PLAY at Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival with Star celebrates the digital narrative through the best web series of India. The segment that started as a three-hour session in 2015 has seen a phenomenal growth, just like India’s digital avatar, and is now a day-long (October 23) event dedicated to the digital revolution. We caught up with Nikhil Taneja, the programmer and co-curator of PLAY to know more about it.

Nikhil Taneja - Pandolin.com

Nikhil Taneja

How deeply are you involved with the entire concept of PLAY? On what levels are you associated?

PLAY is something that I suggested to Anu (Anupama Chopra) and the MAMI team last year. I have been working with MAMI in various aspects since the last four years. I was involved with the previous management as well. So I have always been there to help out in whatever capacity I could. When the new team took over last year, we had a very long conversation about relaunching MAMI as a newer and younger festival. PLAY was a result of that conversation.

Presently my contribution is about three to four months, weekends, late nights and early mornings. I’m just trying and making sure that I manage to put the event together in a great way. Last year I programmed the entire event as it was smaller. But this year it has become a bigger event and I have my day job of heading Content and Development at Y-Films. So I have a conflict of interest with the ‘Best of’ sections. Hence we have prominent journalist Shreevatsa Nevatia as the co-curator this time. I have programmed the entire section but he has done the curation of the ‘Best of’ sections. I have curated the ‘Premieres’ section.

Since the initiation of PLAY at MAMI last year, what are the changes that you’ve seen across the web series platform as a whole?

We introduced PLAY as a section at MAMI last year because digital was coming up in a big way. It was a new way of storytelling on the Internet. We had three hours of programming through which we wanted to celebrate the Internet. Since that session last year, the web series module has exploded in India. And PLAY, which was just a three-hour session, now has an entire day dedicated to it. The three hours contained shorts, sketches, music videos, web series etc. This year we have a whole lot of programming only for web series. That shows how much things have changed.

Earlier content that used to go viral had some shock value

What do you think has attributed to this exponential growth in the past one year?

Web series have given a voice to those people who have not seen themselves being represented in other mediums. The content on television is usually quite aggressive. A young person between the age of 18 to 30 years has not seen himself being authentically represented in anything on television. Bollywood, unfortunately, because it caters to the star system, works on a certain kind of formula. Though this formula has been changing since the last few years, you still don’t see a young person represented authentically and honestly. So, a TVF or Y-Films or anything that has come after that, has given voice to a lot of people who never got to see themselves. That is why they are able to relate to the content as they see a reflection of their lives and aspirations. It is primarily a young revolution – made by, as well as for, the young people.

Will it be right to say that for most web series creators, the target audience is just the youth?

That is the way it all started. Earlier, people who wanted to say something had to wait for a big budget, small or an independent film. Now they have realized that films cost a lot and take a long time to be made. And sometimes, even when they are made, they never get showcased. But a web series is a way to put out exciting voices. Moreover, making them is not that costly.

While it started with young urban audiences, it is slowly going to move into a different position where it offers something to everybody. This is what is happening in the West. Netflix has niche content for all types of audience. I just found out about the LGBT web series series from India, which is doing quite well. It has a certain kind of audience coming to it because even that audience needs representation. It will evolve to a medium where it will have everything for everyone.

But do you think that a more mature audience, the non-millennials, will have a palette for web series in India?

I do think so because ultimately, the content in these series is so good. I don’t want to oversell something but take the example of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. It is a story about a little child but it appeals to everyone. Protagonists of most of the web series are young but that doesn’t mean that they (series) are just catering to the younger audience.

Since you mentioned distribution, in most conversations with indie filmmakers, one hears that distribution is the most difficult part. I believe that is one of the factors that is drawing most filmmakers to the Internet as they don’t have to worry about distribution.

Absolutely! The challenge on digital is not distribution. The problem is discovery. Right now, we have very few web series. Luckily there is a certain quality, which is being attached to a lot of web series. People who are getting into it are not doing it for money but for the right reasons. Had they been doing it for money, they would have remained stuck to some formula. Also currently, because there are fewer players, everything is getting discovered slowly. In the past year, there have been about 30-35 web series. In the next one-year, we are expecting that to grow to 100-150 web series. Pretty much every filmmaker and actor want to make a web series. Then the problem won’t be distribution but discovery. And then it comes down to choice vs money.

Unless they are catering to the untapped audience, the web series won’t work

I understand that people are doing it out of sheer passion but you can’t sideline the monetary aspect.

At this point of time everybody is doing it as an investment. One of the things that we are doing at PLAY is discussing the business module – whether it is sustainable or is it just a bubble. If you are a Sumeet Vyas or Naveen Kasturia, you are making money from ads, movies and other digital content

Now if people want to actually start making money from the content that they make, they’ll have to start charging money from viewers. But we really don’t know if India will pay for paid content as they have been getting it for free. I don’t have an answer to this because India is still not paying to download songs. We are either streaming them on apps or downloading them from pirated sites. When Netflix launched its subscription In India, it was free for the first month but when it became paid, the dropout was crazy. That is what has been reported. You are asking people to pay Rs. 800 when their cable connection costs Rs.250 and they get more than hundred channels. I don’t know if people are willing to pay Rs.800 for a few shows. But four years down the line, perhaps they might.

PLAY

How can we hook Indian viewers to paid digital content?

Creating great content is the trick that everybody is trying – whether it is TVF or Y-Films. When people start liking a channel, brand, studio, then the studio can further say that it wants to charge a small fees for the rest of the content and hope that they will be paid, on the basis of the quality of content that they have brought so far. They can say that they’ll have to charge people otherwise they won’t be able to maintain good content in future. Then there is a chance that people might pay. Or the other way that people might pay for it is when you have big stars appearing in it. But whether that is going to happen now, two years later or five years down the line – no one really knows.

Web series have given a voice to those people who have not seen themselves being represented in other mediums

Also, how do you see brands consuming web content as a primary ad network?

People have become quite smart when it comes to ads. If a brand is selling soap, people won’t buy it because of the kind of soap it is but what it represents and whether it connects with them. They have realized that people have connected with philosophies associated with products. The best way to represent the philosophy today is through web series.

PLAY also has a section dedicated to premieres of web series. What can one look forward to?

There are some very interesting web series and I’m very excited about them. Last year, we premiered Bang Baaja Baaraat. This time we have a bunch of them. We have SnG Comedy’s Brij Bhakta and Neville Shah’s pilot of the show called NRI. Then there is another popular comedian called Kaneez Surka who has created a new show called Princess Kaneez, which she is launching. Story writer and radio presenter Neelesh Mishra is coming up with the pilot of Qisson Ka Kona. Then there is a very exciting new event. Shyam Ramsay who is known for his horror films is coming up with a horror web series called Reloaded. And there is Little Things from Dice Media, which is an urban rom-com. Finally we have ScoopWhoop with their second fiction series called Sneh.

For a while now there has been no sensation like ‘Gangnam style’ or ‘Kolaveri Di’. What do you think could be the reason behind it?

Earlier content that used to go viral had some shock value. That was the first phase of Internet. When different, random and quirky things would go viral. What is more interesting now is series, which are full of emotions. Even the branded videos now are full of emotions – whether it is the British Airways video of a mother or a Nestle video of a boy who stammers. Until you have your emotions in place, people are not going to like it.

The challenge on digital is not distribution. The problem is discovery

Another aspect being that most web content creators are largely in and around Mumbai. Wouldn’t that eventually influence the kind of content being made?

Unfortunately everyone who wants to make content comes to Mumbai. But that is slowly changing because of the Internet. Now a series like Chase or Baked is based in Delhi and made by people from Delhi. The entire gang of TVF has people from across the country. Permanent Roommates was set here but Tripling and a lot of their content represent people from across (India). Bang Baaja Baaraat had two Mumbai people getting married but their families were from Kanpur and Delhi. And they were authentic families.

Unless they are catering to the untapped audience, the web series won’t work. If they are only Mumbai based, then the novelty will disappear. The way to go forward is to do stories in different languages and regions. Ultimately what matters is good storytelling and not what language it is in. Y-Films have taken that step by putting Sex Chat with Pappu & Papa in five different languages. A lot of the country is going on the Internet but not even consuming it in English. Their Google pages and YouTube searches are in their regional languages. When we have web series from those regions, it is then that the web series format will grow and expand. If it is only synonymous to Mumbai, then it won’t work beyond a point.

We also got to know that you are going to come up with reboot of Darr 2.0 What stage is it at?

It is going to come out soon. The trailer that we came up with was pretty much an announcement trailer. We are just making sure that if we are coming up with something like Darr, we should live up to the expectations. It is taking time but we are happy to give it that time. Luckily we don’t have any pressure to release on Diwali or Eid. We will just release it when the content is ready, good and solid. I’m hoping it comes out well.

Summary
Photo ofNikhil Taneja
Name
Nikhil Taneja
Job Title
Programmer and co-curator of PLAY