Anirban Roy Choudhury

“We should not be guided by data to figure out which genres are working”: Gaurav Banerjee, Star India

Hotstar will roll out its next ‘Special’, an espionage thriller, on March 17.

Star India’s video on demand platform Hotstar, which is now a part of The Walt Disney Company, is all set to stream its next ‘Special’ (or what it calls its Originals). Created by renowned filmmaker Neeraj Pandey (of ‘A Wednesday’, ‘Baby’, and ‘MS Dhoni’ fame), espionage thriller ‘Special Ops’ will be available on Hotstar on March 17. Gaurav Banerjee, president and head, Hindi GEC, Star India, calls ‘Special Ops’ a “large scale show”.

Lately, the streaming platforms in India, like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and others, are only willing to punt when there is an established name associated with the series(showrunner). Netflix’s ‘Ghost Stories’ had Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap as showrunners, Amazon Prime placed its bet on Kabir Khan for his ‘Forgotten Army’. It is emerging as a trend across the premium streaming universe. However, there are only a few of them (showrunners), and, therefore, the cloud of uncertainty - do they actually create the entire series, or simply lend their names.

Banerjee ruled out the latter, at least as far as Hotstar is concerned. However, in an interview with afaqs!, he admitted that he would like to see “newer creative voices to come across.” He spoke about Hotstar’s stint with Specials so far, and the upcoming show. Here are the edited excerpts:

You mentioned that the show was pitched to you for Star Plus, and you rejected it. What makes you think this is the right time for a thriller to be made?

Ten years back, Neeraj (Pandey) shared the idea with me, for us to make it as a TV show, but rightly, or perhaps wrongly, I felt we were not ready for a show like this. Today, I strongly believe that we are ready, we have the budget, the scale, and the viewers are waiting for something good. At that point of time, we did not have the confidence, or the scale, that storytelling has reached in India now.

How big is this show for Hotstar?

It is a big scale show. It is done by a maker who is known for a very different kind of storytelling.‘A Wednesday’ is a fabulous example of that, and so is ‘MS Dhoni’. We are hopeful that this story also strikes a chord, as his earlier titles did.

Is Neeraj Pandey - the big name, just a marketing tool? How much was he actually involved in making the series?

He has been deeply involved, he has written this series and he has directed as many episodes as he physically could. On that score, we have someone who is truly committed to making this series. I can say that he was 120 per cent committed, and not 100 per cent. Along with that, he is a fabulous collaborator, and we have enjoyed his passion to tell a particular kind of story. It is not just the big-name as a producer, director, which Neeraj is, it is also the actors that we have collaborated with in this series, which makes it a big scale show. Having a good director with a great body of work helps you rope in the cast you want, and, together, that makes it a good package for the consumers.

"The most important thing for us will always be the time spent, because for any kind of content, that is the hardest thing to get."
Gaurav Banerjee

How would you know if it is a good package for the consumers? What are the metrics that you closely track?

The most important thing for us will always be the time spent, because for any kind of content, that is the hardest thing to get. Having got someone in, can you persuade that person to watch the entire series, and if you have managed to do so then you have told a great story and told it well. That is a very important metric. The second metric that is very important is how many people were actually excited to watch it and then what's the impression it created - the social chatter, what we call the word of mouth.

"As a platform, we would like to offer a very wide spectrum of choices to our viewers."
Gaurav Banerjee

You are about to complete a year of Hotstar Specials. Do you have enough data to suggest which genres are working and which aren’t?

In just one of our channels, say, Star Plus, we put up about 25 hours of content per week. In Hotstar, in about 10 months, we have put out seven shows. Clearly, I cannot say that we have all the data to figure out the trend. We should not be guided by data to figure out which genres are working. I think that is too straight-jacketed conclusion to reach viewership, viewers - human beings are more complex than that. People want to engage with content based on their mood. If I had a tough day at work, I will watch comedy. The same time next day, I might want to watch a captivating thriller. Then the next day, I would spend the evening watching a documentary about something that I want to learn. As a platform, we would like to offer a very wide spectrum of choices to our viewers.

Do we have enough creative storytellers who can offer that wide spectrum?

There is always room for many more. The opportunity is immense, and India is immense with opportunities and possibilities. So, there can never be enough and there aren't enough. A movie like 'Parasite' comes across and tells you what is possible. We are hoping for a lot more diversity and newer creative voices to come across.

What do you think will get prominent filmmakers attracted to this platform?

This medium is allowing a lot more flexibility for storytellers. There is no such handicap of duration. If you are making a film, you will have to pack it in two hours. Regular linear TV, it has to be either a 30-minute or a one-hour-episode... there are all kinds of constraints, and some of these are also imagined because of the legacy. TV has been around for 30 years. Cinema has a legacy of more than 100 years. There is no such legacy on digital and that sets you free. That is a big reason for the excitement the filmmakers have towards this medium.

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