Twinkle twinkle OTT stars

Latha Srinivasan | Updated on July 17, 2020

Net worth: Mithila Palkar is currently working on her second Netflix venture after last year’s Chopsticks   -  IMAGE COURTESY: NETFLIX

With the pandemic standing firmly in the way of screenings in theatres and multiplexes, India is showering attention, time and money on streaming platforms. A pantheon of actors — some old, some new — has now acquired the status of household favourites

* The consumption of online entertainment content has exploded during the lockdowns. It’s been reported that between March 25 and June 8 this year, Amazon Prime, Netflix and ALT Balaji had seen a 65 per cent increase in subscriptions while Zee5 had seen an 80 per cent increase

Jaideep Ahlawat, who? A couple of months ago, if you’d uttered the name of the now immensely popular actor, the reaction of film-going audiences would largely have been that of puzzlement, perhaps even indifference. No longer: His name these days evokes awe and fan frenzy in equal measure. The protagonist of crime thriller Paatal Lok, after doing meaningful cinema for over a decade, is finally a star — of streaming platforms.

And he is not the only one. The popularity of several shows and series premiering on over-the-top (OTT) channels has given rise to a new pantheon of stars. Names and faces that did not ring a bell even a few months ago are now suddenly household favourites.

A combination of factors has bestowed stardom upon old and new talent. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has imprisoned people and put a stop to film shoots and screenings, has given birth to web dramas and series that are being streamed on TV sets and mobile phones with the help of the internet.

Take the case of actor Mithila Palkar, who rose to fame riding the Net. In 2016, she came up with the idea of performing the popular Marathi song Hi Chal Turu Turu styled on Anna Kendrick’s The Cup Song from the movie Pitch Perfect. Palkar’s YouTube video had 4 million views, which prompted her to upload more videos. Soon, she’d bagged her first web series, Girl In The City. In 2017, she signed up for Little Things on Netflix and then starred in the Netflix original Chopsticks in 2019. The young woman from Dadar, Mumbai, is now working on her second Netflix film, titled Tribhanga.

“I feel as if the internet is my home,” she says.

Clearly, the pandemic has an upside, too. People around the world have been taking solace in the one thing they know will lift their spirits — entertainment. The consumption of online entertainment content has exploded during the lockdowns. It’s been reported that between March 25 and June 8 this year, Amazon Prime, Netflix and ALT Balaji had seen a 65 per cent increase in subscriptions while Zee5 had seen an 80 per cent increase. This demand for entertainment has, in turn, led to the discovery of not just new genres but new talent as well.

Apart from Ahlawat and Palkar, the growing list of streaming stars includes Jitendra Kumar, who shone in Amazon Prime Video’s Panchayat, and Amruta Subhash, who made her presence felt in the 2020 Anurag Kashyap Netflix film Choked (See interviews). And consider Sayani Gupta, Sobhita Dhulipala, Sumeet Vyas, Barun Sobti and Namit Das.

Her story: Sayani Gupta’s portrayal of a Nepali woman in Axone has been praised by many


FTII-trained Gupta’s portrayal of Rohini in Inside Edge and Damini in Four More Shots Please showcases her versatility and talent. Her role of Nepali girl Upasana in Axone was widely acclaimed. The new platform enables her to pick up the stories she wants to be a part of, she tells BLink. “Streaming services have opened up a whole new world for not just actors but even for writers, directors, technicians — the whole industry. I do work that truly excites me, irrespective of where it’s releasing,” Gupta explains.

Likewise, Namit Das — noticed in commercials and on television earlier — is making headlines now as Jawahar in the Sushmita Sen-starrer Aarya (on Disney+ Hotstar). Das features in BBC One’s A Suitable Boy and Mafia on Zee5 (his third series on this platform).

“I have said this and I am going to say this again — it is the best time to be an actor, an artiste or anyone related to the arts,” says Das, who belongs to a family of musicians. “People are in a desperate need for entertainment and the OTT platforms are giving it to them.”


Star cast: The list of streaming showstoppers is a long one —Barun Sobti (Asur)   -

Similarly, actor Barun Sobti has become a star in the OTT space thanks to Asur, Tanhaiyian, Derma and The Great Indian Dysfunctional Family. Moving from playing leads on television to the digital medium, he feels that he’s being offered diverse roles today. “What I really hope is that OTTs inspire people to create better content in Indian cinema and on Indian television as well.”


Sumeet Vyas (RejctX and The Verdict)

Most players believe that while cinema focuses on stars and the box office, content on streaming services is not about how popular an actor is; the focus is on talent, the screenplay and how well the story is told. “The digital medium has the power to fight the age-old belief that only movie stars can bring people’s attention to stories,” says actor Sumeet Vyas, who, after playing numerous supporting roles in Bollywood, is now seeing success in the digital space, having starred in RejctX, Permanent Roommates, TVF Tripling and The Verdict.

Sobhita Dhulipala (in a scene from Ghost Stories, an anthology of four short films)


While the digital medium is opening doors for many and allowing writers to push the envelope, some do feel there are downsides to it, too. The exhilaration of a red-carpet premiere and of a film releasing on a Friday on the big screen in front of a live audience is sorely missed on a streaming platform. Many actors and film-makers regularly go to the theatre to gauge audience reactions to their films and performances. Unfortunately, with digital streaming, it’s just data crunching that indicates how well a show or film has done. Moreover, many actors can command a certain price for a film but cannot do so on the lower budgeted shows of the digital medium. Trade analysts say that, on an average, an actor’s pay could be 30-40 per cent less than that for theatrical releases — but this would depend on the streaming platform and the production house concerned.

Directors who have made a mark with their series on streaming services agree that lack of pressure of the box office, unlike a theatrical release, is a great boon. “The theatrical business needs a certain amount of face value in a film for a considerable footfall in the opening days, as that is what defines the fate of a film, which is why we seldom have films with all newcomers — a Satya [which largely featured unknown names] is rare,” says Nikhil Mahajan, co-director of Betaal, a zombie horror web series produced by Shah Rukh Khan. “The dynamic nature of OTT and its fundamental lack of dependency in the concept of an ‘opening’ allow content creators to be brave about casting.”

Many directors view this space as one that is particularly open to innovative ideas. “On this medium, there is a demand for fresh and creative ideas and talent who would want to take innovative approach towards storytelling,” says Mayank Sharma, director of the crime thriller series Breathe on Amazon Prime Video.

Some, however, believe that the reach of a digital series is greater when a star is associated with it. Sandeep Modi, co-creator and co-director of the crime drama Aarya, while stressing that the new content has been “unshackled” from the pressures of the Friday box office, adds, “At the same time, we must not forget that the audience still has to back it (a series). For Aarya, we know that if Sushmita Sen was not headlining the show, its reach and penetration with audiences might not have been the same.”

But many are optimistic about the future. “OTT will become a great base for the leading creators of tomorrow,” Sharma holds. “I hope these amazing talents that have come up through the OTT platforms will now find their way easily into bigger theatrical films,” adds Mahajan.

Palkar, for one, is happy to have been there — at the right time, in the right place. “I’m fortunate to have been a part of the transition where the internet was metamorphosing into a legit medium of entertainment,” she says. “It’s opened a lot of doors for many of us.”

Latha Srinivasan is a Chennai-based journalist

Published on July 17, 2020

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