Cold Case = Hot Entertainment
We enjoyed CID reruns and Savdhaan India specials. Now, OTT platforms want to hook us up with hardcore true crime documentaries. Will enough Indians watch?
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Those who grew up bingeing the thrilling, if slightly sleazy, episodes of crime shows may instantly recognise the line “savdhaan rahein, satark rahein” (stay vigilant, stay alert). Actor Anup Soni, host of Sony’s runaway 2000s hit Crime Patrol, is a regular fixture in the Indian true crime genre; before turning host, he played ACP Ajatshatru on Sony’s CID, once India’s longest-running TV show. Soni became so intertwined with Hindi-speaking viewers’ idea of true crime that in 2021, he got himself certified as a crime scene investigator.
But while all the adulation turned these, and later Savdhaan India, into widely watched shows, it couldn’t rescue their image as pulpy, often poorly-written, guilty pleasures.
In this stand-up set, comedian Abhishek Upamanyu described Crime Patrol as the perfect escape when life isn’t going well. But the point of his jokes is just how ridiculous the show really is.
Can Indian true crime get the sort of serious, investigative aura that award-winning American documentaries have? India’s streaming executives and filmmakers think so. But it will involve slowly changing the way both filmmakers and fans of true crime think.
Inside Indian true crime’s ‘elevated’ era
Early Indian streaming originals focused on being ‘gritty’ and ‘dark’ to woo an audience bored of vanilla TV. Crime fiction became big after hits like Sacred Games and Mirzapur. And even today, stories of crime are everybody’s go-to. When JioCinema launched its originals slate earlier this year, it focused heavily on crime thrillers. Crime dominated this year’s most-watched Indian originals (pdf).
This has given platforms confidence to experiment with a format Indians barely watch: documentaries. Since the pandemic, there’s been a steady rise in true crime docu-series, starting with early hits such as India-focused American production Wild Wild Country. Netflix and Discovery+ have been leading in this genre, although Disney+ Hotstar released Behind Closed Doors on Aarushi Talwar’s murder case in 2019 and Prime Video released Dancing On The Grave earlier this year.
These shows aren’t anything like Crime Patrol or Savdhaan India. Like their American counterparts, they rely on a narrator, interviews, archival footage, and a sprinkling of dramatic recreations. Among premium viewers used to bingeing American content on Netflix, there’s keen interest in investigative, journalism-style, true-crime documentaries. And so, there’s a clear divide in true crime available online and what airs on TV.
“When networks like ours entered, the true crime genre was very America-centric,” Warner Bros. Discovery’s (WBD’s) Sai Abishek told The Impression. He is the head of the factual and lifestyle cluster for South Asia at the company. “In OTT, we started doing these premium, in-depth shows. People want to see the story unravelled in an episodic manner. So, on the Discovery channel, we don’t commission true crime at all. This genre is commissioned entirely on OTT.”
WBD also runs the TV channel Investigations Discovery, but it doesn’t have local programming on it at all. It airs reruns of American true crime dubbed in local languages.
So, who’s watching true crime in India?
Elevated Guilty Pleasures
The traditional true crime viewer is women; these shows help them study the motives for crimes against women and empathise with (overwhelmingly) female victims. But in India, that’s not always the case.
True crime on TV is played on general entertainment channels that are targeted at women, but streaming platforms find that far more men stream their original documentaries in India.
“Discovery+ is heavily male skewed,” WBD’s Abishek says. “More than 70% of the audience is men. When we started doing true crime, we got heavy traction with both men and women, but of course with more men because of the nature of the platform.” This audience can be even more male skewed for sub-genres of true crime, such as shows made on white collar criminals.
What has helped deliver hits is documentaries on crimes of passion; among Discovery’s successful shows is the franchise Love Kills.
Suddenly, true crime went from shady shows for guilty pleasure to an elevated art form, something you can recommend to family and friends. “These shows were more journalistic in style, which made the genre not so lowbrow anymore,” a senior executive in the streaming business told The Impression on condition of anonymity since she’s not authorised to speak to the media. “There has been a shift from low budget production, bad actors. and poor writing. It has changed the way audiences look at true crime. There’s now a certain premium-ness to it.”
Still, to suit Indian tastes, platforms still have to rely on techniques of fictional filmmaking and keep things a little less journalistic and a little more exciting. “The viewers have quickly evolved,” WBD’s Abishek says. “We try to make it in an HBO-style, ‘unravelling investigative’ way. Even our approach to documentaries has evolved over time: it’s more cinematic and we do reconstructions with actors.”
Some filmmakers, keen to dig into a crime with journalistic vigour, say the audience may not be entirely sold on that treatment. “Take Indian Predator: Murder In The Courtroom, for example,” documentary filmmaker Arpita De tells The Impression. “It tapped into what audiences want. They’re not ready for ‘full-on’ documentaries: this show has a lot of dramatisation but it worked because it was beautifully done. House Of Secrets: The Burari Deaths also kept honing in on the intrigue of mass suicide and the disgust from the visual of hanging family members. Indian true crime documentaries tend to play with linearity and dramatise the story.”
True crime content can be a cheap production or a very expensive one, depending on what one is aiming for. These shows can be easy to conceptualise and produce because a story is already available. “All you need is to narrate how the criminal got caught, how people reacted, and not much else,” says the streaming executive quoted above. “Most American true crime shows on TV aren’t exactly narrative masterpieces.”
With relatively lower effort and lots of dramatic recreations to replace research, a platform can quickly churn out several true crime shows. But that’s not what the likes of Netflix and Discovery are going for in India.
Instead of cheap and easy, platforms are putting money to get fewer, but more detailed true crime documentaries. For instance, Vice India’s production My Daughter Joined A Cult, released on Discovery+, took more than four years to make. It’s a good example of the kind of challenges true crime documentary makers face, particularly in India.
“There was a character who we knew had leaked the tapes on Swami Nithyananda and planted the [hidden] camera,” Naman Saraiya, the show’s director, tells The Impression. “I was in touch with him. First, he vetted us through other journalists, then met us after four months. Another lady got me access to three other people associated with the cult. But I had to spend months having dosa and filter coffee with her before I finally got to interview her for just two hours. Of that, I used maybe two minutes in the final cut. The process is intense.”
WBD’s Abishek says My Daughter… did well for Discovery+ because it was “access-based” storytelling that featured plenty of such interviews. But the keyword here is ‘access’. Filmmakers say, in many cases, they drop the subject of a documentary altogether because access to the main people involved is just not possible. For instance, Arpita De was working on a documentary on KD Kempamma aka Cyanide Mallika, India’s first convicted female serial killer. “We got access to her lawyer and copies of judgements passed in her case. But we couldn’t get access to her for an interview,” De says. Kempamma is serving a life sentence in Bengaluru Central Jail. Meanwhile, American filmmakers often have an edge because the US tends to have plenty of news footage and filming is allowed in some courtrooms in the country.
Filmmakers face other hurdles while making true crime documentaries. These shows are vulnerable to criminal defamation lawsuits, often from people related to the featured crime who are aggrieved at how they’re portrayed.
“People love to send [legal] notices in the crime genre,” WBD’s Sai Abishek says. “We’ve got a lot of notices from people despite them giving us release [forms]. We have notices from petty gangsters who have bumped people off. You have to make sure with your legal team that as a network you are protected and the people who worked on this with you are protected.” He added that legal costs can add up to true crime shows’ budgets.
Is this only an access and journalism problem? Not entirely. Abishek says there’s a dearth of experienced professionals who understand how to helm a complex true crime series. Then, there are limits imposed by platforms keen to avoid protests and government action against their content.
“Good, true crime stories explore themes like sexism, racism, caste-based divisions,” says De. “But in India, most platforms are scared to talk about these. They are worried about losing their audience so you can’t talk about these issues.”
Will this kind of investigative true crime ever gain the kind of mass appeal here that it has in western markets? Perhaps not. ‘Lowbrow’ Indian true crime is popular on TV but well-paying advertisers tend to avoid the genre because families don’t watch such shows together. “These shows may have references to gore, violence, sex, and affairs,” says the streaming executive quoted above. “That’s hardly friendly to an ad for Dove soap or some washing liquid.”
The majority of advertising money in TV in the 2000s came from consumer conglomerates like Reckitt Benckiser (Dettol, Harpic) and Hindustan Unilever (Fair & Lovely, Lux, Rin, Dove, and more). These companies still dominate TV advertising and in the heydays of saas bahu soaps, they had plenty of competing shows to choose from to reach their target audience: women. Even today, advertisers prefer reality TV shows such as KBC, Bigg Boss, and a slew of dancing and singing competitions. Meanwhile, major broadcasters have been ambivalent about the fate of true crime on TV for over a decade.
As for the ‘highbrow’ stuff, it competes with a barrage of critically acclaimed and popular shows from the US for the same audience—premium, urban Indians. These shows may drive subscription and engagement, but detailed interviews and gritty reconstructions in the backdrop of social issues may not interest regular folks looking for light entertainment. They’ll probably do better with crime fiction, of which there is no dearth. Meanwhile, ‘elevated’ true crime may remain the pleasure of a discerning few.
Correction: An earlier edition of this story incorrectly stated that Indian Predator is available on Discovery+. It is a Netflix show. Also, Investigations Discovery does not run Vijay Anand’s ‘Tehkikaat’ but a local package of crime-related shows that Investigations Discovery puts together under this name.
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I've stayed quiet on the appropriation of my work because I think @HumansOfBombay shares important stories, even if they've monetized far past anything I'd feel comfortable doing on HONY. But you can't be suing people for what I've forgiven you for.
Sep 23, 2023
42.4K Likes 6.95K Retweets 679 Replies
If you haven’t been following the ‘Humans of…’ saga online, this tweet is a great starting point. Here’s what happened: social media handle Humans of Bombay (HoB) has sued new rival People of India (PoI) for copyright infringement. In its complaint (here’s a copy), HoB alleged that PoI copied its content by approaching the people featured and recreating images and stories.
HoB also claimed that PoI “replicated” its business model. People online are skewering HoB and founder Karishma Mehta over this claim. The format of photographing somebody and narrating an incident from their life in the caption is something photographer Brandon Stanton started with Humans of New York back in 2010. He criticised Mehta too for claiming copyright infringement on an idea he alleges she stole from him, all for the love of profit, not ‘art’.
So, how much does Humans of Bombay profit from its ‘art’? Company filings show that HoB made ₹6.37 crore (~$760,000) in revenue from operations in FY22, nearly a 2x jump from the previous year. Most of the money came from social media marketing services (and some from selling books). There’s also a rate card of how much HoB charges advertisers floating around.
HoB made ₹3.17 crore (~$380,000) in profits after tax, a solid 50% net profit margin. Most of the company’s costs were salaries. Meanwhile, PoI was only incorporated in January this year in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh with ₹15 lakh (~$18,000) as paid up capital.
Now, HoB’s model doesn’t seem unique. This is how countless meme pages, Twitter handles, Facebook groups, podcasts, and YouTube channels make money.
But how this case plays out may have a big impact on social media’s rampant copyright infringement issues. So many meme pages and YouTube satirists make their living building on others’ original content. Is it ethical to use somebody’s Reel, edit it, and turn it into a meme? That’s how creator Ishaan Ali’s video gave rise to this famous meme. YouTubers like Tanmay Bhat get called out for their ‘react’ videos, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a satirical movie review of a Yash Raj film.
Memes, by definition, can’t be copyrighted. But does somebody’s inspiring story (real or otherwise) qualify? A High Court judgement may answer this soon. The Delhi High Court will next hear HoB vs PoI in early October.
Do you Humans of Bombay has a valid case?
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