Anirban Roy Choudhury

"Living room experience growing in India": Amazon Prime's Vijay Subramaniam on OTT viewing habits

An interaction with Vijay Subramaniam, director and head, content, Amazon Prime Video India.

Speaking to a group of journalists, national award-winning filmmaker Kabir Khan had recently said that there was a story that he had lived with for ages but no studio was willing to back it, given the scale he had mounted it on.

‘The Forgotten Army - Azaadi Ke Liye’ finally found a taker three years ago after Seattle-headquartered e-commerce giant Amazon launched its video-on-demand platform in the country. ‘The Forgotten Army’ is based on the formation of the Indian National Army and its fight for India's independence.

It traces the true story of Indian soldiers who marched towards the capital, with the war cry 'Challo Dilli', to free their country from the reign of the British. The episodic series revolves around The Indian National Army (INA), which was forged out of British defeat in Singapore during WWII. It shows how it was led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and had the first-ever women infantry regiment formed anywhere in the world.

The series will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video on January 24, 2020, and the premiere has just been launched. Vijay Subramaniam, director and head, content, Amazon Prime Video India, said it took them over three years to film this series. In an exclusive interview with afaqs!, Subramaniam shared his expectations from the series and the importance of quality entertainment.

Edited Excerpts

Kabir Khan recently mentioned that not many studios were willing to back the story given the scale and resources it would require. Does that make it Amazon Prime’s biggest show in India?

Yes, it is our biggest show so far. It is our magnum opus, and it is his magnum opus which he gave us the opportunity to work on. It is an epic ‘period war drama'. Both the genre and the theme are very hard to produce and it requires a tremendous amount of not just resources but also patience. It is not something that comes easily to storytellers here. It is one of the early shows we shook hands on and it has been a journey of almost three years. Now, we have the opportunity to bring it to our customers.

I am hopeful that this show will shine a light on history in a very entertaining and meaningful manner. I truly believe that this show is timeless and it will live beyond just a series, and beyond this year and the next. It will become a point of reference where we keep going back to it. This show is a step ahead in our commitment to provide customers a reason to own a part of the story or all of it, to provide a cinematic experience.

Poster of The Forgotten Army-Azaadi Ke Liye
Poster of The Forgotten Army-Azaadi Ke Liye

India is a mobile first country where most of the consumption is happening on hand-held devices. Then, why did you lay so much emphasis on quality, resolution, cinematic experience?

It's par for the course. What we don't realise is these mobile phones come with seriously high-quality screens. We are buying these phones because they come with a good camera and are ready for Ultra High Definition (UHD) content. What has changed is that the viewing has become personal. I don't think we have dropped our expectation of quality just because the viewing has become personal. We have a broad spectrum of expectations across what we watch.

Do we have a clear idea of what viewers expect from OTT ‘Originals’?

There is a certain quality that you are okay with when it comes to television, and there is a completely different expectation when you go to the cinema. When it comes to OTT, cinematic quality is very important, it is expected to be closest to or better than films, and why not? It is a matter of choice, you may set it to a low resolution streaming because you are data conscious. We can give all the tools but one must have the choice to enjoy it in its full cinematic glory.

While India is no doubt a mobile-first country and it is going to remain this way for a long time in terms of consumption on mobile, living room experience is also growing. Especially for a show like 'The Forgotten Army', which is something one would like to watch while sitting with the entire family. One would like to enjoy the spectacle of the series on a large screen TV and to enable that is also our responsibility.

Is it because you have a tried and tested showrunner in Kabir Khan that you decided to go ahead with a project of this scale? Is the individual the key element?

It always starts with the story first. We can have the world's greatest runners but what you need is a great story... frankly, they are symbiotic, when you get a great story, it always comes with a good showrunner. Specifically, the concept of show-running is very important because long-form means a commitment that goes above and beyond what the industry is used to. It is a new creative muscle that the industry is learning to exercise and I must admit that they are doing it very enthusiastically. So, this individual or individuals become very important because they are a part of every life stage of the story. Equally important are our writers, as we believe that the battle for the story is won or lost in the writer's room. We believe that with the right mix, you are able to envision this in the long-term - coming back with successive seasons.

But doesn’t the marketing get simpler when you have names like Zoya Akhtar or Kabir Khan associated with a project?

No! It definitely helps awareness but what's super important to keep in mind is, eventually we are asking customers to give us seven-eight hours of their time and engage with episode after episode. The aim for all those creators is to make the customer own the story. Only then does the story live beyond its release. People going into Inside Edge Season one after the launch of season two is a stamp of owning a story. So, while it helps to have established creators as they come with storytelling skills, finesse and maturity to be able to influence all aspects of long-form storytelling are also important. I think it is equally important to have a great story, great writing and everything else coming together. Otherwise, you won't pass the first couple of episodes.

Poster of The Forgotten Army-Azaadi Ke Liye
Poster of The Forgotten Army-Azaadi Ke Liye

What is it that a show like ‘The Forgotten Army’ must deliver for it to become a success?

For us, India is a very exciting market and we are here for the long run. We definitely want shows like this to drive customers, engagement and a whole bunch of other things. The simplest measure of success is when the second season is announced and it goes into production. It is equally important for us to recognise that stories like this married to a global service like ours, give us the opportunity to take Indian storytelling to the world. Increasingly, what we have learnt is that the more authentic the stories are, the more likely it is that they will find audiences from everywhere. We have had instances when a non-diaspora audience in Boston and New York were talking about 'Family Man' (an Amazon Prime Original).

We have seen brands like ‘Too Yumm!’, ‘Engage’, ‘JBL’ integrate in Inside Edge season 2. Is it a move to better monetise premium properties?

Not at all. If there were brands in there, they were organic and were decisions made by the producer.

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