Something good comes out of every crisis because it always presents an opportunity. The entertainment industry was one of the most hit by the pandemic. A complete revival is still several months away. However, the one segment that thrived in this crisis seems to be the OTT platforms.
The number of OTT platforms burgeoned in the past 10 months to nearly 50. What's more, it has grown to be an Rs 5000 crore industry in the country.
OTT was an urban phenomenon earlier. Even in cities, the audience used to hesitate to pay even Rs 500 for a Netflix subscription.
As we take stock at the end of the year, most of the frontline OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, Zee5 and SonyLIV have increased their subscription numbers to record highs in the 5 metro cities that account for over 60% of users and beyond. 40% of users come from semi-urban and rural India.
The direct-to-digital release was a rarity till the country went through a complete lockdown and then started following a strict social distancing protocol. Till then, streaming services were releasing films that already had a theatre run or premiering original films produced for the platform.
The year opened with the release of Ghost Stories, the terrific horror anthology by Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap.
A big announcement by Amazon in early May changed that model altogether. Prime Video acquired exclusive rights of seven films across languages to release on its platform as movie theatres remained shut indefinitely.
The Tamil film Ponmagal Vandhal, the first one to release among the seven, did not enthuse the audience. Out of these seven films, only Shakunatala Devi, Sufiyum Sujathayum, and Gulabo Sitabo commanded viewership and critics' attention to an extent.
It's time we look back on the must-watch films of the year. Given the shallow release calendar, 2020 has given the Indian audience a number of films that are worth a repeat watch. Here is a curated list for those who love to catch up with them before the year comes to a close.
1. Welcome Home (Hindi, Sony LIV)
Ringing the wrong doorbell and walking into this house of horrors written by Ankita Narang and skillfully directed and edited by Pushkar Mahabal will choke you with unimaginable horror. But in the end, you will come out terrified and scarred, yet liberated. As Anuja and Neha knock on an isolated house in a village for census data, little do we know what’s hiding behind the uneasy calmness. On the surface, Welcome Home is all scares, violence and gore. Under the skin lies a well-layered commentary on the society we live in, or the society we have become over the years. Actors Boloran Das and Shashi Bhushan are at their menacing best. Akshita Arora, Kashmira Irani and Swarda Thigle put up riveting performances. Easily the best that the year has produced.
2. Paava Kathaigal (Tamil, Netfilx)
Four stories centred around honour killing forms the Netflix original anthology. That the stories have a common theme that reveals what to expect does not take away the interest in watching it with curiosity. Sudha Kongara, fresh from delivering the massive OTT hit Soorarai Pottru is back with a touching ode to trans love. Her short Thangam (gold), the opening short about pride, reveals the real actor inside the chocolate hero Kalidas Jayaram. Sudha has set her story in the eighties though the stigma has not become history yet. The love between the transgender Sathaar and Saravanan (Shantanu) in a violent society is narrated with tenderness. Vetrimaaran's short Oor Iravu (one night) about honour has Sai Pallavi and Prakash Raj scorching the screen, enacting the strange daughter-father relationship in the backdrop of caste pride. Then there is Gautham Vasudev Menon's underwhelming family drama Vaanmagal about sin with Simran and the dark humour Love Panna Uttranum by Vignesh Shivan with Anjali in a double role and Kalki Koechlin.
3. Ghost Stories (Hindi, Netflix)
Arguably the best in the anthology series produced by Netflix this year, this is not just typical horror stories with jump scares. If you want to start with the best among the lot, your pick would be the third film, Monster, directed by Dibakar Banerjee. While the other Dibakar skillfully reinvents the theme of the anthology and the zombie tropes and layers it with the horrors that define contemporary India. Welcome Home is a companion piece to Monster in terms of the theme and a step ahead in layering and character study.
4. C U Soon (Malayalam, Prime Video)
There are screen-based thrillers, and then there are intense chamber dramas. Cinema is a staged reality that often requires complex infrastructure to accomplish the desired visual experience. How do you convincingly stage a gripping thriller when you are locked down in your apartment? C U Soon, directed by Mahesh Narayanan, is a case study of pooling together the sheer energy and skills in the actors and technicians to produce a taut thriller. Fahadh Faasil, Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran don the lead roles in this survival drama staged through on-screen chats and video calls. The film has its flaws, but it will keep you hooked for the entire runtime.
5. Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai (Hindi, Netflix)
Expectations were high when Anurag Kashyap was said to be making a film on demonetisation. However, Choked turned out to be no searing political commentary on the issue. In turn, it gave us some satisfying performances and an actress to look forward to. Saiyami Kher excels as the lower-middle-class bank cashier struggling to make both ends meet. As she discovers safely ziplocked cash popping up from the overflowing drainage in her kitchen every night, she tries to fulfil her modest obsessions to the envy of her neighbours who share a love-hate relationship with her family. Watch it for the performances and you won't be disappointed.
6. Soorarai Pottru (Tamil, Prime Video)
Making mass superstar movies is considered to be a domain of male writers and directors. Enter Sudha Kongara who first made her presence felt with Iruthi Suttru and then directed Suriya in Soorarai Pottru (hail the brave). Touted to be loosely based on the life of Indian low-cost aviation pioneer Capt. Gopinath, the mass entertainer, is less of a biopic and more a mass superstar film. Suriya's heroic scenes aside, Aparna Balamurali's performance as Bommi is the silver lining of the film. G V Prakash Kumar's songs Veyyon Silli... and Kattu Payale... set the backdrop for the uplifting drama.
7. Lootcase (Hindi, Disney Hotstar)
Want to end the year with a laugh riot? Open the heavy "lootcase" that director Rajesh Krishnan throws at you. Lootcase tells the story of a common man's obsession with big money, much like Anurag Kashyap's Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai. Kunal Kemmu is a delight to watch with his humour delivered in Marathi accent. The ambitious man knows that he wants the abandoned suitcase. Still, his conscience does not allow him to grab it without announcing "Last time poonch rahaan hoon, kiska suitcase hain?" The other actor who cracks you up in the film is Vijay Raaz. He is not your typical don with a smoking gun. "National Geographic subscribe kiya?", he frustratingly asks his sidekicks, revealing his obsession with the animal world. The don explains every conflict and strategy with analogies from animal behaviour, using their scientific names.
Some more exciting films are on their way to your screen before we bid goodbye to the pandemic year. Anurag Kashyap the AK is coming up with an intriguing kidnap drama with Anil Kapoor, the AK titled AK vs AK on December 24. The trailer has gone viral with the dialogues that refer to nepotism and the strife between directors and actors. R Madhavan's Maara, a remake of Martin Prakkat's Malayalam movie Charlie, is also set for a release on Prime. Netflix is all set to release Gitanjali Rao's award-winning Hindi animation Bombay Rose in the coming weeks.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast.)