Mumbai: Why Bollywood Stars Are Rushing Towards Streaming Platforms

Akshay Kumar -  Amazon Prime Video - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

As the battle between Netflix, Amazon and Disney's Hotstar intensifies, the demand for India's top film talent is escalating, both in front of and behind the camera.

A digital gold rush has hit Bollywood, as India's biggest talents both in front of and behind the camera reap the riches resulting from the battle for streaming supremacy in the world's second most populous country. 

Like Hollywood and elsewhere, the insatiable need for content from the likes of Netflix and Amazon and in India's case Disney-owned Hotstar has seen a wave of rich talent deals recently, attracting stars who had heretofore never been seen on the small screen. This ongoing migration of top Bollywood talent from cinema to streaming mirrors what happened at the onset of the satellite television revolution in India, which saw acting icon Amitabh Bachchan hosting the Indian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, which debuted on Fox's Star India network (now owned by Disney). Two decades later, Bachchan, 77, still hosts the show, which currently airs on Sony Television Network, while juggling his film commitments. Similarly, Salman Khan, one of India's most prominent actos, has been the long-running host of the Indian version of Big Brother which airs on Viacom18 India's Colors channel.

The halo of Bollywood star power yielded a ratings bonanza for India's television networks, which explains why, since 2016, when Netflix and Amazon launched in the country, their Indian productions have regularly featured Bollywood talent in a bid to gain wider traction and mass appeal. Netflix's debut Indian original Sacred Games, which explored the nexus between politics and the Mumbai underworld, was anchored by leading man Saif Ali Khan, the first time the actor was seen on the small screen.

In his almost three-decade career, Saif Ali Khan, 49, has starred in major Bollywood productions such as Dil Chahta Hai, Kal Ho Naa Ho and Omkara, among others. In Sacred Games, Saif Ali Khan starred as Sartaj Singh, a Mumbai cop who squares off against underworld don Ganesh Gaitonde, played by acclaimed actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, whose filmography includes Cannes titles such as The Lunchbox and Gangs of Wasseypur 2, among others.

In its review, The Hollywood Reporter said that "Khan's morally righteous and thus tortured Singh has enough stoic qualities to allow an audience to root for his long-shot, probably misguided path to whatever righteous result might come from unveiling the truth... It's Siddiqui, however, who really owns the series, as his antihero gangster story unfolds."

Amazon's slate included Breathe starring actor R. Madhavan, a well-known name in South Indian cinema, with titles such as Alai Payuthey, and in Hindi language Bollywood, with appearances in films like Rang De Basanti. In Breathe, Madhavan played a desperate father who goes to any length to save his son who is suffering a medical condition.

The second season of Breathe is in development and will be toplined by actor Abhishek Bachchan, best known for starring in the Dhoom action franchise and titles including Sarkar and Guru, among others.

"While I am very excited to enter the world of digital content, it is important that, creatively, the material must excite me as much or more," Bachchan tells THR, adding, "So, in terms of Breathe season 2, I really liked the story and the vision of the director."

The actor, who is the son of Amitabh and acclaimed actress Jaya Bachchan, also points that the challenge of working in a series is "to be able to retain the audiences' attention and keep them engaged over the duration of all the episodes. In the movies, we need to capture their attention for two-three hours. Here, it's for over 12-13 hours and that too, at the demand of the audience given the nature of consumption behaviour. That, to me, is the most apparent challenge."

In the battle for dominance in India's huge domestic market, the streamers need for content pushed by a bankable Indian star is obvious, but Bollywood's biggest players are attracted to working with the likes of Netflix and Amazon, as they provide greater opportunities to produce as well as move into different genres that are not necessarily explored on the big screen, factors that are above and beyond just the financial rewards.  

Recently, both Netflix and Amazon bowed spy dramas featuring mainstream film talent. Netflix's Bard of Blood, produced by Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan's banner Red Chillies Entertainment, stars actor Emraan Hashmi, 40, as a spy who is called back to duty from his job as a Shakespeare teacher in a Mumbai school. Amazon's The Family Man stars acclaimed actor Manoj Bajpayee as a middle-class man working for an intelligence agency who has to battle terrorists while protecting his family from the impact of his demanding and low-paying job.

"There is a lot of content out there for people to watch, so it becomes essential for us to not only make our series sincerely and sensitively, but also to tell a unique story — something that concerns the common man and his uncommon life with his extraordinary struggle," Bajpayee said when the show was first announced last year.

As the battle between streamers intensifies, the demand for top film talent is also escalating behind the camera.

Disney-owned Star India network's streamer Hotstar recently unveiled its ambitious slate which includes as-yet-unnamed projects from a slew of top helmers including Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth), Kabir Khan (Bajrangi Bhaijaan) and Neeraj Pandey (A Wednesday), among others.

Netflix recently entered into an exclusive agreement with Dharmatic Entertainment, the newly set up digital content arm of Dharma Productions, headed by filmmaker Karan Johar. As one of Bollywood's leading banners, Dharma has major hits to its credit such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, among others.

Dharmatic's lineup for Netflix includes the upcoming film Guilty, directed by Ruchi Narain, which explores the versions of truth that emerge when a small town girl accuses the college heartthrob of rape. And in a first-of-sorts for a Dharma production, the banner's upcoming action title Drive, starring Sushant Singh Rajput and Jacqueline Fernandez, will see a straight-to-Netflix worldwide release on Nov. 1.

Johar himself has directed an installment of the four-part Netflix anthology Love Stories along with leading helmers Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee. The quartet are also directing the upcoming horror anthology Ghost Stories.

Leading actor Ajay Devgn's banner Ajay Devgn Films is backing upcoming feature Tribhanga for Netflix, a Mumbai-set family drama starring top actress Kajol along with Tanvi Azmi and Mithila Palkar. Directed by well-known actress Renuka Shahane, the film is co-produced with Banijay Asia and Alchemy Productions. As one of Bollywood's most popular actresses, Kajol, who is married to Devgn, has starred in hit titles such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Kabhie Alvida Na Kehna and My Name Is Khan, among others.

Netflix's lineup also includes Class of 83 from Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies, directed by Atul Sabharwal, which explores the story of an upright policeman-turned-trainer whose students grapple with the complexities of honour, morals and devotion to the nation.

In an earlier interview with THR during the Beijing International Film Festival, when asked what led him to work with Netflix, Khan recalled the first time he met the company's CEO Reed Hasting and chief content officer Ted Sarandos when they visited him in Mumbai. "Talking to them, I suddenly realized that they are basically just film lovers," he said, adding, "Somewhere down the line, I was like that. I just loved films and somehow I become an actor. That's how it works. You just like films and then it turns into a business, and then it becomes a business like Netflix — like none other. So when we were talking, we said let's make something together."

Shah Rukh Khan, who started out as a popular TV actor in the '80s, has yet to make his digital debut in a fiction series, but he will be seen in a special episode of Netflix's David Letterman show My Next Guest which will stream worldwide on Oct. 25.

Perhaps one of the most-awaited digital debuts for any Bollywood figure would be that of superstar Akshay Kumar, who continues to cement his position at the box office with back-to-back hits. Kumar, 52, started out as an action star in the '90s with the Khiladi franchise, and in recent years he morphed into socially-relevant films such as female hygiene drama PadMan, which was distributed by Sony Pictures India, sanitation drama Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, co-produced by by Viacom18 Motion Pictures, and Mission Mangal, inspired by India's space program, which was co-produced by Fox Star Studios India.

While Kumar has also made TV appearances as the host of the Indian versions of Fear Factor and Masterchef, he will return to his action roots in an upcoming fiction series for Amazon with the working title The End.

The streaming giant unveiled its association with Kumar at a high-profile event in Mumbai in March in the presence of Amazon Studios head, Jennifer Salke. At the event, Kumar made a dramatic entry onstage, literally on fire, which led Salke to later tweet, "This man is on fire."

If Khan's impetus to work with Netflix is based on a mutual love for films with Reed and Sarandos, Kumar's reasons are more personal, as he shared in a statement during the show's launch. "The digital world excited me and I am delighted to make my streaming debut with this show," Kumar said. He added: "And if I were to make a small confession here, it was my son Aarav who suggested that I make my digital debut as that’s what the youth is hooked onto. On this medium, I want to create something extraordinary and connect with them."