23 Nov 2017 17:20 IST

We know where to draw the line in our storytelling: ALTBalaji CMO

Manav Sethi speaks to Aakanksha Srinivasan about original online programming in India

It wasn’t too long ago that founder of The Viral Fever, Arunabh Kumar, declared that “ innovation in TV programming died a natural death”. Even back then, there were several local players in the online video streaming market — Hooq, Spuul and Voot, to name a few — but none of them produced original content à la Amazon Prime or Netflix. The Viral Fever (TVF) shot to fame with TVF Pitchers, a show about four corporate employees trying their hand at entrepreneurship. Since then, web-based original programming in India has only been growing, with global giants Netflix and Amazon Prime investing heavily in the country. So where does Balaji Telefilms’ ALTBalaji fit into this scene?

Manav Sethi, Chief Marketing Officer, ALTBalaji spoke at the MMA-KAS conclave “The Internet of Daily Life”, about the platform, the market and the Indian entertainment industry. During his session, Sethi introduced ALTBalaji to the audience before throwing the floor open for questions from the audience. BLonCampus spoke to Sethi on the sidelines of the conclave.

On the competition

Why did ALTBalaji decide to enter an already crowded market? “There is no market to speak of, at present, so it is too early to judge anyone as a competitor,” Sethi says. “Everybody in this space has embarked on changing the market, because traditionally Indians aren’t used to paying for content. So we’re creating a market right now. Hopefully, the players learn from each others’ mistakes as we go.” Quoting Reed Hastings, CEO, Netflix, Sethi says that sleep is their biggest competition.

“It is the golden age of programming in India, for the people who are just entering the (entertainment) field now or started working in it not too long ago. The possibility of being hired — be it for acting, scripting, directing, you name it — is at an all-time high for television programming in India.” Sethi adds.

On original regional content on these platforms

“One of the five shows we launched with, in April, was a Tamil show called Maya Thirai. We got a humongous response for the web-series from not just Tamil Nadu but also from Singapore and West Asia. That paved the way for us to invest in more regional content — we are currently making shows in Bengali, Punjabi and Gujarati.” Sethi revealed. “Tamil is a mainstay for ALT and we are currently looking at scripts that can be made in both Tamil and Telugu; we’re trying to find a narrative and a cast that will embraced by the people that speak both languages.”

But creating content in Indian languages isn’t easy, Sethi continues. “Both Amazon and Netflix announced shows in local languages when they first arrived. So far Amazon has only released Inside Edge,” he observes.

ALTBalaji is committed to creating 150-200 hours of original programming and as the platform grows, they look to create more and more content. “Netflix plans on creating 1,000 hours of shows this year. So I hope as we grow, we can create 2,000 hours of original content!” Sethi says with a laugh.

On the Indian industry

The Rajkummar Rao-starring show Bose: Dead/ Alive, which released earlier this week, is one of ALT’s biggest productions, and making it wasn’t easy, according to Sethi. “Bose was shot in Poland, Thailand, Leh, Kolkata and Mumbai. It is our costliest show. The trailer garnered over 10 million hits and the reaction to it has been great so far.” He points out that India doesn’t have a ‘studio culture’: “It is easy to create a narrative, or a concept. But putting the other pieces in place and executing the whole thing, is probably the most challenging here, because we don’t have an organised studio culture.”

One of shows that ALT launched with was Romil and Jugal, a fresh take on the classic Romeo and Juliet with the twist being that it is the love story of a gay couple. Having such content, has ALT ever been regulated? Sethi promptly responds: “Never.” Not even once? “We know where to draw the line. While the narrative is about two boys falling in love, we’re not showing anything obscene on the screen. The power of storytelling is that it works within the legal framework. As content makers, we realise the responsibility we have and the sensibility that is needed while telling a story.”

ALT has a core team that works with Ekta Kapoor — the queen of Indian soap operas and brainstormer-in-chief at ALTBalaji — on concepts and stories. “Once it is clear that the story will be made into a show, we bring in teams from out of the house for various functions, be it screenwriting, or production or execution.” Sethi informs.

With films like Netflix’s Okja making it to film festivals, will ALT be dipping its toes into producing feature films as well? “At present, at least in the near future, we don’t have any such plans; it’s not ALT’s mainstay. We’re just focusing on the shows that we have announced and making sure they get made,” Sethi says.

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