Beyond the glass ceiling
Irrespective of the 'invasion' by A-listers, OTT retains its relevance as a promising platform where 'performance' — driven by sheer talent, perseverance and knack for artistic detailing — has replaced 'reputation' as the leading parameter of success
In the pre-COVID world, to be a quintessential Bollywood superstar who could charm the audience in theatres, an actor primarily needed to be conventionally good-looking with eight-pack abs, a good sense of style, a persona to fight off 10 villains, and extraordinary dance skills. While fulfilling these set criteria, performance and acting took a back seat, and perhaps nobody cared about it. As a result, only a few actors managed to find meatier roles, and even fewer succeeded in becoming household names — or in other words, 'superstars.'
This pattern was observed in the Indian film industry until the COVID-19 hit the world. Though the pandemic did more harm than good, OTT platforms flourished silently amid the mess. With the rise of OTT, the entertainment industry was able to become more democratised and break free from the traditional star system. It brought in a completely different setup, in which actors did not have to dance, jump from a high-rise building or woo the heroine to win applause. Their good performance became the sole criterion for their success. And that's how new-age stars were born.
The mention of actors like Pratik Gandhi, Abhishek Banerjee, Jaideep Ahlawat, and Mithila Palkar would ring a bell today. But if the same names were to be mentioned three years back, most movie buffs would have given a puzzled look. That's exactly what OTT did. Not only it changed the fates of many actors, but it also changed the way people look at them. Hit shows like 'Mirzapur', 'Panchayat', 'Aarya', 'Four More Shots Please', 'Sacred Games', 'The Family Man', and 'Bandish Bandits' gave us new superstars who disrupted the OTT space with their performances.
Among these many high-quality actors, who showed their acting prowess in OTT projects and hogged the limelight within a short period, one name is that of Shefali Shah. She managed to carve a niche in the film industry through smaller-substantial roles, but it was not until Amazon Prime Video's 'Delhi Crimes', that she caught the eyeballs. Commenting on how with OTT, the entire outlook towards actors changed, Shah in an interview said, "Thanks to my role in 'Delhi Crime', writers now want to cast me in leads or parallel leads, write scripts keeping me in mind. This wouldn't have happened had I been restricted to playing just another part in commercial cinema. OTT really changed my career graph. It has given us a lot of content, and it is very exciting for me that I am a craftsman of this era. Nobody on this platform is a hero or a heroine. It is not about an age bracket. Each and every character is powerful."
Jaideep Ahlawat, another new-age superstar, is the definition of a 15-year overnight success. Hailing from Haryana, Ahlawat became a household name courtesy his performance as Hathi Ram Chaudhary in the Anushka Sharma-produced show 'Pataal Lok'. His character of a washed-out Delhi police officer was appreciated for its rawness and beautiful depiction of flaws, thereby allowing Jaideep to make a mark as a skilled performer. Today, the actor has a pile of scripts to choose from and the confidence to ask for what he deserves. As per a source, Jaideep, who was paid a nominal fee of 40 lakhs for his work in the first season of 'Pataal Lok', was given a handsome amount of Rs 20 crores for the second part, which undoubtedly was a huge pay jump. All thanks to OTT.
That's not all! Streaming services opened up a whole new world not just for actors but even for writers, directors, and technicians. The writer of critically acclaimed films like 'Shahid' and 'Aligarh', Apurva Asrani, was spellbound when his series 'Criminal Justice' turned out to be a huge success. He said, "When people called and told me about the tremendous response to our show, I could not believe it. But that made me realise one thing: today's audience is ready to watch out-of-the-box stories backed by powerful performances – something that mainstream cinema hardly appreciates. "
In accordance with Asrani's ideas, Pankaj Tripathi also talked about how writing and performance are the only criteria for the content on OTT to be judged, and creators know that they cannot rely on gimmicks to tell their story. "When writing becomes important (as it happened on OTT), makers need actors who can explore the layers and complexities of the story. Performance is the priority. It is easy to get attached to OTT, but it is easier to be rejected because if the viewers don't like it, they will switch to another show," he said.
The reason for this rise of artistes on streaming platforms was further explained by Pankaj, who himself was one of the first OTT superstars. He said it's the freedom that the medium offers — freedom to experiment with content and freedom of time. There is time to convey the story in six-eight hours, unlike in cinemas, where a two-hour window justifies the cast and hero. As a result, actors get the opportunity to convince audience with their skills and not superficial factors.
While streaming services flourished and theatres lost business due to the COVID-induced lockdown, another big change was observed. A-listers of the film industry made full use of the OTT's popularity and dived into the digital space with their films and series. The trend began with Sushant Singh Rajput, Saif Ali Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, R Madhavan, and Karisma Kapoor and was later joined by names like Sushmita Sen, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol, and even a veteran like Naseeruddin Shah.
While some appreciated the shift, actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui expressed displeasure over these Bollywood superstars not meeting the standards of acting on the digital medium. "Earlier, OTT started with us, and good content was being made and people saw it. Then the stars came. The problem is, we usually have a good start initially (in the entertainment medium) and then it all goes for a toss," said one of the breakout stars of the OTT era.
He added, "The standard of acting that one has seen on OTT platforms when it started should be there… like the kind of world-level series, acting that was being made, so work accordingly."
Another person who does not seem happy about the shift is Shankar Srikumar, whose film 'Alpha Beta Gamma' was recently screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Commenting on how A-listers have taken over the OTT space, Shankar said, "Post the pandemic, Amazon Prime started buying movies that had big names in them. Slowly, Hotstar and Netflix joined the bandwagon. All the movies that have come out in the last two years have known faces in them. There was a time three years ago when I used to think that OTT was at least one place where independent cinema would have a voice, but it's vanished. Every project today has names who have done big mainstream films. It's all star-driven, but I am sure something will come out of it as it's a great place to experiment."
Whatever the situation might be, one thing is positive. Actors who have struggled hard for years are finally getting their dues. There is a platform now that's not controlled by Bollywood Mafias and superstars, but by sheer talent and brilliance.
Views expressed are personal