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The Beginning

Vikram Malhotra, CEO of Abundantia Entertainment, talks about the production house’s latest development of getting a superstar on board, their journey in the digital space, strategies going forward and much more in this chat with Bhakti Mehta

You just had a very grand launch for your new show, The End with Akshay Kumar. Was it a strategic decision to take the web world in India several notches higher with this move?

It is the way of the future. It is a very unique market. Everyone who says, look at the West which creates their own stars and actors, my answer to them is, why do we look to the West? We have not looked at the West for anything else. Whether it is consumer products, cars, e-commerce, mobiles, networks or anything else, we have not looked at the West for anything, then why this?

Here, my consumer is very demanding. My consumer says that I am going to pay you 200 rupees a month but I want to see the reigning superstar on your service. Also, this business of streaming is very new. We have got R Madhavan and Amit (Sadh) in Breathe Season One; we scaled that up and now have Abhishek (Bachchan) in the second season; and we have taken it to another dimension with Akshay (Kumar). There is a reason and sound strategy behind this. In this market, the audience identifies very strongly with these recognized stars and it gives them that much more reassurance to try out a new product.

Forget the younger, urban, metro audience, which is hooked to Netflix and Amazon and other OTT platforms. Let’s talk about the real audience, the big audience, the 200 million people who watch TV, the belly of this market. These are the guys who say that they are happy watching films and happy watching TV. They tell us, you are asking us to get on to a new platform? It has great stories, sure. But what else?

That plus, that advantage is when you watch Akshay Kumar exclusively on your service, on a show that you can only watch on that platform. You are giving the consumer more reason to switch on and spend more time on that platform, unlike the West, where they are already used to consuming all kinds of content on all kinds of platforms. For us, this is a move that is very similar to how we saw Mr Amitabh Bachchan on the small screen in Kaun Banega Crorepati. That was a watershed moment in our television industry. The legend was now on the small screen. Similarly, a reigning superstar is on an exclusive original show. I think these are nuances that are very unique to this country.

When we spoke to Akshay Kumar recently, he shared his reason to step into the digital world, which was to connect with the youth.

There are two things I would like to say here, one is that people ask me, why Akshay? Why a superstar like him? To begin, this show is our aspiration to create a global tent pole sitting out of here, a story that is uniquely original to India that has a universal emotion at the core but is built to connect with a larger audience at every level. Whether it is an emotional level, a cinematic one or one that keeps the audience watching with bated breath, this show will connect with everyone.

Here’s a man whose DNA drives him to do different things, experiment with subjects. Look at his track record, look at the number of first-time directors he has worked with. Even with films, he has done a wide variety of genres from the start. He has an almost innate desire to do innovative and creative work. And look at his work ethic!

This medium of digital streaming demands a very high level of discipline from everyone in the team. In just twice the amount of time, you are delivering four times the output in terms of minutes or hours of content. Name one other guy who can deliver on this than the man we are talking about. That fit what we were trying to create, the platform and the actor, it is such a strong synergy and it happened effortlessly. 

Where did the idea stem from?

This is an action-adventure show with a very strong emotional and human story. It is not an out-and-out action thriller or an emotional drama. It is a spectacle that ticks more than one box. From the concept level, the generation of the show happened with me and Akshay. He has been actively involved in the scripting. And writers Saiwyn Quadras and Karan Grover came on board and took that concept to another level.

We have international teams for creative and technical development coming together for this because when you are trying to create a global tent pole, I am very clear that you need to get the best in the business at every level. Technical, creative, acting… it’s completely global and universal in aspiration.

Abundantia was one of the first production houses to venture into web series. Did you anticipate the growth of this platform? What prompted you to go this way?

The reason we are called pioneers of the digital and streaming world in India is because it is actually in our DNA, to the business model of Abundantia. We are focused on two things, we call ourselves creators who listen to the audience; and, second, we have a strong bias and focus towards the progressive and younger audience, which means the audience that is dominant today but equally the audience that is emerging tomorrow.

Breathe was put into development before there were the big streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, in India. It was started when web series were considered a come-down. Either it was not even a concept or it was a step lower than even TV. Breathe was being developed when I looked at the business and married it with our understanding of the consumer and storytelling and said, the future is around the corner. If we have to ride the wave, we have to invest in it now. So, much before it became the fashion or the flavor of the decade, we started building capability in this medium.

I spent a lot of time understanding what went into creating original content shows, into long-form, multiple season arc stories, what kind of writing, direction and technical talent is required to nurture these stories. And we very early came to the conclusion that the world of feature films that we were used to and the world of digital that we were talking about were two completely different planets, different ecosystems.

Sure, storytelling and creative talent are at the heart of both worlds, but it’s an entirely different ball game to create a long-form story versus creating a 2-3 hour story arc in a feature film. We used that learning to our advantage when we set up Breathe for multiple seasons. We started building our capability on writers, realizing that not many established, experienced, well-known film writers were looking at the medium.

In hindsight, fortunately, we built a team of young writers who themselves were consumers of a lot of this content. They knew the nuances of what would go into building such stories. Today, I am proud to tell you that we have 20 writers who are working with us, dedicated to our original space, on our existing running and developing shows.

The result is phenomenal. For nine years in the business, I have said that writing is the backbone of our existence when it comes to feature films. Now, we are looking at these young writers and saying, where the hell were you guys? When the right medium syncs with the ability to enable those stories, that’s the best time for all.

The way we were looking at content on one side and audience on the other, was a very logical step for us to take. We did not approach it as a moonlighting business. We did not say we will make a show between two films or make a couple of shows and see where it goes. Over the last two years, there has been a dedicated business and talent pool in place to look after our originals business. Then there is a different department for films. Both of these, of course, synergise at a level with me but I can say that the time, effort, energy and money we have spent understanding the medium, in India and abroad, has yielded the kind of results that we wanted it to.

Over a period of time, it allowed us to build a portfolio in our original show business like we do for our feature films. There is Breathe, which is in its second season, The End, which we spoke about, the adaptation of the book, The Men Who Killed Gandhi, which is in active production and Rajesh Mapuskar will be directing it.

There are other shows, other material, which are in development with different platforms and where we are now collaborating with different, international writers and technicians. The attempt is to constantly keep evolving and learning from each show and hopefully raising our game.

How did the ideology of Amazon Prime Video India sync with what you wanted in a streaming partner?

The team of Amazon in India and internationally is a wonderful co-creator and collaborator for a lot of our work. And we are not working with Amazon alone; we are partnering with other streaming platforms for our shows and you will hear about them soon. But what is unique about Amazon and the team in India, very strongly supported by the global team, is that there is a great mix of people who trust you, who empower you and who understand you. I think they ‘get’ creators like us very well.

When I have run studios, I have always wanted to be the kind of platform or co-creator where the storytellers feel that we add value to their lives and their work. I feel the same way about Amazon. When we spoke about creating a show called The End with Akshay Kumar, who is somebody they have been talking to one way or the other, it was effortless because they get your vision. I don’t mean that the others don’t but a large part of our work is with them and they are a wonderful platform. We are involved in the way our shows are put out, how they are marketed and how they will be released. They get this market; they get the sensibilities of the creators in this market.

As someone who is such a huge part of the digital world, what are your views on the recent talk about censorship on web?

To begin with, I think there is a lot of discussion and enthusiasm around it at the moment because it is so new. Let us understand that it has been a few years since our regulators and our consumers have been exposed to this world. I am pretty certain that this will settle down and guidelines, whether self-imposed or system-regulated, will settle down to a level where it is amicable and fruitful to both parties.

From a regulatory standpoint, this is not regulating and certifying content like in films or on TV. It is logistically not possible. From a creative stand point, it is a medium which allows the greatest degree of cinematic freedom or freedom of expression, creative liberty. I am hugely positive that nothing is going to be sacrificed. Since it is all new and there are stray examples of so-called offensive content, it is in focus now.

But, in your opinion, are there people who have misused this freedom?

The greatest example is how the West has matured. Let’s get real, whenever you take away any form of control or regulation, there will always be those first few people who think they have absolute freedom to do what they want. Suddenly, you have all forms of nudity, sex and language but that’s not what the audience is seeking out of it. They have not come to this platform to seek content of that nature. They are coming here to watch great storytelling, which gives them value for money. And therein lies your answer.

Market forces will ensure that creators, producers, storytellers, tell stories that are meaningful. And even if sex, nudity, language, religion, community and violence have to come in, they will aid the story, naturally and seamlessly.  

Right now, because it is so new and it has caught everybody’s imagination, there is this overenthusiasm but I have a lot of faith in the regulatory side, we give them far less credit than is due. I am very hopeful that there will be the kind of scenario where everybody wins.

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