BACK IN BUSINESS WITH A BANG

By Pickle  November 1, 2019

With the rise of OTT platforms, the demand for scripted dramas is soaring in India. However, there are very few bright minds in the Indian M&E space who have mastered the art of creating and marketing scripted dramas like Bobby Bedi has. After a spell of silence that lasted for almost a decade, Bobby Bedi is back in business with a bang with a number of projects lined up, and it looks like he is set on a mission to dish out some brilliant scripted dramas for a global audience

By Natarajan Vidyasagar & Vivek Ratnakar

For close to a decade, acclaimed Indian film producer Bobby Bedi (Sundeep Singh Bedi) has been just an observer. He has not done any major movie project or produced content. During this time he was creating museums and was dabbling with content every now and then.

When it comes to Indian media and entertainment sector, Bobby is among the brightest creative and business minds. This combination is rare, as in the Indian media and entertainment space you are either bracketed as a creative or a business mind.

Once a salesman at multi-national companies like Philips and Sony, Bobby Bedi through his sheer perseverance as an entrepreneur in the media and entertainment industry, discovered the art of creating and marketing scripted dramas collaborating with top class talent who are now icons in the showbiz domain. To this day, there are very few in the industry who can match the reputation and consistent success that Bobby enjoyed in the scripted drama space.

Bobby’s first film as a producer was “In Which Annie Gives it to Those Ones”. The film was written by the now famous writer Arundati Roy, who also acted in the film. His second film “Electric Moon” was also written by Arundati Roy. His third film “Bandit Queen,” based on the life of Phoolan Devi, was directed by Shekhar Kapur, while dialogues were written by Ranjit Kapoor, and screenplay and book done by Mala Sen.

Script is the soul

In the “Bandit Queen,” script was the soul. Director Shekahr Kapur created the magic by converting a hard hitting script into a “lethal blow in the solar plexus of the world.” This is a classic example of when an idea is turned into movie, it is the harmony of creative contributions—script, camera, sound, art, performances and direction—that creates a great film. The film was premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 1994 Cannes Film Festival.

Bobby’s fourth film as a producer was “Fire,” written and directed by Deepa Mehta, starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. His fifth film production “Maqbool” (Favorite), directed by Vishal Bhardwaj and starring Pankaj Kapur, Irrfan Khan, Tabu and Masumeh Makhija, is an adaptation of the play Macbeth by Shakespeare.

Bobby’s next venture “Mangal Pandey: The Rising” is a 2005 Indian historical drama film based on the life of Mangal Pandey, an Indian soldier known for helping to spark the Indian rebellion of 1857 (also known as The First War of Indian Independence). It was directed by Ketan Mehta, and screenplay was done by Farrukh Dhondy. The lead role was played by Aamir Khan. It was followed by “Saathiya” (directed by Shaad Ali and written by Mani Ratnam), “The Stoneman Murders”, and “Chintu Ji…” But no major movie projects were undertaken by him after that. There was just silence.

Come 2019, Bobby is back in business with a bang riding on back of an explosion in the Over The Top Television (OTT) content, turning streaming platforms into mainstream entertainment. “I was doing scripted dramas in India when nobody was doing it. Everybody was doing Bollywood entertainment format which was very popular. We were side business. With the coming of Netflix, Amazon and other platforms, and also because of the dubbing of the major international content, India has got exposed to and now addicted to scripted drama,” says a bullish Bobby Bedi who is on a mission to regain the glory and dish out scripted dramas for a global audience.

His pipeline at his professionally managed Contentflow Studios is overflowing. “We have our own studio in NOIDA, in the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi. We have our own team and our CEO is managing the business. My job is only to creatively drive it. Before the year is out, we would have done couple of more major projects . Suddenly, we are back in business with a bang,” says Bobby.

Bobby’s recently produced film “Bitter Chestnut,” directed by Gurvinder Singh, is rising on the popularity chart with every passing day. It was showcased at the world premiere of the recently concluded Busan International Film Festival. The film attracted critical acclamation at the 20th Jio MAMI, Mumbai Film Festival. It will continue its festival circuit journey in 2020, beginning with International Film Festival Rotterdam (Jan 22-Feb 2). Gurvinder’s earlier two films “Alms for the Blind Horse” and “Fourth Direction,” premiered at Venice and Cannes Film Festivals and have won numerous international awards.

“The whole premium scripted drama area is pretty much a white space in India, where they make great films, great soap operas… but nobody is really making high-budget, high-quality, 8-10 episode scripted drama.”
James Farrell
Head of International Originals, Amazon Studios

Digital drama

Recently, Bobby Bedi’s Contentflow Studios has signed joint venture agreements with acclaimed film producer Manmohan Shetty (Walkwater Media) and Optimystix Entertainment for a three film deal and set-up a new company.

Contentflow Studios is developing couple of Webseries for MX Player (The Times of India Group). It is also developing digital drama series for Aditya Birla Group’s Applause Entertainment, a leader in content creation and IP Studios led by M&E industry veteran Sameer Nair.

India’s top industrial company Amar Raja Group, Star Entertainment Worldwide and Contentflow Studios have joined hands to create a new content division to produce thriller series “Curse of the Kohinoor,” which will feature leading stars from Telugu Film Industry. “Curse of the Kohinoor,” will be directed by Colin Teague, whose credits include “Dr Who?” and its spin-off “Torchwood.” The heist thriller series tells the story of a plot to steal the Kohinoor diamond, the centrepiece of the British Crown Jewels.

“We have ambitions to create premium scripted series for the Indian and global marketplace,” says Padma Galla, director of Amara Raja Media and Entertainment. The new entity will collaborate with producers and broadcasters across the world.

“We are bringing the very best talent from the Indian and UK scripted worlds together in this premium production for the international market,” says Rahul Aggarwal, Director Star Entertainment.

Surge in demand

Behind all this development is India’s digital dominance to lead the OTT and new emerging online video audience. KPMG in its recent annual M&E 2019 report has projected that the online video audience in India which was 225 million in 2018 is likely to cross 550 million by 2023. India is seeing a surge in demand for mobile and broadband data, which is fuelling growth in the number of subscribers.

The entry of Reliance Jio Infocomm into the segment with its JioGigaFiber technology is set to further reduce broadband rates across the country, fuelling competition and further growth in subscriber base. Jio already has 340 million mobile subscribers.

According to Ericsson, India has the world’s highest per smartphone data usage of 10 GB per month. With video streaming, 10 GB will jump to 18 GB by 2024, says Ericsson.

Bobby Bedi concurs that Jio has transformed India’s content consumption on the mobile. “Jio has helped totally. It has brought prices down. It’s brought telecom majors Vodafone and Airtel down to those levels. Today data is accessible across the country. In fact I have problems in making phone calls, I am finding it easier to make WhatsApp calls and live phone calls on iPhone. Because it is certainly no longer a medium for communication, it seems to be a medium for entertainment”.

Bobby reckons that it’s content and script that will drive this medium. “We have decided that for the first few films we are going to rely on either novels or novelist and published material as the resource material or true stories for our films because we don’t want to work with writers who have three days of partying and come out with a script. If you work on an existing work of fiction then somebody has published work, somebody has given thought to character and story.”

Leonardo Dicaprio & Aamir Khan

He also believes that “films are remembered not because they have stars, but they are remembered because the films themselves”.

“‘Awara’ is remembered because of the Awara Hoon, ‘Shree 420’ is because of Shree 420, ‘Sangam’ because of Sagam. These movies have explored scripted stories of very high calibre. ‘Guide’ of Dev Anand is an R K Narayan story,” he says.

The need of the hour is to have actors who can portray any character on screen. “We need people like Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt who can play any character. Except for Aamir, stars play themselves.

Alluding to Aamir’s portrayal of a middle-aged father in ‘Dangal’, Bobby says that with Aamir it is very difficult for the audience to understand that it is not Aamir, rather this is this girl’s father. That is why the film did so much better in China than India. Even though it has done very well in India, in China at least they don’t know that they are watching this film for Aamir. There is a damn good actor who is playing father’s role.”

Speaking on the potential challenges of OTT platforms, Bobby says that going forward the biggest challenges would be to maintain profitability and creativity. “Today we are just starting. Series like ‘Sacred Games’ or ‘Made in Heaven’ have wowed audience. But once there are hundreds of series like ‘Sacred Games’ and ‘Made in Heavens’ then you will be fighting for the eyeball. They will also be competing with the rest of the world.”

Bobby is already thinking ahead of competition in terms of content. “I am not even thinking of competing with ‘Sacred Games’. ‘Curse of the Kohinoor’ is about telling the history of gems in India from Independence till today through a fictional story. Hopefully, I line up with a very big star for it. Today one thing that Netflix and Amazon have done is that they have made the world language blend.”

But despite the opportunities OTT space has created, Bobby is of the opinion that it has limited the revenue flow for people like him. “One of the biggest drawbacks of the OTT space is that people like me, people like Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar, Subhash Ghai, or Raj Kapoor’s family—anybody who had successful slew of important films and has lived of owning those properties and the flow of revenues from them—will be at the receiving end in the long term. OTT is getting more and more into the buyout space.”

“While we create the IP and we make money out of it, we don’t own it and it does not become a returning IP and that to my mind is going to be the biggest problem in film financing in the future. I think that if I have a choice I would fund them… to earn for myself and license them rather than sell them out because I wish to own some of my properties,” he adds.

However, far from being ungrateful, Bobby sees it as an opportunity to convince Indian directors to start creating films with wider global audience in mind. “Indian stories have travelled across the world in the past. Is ‘Gandhi’ not an Indian story? It is an entirely Indian story. Except for one sequence the entire film was shot in India. Likewise, ‘Jungle Book’ and ‘Slumdog (Millionaire)’ are Indian stories. We just need directors to start thinking in that direction.”

“India is home to some of the world’s greatest stories. It’s been thrilling to watch these amazing storytellers embrace the artistic freedom possible at Netflix to create entertaining stories.”
Bela Bajaria,
VP International originals, Netflix

Content-driven cinema

As an insider who has seen the Indian Media and Entertainment space transform from close quarters, Bobby has some more insights to share. To ride the new wave of content-driven cinema, he says that it is imperative that “we have to become less greedy”.

“Presently, if this money is flowing the industry has the habit of putting all the money in the bag. But we need to change and find ways as to how we can put the money back to derive more value out of it.”

“The reason that we are behind in the game is that India never needed scripted dramas. But now when we need scripted dramas, we don’t have good writers. A lot of platforms including Hotstar have introduced big writers programme; Yashraj has a writers programme; Reliance has a writers programme; and Zee is also trying to create one.”

Bobby can clearly see the existing gaps and is ready to fill them up by building strong partnerships with the international M&E community. He believes that his efforts will pay once India gets used to large format proper scripted dramas. “Then there is no going back. People will never go back to Saas Bahu dramas.”

Having set high standards in the Indian M&E space through his work, Bobby’s eyes sparkle with anticipation when he talks about the future. He’s as ready as he’ll ever be to take Indian stories to global audience, transcending the barriers of geography, language and culture, to communicate with the world, and bring the humanity closer using the universal language of cinema.

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