Sreekant Khandekar
PlainSpeak with Sreekant

Aparna Purohit on the secret behind Prime Video’s many hit shows

The Head of Originals at Amazon opens up about her OTT experience since 2016 and what goes into crafting shows that will travel.

Aparna Purohit is more than just the Head of Originals at Amazon Prime Video. She has been with the platform since 2016 when streaming web series was almost unknown. Aparna has seen the evolution of the medium to the point now where living a single day without it is unimaginable.

How do creators craft stories that travel across geographies? That was the subject of a chat I had with Aparna at the recently concluded 7th edition of vdonxt asia in Mumbai. Excerpts:

From your point of view, what have been the big changes between 2016 and now?

When I joined Amazon in 2016, we were just a couple of us working out of a small co-working space, trying to create – without knowing anything at all! - the earth’s most loved video service.

I’d come from the world of films and wanted to tell good stories. I went door to door inviting film creators to tell stories for us. And they’d say, ‘I still have a few films left in me. How dare you ask us to create something for the web?!’ I got mostly repurposed film scripts – films that were not getting made. It took us a long time to explain that all we wanted was to empower them to tell the stories that they really, really wanted to tell.

Traditionally, most film writers are solitary. The web series is different; it’s a giant. You are creating an immersive world which could go into multiple seasons. We needed writers’ rooms. This is a writer’s medium and it took a very, very long time to shift the gaze from the director to the writer. All of it was a challenge.

Between then and now we have put out over 50 originals. We have worked with emerging and established creators. Some of the people we’ve discovered have gone on to become such big stars! Everyone now recognises the potential of OTT.

What does moving the focus from the director to the writer mean in real terms?

What it means is a lot of development. Any story that you see on screen is in development for between 12-16 months.

And if it was the director’s sway, how would that have panned out?

In the movie business, most directors have their stories, they get into pre-production, they get into research, they talk to actors and the script keeps getting polished.

In contrast, while creating a web series, we want to write out the full script, every i dotted, every t crossed. There is a lot of research, a lot of ideation and a lot of collaboration with the Prime Video team. The whole idea of feedback was new. ‘What do you mean that this character is not working?’ they’d ask.

While writing for a web series what you trigger in episode 1 may have a repercussion in episode 5 or in the next season perhaps. So, the creation of this immersive world has certain rules.

Let’s say you have commissioned a project. How far do you go in saying, ‘This isn’t working.’ Who is Aparna Purohit? Is she a viewer? Is she a critic?

I am the audience first. If when someone starts narrating a script you forget you are sitting in a conference room and are transported into that universe – that’s it! The characters must talk to you, and resonate with you.

In an earlier interview with me you emphasised that for a story to work it has to be ‘relatable’. But as the audience gets more diverse, how do you know which segment will relate to it and which one won’t?

India is a highly heterogeneous country and we are aware that what may be one person’s favourite may not be another’s favourite. But it must be somebody’s favourite!

Let me give you an example. When Raj and DK were pitching The Family Man they told us that it would be a spy thriller. We thought it would be this larger-than-life spy wielding guns, a killer machine almost. But instead here was the protagonist travelling by train, going from desk to desk to get his loan approved and meanwhile managing his kids who are coming of age...

I instantly thought of my father – a middle-class government employee in Delhi, travelling by DTC buses, ensuring that his kids had the best education. He was always trying to find a balance between whether we should we take a family holiday or spend the money on the kids’ school trip.

So, the character instantly spoke to me and I felt that this is a story that we have to tell.

But if I was to ask how could you relate to the world of counterfeiting in Farzi, also created by Raj and DK?

True, it was a world none of us knew. But we instantly related to the character of Sunny (played by Shahid Kapoor). He is from a certain social strata, who wants to cross the road and go to the side of the rich, the high rises. He is young, driven, and ambitious and thinks that he is an artist - and the biggest form of his art is his ability to fake a currency note. That was something we could relate to.

You are saying that even if you cannot relate to the story itself you could relate to it via a character. Does that happen often?

Viewers spend an incredible amount of time with the characters we create – sometimes more time than with their friends. And these characters are often the viewer’s first experience of knowing that kind of a person. Eg The character of Arjun Mathur in Made in Heaven was probably the first time viewers were interacting with a gay character who is totally normalised on screen. Or the character of Cheeni in Paatal Lok was the first time they were coming across a transgender.

We are talking about stories that travel. Do you ever think, ‘This script is in Hindi but could it work in Tamil Nadu or perhaps in Sweden’?

On the contrary, we look to see how entrenched the story is in our soil. When someone says this story will transcend geography, it gets me worried. How do you know that it will?

But the good thing is that because we are a global service, because we are present in 240 countries and territories, because we have this machinery for localisation – for example, Farzi is available in 37 languages across the world – once the show is made and you relate to the emotions you know everyone will relate to them. Emotions are universal.

With so many characters in a web series, the casting seems complicated. How do you decide who will play an important role, especially when less-known actors are involved?

It is a collaborative discussion between the creators and us.

For example, when we were casting for Paatal Lok, Jaideep Ahlawat’s name came up. My team members asked, ‘Are you absolutely sure’? His picture will be up on hoardings but no one knows him.’

There was a lot of disagreement in the team but at Amazon, we have this lovely leadership principle: disagree and commit. It means that whatever the differences, once everyone commits you don’t go back. I am so glad that it worked out. Because who could have played the role better than Jaideep? Similarly, I can’t imagine anyone else as Hathiram in Paatal Lok or anyone other than Shahid as Sunny in Farzi.

You have all kinds of details about viewership behaviour – about how many people watched a show, how much of it did they watch and all of that. How much weightage do you give to all this as against pure instinct when you sit on a show?

Data is important. It gives us an idea about the multiple cohorts we have, about their taste preferences and what it is that they are consuming currently. Also, what are the white spaces?

But when you are in a room listening to a pitch it is the instinct. Is the story touching you? Is it transporting you into that world? If it is, that’s it!

Mangalam from CNBC TV 18: How do you decide this is what the production budget should be?

It all depends on what kind of world are we creating. We are trying to ensure that the creator’s vision is best translated on screen. After that – whatever it takes. It is not just about money – it is also the amount of time creating it could take.

Viren from White River Media: I've seen Farzi and it was fantastic. But is this a new trend where Bollywood celebrities like Shahid Kapoor will play the major roles and stage actors like Jaideep Ahlawat will take the back seat?

We want to stay true to the characters that have been written. We currently have about 100 shows in varying stages of development in multiple languages. At least 50 per cent are totally new talent in front of and behind the camera.

It is an incredible time to be in this business because everybody is finally getting their due. All kinds of stories are being told.

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