hands, quite literally.
Talking of sexuality, different sexual orientations and same-sex relationships as totally normal themes still seems alien to Bollywood. Being queer is seen as nothing less than comical, solely used (read: exploited) to gather a few laughs by showing cross-dressing, mocking gay men and fetishising lesbians. Be it, “Student of the Year” or, “Humshakals“, Bollywood has a pathetically cheap sense of humour which revolves around humiliating and being disrespectful of a number of communities. People with different sexual orientations have a personality, a family, a career, a loved one, an entire narrative, trauma and stories that include subjects other than who they love.
Arjun Mathur’s character, Karan, in Amazon Prime Original “Made in Heaven” is one of the best gay characters EVER written in India. Breaking all stereotypes of gay men being over-dressed and flamboyant, Karan is as much a man with his own dreams, traumas, love, life, family, as any other person! His sexual orientation is just a part of him. The post-Section-377 decriminalised world is aptly presented in the same as he breaks down before his family and fights against the “protectors of our culture” to educate the masses and break down of the shackles of heteronormativity.
Even in “Sacred Games” season 2, a sex scene between Pankaj Tripathi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui deserves ALL the applause! Something like this in Bollywood would have been traumatic to the average Indian middle-class homophobic society, well, only if the Censor Board allowed it in the first place! The entire premise of homosexuality is also well-presented in VJ Bani’s bisexual character in “Four More Shots Please”.
The open criticism of government and religion is something which audience-pleasing industries avoid to the core. Be it mocking the Gandhi family for the Emergency, sterilisation and the Bofors Scam or criticising the Hindu militant extremism, “Sacred Games” has had its fair share of critical thinking (read: viewing). The mockery of religion is something new to the Indian audience, earlier confined to the hushed tones at dining table conversations with close friends and family. “Bhagavan ko maante ho?” in Nawaz’s voice still resonates with a majority of the Indian audience who have to suppress their opinions regarding religion in a country which is run along religious lines. In “Made in Heaven”, Karan delivers a speech on homosexuality derived from ancient scriptures, thus critiquing the saffron-brigade.
Other than dealing with important issues, such shows have escalated the main leads to the position of “actors”, thus gaining immense appreciation from both critics and mainstream movie buffs. Actors overshadowed by nepotism now have a platform to showcase what they are truly made of. Actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Tripathi, Radhika Apte, Arjun Mathur, Jim Sarbh, Sobhita Dhulipala, Manvi Gagroo, Kirti Kulhari, Sayani Gupta, Shashank Arora, Rasika Duggal, Ali Fazal, Shweta Tripathi, Vikrant Massey (and the list goes on) have experienced the journey to prominence and recognition via mainstream media.
Due to the burden of multiple factors, it’s pretty hard for mainstream Bollywood to focus on social complexities, family realities, classicism, casteism (thanks, Ayushmann for “Article 15“), sexism, sex, homosexuality, and things which should be talked about more often! Online platforms emerge as a saviour here, practising everything which is considered controversial and parallel. It seems to be a euphemism of the youth actually rising and taking charge of the societal complexities, foregoing what has been traditionally imposed on us. The domination of quality online media simply educates the target audience and informs them about raw socio-economic and political themes.
What looks like a bleak future, may soon be made vibrant with the ushering in of quality production, scripts, actors and content!