2019 Rewind: Hindi entertainment comes of age on streaming platforms
2019 was the year online content in India really came into its own, offering viewers who could afford it a true alternative to traditional theatres and cable/satellite television still caught in tired, old themes and the war for TRPs.
Streaming platforms in 2019 offered a bold, new online world for writers and directors looking to break out of the confines of Hindi cinema and satellite television to boldly go where mainstream entertainment hadn't ventured before. This was the year online content in India really came into its own, offering viewers who could afford it a true alternative to traditional theatres and cable/satellite television still caught in tired, old themes and the war for TRPs.
Both in terms of content and treatment, shows such as Leila, Delhi Crime, Made in Heaven and The Family Man walked a different path, exploring themes that filmmakers usually stay away from for fear of offending a larger segment of audiences. Made in Heaven, for instance, dealt with topics as diverse as gay conflict, starry-eyed crushes and sexual exploitation in its nine episodes. The Amazon Prime show mirrored upper crust India through its two wedding planner protagonists -- Shobita Dhulipala and Arjun Mathur -- one a woman trapped in a marriage with an upper-classman and the other a gay man navigating life in a conservative society.
The show, with Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, also stars Kalki Koechlin, Jim Sarbh, Shashank Arora and Shivani Raghuvanshi. Leila was very different in mood. Starring Huma Qureshi in the central role as a woman looking for her missing child in a dystopian world where purity of blood is above everything, the Netflix show was an eerily identifiable commentary on contemporary society. It was set in the fictional land of Aryavart, where people are segregated, resources scarce and women forced to go through purity tests.
"Sometimes dystopia is the very utopia that you are sold. We all are sold dreams and we think, 'Oh, this is like a great future that we're going to get.' But is it really going to be that great? 'Leila' explores that if a dream is promised, then what if that dream is not so rosy? And there is something deeper and more sinister that is going on," said Qureshi. Based on a novel by Prayaag Akbar, the show was directed by Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar.
Sacred Games 2 posters
The other big online show of 2019 was Sacred Games. The Netflix show, based on Vikram Chandra's novel of the same name, delved deep into societal complexes through its three central characters living in a doomsday scenario in Mumbai -- gangster-philosopher Ganesh Gaitonde, honest cop Sartaj Singh and the mysterious and sinister Guruji.
Though season two did not quite meet the expectations set up by the original, the writer-showrunner and directors team of Varun Grover, Vikramaditya Motwane, Anurag Kashyap and Neeraj Ghaywan successfully explored issues such as rabid nationalism and the police-politician-gangster-religious leader nexus. Early on in one of the episodes, the show also addressed the spate of mob-lynchings through the story of a teenager. Grover, in an interview with PTI early this year, said the show appeared relevant because the writers ensured that the show engaged with the contemporary world.
"As writers, we are very keyed into current affairs and that helped. Whatever was missing in the book, we took that piece of the jigsaw from the world around us," he said. Delhi Crime, a seven-part series directed by Indian-Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta, followed the investigation to nab the six men who raped the 23-year-old physiotherapy intern on a cold December night in a moving bus in the national capital. She died of her grievous injuries 13 days later in a Singapore hospital. Mehta, who researched the story for four years, called directing it a "delicate balancing act".
"The biggest challenge was to first find what the story was that was worth telling, and from who's perspective. And additionally, what was this all trying to represent? Essentially, how can something positive come out of something so terrible," Mehta told PTI. Both The Family Man on Amazon and Bard of Blood on Netflix were stories about Indian spies trying to outsmart terrorists but there was refreshingly no jingoism.
The Family Man poster
The Family Man, starring Manoj Bajpayee as an NIA field agent trying to uncover the next terrorist attack, also reflected the frustration and the family conflict that comes with working in high risk but low paying jobs. The Amazon Prime show threw some light on the conflict in Kashmir and how terrorists are sometimes are forged in the fire of communal hate and violence. Bard of Blood (Netflix) had at its centre a spy who turns to teaching Shakespeare after a mission goes wrong.
He is forced to return to the field through a combination of incidents and seeks the help of a new but enthusiastic operative and a Baluchistan-stationed field agent who has been forgotten by the system but desperately wants to come home to his ailing father in India. It wasn't just about biggies Hotstar, Netflix and Amazon Prime. Smaller, homegrown platforms -- Zee5 and AltBalaji -- also made their presence felt.
Kaafir, written by Bhavani Iyer of Raazi fame, chronicled the journey of a mother, a young Pakistani woman, who is being held prisoner after crossing over to India under mysterious circumstances. She is labelled a terrorist but finds an unlikely ally in a lawyer who wants to prove her innocence and send her back home. The Zee5 show goes into the mistrust and hatred that exists between people of India and Pakistan and how this hatred can lead to the persecution of innocents. AltBalaji's Kehne Ko Humsafar Hain dealt with a man caught between the woman he loves and his wife.
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