Before releasing her web series Masaba Masaba in August last year, writer and director Sonam Nair felt very unsure. The lighthearted Netflix series on the real-life mom-daughter duo of Neena Gupta and Masaba Gupta had both of them playing themselves. “I was sceptical about releasing such a title last year since everything around us was crumbling… I asked myself whether people would like to watch such light entertainment, exploring the problems of Masaba and her fashion shows… or would they prefer to consume movies like Contagion as it is an actual mirror to what’s happening around us. But the opposite happened as people got hooked on to light viewing,” says Nair, who is known for films like Wake Up Sid, Gippi, etc. She is now set to release the second season of Masaba Masaba soon.
The success of Masaba Masaba points to a telling trend when it comes to onscreen entertainment, that of the growing popularity of lighthearted and positive content. And it’s easy to see why. Thanks to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, the past year has been tough for many. Most of us have been cooped inside homes, turning to shows and movies as the only source of entertainment to fill the long hours of isolation. A desire to escape from the reality has made many of us consume feel-good content, deriving joy and contentment through it. Be it mushy romances, family dramas or classic comedies, these shows and films have been the perfect vehicle to escape the harsh reality around us.
“The pandemic has unilaterally resulted in higher content consumption across TV, OTT and mobiles… the growth has been genre-agnostic. Happy stories, as well as edgier content has been consumed vigorously,” says Mumbai-based Sunir Khetarpal, a producer at Athena, a content development and production company. “Once upon a time, they used to say about multiplexes and shopping malls that ‘you build them and consumers will come’. Similarly, during the pandemic, the mantra has been ‘you produce content and put it on the optimal platform, it will garner viewership’. Obviously, the underlying parameter being that content needs to be good, clutter-breaking, differentiated and so on. Even big stars are not indispensable,” adds Khetarpal. Athena is producing the Anurag Kashyap-directed and Taapsee Pannu-starring Do Baaraa (2:12), as well as the Amit Sharma-directed Hindi adaptation of The Intern, which stars Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone.
Movie-makers today are keeping the happiness factor top of mind. “Slice-of-life, happy, feel-good,” says Tanuj Garg, managing partner of film company Ellipsis Entertainment, which co-produced Neerja, Why Cheat India, Tumhari Sulu and is currently co-producing the Indian adaptation of the 1998 German thriller Run Lola Run—titled Looop Lapeta, the comic thriller will star Taapsee Pannu and Tahir Raj Bhasin. “Our endeavour has been to make clutter-breaking content and give some new talent to the industry. We are waking up to the power of casting new faces and this experiment has worked for us,” says Garg, who cast Manav Kaul with Vidya Balan in Tumhari Sulu.
For many, food is an important binding factor in relationships. The 2021 Telugu romantic-comedy film Ninnila Ninnila, too, shows love blooming over food between Dev, an overweight chef, and his co-worker Tara. Dubbed in Hindi, the Ani Sasi-directed feel-good film is available for on-demand streaming on ZEE5.
Reality and intrigue have always been big onscreen, but happy content is a necessity now. “People are tired of being scared, home-bound and restricted. So good stories, happy endings, laughter and, most importantly, quality content is valued. Happy stories get the most love now when people crave togetherness, human contact and free air to breathe,” says Mumbai-based Gautam Chaturvedi, director, Pine Tree Pictures, a film production company, which has produced around 500 documentaries, corporate and training films for public and private enterprises. Talking about how he spent the lockdown with family, he says, “We watched a film together nearly every day. We had never done that before, but enjoyed that togetherness, especially as we tried to choose joyful films that would keep our minds away from the daily news of disease and death.”
When it comes to OTTs, the new-found popularity of its content has opened huge growth and investment opportunities. Netflix, which has over 204 million members worldwide, announced that it will invest Rs 3,000 crore on content in India. “The year 2020 was hard… a rollercoaster of emotions and feelings. But one of the things that got us through were the stories we enjoyed—alone and together with our families and friends,” says Monika Shergill, VP, content, Netflix India, adding that content—like the popular thriller Raat Akeli Hai and comedy film Ludo—has raised the bar. “Romances like Love Aaj Kal, Ginny Weds Sunny and Mismatched were most popular… in 2020, the viewing for romantic stories on Netflix in India increased by roughly 250%,” shares Shergill.
As per a 2020 Nielsen report, the rise in the number of people staying at home could lead to an almost 60% increase in the amount of content they consume. Additionally, ‘TV Universe Estimates 2020’, released by Broadcast Audience Research Council India (BARC)—a joint industry body that represents broadcasters, advertisers and advertising, and media agencies—reported that 210 million Indian households now own TV sets, an increase of 6.9% from 197 million in 2018. Simultaneously, TV-viewing individuals also witnessed an increase of 6.7%, reaching 892 million from 836 million in 2018—an increase of 56 million individuals in 2020. “We have been able to ascertain that TV continues to be the screen of choice for Indians. With an additional 13 million TV households and an opportunity for another 90 million households that are yet to own a TV set, India’s broadcast ecosystem continues to have a significant potential for growth in years to come,” says Sunil Lulla, chief executive officer, BARC India.
Thanks to TV viewership increasing, Zee Entertainment saw significant growth last year during the lockdown. The TV viewership of Zee English cluster of channels grew by 75% during the lockdown, as per Kartik Mahadev, business head, premium channels, Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (ZEEL). “Given the context of the lockdown, the audience finds content on television compelling and comforting. English entertainment (movies plus general entertainment channels) on TV caters to 218 million-plus viewers (as per BARC). The lockdown showed us that viewers choose to watch television for the curated content experience it provides, making TV a great community experience for family and friends. Consumers want to move beyond passive viewing and look for means to contribute and express themselves. This is where TV can play the role of an enabler as the largeness of the medium and mainstream reach can mobilise participation,” adds Mahadev. Zee Café offered unique interactive experience with reality shows such as Dance With Me and Chef Vs Fridge, a popular competitive cooking show.
Viewers are increasingly looking at discovering quality content with self-curation being the trend. Zee-owned &PrivéHD has a special curation of foreign language movies to help viewers explore a new world of differentiated content. “Cinema lovers, who come across foreign films through word-of-mouth, but don’t find enough supply or a clear destination, can see foreign films in the Privé World Box Office,” says Mahadev.
Fragmentation of content will increase when theatres make a comeback gradually, feels Khetarpal. “Content consumption is a derivative of several variables, which continue to be dynamic… There will be content specifically designed for OTT platforms and TV. Every film will not find an audience in cinemas. Viewership inertia developed between 2020 and 2021 shall ensure that there will be enough audience wanting to sample content at homes or on the move and this kind of content will not be designed or made with an intention of theatrical exploitation,” he says.
Comedy is king
Be it films, shows or standup, comedy is an evergreen genre and has always found takers. Take, for instance, the all-time favourite award-winning series Modern Family, which ran on TV from 2009 to 2020. As of August last year, the show had won 22 of its 81 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Comedy Series for five years in a row. Then there is The Simpsons, which premiered in 1989 and is one of the longest-running sitcoms on television. It has won 34 Emmys out of 78 nominations till date. The latest TV sitcom to rule airwaves is Schitt’s Creek, which won the Golden Globe this year for best TV comedy series because of its sharp-witted writing. The Canadian show has gained huge popularity on Netflix for its wholehearted comedy and characters. The 78th Golden Globe Awards this year also saw mockumentary Borat Subsequent Moviefilm winning best motion picture (comedy or musical).
Comedy is a strong preference among young viewers today, says Vijay Subramaniam, director and content head, Amazon Prime Video. “During the time when open mics were beginning to happen across the country, we picked up this genre to build a very strong comedy portfolio, starting with 14 comedy specials in 2017, which did very well for us, adding many more Amazon Funnies by the best Indian comedians along the way. Today, we feature close to 50 exclusive standup comedy specials with more to come,” adds Subramaniam. One of their originals is the standup series Comicstaan, which is aimed at finding fresh voices in comedy. Between two seasons of the series (2018-20), Prime Video has launched and promoted 26 new comedians. Their comic offerings have expanded with Jestination Unknown and One Mic Stand, in which celebrities tried their hand at standup.
Another of their series that is finding great flavour with viewers is Chacha Vidhayak Hain Humare, whose second season was launched this year. The relatable comedy stars comedian Zakir Khan, who plays Ronny Pathak, a man who leads a double life. “I have picked up nuances and quirks from people I’ve met in real life to create characters in the show. In today’s stressful times, when audiences are spending a lot more time at home, they welcome content which is light and can be enjoyed at all times. The world needs to hear more stories of the common man, and this show has been created keeping this thought in mind,” explains Khan.
Going ahead, there is a barrage of lighthearted shows and films on different platforms lined up for the next few months. Netflix’s future lineup includes Comedy Premium League Kapil Sharma Special, sports comedy Jaadugar, dark comical pulpy thriller Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein, Decoupled in which a couple announce their divorce with a party, among others. Amazon Prime, too, released Coming 2 America this year, a sequel to the 1980s’ comedy classic, which reunites Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall.
Slice of life
Besides lighthearted and comic content, real-life dramas and content-driven shows and movies on social issues have also garnered viewer interest. In 2020, Bollywood saw commercial successes like Imitiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal, Angrezi Medium, Gulabo Sitabo, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and biopics like Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. Forthcoming titles include 83, Jersey, Toofan, Laal Singh Chadda, etc.
Great content and novel ideas drive the variety of entertainment options, feels Yogendra Mogre, co-producer of films such as Bharat and Ek Tha Tiger. In the last two years, audiences have been hooked to content-driven films, he says. “Uri and Badhaai Ho were real films that one could relate to… a film like War too is apt for the cinematic experience. OTT is more about human drama and thrillers,” says Mogre, who is now co-producing Netflix’s reality docu series House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths.
On Sony LIV, business drama series Scam 1992 explores different stories with multiple characters and relationships, presenting a financial thriller based around the life of Harshad Mehta. “It was a mix of three genres,” says Samir Nair, CEO, Applause Entertainment, which created Scam 1992. “Stories that films and TV never allowed are on OTT,” add Nair. Applause Entertainment has also created shows like Criminal Justice, Hostages and The Office on Hotstar; Mind the Malhotras on Amazon Prime Video; Hello Mini on MX Player; and the first Tamil original Iru Dhuruvam on Sony LIV.
Stories inspired by real-life incidents are always in demand, especially in the on-demand video format. “Recently, thrillers and action/drama content, as well as real-life/inspiring stories have performed well—the Abhay 2 series starring Kunal Kemmu, Jeet Ki Zid series starring Amit Sadh, the film Kaagaz featuring Pankaj Tripathi, Silence… Can You Hear It? starring Manoj Bajpayee,” says Manish Kalra, chief business officer, ZEE5 India. “Consumers have keen interest in watching intriguing content, especially when coupled with great storytelling and performances. In some cases, familiar faces help in catching the attention of the viewer and play a role in their final decision to watch or not.” ZEE5 in the past has offered thrillers like Raat Baaki Hai (starring Anuup Sonii and Rahul Dev), dark comedy series Sunflower with Sunil Grover, etc. Actor Akshaye Khanna, too, will make his digital debut with the film State of Siege: Temple Attack this month.
Home-grown OTT platform Ullu, too, has seen demand among consumers for content based on high-profile cases. “Films and series like Paper, Peshawar, Assi Nabbe Poore Sau were inspired by real-life incidents. Paper was inspired by the life of a stamp paper scam kingpin, and Peshawar and Assi Nabbe Poore Sau were inspired by incidents in Pakistan,” says Mumbai-based Vibhu Agarwal, CEO and founder, Ullu App, which has achieved a growth of 220% since last year. The app launched a 2.0 version with improved in-app experience in May this year besides introducing a ‘Rent-A-Movie’ section which is based on the pay-per-click-per-view model.
Going ahead, audiences will want to watch experimental content, feels writer and director Nair. “Light and escapist content will definitely be preferred like last year, but enough of it has been consumed in the past few months, so a bit more experimental (content) could be the preference this time. Masaba Masaba aims to show the changing portrayal of women characters in the industry… the need for such shows with self-reliant female protagonists is a must,” she says.
Consumers have keen interest in watching intriguing content, especially when coupled with great storytelling and performances
— Manish Kalra, chief business officer, ZEE5 India
The year 2020 was hard, but one of the things that got us through were the stories we enjoyed… the viewing of romantic stories on Netflix in India increased by roughly 250%
— Monika Shergill, VP, content, Netflix India
The pandemic has unilaterally resulted in higher content consumption… Happy stories, as well as edgier content has been consumed vigorously
—Sunir Khetarpal, producer, Athena, content development and production company