Anirban Roy Choudhury

“An OTT series is like shooting a film”: Ritesh Sidhwani

In 2017, when Amazon’s video-on-demand platform — Prime Video — launched ‘Inside Edge’, a series that revolved around controversies circling franchisee cricket, India was yet to have a taste of local premium television. Content creators in India hardly had any experience of creating premium episodic content featuring big Bollywood names as actors or directors.

‘Inside Edge’ was produced by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani’s Mumbai headquartered studio, Excel Entertainment. The makers of 'Don', 'Dil Dhadakne Do', 'Dil Chahta Hai’ and 'Lakshya' then went on to create more digital originals. ‘Mirzapur’ and ‘Made In Heaven’, created by Indian film production and distribution company, also aired on Prime Video.

Recently, Excel Entertainment announced that its Hindi feature film ‘Fukrey’ will make it to television as an animated series, which will be aired on Discovery Kids, starting October 12, 2019. So, after feature films and originals, is Excel Entertainment eyeing a broadcast entry? Here is what Ritesh Sidhwani, co-founder, Excel Entertainment, had to say... edited excerpts.

Excel Entertainment’s Fukrey is set to air as a TV series on Discovery Kids, does it mark your entry into the broadcast business?

We are not producing this, actually, we have just given them the licence to use our characters and franchise. We are not involved in creating the final version and in my opinion, it is good as they are the masters of what they do. We are involved in ensuring that they are sharing a creative brief with us and they have stuck to the philosophy and ethos of the franchise and its characters.

Okay, but you are already creating series for digital platforms, would you like to get into television broadcast as a producer?

To be honest, we do not have the bandwidth to get into television at this juncture. Nor do we understand the television audience well. There are already a lot of players creating content for television who are masters of the field.

Making a series is like shooting a film. We shoot it over a period of 12-18 months and then release it in one go, like a film. We get another year before we release the second season. We have sort of have a handle on how to work on an original series. We have made ‘Inside Edge’, ‘Mirzapur’ and ‘Made In Heaven’. I am more excited about this than getting into television. We have our hands full at this stage as we are working on a couple of new series which will be released next year and then we have the second seasons of our already released shows. Then, of course, we have our feature films.

It’s been two years since ‘Inside Edge’, what is your observation of the digital space?

It is growing rapidly. Digital has given us an opportunity to create new talent and new stories. Earlier we had to limit ourselves to certain formats, for example, we had to tell a story within a set amount of time. Now we can tell stories without restricting ourselves to act one, act two and act three. This freedom excites us because we believe this is only the beginning of what can happen digitally.

As digital grows so will the demand, do you think you have enough resources in the industry to meet that demand of premium episodics?

Maybe we were one of the first ones, but we are not the only ones for sure. There are so many other creators, producers and production houses who are stepping into this realm. I don’t think there will be a lack of content. If I cannot give them a show they will go to Karan,(Johar, Dharma Productions) they can go to Adi (Aditya Chopra, Yash Raj Films) or anyone else. These content creators are all are looking at digital very seriously. For us, we have decided to do only ‘X’ number of shows because this creating process can drain you out creatively. This is not a factory that you can keep churning out series after series, you have to read the material, write it, see if it is relatable. You have to take full responsibility once your brand name attaches and that’s why we’re in no rush, else it’ll adversely affect the brand.

As you devote more attention to creating content for digital and people start consuming more series do you think it would cost theatrical cinema?

No, not at all. In fact, if you look at the box office, after OTT platforms started creating shows, numbers have only gone up. Earlier, it was rare for a film to hit Rs 100 crore in collections, now every other week a film is hitting Rs 100 crore. Movies with good content are sticking in. Cinema and OTT are two different mediums, people go out to watch cinema because it is an outing, which offer a different experience and it is community viewing. Whereas, watching OTT is more individual and on demand. You can watch it in a car, or during a break at work… I think both cinema and OTT are going to co-exist and complement each other to grow.

How is making a series different from making a film from the studio’s perspective?

See, it is a medium where you need to involve your partner (streaming platforms like Prime Video, Netflix) right at the scripting level. Whereas in case of films, if I like a story and I know I have to make it, I cast it and got out and release it the way I want. I am not dependent on anyone. But when it comes to OTT, I have to be dependent because each platform has its own S and P guidelines, they know what kind of shows they want to do and what they want to ignore.

What is your biggest challenge when it comes to OTT?

The biggest challenge for us, while we are creating OTT shows, is that the platforms do not share the feedback with us. All they do is call us and say, you are commissioned to do three more seasons. In theatres, you get immediate feedback on the number of people who went and watched your film. When it comes to OTT, we do not get to interact with the viewers unless it is on social media or gatherings. It is exciting actually, the other day I was sitting next to a very affluent lawyer on a flight, and he was watching Mirzapur, which was released some time back. The lawyer told me that he loved the show and was unable to sleep without finishing it.