How India's Streaming Frenzy Is Empowering Writers

Courtesy of Netflix
Netflix's first Indian original 'Sacred Games' starring Saif Ali Khan.

As Netflix, Amazon and Fox-Disney battle it out for digital market share in the world's second-most-populous nation, the content gold rush is putting Bollywood writers in the spotlight for the first time.

The burgeoning battle for control of India's vast market for streaming video is bringing benefits to content creators across the country's entertainment industry. But one sector of the industry is feeling particularly empowered by the cash Netflix, Amazon and Fox-owned Hotstar are pouring into original films and series — screenwriters. 

Historically, screenwriters in Bollywood have mostly fought an uphill battle in demanding better deals for themselves. The reasons are rooted in the economic structure undergirding the Bollywood star system.

"While Hollywood stars are usually paid about 20 percent of a film's budget, Bollywood stars are paid 50-80 percent of the budget and writers manage just about 1 percent," explains Datta Dave, co-founder of Mumbai and L.A.-based talent agency Tulsea. This arrangement often has shown in the mass-produced nature of mainstream Bollywood storytelling, Dave says. "Because writers earlier were paid relatively low amounts of money, they would take on multiple projects [at the same time], which affected the quality of work."

Tulsea represents about 60 clients, including writers, directors and actors who have worked on shows such as Netflix's first Indian original series Sacred Games and the upcoming Leila in addition to Amazon's latest series Mirzapur.

One of the company's top clients, Varun Grover, lead writer on Sacred Games, says the U.S. streamers have brought considerable change to Bollywood, "because writers are being treated as collaborators, not just employees giving shape to somebody else's vision."

As a result, pay for writers has spiked. Grover says he is hopeful that going forward Indian industry "will reach the same standards as in the U.S., where top writers also get long-term royalties."

As in other markets, the arrival of the deep-pocketed U.S. streamers has led many industry players to begin to look witheringly at the usual budgets spent on local television content.

"The total budget for a typical episode of a telenovela-type show could fall anywhere between $9,400 to $20,000, while an episode for an OTT platform usually could be budgeted between $97,000 and $110,000," Dave says.

But some observers think it is unfair to compare the two mediums. Former Viacom18 Motion Pictures CEO Vikram Malhotra, who now heads his banner Abundantia Entertainment, explains that OTT platforms "are right now in what I call the invest-grow mode, where their measurement of success is based on parameters like market penetration and the number of subscriptions, while conventional TV platforms are more evolved and are actually seeking profitability out of existing markets."

Taking a wider view, Deborah Sathe, international director of Cinestaan Film Company, says: "My gut is that better compensation will be dictated by the figures that are consuming the stories: the bigger the audience, the bigger the pay check."

London and Mumbai-based Cinestaan develops projects based on Indian sensibilities while also eyeing wider international appeal. The company's credits include Bornila Chatterjee's The Hungry, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus set in contemporary New Delhi, which was licensed to Netflix. Upcoming projects include India’s first-ever live-action animal feature (working title, Aasha: The Street Dog) directed by Frederik du Chau; and Bombay Rose, the debut feature from international award winning animator Gitanjali Rao.

Given that digital platforms now offer an instant global audience for any storyteller, the obvious question is whether Indian content can cross-over internationally, beyond the global diaspora audience. Sathe says that a "big global series coming out of India is a challenge, but one I’m sure that Indian talent can meet. The challenge is entertaining an audience already so spoiled by so much sophisticated storytelling."

The insatiable demand for content by OTT platforms has also sparked an interest in book adaptations, proving that it's not just screenwriters but also authors who can cash in on the content gold rush.

After Netflix adapted Vikram Chandra's acclaimed novel Sacred Games as its first series, the streamer's upcoming slate includes an adaptation of Prayaag Akbar's book Leila, which revolves around a mother's search for her lost daughter; cricket drama Selection Day based on Aravind Adiga's book; and Bilal Siddiqi's spy thriller Bard of Blood, which is being co-produced by Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan's banner Red Chillies Entertainment. Netflix is also adapting acclaimed author Salman Rushdie's 1981 novel Midnight's Children into a series for which well-known film-maker Vishal Bhardwaj will serve as show runner and executive producer.

Along with capital, the U.S. streamers are also bringing new industry practices to the Bollywood ecosystem — most notably, the concept of the writers room. The use of writers rooms has helped Bollywood storytellers generate more collaborative, focused work, a necessity given how streaming series tend to have a fixed number of episodes and seasons, with rigorously pre-planned story arcs. Grover says writing for local shows "used to be very unstructured."

In addition, foreign consultants are also being flown in to shepherd the creative process, and hopefully give the series an international edge. For example, according to Dave, Matt Pyken, a consulting producer on Mr. Robot and co-executive producer on Empire, worked on Leila, which is being directed by Deepa Mehta (Midnight's Children).

Similarly, Amazon Prime Video India director and content head Vijay Subramaniam says that "we happily bring in all the best practices from the U.S. and support our creative partners here with anything that they need, right from script consultants to setting up writers rooms and any other technical expertise which they believe can enhance the story." He also points out that "it is still a fledgling ecosystem — the writers room concept is just taking shape, so the industry is experiencing how it is to collaborate rather than working on your own."

International practices are essential, given the global ambitions the streamers harbor for their Indian originals. The second season of Amazon's Indian series Breathe, for example, saw 40 percent of its audience come from overseas.

Amid the frenzy among digital platforms competing for subscriber growth, Sathe urges that "smaller, perhaps tougher stories should not get squashed out."

"My interest is watching which companies will win over the Indian audience, whether the audience will change the companies or the companies change the audience," she says. "Either way, it's a really exciting time for storytelling in India."