Gautam brings to the table over 20 years of experience in the content, advertising and entertainment space. His constant source of inspiration is music, movies and spirituality. He is endlessly fascinated by unearthing insights and motivations that drive human behaviour.
Today in Straight Talk Gautam Talwar – Chief Content Officer at MX Player, talks to us on MX Players latest show Ashram and the phenomenal success of the show. He also talks about his journey in the Content space and much more……
Ashram opened with a bang and now seeing 200 MN streams your thoughts?
It is 300 now to be honest with you and the response that it got is unprecedented, it is unheard of. It is probably and it would be safe to say that it would be one of the most watched series in Indian OTT given the scale of a platform and a number of people that have actually viewed it. I would easily put it as one of the most viewed series in this country. It has got a lot of love, appreciation and everything is out there for people to see, just go to #Ashram on Instagram or Twitter and you will see the kind of love is pouring out. So yes unprecedented success on our platform and I guess this show has beaten all records.
What made you green light a subject like this as we know in India Godmen are revered?
It is a world that we were discussing when I first started off at MX two years ago, it started off a long time back, we were discussing as to the kind of worlds that our customers will be interested in watching and this was definitely one of the worlds that was very fascinating. I guess we as Indians are completely engulfed in this entire spirituality, especially religious spirituality. There is a very fine line between spirituality and religion, it was interesting to see in the public domain there were enough and more people who are actually con men and they have nothing to do with spirituality or with religion, they are just people who know how to make a fool out of a lot of people.
I think that is what excited us and we discussed it internally and then we got on board Habib, who gave us a beautiful story, it took about six to eight months to write the story, he also gave us these beautiful characters, like Baba Nirala, Bhopa Swami, Sati, Pammi, Ujaagar. Kuldeep wrote the screenplay and dialogues for the show. It took us about a year and a half to actually get something concrete and ready to go to Prakash Jhaand of course,he is genuinely a Maestro and he has done this so often with most of his films earlier as well, when he read it and it appealed to him he said let us talk. He then added his own layers to each and every character, he improved on the writing,the kind of context that we were setting for the show and then he produced and directed the show. It is his debut as well and I must say he has done such a fabulous job it is unbelievable.
All shows on MX Player are shot like feature films, if I may ask what are your budgets?
Trust me, it is way lesser than what most people spend and that is the beauty of going to someone like Prakash Jha, his production house is so efficient, they are on the ball. But this is one of our more expensive show and I will not deny it, but we were committed to it and having Prakash Jhaon board helped us to firm that vision completely along with him. Then came all the actors and they were par excellence. BobbyDeol came on board just hearing it once and he was like are you serious you want me to do this asI have never done this before and Prakash ji was like, I am sure about what I am saying. Then all the rest of them, whether it be Aditi, Tridha, Chandan and others were brilliant and they were just so involved with their characters and they portrayed it well. I think that is what really works when you are just so involved in the creative part, the budgets does play a role, but as long as everybody’s overexcited to deliver I think that is when magic really happens.
How much do you think that casting right is very important?
I think it is very important, one wrong casting cannot get even a single scene right and it is so amazing that the kind of responses that you get from audiences, the kind of memes that are actually now on all of our social media. Audiences catch the finer nuances of every show, they pick up every line, a Starbucks cup left on Game of Thrones set and they are that particular about what they see. Every single cast that comes on board and actually plays a character is extremely important as far as we are concerned and it is important that they kind of give it their100%.
You also took a bold step of promoting the show by OOH, bus shelters and as the main marketing tool during this lockdown, strategy behind it?
I think we are in the unlock phase and I have seen the kind of traffic while I was headed to office and also to be very honest with you, I think the value that you get now for these kind of media outlets is very good. One it is uncluttered and second there is a certain price value equation that is very nice right now and I think we wanted to exploit that. I think the marketing team has done a brilliant job of actually making sure that we have used every single medium that is available for Ashram be it Television, PR, Radio Out of Home, Bus shelters, Social media and I don’t think we left any stone unturned.
Ashram now is the biggest show on the AVOD platform, it has created history so your thoughts on it? Will it create a benchmark equal into the 100 crore club, which exists in the movie industry?
We are overwhelmed to be honest and it has exceeded all our expectations.The subject was universal. We knew that it can cut across most audience parameters, it is not necessarily a heartland show and it is not necessarily a metro show. I think people living in Mumbai will enjoy it as much as a person sitting in Barabankhiwould enjoy it. We always have some numbers in our head, in that this is what it should do and this is what it can do, probably in the potential terms of the views or the watch time, but to be doing 300 million streams in less than a month it is kind of ridiculous.
I think it already has, if you really look at the comparison with box office, I can do a rough calculation right now as we speak, and the biggest box office success probably would have been Dangal. It would have done about a 300 to 400 crores in India and if you divided it by the ticket price of 200 it will come up to about two crore, these many people would have seen the movie. We are way past double that arc in any case. I mean saying that the number of people that would have viewed the show is way beyond in any case, simply because first it is AVOD and second the distribution strength of MXPlayer lends itself to making sure that a lot more people get access to watching this premium content. This would have crossed the 100 crore club in the first week itself.
Does this give you more viewers because today you can watch this show on the mobile and also on your Smart TV?
To be honest with you, I think we are still mobile first, the number of people that are currently viewing on mobile is the maximum and will remain the maximum for a very long period of time. Smart TV viewing is still very low to be honest with you. Have they started to download the App and watch it on Smart TV, yes they have and a lot of people are watching it on Fire Stick as well. Yes, there have been a lot of new users that we probably wouldn’t have had as MX originally and with this show, and with all the earlier shows that we have launched, I think we have managed to kind of gain a healthy audience from these mediums as well.
20+ years in the business of content, advertising and entertainment space, How has your journey been and what are the changes and the challenges been?
I have always been a part of content, whether it be a 30 sec Ad filmor a three minute video, when we started doing mobile content originally in 2006, or now long format content. I think content is literally my lifeline. I love doing it and I am very passionate about it. I think if you enjoy your work, you don’t think it is work. People ask me how is COVID treating you and I tell them that we are working harder today, we are working 18 hours from home. In office one get breaks but at home we do not get those breaks, we are just looking at shows as everything is online. We are working harder at home than we were in office and that is for sure.
For me I just genuinely believe that as long as I am in the content space, as long as I am creating something, along with a bunch of very talented people, it is a permanent high no pun intended it is our next series called ‘Hi’, you are just having fun. And to work with the likes of Prakashji, Gautam Menon and all the directors that I have worked and shot with, it is just a great learning curve and as long as you enjoy yourself it is great and I am having a blast.
During these hard times, how are you keeping your morale of your team by working remotely and how are you making sure about the mental health of employees?
One thing that we do is that because everybody’s far away and few of them went back home. I have my team members sitting in Baliya, UP to Assam, so people are working from Baliya, to Jorhat, to South of India, in Kerala. One thing good is that every day we talk to each other and just before this call, we had our weekly team meetings. We are all connected at any given point in time so that is the good part and other than that, I think we have missed the action on the floor, so we are all dying to go back to shooting which was stopped for the past six months. That is the only part that we are really itching to go back to, unfortunately, COVID has not made us do that. Finally we have just started shooting for one of our shows during this unlock period, and hopefully a lot of more good shows very soon.
The lockdown has seen a shift in people’s attitudes towards entertainment as OTT rules the roost, how much of fresh content has MX put out during the season?
You would be really surprised if I tell you, during the 28 week period of the lockdown, right from the 12th of March till now. From acquired shows and the original shows, we have actually put out a show a week, it is 28 shows in different languages and they all are exclusives.
Who was your first and most significant mentor or teacher in the professional space?
There have been so many, I have had the fortunate to work with a lot of brilliant minds and it is very difficult for me to like actually pinpoint. In advertising there were many mentors, Arun Nanda was one of them. In the content space, the beauty of mentorship is that only one person and that is the director who teaches you so much. Today I am putting out a show called ‘Hi’, and have learnt a lot from a young director and I feel you just have to be a sponge and absorb. It is very difficult to name that one mentor.
What specifically did you learn that has held you in good stead throughout?
I think understanding the creative process, to be honest with you I think creative creations can never be created by a committee and I have always believed that it has to be a vision, and it has to be a shared vision. As long as you are very clear about whose job is what, and who is supposed to deliver what, that is when I genuinely believe you will get a decent product. The moment the director starts to do everybody’s job, then that becomes a problem. Individual technicians be it a Cinematographer, Art director, the sound guy does his or her jobs. When you are making a piece of creative, you must make sure that you get the best talent that you can afford and once the best talent is on board, I genuinely believe that you should just let them do the work.
The same goes exactly with writing, I think that is where we get involved the maximum, we write all our shows very carefully. Our job is really about facilitating and making sure that we get the best out of every single department, does not matter which the department is and I think that is where we really focus all our energies on. When we took the script to Prakash Ji, he was the one who breathed life into every single character and it was his vision, there is no doubt about it and you have to trust him to do what he does best. Generally that has been my big learning in this process of creating a lot of these shows.
Apart from being the young content creator, what are some of the other activities or hobbies that excite you and what are your weekends like?
I am totally self-absorbed with creation, it does not matter what I am creating and when I am creating. I am either reading or writing and that is the beauty. It does not seem like work anymore, I am having so much fun that I don’t feel like doing anything else. It is a lot of fun and I am watching a lot, I am trying to see where the world is headed to what are the trends like. Music is something that interests me a lot. I listen to a lot of music, a lot of different kind of music, nowadays I am listening to music that my eight year daughter recommends. I have not heard that kind of music but it is interesting to kind of listen to. I do go riding, it is raining nowadays, so have taken a break and it is a great me time I get about two hours on the bike on my own.