IWMBuzz gets into an exclusive talk with ALTBalaji’s Content Head, Nimisha Pandey…

Indian digital streaming networks first burst onto the scene roughly 2 and half years ago. Prior to that, you might have seen glimpses of this new medium through YouTube. A lot of people were investing in YouTube channels at the time, but that culture faded out almost as soon as it began. Then came the Hotstars and Voots and pretty much everybody else started pushing the term ‘web-series’ like it was Yoga.

So it wasn’t shocking that Balaji – who is always looking to go big – entered the on-demand video game.

They had the money, they had the clout and pretty much everything else in between. Balaji Telefilms is a front-runner when it comes to television. But would it manage to take a chunk out of the digital plate? A plate that caters to millenials, newly formed Christopher Nolan fans and folks who have zero tolerance for regular television.

ALTBalaji’s reins were handed over to a certain Nimisha Pandey, the previous gun-runner for Balaji Telefilms. A national award winning filmmaker and television honcho, but humble in the number of years spent in the industry,

Nimisha set out to put together this newly minted operation.

I spoke to Nimisha two years ago regarding ALTBalaji’s plans for the future of digital streaming. She had then politely declined saying that it was quite early and she’d rather let her work do the talking. And here we are two years later,

ALT is killing it, and how. They’ve managed to rake in different audiences with their variety, and have created some of the most compelling and talked about pieces of content in recent years.

Now that her work is talking and getting others to talk, she finally agreed to an interview. So here we are.

Firstly, tell us about your role as the Content Head of AltBalaji?

In the business of entertainent, the role of Content Head of one of the most dynamic and engaging digital platforms isbasically about infusing passion into story telling. In that context, my role includes identifying the cross genre stories we want to tell, building a team of producers, directors, writers and on screen talent to tell those stories, finding creative solutions to the financial, logistical and often even emotional obstacles that talented people face when working with each other to translate those stories on to the screen. Also, to build a strong in-house team that can take the vision ahead. It’s about creating a legacy because, lets face it, web stories will stay on the net forever. I am truly grateful to Ekta for trusting me with this huge a responsibility.

What were the initial challenges you faced at the network?

When I was chosen to be the Head of Programming in 2016, web series and digital content was already popular in the US and Europe. But in India, it was virtually non-existent. The initial challenge was getting people excited, generating awareness about this new medium. Most of the talent was apprehensive about working for the digital medium. It was new for me as well, I come from television and I was used to doing things a certain way. Also, in television – people know that Balaji telefilms is a big banner and the kind of shows we make. But starting off fresh made getting writers, directors and creative people to come on board extremely tough.

Creating a finite series is also very rewarding in comparison to regular television, because you have the entire existence of the show mapped out. In television – the storylines evolve over a period of years.

What’s it like now? Are people still apprehensive about working with ALT?

They’ve come around for sure. In fact, people are really excited about working with us. It is a dramatic shift that I have seen in the last 2 years and it makes me happy and proud.

Stories that cannot be told on any other medium, is the first lens to choosing concepts at ALTBalaji: Nimisha Pandey, Content Head, ALTBalaji 1

How different is the process of making a show for the digital medium in comparison to regular TV?

In regular television, you have certain genres that dominate the screen. It’s not like that when you’re creating digital content. While you do take cues from what people might enjoy, you can also push concepts that may be new to them and get a chance to see if it picks up. And because it’s not being telecast daily, it gives you more time for research and for working out all the little details in the story and script phase. Creating a finite series is also very rewarding in comparison to regular television, because you have the entire existence of the show mapped out. In television – the storylines evolve over a period of years. Creating for this medium is far more disciplined and innovative when compared to television.

What is the profile of your target audience?  And what has the response been like?

We make something for everyone. It is no more a ‘one size fits all’ and that’s what gives way to the diverse content available on the platform. From The Test Case and BOSE: Dead / Alive to Dev DD and Haq Se, from Ragini MMS Returns to Karrle Tu bhi Mohabbat, you can pick your type. The hope is to target men and women from 13-45. Shows like Karrle Tu Bhi Mohabbat and Haq Se, provide a sense of familiarity and will hopefully convert the appointment audience into the weekend-long binge-watching crowd. The response has been phenomenal! The cities watching us have taken us by surprise. Consuming digital content is not just a metro phenomenon anymore. We will be making an official announcement regarding the numbers soon.

When we started out, people asked us if anybody would pay to watch shows online. But we were sure that there is an audience out there that does not mind paying if they feel it is worth it!

What’s the key to cracking a show at ALTBalaji? What do you look for in a script?

Stories that cannot be told on any other medium – is the first lens to choosing concepts at ALTBalaji. Other than that, it has to be engaging content and it has to enjoyable for its entire duration. Also we ensure a premium look to our content, after all we are asking the audience to pay for it!

You’re a subscription based platform. How do you get people to subscribe?

By creating different programming for different audiences!!That, and by making gripping content. When we started out, people asked us if anybody would pay to watch shows online. But we were sure that there is an audience out there that does not mind paying if they feel it is worth it! And going by our recent numbers, that audience is expanding faster than imagined.

The freedom has more to do with being able to create different things for different people. While television channels stand for one ideology or thought, the digital platform can cater to more than one kind of audience.

One of the advantages of the digital medium is uncensored content. Talk about the freedom that comes along with that.

The freedom has more to do with being able to create different things for different people. While television channels stand for one ideology or thought, the digital platform can cater to more than one kind of audience. Not having a censor body has made us explore unconventional stories whether it is Romil and Jugal or DevDD. This is the world we are living in today, it is high time that our content reflects that. Also, uncensored content doesn’t mean we’ll go crazy!

While nobody is censoring us, we still want to make what we’re comfortable making. Even for the viewers, this medium is incredibly freeing. Because if it’s not censored, monitored and people aren’t judging you for what you’re watching – you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want it. This kind of unapologetic viewership is hard to find on any other medium and has paved way for some exciting stories.

Stories that cannot be told on any other medium, is the first lens to choosing concepts at ALTBalaji: Nimisha Pandey, Content Head, ALTBalaji 2

Describe your experience at ALTBalaji so far?

Enriching. We’ve been fortunate to have seen the beginning and the growth of a new medium. There has been as much unlearning as learning. It’s been challenging at times, but it’s also been amazing. We are making our own rules and then we are breaking them, its an empowering feeling.

Everyone loves recognition and appreciation. Having said this, I strongly believe that awards are not the real success. I am a huge fan of something that George Bernard Shaw said ‘the real moment of success is not the moment apparent to the crowd’ So for me, those moments are far more rewarding than any award.

Tell us about some of the upcoming projects of ALTBalaji?

We are collaborating with some excellent talent to create an exciting slate for the platform. Habib Faisal is directing a hearwarming drama inspired from true events called ‘Home’. ‘Verdict’ is a courtroom drama based on Nanawati case and is being helmed by Subhash Kapoor. We are going on floor with our first gangster drama that features Vivek Oberoi, Ravi Kishan. Then there are some remarkable love stories and family dramas: ‘Broken’ with Vikrant Massey, ‘Judaai’ with Karan Singh Grover. We have commissioned a few thrillers and crime dramas as well. Then, we’ve got ‘Mangalyaan’, which is based on the women behind the Mars Orbiter Mission. We are working towards our first historical, ‘Mehrunissa’ with Mouni Roy. Then there are next seasons of our incredibly successful series like DevDD, Ragini MMS Returns, Karrle Tu Bhi Mohabbat, BOSE and The Test Case. I can really spend a lot of time talking about the content we are creating so let me only say that THE SHOWS HAVE JUST BEGUN!!

So overall, the year ahead looks really good. Let’s hope. Fingers crossed.

How does it feel to be winning so many awards for your shows?

Everyone loves recognition and appreciation. Having said this, I strongly believe that awards are not the real success. I am a huge fan of something that George Bernard Shaw said ‘the real moment of success is not the moment apparent to the crowd’ So for me, those moments are far more rewarding than any award.

What is your take on competition?

I pretty much watch every show. Even if not the entire series, I at least sample it to keep track of what people are doing or what works. Having said that, it is a new medium, and there are no rules or ideas for what really works. It’s a young growing medium, there is place for everyone but at the end of the day, only good content will thrive.

In just a span of one year, ALTBalaji has created 18 shows and they have no plans of slowing down. Our guess is that, their official announcement in the coming weeks is going to be the first real result people will see in terms of progress in the digital entertainment.

As Nimisha walked out of the office, I couldn’t help but think that this young, fearless chic is the perfect embodiment of what a studio head should be. And then my phone buzzed.

And I could swear – I received a notification from ALTBalaji’s app. Call it kismet or creepy, I had to sit down for a while.

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