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Hotstar’s business is about great storytelling: Gaurav Banerjee

Hotstar is beefing up its Original content line-up with a spy action thriller – ‘Special Ops’ – as part of its Hotstar Specials offering. Directed by Neeraj Pandey and co-directed by Shivam Nair, this fast-paced 8-episode series is based on the role of Indian intelligence in a series of real terror attacks that India faced over the last 19 years, starting with the 2001 attack on Indian Parliament. Hotstar Specials has partnered with Friday Storytellers to launch ‘Special Ops’. 

‘Special Ops’ features an ensemble cast, including Kay Kay Menon, Divya Dutta, Vinay Pathak, Karan Tacker, Sajjad Delafrooze, Sana Khaan, Saiyami Kher, Meher Vij, Vipul Gupta, and Muzammil Ibrahim, among others. Keeping with the scale, the show has been shot across numerous international locales, including Turkey, Azerbaijan, Jordan and India. 

Neeraj Pandey, who has created the show, added, “‘Special Ops’ is a story I thought of many years ago – it’s a big idea that required a lot of patience and research to pursue and develop. With newer and exciting formats of storytelling gaining prominence, we were able to build a fabulous team to create this larger than life story that strings together many real events from the past two decades. For the first time in the history of Indian entertainment, the 2001 Indian Parliament Attack has been recreated on celluloid. That’s just one of the many big moments from the show.” 

Shital Bhatia, who has produced the show, said, “A big idea requires the right scale and platform to bring it altogether. This is an exciting partnership for us and has many firsts – first digital series from Friday storytellers, Neeraj’s first on the digital platform and our association with the largest OTT, Hotstar. The show has the right mix of scale, talent and pace to enthral and entertain the audiences.” 

The show is set to launch on March 17, 2020 in seven languages on Hotstar VIP. 

Adgully spoke to Gaurav Banerjee, Head - Hindi Entertainment, Star India, to know more about the idea behind ‘Special Ops’, focus on high quality content, investing in great storytelling and much more. When asked about the launch of Disney+ in India, Banerjee said that the group was “working intensively on it”. 

How did the idea for ‘Special Ops’ originate? What were some of the challenges faced in the making of this show?

When we started thinking about original content on Hotstar, literally the first name that popped up was Neeraj Pandey. His was the kind of film making that we wanted to do on digital. Neeraj had already worked with us on ‘MS Dhoni – The Untold Story’. We had a conversation with him and he shared some ideas that he was excited about. We didn’t come to the idea, we came to the man. While sharing ideas he happened to share the one line thought on ‘Special Ops’, which got us excited and we went ahead with this series. 

When it comes to challenges, we faced many. The first big challenge was to make a series of this scale efficiently. Another challenge was the casting. The way Neeraj Pandey visualised his canvas, it required an ensemble cast and the right mix of actors who would be convincing in their roles. 

Since both Neeraj and I are new to this, it was a challenge to get the story written efficiently and get all the arcs right. But it was more of Neeraj’s challenge. 

Since the shooting involved several locations and cities, operational details were also very important. 

What are your expectations for ‘Special Ops’?

We hope the viewers will find this show worthy of their time and like it. If they like Neeraj Pandey’s style of storytelling, which is very unique and distinct as we first saw in the film ‘A Wednesday’, I think viewers should watch the evolution of that kind of a story in ‘Special Ops’. 

According to a recent report by GroupM, OTT players are expected to spend Rs 2.5 billion in content creation. Your comments.

Having high quality content is absolutely crucial for OTT players. Viewers will always go for great stories that are told really well. For that, you need them to be mounted really well. We would want to spend a lot of money to ensure stories are told credibly. This will be different for different shows. Production cost for a show like ‘Out Of Love’, which doesn’t have many locations but requires great actors, is very different from that of a show like ‘Special Ops’, which is shot in several international locations besides having great actors. Therefore, it requires heavy investment in production. 

Eventually, the viewer is going to question whether what he or she is watching really has value and is engrossing. 

How important is the aspect of pricing while offering premium content to the viewer?

I think one needs to make a business model and find out how much commercial value a particular investment generates. For that, pricing plays a very important role and it does for us as well. 

This is a long-term game and we are just starting out. We’ve been in this business with Hotstar Specials for just 11 months and I think we will take a long term view in building value. 

Where do you see the OTT industry headed in 2020? What are some key trends that you foresee?

I see further growth with a lot more viewers coming in and much deeper engagement as well. Viewership across age groups and cities will grow. We are just in the early stages of this ecosystem. 

In terms of content, I think we will see bigger bets being taken. We will see a lot more diversity. We will see many more stories being told that are more diverse in nature. Hopefully, there will be a lot of quality emerging as well along with new talent. 

How are you strategising in terms of your content?

Our content strategy has largely been focused on three things. We are deeply interested in knowing who the storyteller is. Secondly, why does that storyteller want to tell that story? Thirdly, we want a wide range of stories. For example, now we would not want to do a spy thriller just because it works. These are the three important questions that we would want to answer and I think if we do that very well, we can hopefully create a very good series of shows. 

Netflix has recently announced a Rs 5 pack for new users. This announcement comes around the time Disney + is gearing for launch in India. What are your views on this?

It’s great! I think if a lot of quality content is available to consumers, it will bring intense competition and make the market better. We’ve seen this in TV as well. There’s no reason why it cannot happen in the OTT space. 

OTT is a very simple business. It is about great storytelling. If we can create an ecosystem that can support that, then we’ll be okay with it.

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