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STREAMING: UPHILL ROAD TO DIGITAL STARDOM

April 14, 2019

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Sadia Jabbar, the producer of 2017’s cinematic release Balu Mahi, has just released a series called Shameless Proposal on YouTube
Sadia Jabbar, the producer of 2017’s cinematic release Balu Mahi, has just released a series called Shameless Proposal on YouTube

We’re standing at the cusp of a far-reaching digital revolution, steered by virtual pixelated wheels. Directors and producers all over the world are breaking away from the more traditional realms of television and cinema, eyeing the lucrative potential of the web-series instead — an original production released solely on the web via different digital platforms. ‘The web is the future,’ they’re getting fond of saying.

At the forefront in this digital age are the youth. They make for an enthusiastic audience — harness their interest and they will eagerly get addicted to the latest series and create icons out of actors. But the web doesn’t just entrance the young. It extends its feelers far and wide. The advent of smartphones has spurred on digital platforms as the latest mode of entertainment across a wide diaspora transcending age, gender, educational background and nationality.

YouTube is now an indomitable fact of life, churning out free video and audio content on every topic under the sun. At the same time, digital platforms charging monthly subscription fees are also extremely popular, particularly Netflix with its spectacular worldwide following. Many other apps have followed in Netflix’s wake; among them, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, HBO Now, CBS All Access, Iflix, Eros Now and Zee 5.

The digital revolution is knocking on Pakistan’s doors but there are still a number of roadblocks for web-only series. Producers and directors are looking forward, however, to storylines less dictated by television ratings, less censorship and to reaching a wider global audience

None of these platforms are from Pakistan. Then again, while many Pakistani directors and producers are aware of cyberspace’s all-encompassing powers, hardly any of them have created content solely for the web yet. The few pioneers in the field have sold — or are contemplating selling — their web content to digital platforms based in other countries, usually in India.

WHY A WEB-SERIES?

Earlier this year, director Wajahat Rauf decided to spearhead Pakistan’s web-series revolution and created Enaaya for the Indian digital platform Eros Now. The series featured actors Azfar Rehman, Mehwish Hayat, Asad Siddiqui and Faryal Mehmood. “Web-series have so much potential but it’s unfortunate that Pakistani investors have yet to realise this,” says Wajahat. “In the meantime, all we can do is enter agreements with up-and-coming Indian platforms who are approaching us for content.”

What made Wajahat divert from producing and directing dramas and films and dabble with a series for the web? “It’s where the future lies,” he points out the obvious. “I love cinema but it is yet to become a financially viable option for Pakistan. Television may pay better but it restricts creative freedom completely, dictating plots to us that we need to follow. We are told that we need to show women being suppressed because, as soon as we construct a storyline centered round independent empowered women, the ratings drop. On the other hand, the field is completely open on the web. We can dabble with different genres and, if it is addictive, people will watch it.”

Director Mehreen Jabbar, who is currently shooting her first web-series, Aik Jhoothi Love Story, starring Bilal Abbas Khan, Madiha Imam and with a guest appearance by Kinza Razzak, echoes Wajahat’s views. “On TV channels, storylines are dictated by ratings, anything even slightly out of the box gets rejected altogether,” she says. “A series created for the web allows us to experiment with new ideas and storytelling, and reach a wider audience. Anyone anywhere in the world who subscribes to the channel can see the series.”

Could directors and producers also find the web attractive because it has less restrictive censorship? A TV channel is dependent on advertisers for its revenues but the web earns through subscribers. With less focus on ratings and more emphasis on attracting subscribers, content can be more violent and risqué. Could it also be that quality control may not be as stringent?

While no director or producer would admit a lack of vigilance towards quality, quite a few admit that they turned to the web when TV channels were hesitant to experiment with their suggested pitches. Sadia Jabbar, the producer of 2017’s cinematic release Balu Mahi, has just released a series called Shameless Proposal on YouTube. “I wanted to attack the toxic rishta culture that prevails in Pakistan, and the TV channels that I approached were on edge about the content and how it should be censored,” says Sadia. “I decided to opt for the web instead because I wanted to have the creative freedom to tell my story.”

Similarly, director Rafay Rashdi is currently working on a series called Badshah Begum, which was originally pitched as a drama for TV. “My story is not formulaic, which is why TV channels were hesitant about it,” he says. “But I truly believe in it.”

Actor Shamoon Abbasi has also announced that he is going to be starring in a web-series called Mind Games, along with Emmad Irfani, Kinza Razzak and Sana Fakhar. The name is uncannily similar to India’s hit Netflix Sacred Games series, and Shamoon has hinted that the show will feature adult content and may get featured on Netflix.

However, rumours should not be believed readily, until confirmed. Netflix, it turns out, is a tough nut to crack. Mehreen Jabbar explains that even though the requirements of a digital platform may be different from that of TV, quality control is still important. “Even a digital platform, operating on the basis of subscriptions, will vet a production to make sure that the content is up to par,” she says. “The storytelling has to be gripping but, at the same time, the biggest players in the market require a certain level of technical expertise. The sound, the camera-work and a myriad other technical details need to be looked into before a production gets accepted.

Kinza Razzak will be seen in Shamoon Abbasi’s web-series Mind Games and also has a guest appearance in Mehreen Jabbar’s Aik Jhoothi Love Story
Kinza Razzak will be seen in Shamoon Abbasi’s web-series Mind Games and also has a guest appearance in Mehreen Jabbar’s Aik Jhoothi Love Story

“Our forte is storytelling but we falter when it comes to technical expertise. Until Pakistani dramas and films become more technically sound, it will be difficult for a project to get accepted by a major digital platform.”

The top guns in the market — Netflix, Iflix and Amazon Prime Video come to mind — evidently have very stringent requirements. But they also pay very well once they accept an original production amongst the many that are submitted to them on a daily basis from round the world. The newer and more up-and-coming platforms may be less particular about quality control but they will also pay much less.

A rough estimate dictates that, within Pakistan, a nascent Indian platform such as Zee 5 will pay approximately 25 to 30 lac Pakistani rupees per episode. This payment may vary according to the merit of the content. In contrast, local TV channels generally pay about 15 lac Pakistani rupees per episode. Digital platforms, even up-and-coming ones, tend to pay better than TV and this, perhaps, acts as a huge impetus in drawing more and more filmmakers towards the web.

THE PROBLEM WITH INDIA

In most cases, though, there is an underlying cross-border fissure running through Pakistan’s budding web-series brigade. YouTube is not a very attractive option because it doesn’t generate profits immediately — although, eventually, a channel with a strong following will start earning money. Instead, most of our filmmakers are entering into business agreements with India and these will always be at the risk of being scuppered should Indo-Pak politics go haywire, as they often tend to do. Even if the intermediaries liaising between both parties are stationed far away in a politically neutral country, situations are difficult to salvage when war cries are being raised on both sides of the border.

Songs by Atif Aslam, despite his massive global fan base, end up getting eliminated from Bollywood. Releases of Bollywood movies in Pakistan get cancelled and, lo and behold, Pakistani cinemas decide to no longer screen Indian films. Pakistani dramas being watched vociferously on the Zee Zindagi channel get banned. And, hypothetically speaking, it’s entirely possible that a web series airing on an Indian digital app will be removed from it in a bout of patriotism. In fact, Wajahat Rauf’s deal with Eros for Enaaya spans four seasons, but it remains to be seen whether the next three seasons of the series will ever surface in cyberspace.

Could directors and producers also find the web attractive because it has less restrictive censorship? A TV channel is dependent on advertisers for its revenues but the web earns through subscribers.

“It just doesn’t make business sense for our filmmakers to enter into an arrangement that is very volatile and usually results in mudslinging and name-calling,” says actor Yasir Hussain. “It also doesn’t make sense when some of our best actors, working in very selective projects in Pakistan, opt to work for relatively unknown digital platforms in India. They deserve a better representation of their talent. Perhaps, if Netflix India or Amazon approached them, I would understand their willingness to sign on to a cross-border project. But where’s the prestige in working for a small-time channel across the border?”

WHAT THEN?

Nevertheless, given that major digital platforms are very picky, could it be that India is the only easily accessible — albeit entirely unreliable — option available to Pakistani filmmakers? Are there no other deals that could be struck with a less volatile partner? Also, more significantly, why aren’t more digital platforms being developed in Pakistan? Only a few come to mind — for instance, the recently launched StarzPlay by Cinepax.

“The ARY Network already has a huge following on their YouTube channel,” observes Jerjees Seja, CEO of the ARY Network. “We will look into building a digital platform but all this will come with time.”

“It just doesn’t make financial sense right now,” says Bilal Sami, General Manager of New Media at Geo Network. “Digital consumption in Pakistan is still too low and data transfer over the web and providing streaming services is an extremely expensive process.”

Nevertheless, digital web-based entertainment is the future. Director Nadeem Baig makes an astute observation: “Channels perhaps are not inclined towards creating digital platforms because they will lose out on good drama directors who will make a beeline for the web. It is, however, inevitable that they will have to eventually go digital. There are a lot of technicalities involved — how much digital data can be streamed via mobile phone networks, for instance.

“But it will happen,” he continues. “There are already a lot of digital platforms that are coming in and their set-ups will be up in about two years.”

Perhaps, then, in about two more years, Pakistani filmmakers will have a new avenue to explore. With data consumption still not at par with that of other countries, it will take some time before heavyweights such as Netflix and Iflix set up regional offices in Pakistan. But why wait for them? Why not start off with platforms of our very own? Why not take on the future on our own strength?

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 14th, 2019