EXCLUSIVE | Gautam Talwar, MX Player: Acing regional Indian OTT content

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In an exclusive interaction, Gautam Talwar, Chief Content Officer, MX Player, speaks about the content innovations taking place at MX Player, its upcoming content lineup, its latest series Samantar Season 2 and how it has awed audiences. Gautam also discusses how MX Player blends commerce and content, how it hones talent, the most popular shows, genres on MX Player and the kind of content it aims to back — always keeping customer delight at its core.

Tell us about Samantar Season 1 and 2? What made you decide to pick it up, how did you go about the treatment of creating it, when did it first come to you? And why do you think it turned out to be so successful?

Gautam Talwar is an industry veteran with more than 20 years of experience in content, advertising and entertainment. His last role in advertising was that of the Chief Strategy Officer for Rediffusion Y&R, after which he founded Culture Chaat Inc., a company targeted at producing culturally insightful content for kids.

 

Culture Chaat’s first animated show Jalebi Street was successfully launched for preschoolers, receiving acclaim and popularity both on television (Nick Jr.) and on YouTube, with over 50 million views since launch. Gautam has also been a regular guest columnist for The Economic Times (Business of Brands section) in 2013-2014 as well as Brand Wagon (Marketing supplement for Financial Express)

 

Gautam  began with Grey Worldwide and followed that up with several years at Lowe Lintas in account management and strategic planning. His career path then took him to Lateral Solutions (Netpreneurship) followed by Lowe Dubai, Kaleidoscope Entertainment Pvt Ltd and then Rediffusion Y&R.

 

Gautam was also creative and business head for Kaleidoscope Entertainment, where he set up the mobile content division, developed original concepts and content for the television and the mobile space. He also executive-produced two full-length feature films.

 

Recognition: Two Cannes Finalist certificates for Axe (consecutive years); a  New York Silver, an EPICA silver. Campaign Gold Award for best-integrated marketing campaign for 2005 for Axe for the MENA region; Unilever Internal Gold Award for Global Brand Activation of Axe; Silver ‘Effies’ winner for the PSI campaign (Balbir Pasha).

A colleague brought us the script for Samantar and in the first read itself, we knew it was an interesting story. I read the one-line story and then went on to read the book written by Suhas Shirvalkar, both piqued my interest.

Earlier, other channels and platforms had attempted to make Samantar but somehow, it never saw the light of the day. We reached out to the producers GSEAMS (Kartik Nishandar and Arjun Singgh Baran), who had book rights available.

Swwapnil Joshi, Kartik and Arjun obviously have been trying to make this show for the last 10 years, but it just didn’t happen. Samantar is all about destiny and serendipity and I would say serendipity happened with our platform and somewhere the show found its home.

My team read the book too and knew exactly how to go ahead with it and were fully involved in the making of Season 1. We brought on Satish Rajawade, a big name in the Marathi film industry, to direct Season 1.

Season 2 was also created by Sameer Vidwans, whose celebrated work includes Anandi Gopal, the National award-winning film. He really manifested Season 2 for us. It’s one of the few shows that reverses the trend in the OTT space. Usually, season 2s don’t do that well but this has performed phenomenally well.

So the story is very strong. Tell us about the other creative USPs of the show, too.

Well, the first time we ever worked with these producers was for Samantar Season 1 and now season 2, of course, because the fruits of Season 1 were very good. But with this show, the most important part was the story. The whole concept of ‘your past, is my future’, itself is such a great one-liner.

And that is what really excited us. The fact that we got Swwapnil, one of the biggest names in the Marathi film industry to work along with Tejaswini (Pandit) and Nitish Bharadwaj was a great add-on to the concept.

Season 1 really worked for us and therefore Season 2 became a reality. It added a lot to the book as well, two to three episodes and one whole track in the series were added by the writer Ambar Hadap as well. As far as we are concerned, I think that we could probably be the biggest Marathi OTT show ever in this country.

What have been the ratings like — time-spent, MAUs, DAUs, the overall consumption pattern and geographical consumption Indian heat-map for Samantar 2?

I think what’s interesting about Samantar is that the story has resonated across India. It is a story that is very deep-rooted in our culture and therefore it is not Marathi-centric necessarily.

You’ll be surprised to know that more than 45% of the viewership is actually in Hindi, and it is fantastic for a Marathi show to actually cross that border. Markets like Mumbai, Nagpur, Thane were completely engaged and Maharashtra has actually become the #1 State for viewership for this month only because of Samantar.

We are an HSM market platform, and our larger audiences lie in UP, Bihar, etc. for the shows that we create but because of Samantar, Maharashtra has again come on top. Cities like Delhi, Lucknow, Ahmedabad and Patna are the ones that are actually watching this show with great gusto.

We’ve gone up 2x from where we were at, overall, as far as Maharashtra is concerned or even where the show is concerned. But more than the numbers, I think it is important to understand that the show has transgressed across the board. So, if you ask me, I think only MX Player has thus far invested substantially for two regional shows like this.

One is Samantar in Marathi and the other is Queen in Tamil with Ramya Krishnan which we did in December 2019. I don’t think there has been a bigger Tamil show or a bigger Marathi show in this country on OTT platforms, these shows were also dubbed in multiple languages, each of them performing very well.

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So what are your plans in the future for this particular series? Will it have a season 3 and 4? You’ve built brand equity, people love it.

Sometimes, it’s best not to stretch a story. We have left the audience with a very small hope that we can do a season 3. But I’m not so sure the story may need a season 3. We are still contemplating about it but the first two have done so well for us that all the love the audience has given us is just unprecedented.

What are the top 10 MX shows for you, originals, which you’re very proud of that came out of MX and your content team or even the previous content team? 

The important thing is also to look at where we are rated on all these shows. If you look at all the IMDB ratings, Samantar has an 8.4 rating and that’s phenomenal. We have another show called High that is rated at 9.

Ashram was of course our biggest hit with Bobby and Prakash Jha with more than 10 billion minutes and 1.2 billion views. Queen is fantastic in Tamil, again a very highly rated show on IMDB again. It’s all 8+ ratings.

There are two other shows that have done phenomenally well for us, one is called Raktanchal and the other isb. Then there is Indori Ishq and Pavan and Pooja. One of my favorite shows for which we won the Asian Academy Awards and the Filmfare OTT, very close to my heart, is Times of Music.

Whata are the top 5 genres in order of popularity on MX player, across languages

We always offer what is not available to our core audience of 18 to 30 male residing in tier 2, tier 3 towns. The genre that does very well for us is, of course, Crime-Drama.

The reason the genre is prevalent even on our platform is that kind of content is not available to them since TV cannot offer or does not extensively offer these genres.

And cinema is few and far in between. Then there is suspense and thrillers, there is generic drama. This could be political drama or family drama, then would be a comedy, and lastly, romance flicks.

What are the originals that you have planned going ahead? What kind?

It’s a full pipeline. We are trying to experiment with new genres, we are trying to experiment with new formats, there is a lot of stuff that we are hoping to innovate, going into the future.

COVID did put a huge break on all our shoots. We used it wisely for writing purposes and making sure the writing is absolutely stitched around the show. Now that we can resume shoots in a larger capacity, we are exploring locations across the country.

We have around 4 or 5 shows that are on the floor right now. And about 3 or 4 that are going on the floor in the next 4 to 5 days. The good part is that there are a lot of season 2s that are going to come including Aashram, High, Queen, Ek Thi Begum, and Racktanchal.

MX TakaTak has some phenomenal talent, spontaneous artists. So do you keep an eye open for some talent there? Co-opt that talent into the MX player content ecosystem, do they get a chance to feature on MX shows? Is there something that is happening? 

We’ve completed a year of TakaTak and we just ran a contest called #MainBhiSuperStar. We used Instagram and had Swwapnil ask for entries from people who want and can audition for the shows that we’re making.

So, through our short format platform, MX TakaTak, we are looking at a very large talent pool that we can use across our shows. Sometimes the main lead, sometimes in other roles but there are some symbiotic relationships between the two for sure.

How are you shooting during the pandemic? Samantar, when did the shoot finish and when did it start? 

We did shoot a little during the pandemic with absolute protocols in place. It was a very tough shoot with people in PPE kits and other such precautionary measures. We shot Samantar across Mumbai, Pune, Bhor, Panchgani, Mahableshwar and Kolhapur, it was a multiple location shoot, but fortunately, we were in post when the second wave hit us.

We finished shooting before the second wave hit us and that is what we will see in the coming months. But I think everybody will feel a crunch during September, October, November and December because none of us have been able to shoot April onwards. All the platforms will have some amount of crunch in the last quarter of the year.

How did Samantar 2 help the business of MX Player? It’s purely a free channel so was it advertisers and if so how many genres and categories?

As the head of content, I follow the engagement numbers of the series on the platform. If the engagement is larger, there are more advertisers that can participate in the show, which is actually happening with most of our shows, including Samantar.

What has it been like working at MX Player?

It has been phenomenal. The amount of creative freedom we get to do what we get to do; I don’t think I’ll get it anywhere else.

We are a start-up, we have the heart of a startup…we are and operate like a good tech company, but eventually, we need to understand that content is what will drive us through. The amount of freedom we get to create is what is phenomenal about MX.

A lot of dubbing is taking place on MX Player. Samantar has been dubbed in various languages. So how popular are International English titles in the Hindi-speaking market?

We have a category called MXVDesi on the platform. We started off with only Turkish shows, dubbed in only Hindi. The success of those shows has prompted us to get shows from all over the world.

Now we have Turkish, Spanish, Korean, Ukrainian and Japanese shows amongst others and now they’re not only dubbed in Hindi but also in Tamil and in Telugu. The category is genuinely doing phenomenally well.

It has given us leads to understanding what kind of Hindi content people would really like. So we have taken a lot of learnings on board about long formats because these shows have hundreds of episodes and we have dubbed all of them.

If you look at all our social media handles you will always find a request for some show in some language. Like always, we are going to go all out to find good content to deliver to our audience.

Anything that you want to tell us?

We are looking forward to the coming year 2021-2022. We’ve got some great shows lined up. We are extremely excited about all the Season 2’s.

The fact that we have second seasons means that the first seasons did well and hopefully we’ll be able to delight our audiences with the content we want to put out there in the second edition as well. There are some new properties that are going to shake up the OTT space is what I can guarantee you.