The Indian Premier League (IPL), the 11th edition of which is now underway, may have legions of ardent fans but it is yet to totally win over cricket purists. Their principal gripes against the cricket hoopla are not without merit – the blatant commercialisation that runs through every facet of the tournament, the way it rewards brute force over delicate skill, and its lopsided bias towards batsmen in what is supposed to be an equal battle between the bat and the ball.
But for all its ills, there is no denying the high-profile platform that the IPL provides for budding cricketers to showcase their talents and prove their ability to stand up to the best in the world. Ravichandran Ashwin, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja, Hardik Pandya, Kedar Jadhav, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Manish Pandey, Yusuf Pathan, Umesh Yadav, Mohit Sharma – these are just some of the cricketers who made it to, or cemented their position in, the Indian national cricket team on the back of their eye-catching performances in the tourney.
It is not just India that has benefited from the real-life auditions provided by the IPL. A host of other national teams – from South Africa to Australia to Bangladesh to the West Indies – have been bolstered by talents like Faf du Plessis, David Hussey, David Miller, Shaun Marsh, Kieron Pollard, Mustafizur Rahman and Adam Zampa after they proved their mettle in the high-profile competition.
No, we haven’t expanded our editorial mandate to include cricket reportage! Our focus remains firmly on matters relating to the film trade.
The reference to the IPL, particularly the role it has played as a platform for talent discovery, is a prelude to what we are really mulling over in this note: will the exponentially growing digital content space in India play an IPLesque role in identifying the next generation of storytellers for the film industry?
Before we dwell more fully on this question, a quick lesson in cinematic history.
In its very infancy, Indian cinema drew a lot from the world of theatre/stage plays – right from personnel to source material to narrative style. For many decades thereafter, the only sure-shot way for a director to make a film was, well, to have made a successful film in the past! With cinema being the only mass entertainment medium, and a very expensive one at that, it was an extremely exclusive and elusive club to break into.
The faint beginnings of the process to breach this fortress can be traced to the mid-1980s, when the state-owned television broadcaster, Doordarshan, introduced fiction-based shows in its programming. Although it was the big names of the film industry like Ramesh Sippy, BR Chopra and the Sagars that dominated the initial successes on DD, the medium allowed then upcoming directors like Prakash Jha, Saeed Mirza, Kundan Shah and Pankaj Parashar to draw attention to their craft. And while this note is primarily focused on film directors, let us not forget that it was the same Doordarshan era that introduced filmmakers to a certain Shah Rukh Khan!
The trickle became a flood with the advent of private satellite television in the 1990s. The subsequent competition for eyeballs among profit-chasing channels with 24 hours of airtime to fill daily, suddenly opened up an alternative – and a relatively far more accommodating – outlet for directors and storytellers to show what they were capable of.
Much like the IPL bequeathed the Indian national team with cricketers who are now household names, many of our most prolific and respected film directors today have a satellite television connection – Aanand L Rai, Anurag Basu, Neeraj Pandey, Imtiaz Ali, Anurag Kashyap, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Anubhav Sinha, to name a few.
Mind you, this rich harvest of directors essentially came from just 3-4 mainstream General Entertainment Channels (GECs). Channels, whose advertising-driven business models dictated that they catered to the lowest common denominator to garner the most eyeballs and hence weren’t exactly known for path-breaking content.
That being so, in theory at least, we should net (quite literally!) an even richer catch of talent from the plethora of digital platforms/apps wooing the Indian market. It is a list that seems to grow by the day – Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video, Hotstar, Voot TV, ALTBalaji, VuClip, Sony LIV, ZEE5, Eros Now, Jio Play, TVFPlay, VB On The Web, Spuul, Arre, HOOQ, YuppTV, Airtel TV and more.
Not only do many of these players showcase original Indian content – including feature-length films – they actively seek out non-conventional subjects. Moreover, with the digital space not constrained by India’s strict censorship laws – at least not yet – the medium offers unmatched creative freedom to filmmakers.
Indeed, for prospective storytellers in today’s digital era, there is no need to even be commissioned by some of the aforementioned platforms before vying for audience attention. Pretty much anyone in possession of a reasonably good smartphone camera can upload their work on user-generated platforms like YouTube and hope to get noticed.
Therein may lie the only downside to the digital explosion we are witnessing – the sheer volume of content available that may make sifting through the chaff to separate the wheat an exhausting and daunting task. Much like you often tend to lose your appetite on seeing the vast array of dishes on offer in a buffet!
That said, a problem of plenty is always preferable to one of scarcity. Anything that leads to a widening of our talent pool – besides keeping established folk on their toes to keep up with the intensifying competition – can only bode well for the future of our industry.
To (mis) quote Chairman Mao: Let a thousand hot stars bloom!
- Nitin Tej Ahuja