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Vidnet 2021: Censorship casts shadow over golden era of content in India

OTT gives leeway to screenwriters to explore categories which are not possible in film or TV.

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MUMBAI: The advent of OTT platforms has ushered in the golden age of content in India, said a panel comprising acclaimed storytellers on day one of Indiantelevision.com’s Vidnet 2021 – presented by technology partners Bitmovin, Pallycon, support partner Contiloe, and community partners mipcom and miptv.
The paradigm shift in consumers’ viewing habits during the Covid2019 pandemic has further spawned a slew of streaming services, offering new windows of opportunity to writers. Indeed, it would be not wrong to say that there has not been a better time to be a content creator, concurred the panellists, which included Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story writer-director Jai Mehta, Indian film director & screenwriter - Four More Shots Please Anu Menon, Little Things showrunner Ashwin Suresh, screenwriter-director & producer – Mirzapur and Inside Edge Karan Anshuman, screenwriter & novelist - The Family Man Suman Kumar, and writer & director Suparn Verma. The session was moderated by OML CEO Gunjan Arya.

Kumar stated that writing for films or television is markedly different compared to OTT. But the overarching rule here is that you can’t be boring. Said he: “Long-form OTT has a leeway to tell your story better, let your characters breathe. The nature of content has become device-agnostic. However, both access to content and exit from the content is very easy. As a writer, the opportunity that we have with OTT is to tell the story a Bollywood producer would never touch.”

He believes that now stories can be told without casting A-listers. Genre doesn’t play that much of a role either, but finding interesting characters is the most challenging aspect of writing. According to him, once you find the characters then weaving stories around the character's journey is easier.

27-year-old Mehta too believes in the merits of solidly fleshing out the character to make a compelling story. For him, it’s about “who is your story” before “what is your story.” He illustrated this with his time working on Scam 1992, which he described as a story that couldn’t have been made for film.

“We wanted to make a story on Harshad Mehta but we didn’t know enough about him so we had to tell it from the lens of Sucheta Dalal (who co-penned the book the series is based on). There were 11 drafts, all of us were learning about the stock market,” he said, noting that a series created for OTT was the perfect platform to do the character justice.

Pocket Aces founder Ashwin Suresh, who works closely with content performance on social media and also tracks how various pieces of content are doing across platforms, shared that the short-form content that they created has helped them gain insights from the audience. So, the brief given to the writers is often derived from the audience's insights.

He explained, “There’re broadly two types of stories – first is plot-driven. We have to arrest them in the first 30 seconds, then you can typically get them to consume 70 per cent of the episode. Once a plot is decided your characters develop over time. Most of the stories we do are character-driven. There the goal is to immerse the consumer in the world and characters, then it doesn’t matter the story you’re telling – they’re in love with your characters and will stick it out at any cost.”

Menon was of the view that being true to the grain of what story you want to tell supersedes everything else. OTTs give writers the liberty to tell the story on their terms, unlike films created for the silver screen, where one has to kowtow to the rules of 'what works' at the box-office. She quipped, “In India, one of the things you have to do in films is you have to write for the interval – so you have to write for two climaxes, which is very artificial. I have stories which are both plot-driven and character-driven, but one of the things that come true to the OTT platform is that you hang on to the characters.”

Some writers give priority to the story, others value the character more, but the best way to know if your show is a success is the number of memes that are out there about it, quipped Mirzapur creator Anshuman.

Jokes apart, the panel highlighted that indicators like how quickly the platform commissions a season, whether or not they’re commissioning multiple seasons, and the amount of feedback they’re giving to the team, speak to the success of a series.

Representation or appropriation?

Menon who is known for her work in Shakuntala Devi and Four More Shots Please thinks women are sort of underdogs on screen. She opined that it is important for screenwriters to capture lived in experiences other than people projecting their own take on issues of gender, caste, class, or disability. “Being a writer and a storyteller I examine myself a lot, I believe if you are going to write about an experience make sure it is authentically captured rather than projected,” she added.

Anshuman agreed with Menon’s point adding that a minority character cannot be written without thorough research. “It’s about being aware. You cannot be writing about stuff you don’t know. You’ve got to have people doing research in the writer’s room. Especially if it’s anything ‘not you’ and trying to talk about other peoples’ issues. When bringing their stories to light, you’ve got to be sure what you’re talking about,” he said.

Kumar was of the view that the media and entertainment industry is a symbol of one where women are getting more empowered day by day. “Today, it’s come down to talent, it’s not about gender anymore. There is a disparity, however, things are slowly changing,” he said.

Reacting to Kumar’s point, Menon responded, “You have to constantly push the boundaries. We have to constantly be aware when somebody’s ego is being hurt versus not representing somebody’s life experiences. People not being allowed to say something because it might hurt the sentiments of somebody versus appropriating somebody else’s lived experience – they’re two different things.”

Creative freedom and censorship

Amazon Prime’s latest original series, Tandav, has been caught in a firestorm over content deemed objectionable by certain sections. There have been calls for boycott, outright ban and even FIRs have been filed against the makers of the political drama.

As this controversy rages on, a larger debate has sparked on the need for strict regulation and censoring of content hosted on streaming platforms.

Verma, while acknowledging that this is the golden era of content in India, claimed that we are also living in times of extra-censorship.

“There are platforms coming together to create guidelines for censorship in the content we’re making. We are living in times that are troubled. And we’re making content on issues that need to be addressed. But at times we are leaning towards something more extreme which might hamper us,” he observed.

The panel concluded the session by pointing out that in today's time, writers are the angry young man of the ‘70s, where they want to write about various untouched topics. But for certain matters, they have to find other ways of going about it because it’s political in nature and there are things one is not allowed to say.

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