It’s an upstream battle finding the good content in the flood, says Anupama Chopra – columns

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Last week, I got invited to a press conference held to announce the launch of a streaming platform. A big Hollywood player was arriving in India, promising ‘2500+ hours’ of content, including billion dollar-grossing franchise films. I had a moment of utter panic. As a critic and consumer, how would I ever keep up?

It is only this year that I’ve begun to engage with the world of web-streaming platforms. Until 2020, I had resisted the lure of long-form storytelling. I preferred the more contained experience of film, and the magic of the big screen.

Then theatres shut in March and I had no choice but to begin bingeing. I wasn’t disappointed. Through shows like Paatal Lok, Aarya, Scam 1992, I May Destroy You and made-for-streaming films like the Malayalam C U Soon and the Bengali Tasher Ghawr, I discovered worlds rich in texture, characters and ideas.

The series format and the absence of box-office pressures and censorship (for now) have enabled creators to take creative leaps of faith. And the vast pool of terrific actors being showcased is thrilling. How else would the world have discovered Pratik Gandhi?

At last count, there were over 40 streaming platforms operating in the country, including Hoichoi, dedicated to Bengali content; Aha for Telugu; Sun NXT, which offer stories in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Bengali; and CuriosityStream, which specialises in documentaries.

To have access to so much is empowering but also overwhelming — especially for someone like me who grew up in the ’80s, when you had to wait all week for Chitrahaar (a compilation of film songs) and the Sunday feature film.

Amid the deluge of content, however, I’m hoping there will be more respect for curators — critics who can scour through the dreck (a colleague of mine has watched hours of Alt Balaji’s Gandii Baat) to point viewers towards the shows that are worthy of their time.

As our viewing habits change irrevocably, I do have some concerns. Will the increasing fragmentation of the audience make it harder for us to go back to theatres and collectively enjoy a story? What happens to all the good work that gets lost on these platforms, like Gullak, the five-part series on Sony Liv confined largely to the interiors of a middle-class home in a small town in northern India?

Director Amrit Raj Gupta and writer Nikhil Vijay create a warm, authentic atmosphere here that envelops you. Nothing earth-shattering happens. There is no cliff-hanger at the end of each episode. But the gentle humour and unhurried charm keep you hooked. Season 1 was released in 2019 but it didn’t generate the buzz of some of the flashier titles. I watched it only because another critic said it was good.

I also wonder, with the content overload and the splintered audience, does the power of storytelling get diluted? Can a film or show on a digital platform have a significant cultural impact? Especially in a star-worshipping culture like ours?

The coming year, when life will (hopefully) limp back to normal, will likely see the battle between streaming platforms and theatres intensify. My prayer is for a healthy co-existence and cross-pollination. 2020 was annus horribilis and now the industry needs to flourish, in every space that it can find.

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