Away from the unnecessary saas-bahu dialectic and protagonists dipped in melodrama, web series platforms in India are revolutionising the understanding and acceptance of family entertainment
Vaibhav (name changed), a 25-year-old youth, works as a copywriter at an art firm based in Gurugram. He regularly attends storytelling events around Delhi-NCR, narrating anecdotes of his everyday complexities, love, sexuality and much more. He loves a woman. Though he feels fulfilled with her, she rarely appears in his everyday tales – she is married with children and their love story, no matter how romantic, isn't for the public eye.
Recently, Vaibhav's partner introduced him to Amazon Prime's web series, Four More Shots Please! "I was thrilled while watching the series. For the very first time, I found a depiction of my story, or rather our story, in the way we believe it," says Vaibhav.
Vaibhav's life is one among many that has been touched by the recent web series wave in India. Unconventional content questioning unpragmatic social norms, language that replicates the most ordinary and stories of lives that rarely find a place in the glitz of silver screen, among many other facets, have together built a unique niche for India's web series platform. Backed by a surge in the use of digital media with attractive internet packages perennially on offer – Digital India is the perfect playground, whether for quirky content or massy depiction or even bold cinematography. On one hand, it has appealed to India's nascent sexual fire, repressed under years and layers of sindoor, mangalsutra and ichhadhari naagin; on the other hand, for the younger generation less affected by mindless stereotype, it has created an avenue of unrestricted entertainment from the comfort of the couch, at the click of a finger – what's better than being entertained in pyjamas, and popcorn that doesn't cost a kidney!
Finally, the average Indian has found visual content that pivots around their life, their issues, their love, their needs and their failures.
The paradigm shift
Web series in India began gaining popularity with platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and many other regional and web-based outlets. "The best part of web series is the freedom of expression. While making movies, we always think about the reach and business but here we are free from censorship and time constraints; business pressure is also less," director Anu Menon tells Millennium Post. In web series, directors have a free hand in deciding the on-screen depiction of their stories. Menon explains that this freedom is a major factor propelling this paradigm shift in visual content. Unlike movies and TV serials, web series embrace stories that cut through gender, sexuality and stereotype. "Behind the paradigm shift, a major factor is the resources we have at disposal. All these platforms are pretty open with providing the investment we need to tell the stories we want in our very own way," Menon adds.
Not just content; here, directors are also allowed freedom in representation. Directors have been experimenting with the use of language and are also bringing up issues that are largely neglected in big-budget, mainstream movies.
While the web series platform has revolutionised India's, and indeed the world's, media industry in terms of characterisation and portrayal of women, they still have a long way to go as the thin line distinguishing bold narration and exploitative depiction of females often tends to become blurred – a section of screenwriters and actors believe.
Another prime propeller enhancing the popularity of web series is that the stories, mostly, consciously deal with events related to an ordinary person's mundane life.
"I am now working on a web series which is on same-sex relationships. After the decriminalisation of Section 377, issues of the LGBTQ community have begun finding their place in common discourse. However, in mainstream movies or serials, stories of same-sex relationships remain uncommon," says Manvi Gagroo, an actor who played a leading role in Four More Shots Please! Manvi explains that themes such as same-sex relationships, sexual preference, feminism and so on are no longer simply millennial issues. There is a general, rising consciousness around these concerns and millennials today are unashamed to squash taboos and discuss matters that perturb them.
However, no traditional medium was giving them the motivation or courage to tell their stories – then stepped in web series!
"This is a very positive change because people are accepting stories beyond their regular boundaries," Gagroo adds. Web series in India is forcing itself beyond the ordinary – starting from characterisation to the boldness and complexity of relationships, the communication here is direct without any ornamental euphemism.
"Our society is made of different types of people – fat, thin, tall and short. Web series undo the stereotypes surrounding an ideal hero or heroine. This inclusiveness is allowing us actors to be ourselves and the audience is also being connected to stories directly," says Manvi.
One reason for the success of web series is that makers are more sensitive to millennial relationships than Bollywood biggies. "The biggest problem with Bollywood movies and their depiction of millennial relationships is that the industry doesn't want to move on from a happily-ever-after climax," observes a report.
On the other hand, in Zoya Akhtar's, Made in Heaven, one of the protagonists Adil Khanna (Jim Sarbh) tells Faiza (Kalki Koechlin) that she is an "escape" of his life. It is an extramarital relationship in this series but in our society, these relationships are not simply 'extra' – they exist often more harmoniously than conventional bindings and find their due place in everyday discourse.
"In the verdict which decriminalised the law on adultery, the Supreme Court had cleared stereotypical ideas about relationships. We are no one to judge a relationship of two consenting adults and this is exactly what these shows are doing. The work of visual media is to tell a story in its own way without thinking about what someone else would think," says a lawyer who wishes to remain anonymous.
Bollywood, on the other hand, chooses to disguise itself under the garb of sanctimonious "sanskar". A report explains, "Bollywood has a long way to go when it comes to depicting millennial relationships. Filmmakers need to understand that falling in love at first sight is a very 90's concept and it doesn't happen anymore. In fact, people don't say the three magical words even after dating their partners for a long time. Perhaps, they should take a cue from web series that are bringing more realistic portrayals to our screens."
Language & Regional Reach
The language of any visual medium is critical as expression is rooted in dialogue. Mainstream Indian movies and regular TV serials generally use outdated language that hardly resonates with masses. This has been the tradition in regional telecasts that spend massive money to build narratives stretched from reality.
However, the story is different for new-age Indian movies. In Bollywood, now, stories around small-town lives are grabbing focus where local language and accents are receiving their due. Despite many experiments, millennial language never found its apt place in earlier platforms, other than as satire or mimicry. Web series, with its array in expression, was able to break that barrier.
"This is a form we are all experimenting and we do not yet know what is going to come tomorrow. Freedom helps us choose the language we think is best suited for characters. If you take the example of Mirzapur, the language is colloquial and the series uses a dialect which is best suited for the characters," introspects Menon.
Over time, the culture of web series is reaching diverse regions of India and there are now a number of websites which only deal with content pertaining to a particular regional language. For example, Hoi Choi is a Bengali website for only Bengali movies, original series and short films.
In everyday rat race, stories of our own lives, expressions, sorrows, happiness are obfuscated and forgotten. Then come web series, where stories of everyday struggles, sorrows and smiles receive their due. The culture of web series is crafting its own destiny and becoming popular largely due to its honesty and originality, which were indeed amiss in regular TV shows that, even today, continue to be inundated with unnecessary drama and heaps of gold.
(With inputs from Radhika Dutt)