INTERVIEW: Ashish Patil on India’s web series revolution

While Bollywood and south India’s mainstream cinemas continue to hold much of the country in thrall, there’s a growing awareness among local film studios and broadcasters that their audience is changing.

“We’re the world’s youngest country – 50% of the population is below the age of 25,” says Ashish Patil, head of Yash Raj Films (YRF)’s youth label Y-Films. “If you look at the 15-35 age group, it’s bigger than the whole of the US and Japan put together. That’s not a niche – it’s a very large audience you’re talking to.”

And it’s a large audience that spends a lot of time on the internet and may not find the traditional narratives of popular Hindi film and TV all that relevant. This is a generation where boy may have met girl on Tinder, not through the matrimonial ads, and both genders are puzzling over the finer points of sexual orientation, workplace politics and the practicalities of living together before marriage – the same issues that preoccupy millennials all over the world.

But they won’t find the answers on mainstream Indian TV, where ‘youth content’ tends to revolve around talent contests and reality shows. This explains why, along with a boom in digital filmmaking and the ubiquity of YouTube, web series have become such a phenomenon in India over the past two years.

One of India’s most prolific web series creators, Y-Films teamed with UK filmmaker Richard Curtis and the United Nations’ Global Goals campaign on its first series Man’s World, which imagines a world where gender roles are reversed. It then moved on to Ladies Room, featuring two women chatting about everything from bad bosses to pregnancy tests in a series of bathrooms.

Bang Baaja Baaraat is a contemporary take on the big fat Indian wedding, while Love Shots is a series of six shorts exploring different definitions of romance. Launched last year, sex education show Sex Chat With Pappu And Papa, features a father attempting to answer his young son’s awkward questions on topics including homosexuality, periods and masturbation. Y-Films has also launched India’s first transgender music group, 6-Pack Band, through a series of music videos.

Ladies Room

While some songs and episodes are more successful than others, the writers on all of this content are aiming to get their message across without sounding didactic. “One thing we’ve learned is that, when you’re trying to make a difference, the minute you start sermonising or preaching it’s never going to fly,” Patil says.

The content is definitely edgy by Indian standards, but the writers have also avoided sleaze and double entrendres. Internet content is not subject to the same strict scrutiny as films and TV programmes in India, which gives the writers more freedom, but Patil says the intention was always to entertain and educate rather than shock.

“Some content creators were making the mistake of trying to make risqué, edgy content – throwing in nudity or swear words for the heck of it – but the audience we’re talking to is very smart and their bullshit meter really high,” Patil says. “Fortunately we are a sensible bunch of creators. The important thing is to be relevant and connect.”

Starting out just 15 months ago, Y-Films did not have first mover advantage in this space. That honour goes to Arunabh Kumar’s The Viral Fever (TVF), producer of hit web shows Permanent Roommates, about a co-habiting couple, and Pitchers, about a tech start-up, which have helped the company’s YouTube channel rack up more than 2 million subscribers. Other popular series include Them Boxer Shorts’ Better Life Foundation, a Parks And Recreation style send-up of a charity organisation.

Following the success of these disrupters, just about every traditional film studio and broadcaster is now dabbling with the new format, but YRF has been the most proactive, building up a YouTube subscriber base of more than half a million and winning a string of awards; 6-Pack Band has won both a Cannes Grand Prix Glass Lion and a Webby. Patil was also recently included in AdAge’s list of the Top 50 creative minds around the world, alongside names such as David Bowie, Prince and Oculus creative director Saschka Unseld.

Man’s World

Perhaps not surprisingly, not all reactions have been positive – Ladies Room drew angry comments from men who were horrified to discover that Indian women swear and smoke joints. But Patil is proud that the content is challenging less progressive attitudes and starting constructive conversations online.

He says the idea for Sex Chat stemmed from conversations with his own son and research that shows a clear correlation between parents “having the talk” with their own kids and safer sexual behaviour. “The challenge is that these days most kids are discovering sex and sexuality through porn and that’s scary,” Patil says. “The first door they can knock on is Google, and that’s a problem; it needs to be a parent.”

When it comes to the revenue model, the Y-Films web series make a small amount through YouTube advertising, but mostly rely on brand tie-ups and sponsorship. 6-Pack Band is sponsored by Unilever’s Brooke Bond Red Label tea and Sex Chat by Durex, while the United Nations funded Man’s World.

Even these big brands don’t make the series profitable, but Patil explains that YRF chief Aditya Chopra is investing a “small amount of money to see if we have the skillset to talk to this audience.” Patil keeps costs low by having a small team but leveraging the advantages of a big studio. The series are all filmed outside YRF’s plush Mumbai studios: “We can’t afford to shoot here even if we get a 30% discount on the rack rate,” Patil says. But the team can use cameras and props between the studios’ bigger productions.

The studio is now exploring other revenue streams – including remake rights and merchandising spin-offs – but Patil says the reasons for being involved in this content are not purely financial: “Apart from the learning curve, it’s also a much cheaper way to test out new talent – actors, writers and directors. It’s an entry point of a hundred thousand dollars rather than several million.” Among the talents to get their first big break on the Y-Films series, Angira Dhar, the main actress in Bang Baaja Baaraat, was recently signed to star in an as-yet-untitled romcom produced by Ronnie Screwvala.

Sex Chat With Pappu And Papa

As YouTube is a global platform, the series are also reaching an overseas audience. All the shows have been subtitled into English and Sex Chat has been subbed or dubbed into 15 Indian and international languages.

“We’ve been amazed at the response outside India to Man’s World; we expected it from Spanish-language markets, which are close culturally, but we’ve also had a lot of feedback from Eastern Europe,” Patil says. “So we know this content works way beyond the core audience of millennials in India.”

Next up, Y-Films is going bigger budget and darker with a five-part series based on YRF cult thriller Darr, written by Nikhil Taneja and Shubham Yogi and to be directed by Vikas Chandra, a creative producer on Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

Patil explains that the writers have updated the 1993 original to talk about online safety in the age of cyber stalking and digital crime: “We don’t realise how much we put ourselves out there – the amount of information we share is just crazy.”

But he adds that the studio does not have specific agendas – nor is it looking for the next hot topic in the hope it goes viral – it just wants to explore contemporary issues through a new medium and strong story-telling. “We’ve found that if we have something to say, we’re a lot more relevant and make a stronger connect.”