The recent announcement of the screen adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games all set to become the first Netflix original Indian series was greeted with much enthusiasm — and rightly so.
In fact, it is one of the best developments in the field of entertainment in India for a long time. The eight-part series that brings to life one of the most memorable books on Mumbai is being helmed by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane and features Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte.
It could usher in a new era for filmmakers and actors who traditionally could only choose between film and television.
More than throwing up new career options for film stars like Saif Ali Khan, who, for the want of a better term, seems to be floundering as far as a film career goes, the online streaming platform also promises to liberate filmmakers in more ways than one.
Right from doing away with the mandatory disclaimers every time a character lit a cigarette or held a drink to the unbridled freedom to show characters cussing, kissing, or killing each other in ways more visceral than what the worst could imagine, Netflix and Amazon open up a whole new world of possibilities for filmmakers.
Earlier this year Amazon Prime’s Inside Edge that showed the ugly nexus between underworld, politicians and cricket featured graphic scenes that although seemingly true to life would have been unimaginable in a film today. The gripping web-series appeared to be partially inspired by incidents surrounding the popular annual T-20 Cricket series held in India that often finds a place in newspapers reports and television news debates.
The very first shot of the gripping web-series featured a sexual act and was parallel cut with a cricket match; besides the expected effect to titillate, the former was included to infuse dramatic tension and more than summed up why it could never have been possible in any other medium.
The rules levied on filmmakers when it comes to statutory warnings in films can be a dampener, at least on a creative front. At times they can also hamper the flow of the narrative especially when the central character in a film is inseparable from, say, drinking or smoking. A film such as Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend (1945) or Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) with the warnings constantly appearing every time the alcoholic Don Birnam (Ray Milland) or the heartbroken Devdas (Dilip Kumar) took a sip would be totally different.
In fact, Woody Allen opted to cancel the release of Blue Jasmine in India rather than insert disclaimers when some smoked on screen as he felt it would attract attention away from the scene. Can the health warning about the ills of tobacco or alcohol still be communicated? Perhaps, yes. Wilder once claimed that The Lost Weekend was so powerful a prospect that the liquor industry apparently offered Paramount $5 million to not release it.
There are times when filmmakers come up with interesting ways to infuse some creativity in the display of the health and other statutory warnings. Vishal Bhardwaj began Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola with a song, ‘Khatra hai’ (It’s Dangerous) penned by Gulzar as the anti-smoking message but that is still not a patch on what a platform such as Netflix or Amazon stands to offer.
In 2015 when most of the streaming platforms began to attract some of the best talents from Hollywood it was reminiscent of the advent of Digital Video that suddenly liberated filmmakers such as David Lynch, who, in 2007 had in fact, famously proclaimed that for him ‘film was dead’ [later in 2014 he went to loving it again and now has given up on films altogether, but that is a different story]. Anything that was half-way tricky such as a new Tina Fey pitch or The Man in the High Castle based on a Philip K. Dick’s novel of an alternate America in which the Nazis won World War Two found a home in streaming services.
When it comes to India the streaming platforms seem to have their plans cut out. Earlier this year in March after Reed Hastings, CEO Netflix, met up with both Shah Rukh and Aamir Khan, reports of a deal with between Netflix and the two actors made big news. The video streaming giant is believed to have inked a deal Shah Rukh Khan‘s production house Red Chillies Entertainment that allows them access to Khan’s past films as well as the upcoming ones. The market was also abuzz with Netflix supposedly signing Rs 120 cr deal with Aamir Khan and reportedly acquiring the satellite and digital rights of Thugs Of Hindostan, Khan’s next release that also features Amitabh Bachchan.
Today, Netflix and Amazon are also the biggest players at film festivals when it comes to picking up indie films. The networks’ wide reach coupled with big pockets and ambitious plans, offers filmmakers hope and money, of the kind they weren’t used to just a few years ago.
Moreover, the kind of audience that would have been considered staple for a Saif Ali Khan or an Anurag Kashyap seems to have somewhere transitioned to the online streaming platform. The upwardly mobile, young audience would be easier to attract online as opposed to being enticed to the cinema hall. While Saif Ali Khan’s recent release Chef could barely manage an opening and collected under Rs 4 cr in its first three days, there is already talk of his upcoming Kaalakandi getting a Netflix release.
With reports of money to the tune of $300 million being pumped in by Netflix for original local content that wouldn’t fly with traditional platforms, the doing away with censor woes (in a manner of speaking) and the access to a wide range of audience across different age-groups (Netflix alone has more than 100 million across the globe), the meeting of online streaming platforms and Bollywood could be the much needed shot in the arm.