Netflix: The Opportunity Hub For Non-Mainstream Films
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With the onset of the global pandemic and enforced lockdowns, something fundamental seems to have changed in an average Indian middle-class household. With streaming of so many over-the-top (OTT) platforms, the movie-watching experience for the country has altered significantly.
Films occupy an under-appreciated part of our culture. We may or may not consider them important, but we still see them, in differing frequencies. The audience has ceased buying tickets to go to the hall and is relishing media content from the comforts of their homes. Because of the pandemic, there has been a shift in the content which people are consuming from their homes.
Since viewers are buying collective membership packages and not individual movies anymore, they are becoming more liberal and open to diverse themes and niche content, as they want to gain their money’s worth and utilize each penny that they have spent. Netflix, being one of the more popular online platforms that offers a variety of content both domestic and international, is a prime attraction for the Indian viewer. It is featuring a number of newly released films under the ‘Netflix-Original’ label. Other OTT platforms include Prime Video, Zee5, Disney Hotstar, Voot, etc.
What this seems to imply for filmmakers is that they need to spurn content at a greater frequency, and also stay upbeat with variety in content, considering that the viewer’s appetite has increased. Non-mainstream films are also enjoying a kind of visibility that had been denied to them earlier. For the purpose of this article, I would define a ‘mainstream’ film by three parameters: star-cast, plot and theme.
How Netflix benefits non-mainstream films?
Talent is preferred over brand name: Some actors enjoy so much popularity that their face alone becomes sufficient to sell their work, even if the content lacks creativity and originality. A lot of unpopular actors who perform on themes that are socially relevant but invisible to the public eye, were earlier unnoticed despite the amount of quality and hard-work evident in their performances.
On platforms like Netflix, the audience watches movies which they would have otherwise never watched. According to short film-maker, Ida Ali, “Netflix has given audiences access to many films that audiences otherwise may not have bought a ticket for because they did not trust the filmmakers. Netflix allows people to watch a few minutes of the film, decide if they like it or not, without buying a complete ticket to the film. It gives audiences permission to leave without feeling guilty for paying. People end up watching films which are not mainstream on Netflix. Talent is appreciated more than a brand name.” Going to a theatre involves planning and selection. Audiences are forced to select a film when they visit the theatre, buy a ticket, there is an opportunity cost because they cannot watch another film. Moreover, they have to spend their time watching an entire movie even if they don’t like it. However, Netflix has easy access and leave options. Most of the Bollywood films in the theatres do well because of their star cast. However, on OTT platforms, talent plays an equally important role.
Audiences are willing to be more experimental: There are a number of themes that might individually entertain and intrigue us, but we would still have shied away from expressing interest in them earlier, simply because visiting the theatre is more likely to be a collective experience with friends, families and acquaintances. But now, since we are also watching content alone within the privacy of our rooms, OTTs have eased our access to some bold and daring works that may have earlier been inaccessible in the theatre, for many people in our country.
COVID-19 has increased the frequency at which audiences watch films from home. According to filmmaker, Kabeer Khurana, “People are watching more movies because it is an escape route for them at home. Binge watching has increased this pandemic and people are exploring genres which they would otherwise have not explored. Audiences are becoming more flexible with what they view on the platform. Hence, Netflix as a platform has ample opportunities for films which are not mainstream and new talent” According to research, 73.7 per cent people agree that they have been binge watching more in lockdown.
Women empowerment films get more attention: Films focusing on female sexuality would otherwise not get a lot of attention in movie theatres. Women empowerment may have been a buzzword in Hindi cinema, but male domination pervades in the films we watch. Female characters who occupy positions of power often have to justify their position within the plot. We still cringe at portrayal of women with flaws and shades of grey, for women are more likely to be perceived as symbols of their gender rather than human beings.
Men remain intact in the garb of hero and saviour, despite their extreme aggression and dominant tendencies, because not only is male aggression normalized, especially with movies such as Kabir Singh, but male unruliness becomes symbolic of a frustration against the system and order that oftentimes fails to restore justice to people. Women, however, even when they challenge patriarchy, have to continually justify that their struggle is valid, on account of deprivation and subjugation. It is difficult to divorce feminist content from the norms of morality and witness their struggles as pursuits of pleasure or desire.
According to filmmaker Ali, “Women empowerment films are considered to be token films. Hence, people are not so interested in watching them in theatres. Some Indian audiences are still backward and want to pay for a film only to watch a female lead actress. They do not want to see her in an empowering role. However, with Netflix, more people are interested in watching these films now.”
Some Netflix films that are not mainstream have done well in India because they chose to release on Netflix. These movies themselves are an example of how Netflix can benefit movies that are not mainstream.
Some examples of some non-mainstream films which Netflix helped bring to light
Lust Stories: A series of tales that drives home the glaring truth that women are shamed and silenced for expressing sexual desire, because the word ‘sex’ itself is associated with male pleasure in India. This short film makes an attempt to make audiences comfortable with expressions of female desire and pleasure.
According to film critic Diu Somani who goes by the popular name, TheCineSurgeon, “Lust stories had a bigger impact because it was on Netflix. Had people watched it in theatres, many scenes would be censored. The censorship on Netflix is less than movie theatres.”
Choked Paisa Bolta Hai: The trailer shows a journey of a housewife and her everyday negotiation within a middle-class household with the aspirations of a better lifestyle. It does not look glamorous, but the audience might relate aptly with the concerns portrayed, especially from the perspective of a middle-class morality that often has to deal with heavy constraints heaped upon its wishes.
According to Tannisha Avarrsekar, “Choked was one of the films which made a bigger impact because it was viewed from home. Since the movie revolves around the story of a housewife and her journey, the relatability factor increases when you are watching it from home.” Hence, movies may even be more impactful when they are viewed from our homes because we can relate them with everyday living.
Love Per Square Foot: The journey of a couple that does the math backwards. They get married and begin living together to avail a joint-loan for a flat, and eventually fall in love. Again, a story that doesn’t excite the audience’s interest enough to hit the theatre, but might still be an enjoyable watch from the comfort of their home. The film projects some universal anxieties related to economic struggles that is relatable to a lot of viewers.
According to film critic Diu Somani, “People end up watching films when they see Netflix original written on top. They may not trust the filmmakers, but they trust Netflix as a platform so they are willing to experiment and see new movies there.”
Rajma Chawal: It is a heart-touching story of a man who misses his dead mother and has a strained relationship with his father. His father makes a fake social media profile of a woman to befriend him virtually and strike a conversation, but things become messy when the son actually meets the woman in real life and starts developing feelings for her. It is an interesting story of love in modern-day context where women sometimes have to bear the additional gendered burden of chastity while exploring their desire. It also trails some tumultuous upheavals that scar a father-son relationship.
“I would have never considered watching Rajma Chawal in a movie theatre. However, I happened to watch it because it was on Netflix. I did not know the actors before, but now I even follow them on social media. There’s a certain power that Netflix gives the actors, it’s different when you watch them from home. It feels like the scenes are happening in your safe space itself”, says avid movie watcher and political strategist Tannisha Avarrsekar, commenting on the power that films have when viewed from home.
Bulbbul: Despite the extreme popularity it may seem to have enjoyed, Bulbbul may not have garnered as much attention on theatre screens as it did within the spaces of our homes, because women-centric films run the risk of appearing tiresome or boring to the audience after a while. Audiences tend to think of feminism as a fad, a pastime or an obsession. The tale of a wronged woman who sought to avenge the trauma and violence inflicted upon her is extremely relevant in the current times however, especially since domestic violence within houses increased with the implementation of lockdown.
Horror makes us cringe, but it also titillates and keeps us hooked onto the screen. This rape-revenge drama completely broke off the stereotypical mould of a hapless survivor that we expect victims of sexual assaults to embody. Despite some objections raised by critics, it could be regarded as a feminist film since it aims to bring forth the intensity of violence and trauma to the psyche of a viewer, at a time when the need for awareness regarding and sensitivity towards mental health issues has been much greater than before.
Presence of unfamiliar faces, depiction of erstwhile taboo content, and the mundaneness of an everyday life that contains a story to be told even though it doesn’t match the glamor associated with the big screen, are now becoming more palatable to the Indian viewer, due to works like these featured under the ‘Netflix Original’ label that are indeed original.
“Netflix streams in 190 countries. It is the kind of reach that filmmakers want their movies to get. People all across the world watch their film”, says Anvita Dutt, Director of Bulbbul highlighting the benefits of putting up a non-mainstream film on Netflix. She adds, “Netflix is giving a platform to new voices. Netflix equalises everything because if the story works, people watch it. It is a storyteller’s medium. ”
Netflix benefits films that are not mainstream because as a platform Netflix supports talent over mere brand names. Storylines are preferred and respected on the platform. Netflix also gives filmmakers the opportunity to venture into arenas which are not mainstream and create movies which are experimental. Instead of catering the audience the genres which the audience is used to, Netflix gives filmmakers the platform to create movies which they want to create. The tag of Netflix is enough to get the audience to watch the film and explore it. They may or may not trust the filmmaker, but they trust Netflix as a brand. Hence, whenever a film is on Netflix, the audience is likely to give it a try. Netflix as a platform is not just for the mainstream, but it has opened up wide new opportunities for filmmakers who want to explore different genres.