Do OTT platforms provide more space for sociopolitical content?

With no censorship and fewer budget constraints, they provide more opportunities

Updated - April 03, 2020 11:17 am IST

Published - April 03, 2020 12:15 am IST

With India under a lockdown, and with museums, movie theaters, malls, restaurants and bars closed, people now spend a lot of time watching films and shows on OTT (Over The Top) platforms such as Hotstar, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video. Over the last few years, with OTT platforms providing an opportunity to filmmakers and screenwriters to think and write differently, there has been a significant rise in content on these platforms. Filmmakers Anurag Kashyap and Vetrimaaran speak of why these platforms are liberating, and what the digital future looks like, in a conversation moderated by Radhika Santhanam . Edited excerpts:


Mr. Kashyap, you said once, “Digital platforms are giving me the freedom and the budget that they won’t give anyone else.” What kind of freedom do these platforms give you? Are you referring to the fact that there is no censorship on these platforms or do you mean freedom even in terms of the subjects you can explore?

Anurag Kashyap: The kind of freedom I’m getting on OTT platforms is the kind of freedom that Vetri demands and takes [even otherwise] — he brings sociopolitical content into every film, which is alien to Hindi films. For the [theatre-going] audience, the moment anything becomes sociopolitical, they stay away from it. And it becomes increasingly difficult to find money for such films. For example, when I made Mukkabaaz, I could not find money for it for two years because of the subject and because of the rural... The actor was also [not mainstream]. But now I’m doing a new film for Netflix, Choked , which deals with sociopolitical content and has Roshan Mathew and Saiyami Kher. I am getting the right amount of money for it and I can say what I want to say. So, it’s not just about censorship; it’s about the multi-fold pressures [that come with theatrical films and don’t come with OTT]. First, there’s the producer who says there is no audience. Stars don’t want to do anything political because they want to keep safe. Your budget is cut down. Then because the film is not high-profile, I generally try to send it to some festival so that it gets some kind of a profile. With OTT platforms I don’t feel like I’m making something for TV, I’m just making my film. People are choosing to watch it on an OTT platform and I have the budget and freedom to do what I like.

Mr. Vetrimaaran, you’ve often said that cinema is a dying art. Today, more people are watching cinema than ever before because of digital platforms. They also watch different kinds of cinema – Tamil, Malayalam, Korean, etc. These platforms also provide an opportunity to create different content. So, isn’t cinema thriving more than ever before and haven’t digital platforms, as a medium, been one of the reasons for that?

Vetrimaaran: When I said cinema, I mentioned cinema in the theatre, experience-giving cinema. I did not mean cinema as a language or medium. That medium that you go and watch on, the big screen, that is a dying art. Because, if you see the last six-seven years, whatever made headlines in terms of big money in Hollywood was a superhero film. I don’t find any art in these films. Also, in the Indian scenario, you have a Baahubali doing big numbers, but how does it matter to a common man or his problems? So, the representation of the common man has been taken out of the theatre-going experience. You need a superstar or a superhero film to make people go to the theatres.

But today a lot of people do go and watch films like Vada Chennai and Kaaka Muttai or Badhaai Ho and Article 15 . And Asuran was Dhanush’s top-grossing film.

Vetrimaaran: Sometimes it happens. But predominantly it is more hero-driven. Also, for the kinds of films that I make, I have an actor like Dhanush to support me, which makes it easier for me. At any point, when I say, I have a story to say, he says, okay, I will back you, you do the film you want to do. And he has a considerably good market. I can have a good budget. And I’m able to do the film.

Asuran , I feel, if you take out all the sociopolitical factors in it, deep down you see a Baashha -like idea. So, that way after my first film, Asuran was the next film I made that centred on one particular character and the journey of that character. So, it was a hero film. All the other films are not typically hero films. So, I feel, the more the star value of the film or the more visually exciting the film, those are the films that predominantly make money and are backed by investors. If you want to make serious films, they have questions to ask you such as, how will I get back the money?

Now, with the advent of OTT platforms, it is the golden era of the screenwriter. We have always been curtailed by writing for a two-and-a-half-hour film. I had five-and-a-half-hours of [script] for Vada Chennai . But I could only show 2 hours and 39 minutes. That is a major limitation. When it comes to OTT, you have the liberty to write as much as you can imagine and as much as the budget you can get allows. I’ve done a 30-minute film for Netflix; it’s part of an anthology. And when I made it, I realised how liberated Anurag must be feeling. I did not have any kind of pressure. When I’m editing for a theatrical film, I think every minute, how will the audience react to this scene, is the length enough, should I reduce it, add some more? I keep someone else in mind when I’m making a theatrical film. For this one I didn’t have anyone in mind; I just wanted to make a film. I wanted to bring out something and I did that without any pressure. I have never been as relaxed in an edit room as I was while making this.

You spoke of investors. Is there any interference from these platforms when you pitch an idea to them?

Anurag Kashyap: I have never faced any interference. They always give you feedback, but they always leave it to you. It’s also something you earn over a period of time. So far, I have had a very good time. [For theatrical films], I have always faced prejudice from the distributors. They say people don’t want to watch what you’re doing. But I know that people do watch my films. The only difference is that people watch it later, whereas for a distributor, the first three days are what matter at the box office. Most of my audience is an educated, working audience and not those who line up on Fridays and Saturdays to watch a film the way people line up to watch a Salman Khan or Shah Rukh Khan film. My audience watches my films at their own time.

What has happened with OTT is that my old films, like That Girl in Yellow Boots, got an audience much after they were released. It translates very well for me because I get direct feedback, which puts me in a much better space... Platforms let me be because they know that whether it’s my politics or it’s what I’m trying to say, people are responding to it, reacting to it and engaging with it. So, they let me be because they have data and all that.

What kind of feedback do you get from people?

Anurag Kashyap: For example, with Ghost Stories , there was a bad backlash in India, but I had the freedom to do something I had never done before. The feedback that I got from the genre audience from around the world was very encouraging, constructive. This makes you better and sharper as a filmmaker.

Mr. Vetrimaaran, why do you think the Tamil film industry’s foray into this has been slow?

Vetrimaaran: When it comes to Tamil, the problem is marketing. The kind of stories I want to tell on OTT require a certain budget. But OTT platforms have a limited budget for a limited market like Tamil. The primary target for a Tamil original film or a series would be the Tamil audiences worldwide. And then they would be looking at other international viewership, so they have limited investments. Now they are opening up, coming up with some good budgets. I have been wanting to do the prequel to Vada Chennai as a series. I’ve been talking to a lot of people… they felt the budget was too much, now they’re able to give it.

Are well-known actors more willing now to do digital content?

Anurag Kashyap: A lot of them are, not everyone. Actors who are having a good run in the box office are not ready to act in films or a series made for digital platforms. They are willing to produce it, but not willing to act in these yet.

Vetrimaaran: This space is for women actors who have the potential to be stars in the box office industry as well, but they’re given more space here. For theatrical films, mostly you end up writing for men. Here I would like to write stories with more women characters — women with proper representation. Not every star wants to be in an original. They want to have a theatrical release and then they want to be in digital.

Mr. Kashyap, what do you find fulfilling on these platforms in a way that the theatre experience doesn’t give you? And what do you find challenging?

Anurag Kashyap: The biggest problem I have faced as a filmmaker is that they don’t let me explore subjects that matter to me: sexuality, religion and politics. These are the three big nos for the cinema experience. But Netflix doesn’t shy away from that. Second, I can tell the whole story. I don’t have to censor it. I can tell a story for seven hours. If Sacred Games was a movie, it would have been about Nawaz [Nawazuddin Siddiqui] and Saif [Ali Khan], but on Netflix, I could flesh out characters like Bunty, Kukkoo and Subhadra.

There is no difficulty, but the only aspiration it doesn’t cater to is that we all want to see things on the big screen. But that’s a choice we make.

Vetrimaaran: For the liberty that’s given there, this is a small compromise.

Anurag Kashyap: In the U.S., Netflix films get a limited theatrical release. It doesn’t happen here — not because Netflix doesn’t want to do it but because exhibitors don’t want to support it.

Vetrimaaran: If you have a bigger star in it, it may happen. Regarding subjects, I would like to explore the same topics, especially politics and policies. The anti-people policies, like what’s happening in Tamil Nadu, and how they affect the common man.

What is the immediate future like in terms of content?

Vetrimaaran: The theatrical experience is going to become more and more shallow and momentary [in terms of Tamil]: there will be 10 heroes and 25 directors to cater to the audience. And all the others will have to move to these platforms and start making films with the content that we want to discuss. The only problem is when you put it out in the theatre, the common man comes face-to- face with it. With OTT it’s a choice. It’s like going to a library and reading a book instead of reading a daily that gets delivered at home. We make films that we want the common man to watch, but it’ll take time to take it to him. That’s a small setback. He has to watch it on his mobile phone where he’d rather watch YouTube than Amazon or Netflix.

Vetrimaaran is a National Award-winning director, screenwriter, and producer working in the Tamil film industry; Anurag Kashyap is a director, writer, editor and producer working in the Hindi film industry.

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