From the Silver Screen of Bollywood to the Smart Phone Boom
by Kavyta Kay
The revelation that across the board, the Indian screen is undergoing a significant shift through the emergence of a new wave of streaming platforms, is certainly not a new one. In the past few years, India’s billion plus audience are increasingly turning to video-on-demand platforms such as Amazon Prime, Hotstar and digital platforms such as YouTube and Facebook in order to access more diverse content across a range of genres. The digital has changed the Indian mediascape and popular culture to immense degree as audiences are turning to their smart screens for all manners of content.
The paucity of academic literature on this new entry into screen studies is surprising and a cursory search of South Asian popular culture reveals a firm fixation on the behemoth of Bollywood as an object of study and the dominant cultural signifier of India. Yet even the immense popularity of Hindi cinema, more popularly known as Bollywood, has taken a hit in their box-office sales as audiences are not only becoming more discerning in their tastes but are also no longer relying on the silver screen as the sole mode of entertainment and pleasure. Bollywood’s long-established star system, in which having an A-list star such as Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan would virtually guarantee a commercial hit, appears to be falling. While some industry and media perspectives have posited that the star-system is riding a storm and is far from over, the footfalls in theatre tickets compounded by falling data costs in a country which is the second largest smartphone market in the world, causes a clear picture to emerge in which audiences are changing and the silver screen is yet to catch up.
Of late, there has been an output of more diverse stories in the Indian film industry, for example Badhaai Ho (2018), a comedy-drama about a middle-aged couple who become unexpectedly pregnant and how their adult children and their wider society grapple with this. Andhadhun (2018), a dark comedy about a blind musician whose life is thrown into a series of twists after he unintentionally becomes involved with a murder, was both a critical and commercial hit. Both of these films were medium-budget productions which were more character-driven and did not lean into typical Bollywood formulas, for example, an item girl dancing in a song, a male-driven narrative or a romance between the hero and heroine. Critics and masses have responded positively to this different type of storytelling which is interesting especially when positioned alongside spectacular flops such as Thugs of Hindostan (2018) and Zero (2018), both big-budget Bollywood films.
In addition to changing consumer expectations and tastes vis-à-vis the silver screen, audiences are also broadening their tastes within the digital space. From Netflix’s series Sacred Games (2018-), an acclaimed adaptation of a book of the same name by Vikram Chandra and headlined by Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan to Permanent Roommates (2014-), a popular YouTube series about a cohabitating couple, web series and streaming shows have gained a lot of momentum. The digital is not just restricted to Hindi language programming but is also gradually expanding to regional languages as well as to a broad range of genres. One of these is comedy, which has grown from strength to strength in the digital space, and which has further opened up new avenues of articulation, identification and disidentification with various aspects of Indian culture. This was the focus of a new publication New Indian Nuttahs: Comedy and Critique in Millennial India (2018) which, through close textual readings of online comedy videos and interviews with content creators and consumers, examined discourses of Indianness, censorship, feminism and the Indian diaspora. Traditional outlets of comedy have a long-standing history in India through mimicry and in film and television but digital comedy is in a nascent and exciting stage. This new wave of comedians has sought to confront social issues and consider multiple perspectives in their assessment of social life and realities in ways that film and television have not necessarily matched.
Cultural critique has come to constitute a significant part of digital comedy and often comedians find themselves on the frontline on a range of debates from freedom of speech to sexist working practices. What this generation of comedians can do in terms of driving popular culture and perception remains to be seen in part because of the new media format in which they are operating. Also, with rural and women audiences growing the fastest in the digital space, it will be interesting to watch what the next decade will bring and what shifts in content creation and consumption are enabled. But when compared to the film and television industries, further questions emerge as to the sustainability of this protean form of new media. In short, we know what 100 years of cinema and acting legends look like, but we do not yet know what even 50 years of streaming, or the internet or being a Youtuber looks like because it has yet to be done. The question of who will endure the longest, the silver screen or the smart screen, will be one that time will tell.
Kavyta Kay is a University of London Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, UK. Her research interests lie in intersectional ways of thinking through race, gender and sexuality from multiple platforms whether academic, popular culture or social. New Indian Nuttahs: Comedy and Critique in Millennial India is available now.