2020 saw an acceleration of Over the Top (OTT) media viewership. This is not surprising with the Pandemic forcing many to be stuck indoors. OTTs are streaming services that directly deliver content to the viewer/consumer. OTTs can bypass cable, satellite, and broadcast television services and have control over the content as well as distribution. Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime. Hulu, even music services such as Spotify and Saavn come under this umbrella.
Democratisation of Content?
Many celebrate OTTs for democratizing content, as well as providing more freedom in terms of censorship. In addition, the ability to watch whatever, whenever, wherever creates a more flexible viewing experience. Domestic OTTs such as Zee5 plus and MX Player also have brought on a number of regional languages original shows and language films onto its platform, allowing for this flexibility in watching a wide plethora of shows and movies. These platforms in particular aim not only at capturing elite urban English speaking groups but also at increasing viewership among rural-based non-English speaking audiences as well.
However, there still remains the dominance of international players such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and the new Disney+. There has been an active attempt by many of these platforms to create original content that appeals to the Indian audience. However, a majority seem to cater to a liberal, English-speaking upper-class, upper-caste viewership. This becomes evident when going over representations of class and caste groups, as well as the aesthetics that are characteristic of these shows and films.
Rise of Gritty Violent Dramas
When Netflix and Amazon Prime entered the Indian market, there was a lot of excitement coming from filmmakers and writers alike, as these streaming services allowed for new avenues of story-telling, where questions of censorship could be easily dealt with as these services were not regulated by any central body of censorship. The only condition was that the audience needed to be hooked. The result has been a shift from family-centric soap and fantasy dramas. We now see an abundance of gritty crime and ‘underworld’ dramas similar to popular shows such as Narcos and House of Cards.
Paatal Lok for example, lauded by many as Bollywood’s “unflinching look into reality”, offers up an exploration of crime, vote-bank politics, caste, and class in the interiors of Punjab, Haryana, and MP. Similar themes can be found in Netflix’s Sacred Games and Amazon Prime’s Mirzapur 2. While these shows do include a conscious effort to talk on matters of caste, patriarchy, and oppressive systems, which is quite rare for Bollywood, the representations that come out of these shows are tokenistic and often harmful. The movie, Serious Men starring Nawasuddin Siddiqui, is the perfect example. While the film is celebrated for its featuring of a Dalit man as the main character, it also goes on to represent him as a con and a cheat, and a large part of the show focuses on the power struggle between two Brahmin men. Violent scenes towards women and Bahujans are also a common theme in these shows, which often go far beyond the limit of ‘showing the reality’ and enter into the dangerous territory of voyeuristic servicing.
With this, one starts to wonder whether this new checklist of speaking on issues is partially due to the usual Netflix diversity model that can be seen in a number of its shows and original films. Representation of marginalised folk and the dialogue on politics of race and marginalisation are reduced to simply showing them on-screen and moving on to the plot. In the Bollywood shows and films, these representations merely aestheticise the film; they tell you, you are going to witness a harsh truth, a gritty reality of those who are disadvantaged, only to construct these characters on simplistic binaries, subject them to brutal violence rendering them as non-agential, and sometimes making villains out of them.
Trends in Reintroducing ‘Indianness’
Reality shows such as Indian Matchmaking and The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives also saw huge traction. These shows aim to introduce ‘Indianness’ not only to western audiences but also to reintroduce the same to elite English speaking classes, especially among younger groups in India. This re-introduction is done by deploying a comical gaze where the absurdities of daily ‘Indian’ life can be laughed at. It is important to understand what type of ‘Indianness’ this is. In the case of Indian Matchmaking, arranged marriage becomes the focus. A common response to Indian Matchmaking was that it was a step ahead in representing South Asians. However, arranged marriage and the endogamy that rules it, form the core of the caste system in India. While the show portrayed arranged marriage as comical and absurd, it also portrayed it in a way that made it seem “endearing’ or ‘lovable’. Keeping this in mind, we should be careful in celebrating such shows, as while they do reveal a reality they also play a part in its celebration and trivialisation.
Centralising of OTTs
In a recent move, OTT platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have been bought under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, by the Central Government. Currently, there is no law that governs the content of digital streaming and the government has indicated plans to take over OTTs before. In 2019 the Center made an indication that it would release a list of dos and don’ts for OTTs to follow with their content. In anticipation of this, several major OTT platforms signed a self-censorship code, which the government denied support to. The exact implications of this move are unclear, but considering the BJP’s Hindutva politics we can expect content to align with the same in the years to come.