STREAMING: THE WEB WE WEAVE

September 01, 2019

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Azfar Rahman and Mehwish Hayat in Enaaya
Azfar Rahman and Mehwish Hayat in Enaaya

In the beginning of Saat Mulaqaatein, a new short-form episodic series, a noticeably contemplative writer (Hamza Firdous) tells the viewers that coffee plays a far more important role in his life than his girlfriend. The writer, who is listed as a “storyteller” in the credits, then states that the story he is about to tell is an original one. “I do not tell filched stories,” he says in an irked tone.

The story that we cut to has a laid back, dialogue-driven, nostalgic charm of a classic PTV drama, where a couple played by Zara Tareen and Noman Ejaz, are in the midst of separating. The first three of seven episodes of Saat Mulaqaatein are available to watch on a newly-launched web platform called Binjee, and it’s almost free to watch with a subscription cost of two rupees per day — which is about the price of a piece of bubblegum.

Taking the bubblegum analogy a bit further, the episodes are designed to be under 10 minutes in length. In a way, they’re bite-sized doses of entertainment that can be relished on the go.

Binjee is, surprisingly, Pakistan’s first video on demand (VOD) channel and, even though a bit late in global terms, it is the need of the time, says Muhammad Rahimtoola, one of the platform’s co-founders. Binjee is an offshoot of QLinks, a television production and post-production services company.

While there is a lot of talk about producing web-exclusive series, there has yet to be a bona fide platform established that caters specifically to an emerging demographic of the industry

“We’re at a time when binge-watching episodic productions is shifting the spotlight from television. It’s even giving big-budget films a run for their money,” says Qaiser Ali, the platform’s co-founder, whose late daughter Nashwa was in the news because of a medical malpractice case.

Zara Tareen and Noman Ejaz in Saat Mulaqaatein
Zara Tareen and Noman Ejaz in Saat Mulaqaatein

Apart from heavy-hitters Amazon, Netflix and Hulu — arguably the most visible platforms in the world — everyone from Apple, Disney and even HBO, is jumping on to the digital-first bandwagon, making original content that is tailored specifically for today’s on-the-go audience, Ali tells Icon in a very detailed overview of his platform.

Binjee is also the first ever collaboration between a media company, a technology company and telecom (more than one telecom company is involved in the partnership right now). “Everybody has their strength in this type of alliance,” details Rahimtoola, referring to the extensive reach telecom gives the platform.

So far, Binjee has two other competitors in the market — StarzPlay, an international service that is licensed for Pakistan by the cinema conglomerate Cinepax, and iflix, a Malaysia-based subscription service that gained distinction by collaborating with PTCL a few years ago.

It should be noted that neither StarzPlay nor iflix have produced original content for Pakistan — though the word on the street is that iflix is contemplating that option.

Meera in Begum Returns
Meera in Begum Returns

As of right now, Binjee is in the process of testing the waters with a soft-launch, where they are producing strategically designed content for mass consumption. The line-up at the site (there isn’t an app available at this time) includes sitcoms, stand-up comedy, interviews and, as of right now, short-form drama. The talent pool driving the content include directors Nadeem Baig (JPNA, Punjab Nahin Jaungi), Kashif Nisar (TV’s Ranjha Ranjha Kardi) and radio-host, actor-director Azfar Ali (of Azfar & Mani fame) at the helm. Other prominent film directors are in talks to produce exclusive content.

The television industry has become quality-conscious, preferring to work with a handful of established directors. Producers who have worked for television say that making a film (or even a web series) is far easier.

The platform has an “internet-first approach with an eye for exclusivity,” Rahimtoola says. But don’t call Binjee Netflix just yet. “It is somewhat similar to Netflix, but it’s a little early to say that. Netflix is 22 years old, and is a genuine and established media distribution platform,” he says.

Recently, while there has been a lot of talk about producing web-exclusive series, there has yet to be a bona fide platform established that caters specifically to an emerging demographic of the industry.

To the movers and shakers who shape the media industry, the web market appears nascent and risky.

Sajal Aly
Sajal Aly

Yet despite the dominance of television, Distribution Club’s chairman Amjad Rasheed recently announced the formation of a production company that would make digital productions. There are also other independent in-development projects such as the Faysal Quraishi starrer Badshah Begum gearing up for web. Neither of the two seem to have viable business strategies for distribution in place yet.

Industry insiders also claim that the executives (and writers in particular) haven’t yet grasped the tone and structure of stories that are written for today’s web audience.

“We have to understand that digital is not a new medium — it’s just a form of transition,” says Jerjees Seja, CEO of ARY Digital Network, who doesn’t agree on digital changing the rules of the game as far as storytelling is concerned.

“Television, despite the evolution of technology from black and white to present day LEDs, is still a screen. So the screen essentially just became smaller — it just became accessible enough to hold in your hand,” he elaborates. “Media content keeps on changing because of demand, but content that is being produced for web isn’t new. Television has always been diverse. Take a look at Game of Thrones or limited episodic television produced at BBC such as Sherlock.”

Seja believes that launching and sustaining a web platform takes time. “It’s a task that can only be taken up by media conglomerates that have a huge audience base, and can take the burden of pumping money in what may essentially be a losing business in the beginning,” he explains.

At this point, Seja is quick to tell us that ARY has over one million apps downloaded from the Google Play Store and a 10 million-strong subscriber base on YouTube that can watch new episodes whenever they want.

Currently, ARY has no plans to produce web-exclusive drama content and are happy growing their audience base on social and media platforms. The first episode of Mere Paas Tum Ho (directed by Nadeem Baig and starring Humayun Saeed, Adnan Siddiqui and Ayeza Khan) had over 2.6 million hits on YouTube on its second day of upload. “That number is still nothing in front of television,” Seja says.

With the major local players out of the game (at least for now), producers pursuing web-content have limited options at their disposal.

To Be Honest
To Be Honest

Director Mehreen Jabbar (Dobara Phir Se, Ramchand Pakistani) feels that the emergence of web platforms such as Binjee cannot be ignored. “If handled wisely, it is the best outlet for out-of-the-box, compelling, engaging stories that are not slaves to ratings and channel demands,” she sums up in an email conversation.

Jabbar has finished filming a web series for Group M written by Umera Ahmed titled Ek Jhooti Love Story. “The series is a light comedy with a strong social message, a commentary on love and finding a suitable partner in the digital, modern world,” she writes.

Jabbar would like to do anything but victimised women and saas-bahu stories; she’s actually looking forward to doing psychological thrillers, hard-hitting dramas or something that’s really smartly funny.

“The beauty of the web is that there can be content for all audience [and genres]. If there’s a Leila or Handmaid’s Tale, there is also Fleabag and a host of other international programmes,” she writes.

Ahad Raza Mir
Ahad Raza Mir

Haseeb Hassan, the director of the hit television series Mann Mayal and the blockbuster film Parwaaz Hai Junoon, is in production with Dhoop Ki Deewarein, a web series of 22 episodes (again) penned by Umera Ahmed and produced by Group M. The series is a cross-border love story starring Sajal Aly and Ahad Raza Mir, set at the time of the Pulwama attacks.

The series is quite expensive, being shot on Alexa Mini with ultra prime lenses. The emphasis on quality is a prerequisite, according to Hassan. “For filmmakers like us, who have tasted the allure of the big screen, it is tough to go back to the routine shooting style of television,” he says in the middle of our midnight phone conversation.

Corroborating what we have surmised in the article, Hassan says that Dhoop Ki Deewarein was indeed once a co-production with an international partner before the Kashmir conflict intensified. The production is now exploring new avenues by seeking a distribution deal with a streaming platform and simultaneously releasing the show on television specifically for the Pakistani audience. (It should be noted that their television partner, Geo, is also working on its own web platform).

India, on the other hand, has a wealth of options for streaming platforms. Apart from international heavy-hitters Netflix and Amazon Prime, Indian platforms are strategically targeting specific age groups and regions. Some, like Alt Balaji, Zee5 and Ullo often push towards overly sexualised risqué content.

Netflix, whose corporate philosophy is not to entertain raunchy Bollywood formula content, has a stronger presence in the country with hits such as the Saif Ali Khan-starrer Sacred Games, which recently aired its second season.

Unlike others, Netflix is now the preferred platform for big Bollywood stars and banners with productions such as Bard of Blood (starring Emraan Hashmi, produced by Shah Rukh Khan), Badla (starring Amitabh Bachchan, also produced by Khan), Article 15 (starring Ayshman Khurrana) and Game Over (Tapsee Pannu, produced by Anurag Kashyap).

Netflix, despite officially launching into Pakistan, has yet to venture into productions for the country (their official productions, or ones they exclusively acquire, bear a ‘Netflix Original’ tag). They have, however, licensed already released feature films from Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Eros Now and Zee5 had shown interest in acquiring Pakistani web productions at one time. Both are represented in Pakistan by partners who had been actively seeking content that has worldwide appeal.

If by now one is turning up one’s nose at Pakistani filmmakers’ desire to pursue international buyers, let’s look at the math for a second: Eros Now has 30 million subscribers paying 8 dollars per month. That amount equates to over 2.8 billion dollars in business alone. Is it, then, any wonder why producers would not want to sell their content to international buyers such as Eros Now or Zee5?

Before Chhalawa came into being, writer-director Wajahat Rauf and producer Amjad Rasheed had made the Mehwish Hayat-Azfar Rahman starrer Enaaya which was sold to Eros Now — the VOD arm of Indian film distributor Eros (Rasheed is Eros’ partner in Pakistan).

“Putting productions on YouTube [where most dramas from channels are simultaneously uploaded] means that you can’t even cover one-tenth of your cost. [On the other hand] Netflix and other streaming platforms haven’t really shown much interest yet. But we will get there,” Rauf writes back in a WhatsApp conversation.

“We know which direction our audiences are headed. It would be a fruitful venture for whoever explores this medium and, at the same time, give us content creators an incentive to come up with fresh stuff, and that too for a much bigger audience,” Rauf continues, talking about the necessity of having emerging platforms such as Binjee.

“It has to have some novelty, edgy writing and there’s a whole lot of room for experimentation,” Rauf continues. “I’ve learnt though my show on YouTube that the web audience is a completely different demographic, one that is accepting of new, edgy ideas.”

Rauf is scripting another web production right now. However, he has no idea how the current Pak-India tensions will impact deals with Indian streaming platforms. “It’s a tricky situation,” he writes.

Rasheed, in a quick phone conversation, seconds Rauf’s inclination. According to Rasheed, who has multiple productions tied up for web, everything is up in the air at the moment. One cannot make assumptions on where Pakistani producers, who wish to sell content to international platforms, stand if tensions escalate between the two countries, he comments.

Since this is a new domain, Rasheed surmises that the industry is learning as it goes. The only other alternative for producers to make serious money is television or film, and both have their own share of problems.

Asim Abbasi, whose directorial debut Cake won universal acclaim, is also working on a web-series. Abbasi, however, is keeping mum on the details.

Answering what he could in a quick WhatsApp chat, Abbasi said that he is not at liberty to reveal the platform where his 10-episode web series will stream or what the cast is, except that it’s a “large, female-led ensemble.”

Abbasi did say that the series will likely be released in the first quarter of 2020, and is a genre that he has not explored before.

When asked why he chose to do a web-series after a film, Abbasi says that the medium is artistically liberating. “I’m allowed to be creatively free to explore themes that would be difficult to do on TV or cinema. [Here I can] experiment with the narrative and storytelling structure,” he wrote back.

The television industry has become quality-conscious, preferring to work with a handful of established directors. Producers who have worked for television say that making a film (or even a web series) is far easier.

As far as films are concerned, eight out of 10 films bomb at the box-office. As we’ve learned from this Eidul Azha line-up, even excessively marketed blockbusters are attracting less footfalls than last year because of inflation and a declining economy.

This brings us back to the necessity of having a Pakistan-specific platform such as Binjee. Although making a mark may take some time, Rahimtoola says that Pakistan is very much ready to embrace internet-exclusive productions.

“People have no problem paying for data services,” he says, referring to the public’s constant need to be connected to the internet. The cost is not that high. Netflix is 1,500 rupees per month, and people are paying without a hitch, Rahimtoola says.

“An ideal price range for a web platform to be successful in the business would be 100 rupees per month, with access to the entire library. A library that [in Binjee’s case] will eventually include theatrically released and original films as well.”

After the market stabilises and new financial avenues such as advertisement and sponsorships kick in, the web may very well be the perfect platform for young, small-to-medium budget films, Rahimtoola prophesises. “It will be way cheaper than going to the multiplex,” he says.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 1st, 2019