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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: The return of the storytellers

In the US market it is television, not Hollywood, that gets the best writers. The best Indian storytellers however prefer films. Why?

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar 

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar

Congressman Frank Underwood is livid when he discovers that he will not get the Secretary of State position he was promised by a president whom he helped get elected. He then lies, schemes and murders his way into the president's chair. Kevin Spacey's Underwood is brilliant in the American version of House of Cards. Though it has several inconsistencies, House of Cards holds you as a gripping political drama. Currently, I am watching HBO's Game of Thrones, based on George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, on DVD. It is pretty graphic, at times grossly so, but it captures the brutality of the time it is set in, very well.

House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Sherlock, Breaking Bad and about a dozen others are among a crop of superbly written TV shows mounted on a film scale. Each episode of Game of Thrones, for instance, is 60 minutes long.

These shows point to one of the biggest changes taking place in the market for entertainment globally - the comeback of long-form fiction or drama as it is called in developed markets. A decade ago, the only channels spending large amounts of money on fiction programming were broadcast networks such as ABC or CBS (the equivalent of the general entertainment channels in India). Then, on the back of strong pay revenues, HBO, a cable channel, started investing in original programming taking risks with original series such as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. And the market took off.

Says David Haslingden, a former president and COO of Rupert Murdoch's Fox Networks who now heads of a clutch of television content firms, "There is now a proliferation of channels with the money to attract writers and directors to do long stories. They (the writers and directors) realised that TV is a more potent medium to exercise their art and to bring their characters to life - having 36 hours or more allows for a lot more than can be achieved in one feature length film. Earlier it used to be that directors and actors did TV until they hit big time in films. Now actors and directors who want to explore their art form also want to do TV."

The theory is that Hollywood's love for safe sequels, which are backed by huge marketing spends, pushed good writers to TV or online. Both had the money to splurge thanks to subscription revenues. Netflix, an online video streaming service, reportedly spent $100 million on two seasons of House of Cards.

India and the US are completely different markets - at different stages of growth and economic prowess. Nevertheless a comparison is tempting.

Indian TV did attract the best storytelling talent - in the eighties and nineties when Buniyaad, Banegi Apni Baat, Chithi and other shows were written. But that was a time when the film industry was a creative graveyard for writers. Now "in India the first love for any writer is films, though TV pays better and more consistently," says Sunjoy Waddhwa, chairman and managing director, Sphereorigins Multivision, a TV content firm. This is because the Indian film industry is going through a huge creative renaissance. So writers get to do the most envelope-pushing work on films. Qissa, The Lunchbox, Kai Po Che, Queen or Vicky Donor among other films show that. This creative renaissance incidentally is a result of pay revenues or ticket prices taking off - thanks to multiplexes and digital theatres.

TV is four times the size of the film industry in value, so it has the money to experiment. But the envelope-pushing on TV is limited by two things - more than 95 per cent of the 160 million Indian TV homes have only one set. Watching TV is THE thing an Indian family does together. This makes a one-size-fits-all programming strategy critical. Then there are pay revenues. Till digitisation is 100 per cent complete and channels can actually launch only on the back of pay revenues, it is difficult to do high-end or experimental dramas and fiction shows. The audience for those is limited however much you and I may rue the lack of high-quality drama.

As digitisation takes off and the market segments you can see some attempts. Yudh (on Sony) and 24 (Colors) attempted to push the envelope. They did not however set the television screen on fire. It will be some time before Indian storytellers rediscover smaller screens.

First Published: Tue, February 17 2015. 21:46 IST