When the first season of Sacred Games released on Netflix last year, millennials were quick to point out the inherent nature of violence and frontal nudity in the eight-episode crime thriller. In a particularly poignant scene in episode four, Kukoo (Kubra Sait), a transwoman, unfastens her dress and reveals her naked body to her paramour, Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

The scene, like many others in the series, though integral to the narrative, would not have survived in its fullest form, if it had to pass the scrutiny of the Central Board of Film Certification to run on the big screen. The small screen has many boundaries too, as television content is made for people of all ages. It is owning to these restrictions that content which is honest, raw and irreverent, has found its space on the web. It has also become the driving force behind the birth of streaming sites and apps.

The sheer number of OTT platforms that have sprung up in India is testament to the new trend in digital entertainment. Apart from the global giants, Netflix and Amazon Prime, there are Hotstar, Zee5, TVFPlay, MX Player, Viu, Voot, Watcho, SunNxt, ALTBalaji, SonyLIV, Hoichoi, Ullu and Eros Now, amongst others. Movie buffs have also started lining up to subscribe to niche streaming sites like Mubi — which showcases cult, classic, independent and award-winning global films — as they don’t want to be left behind in the pop-culture race.

The slow stream from the South
Since Netflix and Prime are pouring in a truckload of money into Hindi series (think Sacred Games, Selection Day, Breathe, and Made in Heaven), smaller players like MX Player (Dollhouse Diaries, Fuck Buddies, Oka Love Janta, Lots of Love) and Watcho (Raktha Chandana, Masala Family, Virgin at 27, Daughter of Prasad) are coming up with content in South Indian languages. If a Hindi series hits the web every week, content creators in Tamil and Telugu are working on releasing one every three weeks at the least.

The Kannada and Malayalam industries are far behind on this race: other than a handful of series, such as Utsaha Ithihasam and Pearlish (Malayalam), and Loose Connection and Raktha Chandana (Kannada), there aren’t too many original webs shows in these languages.

Also, big names from the South haven’t yet entered the digital market. While Bollywood stars like Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Saif Ali Khan, Radhika Apte, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Kalki Koechlin, Reema Kagti, Zoya Akhtar, and Alankrita Shrivastava are attached to Sacred Games and Made in Heaven, there are no A-list stars from South Indian cinema, at present, who are looking at the web as an alluring arena for performance.

But the web is not about big names. It’s about content. The platform has offered urban content creators a chance to make unique and risqué material by uninhibitedly exploring love, sex, violence, etc. But it’s not all roses for the creators — and the viewers — as largely, web shows are not always marketed well.

With multiple streaming platforms cropping up to cash in on the digital market, and the internet already exploding with content, many of the shows available are not well-known. For most of these shows, marketing efforts are minimal at best.

Even trailers and posters aren’t available for some of these shows. A quick YouTube search reveals that Girl Formula (the channel with which the makers of Daughter of Prasad are associated) has more than 4,90,000 subscribers, and many of their videos have crossed the one million mark. So why not release the show on YouTube? While YouTube promises views because of the popularity of the platform, it also hosts a wide variety of content — from cat videos to gadget reviews. Sites that exclusively offer original web content are necessary — no matter how irrelevant they may seem right now — to curate and nurture audiences on the web.

Unlike lesser known players like Watcho and MX Player, Zee5 promotes their shows pretty well. Series like Auto Shankar, High Priestess, and Mrs. Subbalakshmi — 2019’s releases — have received significant attention from the media. Last year, the Tamil series Kallachirippu, about extramarital affairs and accidental killings, received a big thumbs-up from critics. With its free-and-foul language, this series couldn’t have aired
on television.

The scope for honestly, variety and irreverence, and the absence of a governing board, have added to the appeal of web-based content. This not only offers content creators a more exciting playground, but also offers different types of audiences more diverse content to suit their eclectic requirements. The web offers greater and more creative scope for content, and also a respite from the staid formats that the television and cinema industries have been stuck in for years.

On the web, audience engagement is more apparent. Viu is currently busy with the fourth season of its most popular Telugu series Pelli Gola, a romantic comedy about love and marriage. The show which started off without too much fanfare has gone on to capture the hearts of Telugu-speaking twenty-somethings across the globe.
Another plus point when it comes to streaming platforms is that they allow the users to watch their shows in multiple languages — Kallachirippu has been dubbed into Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, Marathi, and Bengali. And it’s okay if you don’t understand any of these languages; you can still rely on English subtitles to come to your rescue.

Romantic comedies and thrillers seem to be the favorites amongst the genres, along with content that leans towards erotica. The Tamil series Fuck Buddies, for example, is quite low on story and character-building, but gives a peek into the world of millennials who do the tango with casual and open relationships — a subject that has never been broached by the Tamil media.

Once a web series clicks with the audience and word-of-mouth appreciation begins, getting traction gets easier. Moreover, freemium models (where basic services are provided free of charge and premium features are chargeable) ensure that a lot of content is available for free (with ads), inviting new audiences to test their interest in the shows available. For just `999/year, premium content can be accessed from the comfort of home, making these platforms affordable and convenient — two characteristics that sign a promising future for web series’ from the South.

If 19th century filmmakers picked actors by watching them perform in plays, today’s directors and producers are looking for fresh faces in the sea of web series’ available. Actor-writer Divya Drishti, who has featured in several Girl Formula videos, will soon be seen in the Telugu film Dear Comrade alongside Vijay Devarakonda and Rashmika Mandanna. Similarly, Suhas, an actor who found fame by starring in YouTube sketches, was roped in by Majili director Shiva Nirvana, to be a part of his film. Vice versa, film stars like Nithya Menen will be seen in the next season of Breathe (which previously featured Madhavan Ranganathan) while actors like Sanjjanaa Galrani might be making a complete switch to shows meant for streaming.

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