Applause Entertainment’s Sameer Nair


Between buzz-generating versions of international hits (among them Hostages and The Office), best-selling book adaptations and original ideas, Applause Entertainment has established itself as a leading provider of content for India’s voracious OTT landscape.

CEO Sameer Nair, who founded the company three years ago as a venture of Aditya Birla Group, tells TV Asia about the exciting opportunities emerging in Indian storytelling as global and local streamers alike battle for subs, and how he and his team are now looking to expand their unique model to the international marketplace.

TV ASIA: When you launched Applause Entertainment, what gaps were you looking to fill in the market?
NAIR: My sense for the streaming space has always been optimistic, despite the success of linear television in India. With Jio coming into play, we have the cheapest data in the world. Also, the fact that we have 500 million smartphones only adds fuel to the streaming business. I’ve always been super bullish about streaming video. The other thing is, in India, TV content has remained frozen in time. We are still doing the daily soap operas on television. We never had an HBO/Showtime moment; we never did The Sopranos. We do great reality, but fiction has been confined to daily soap operas. That Netflix and Amazon would soon come to India was a no-brainer, even as the others continue to grow—Hotstar, SonyLIV, MX Player, Eros Now, Zee 5, ALTBalaji, Voot. They need premium drama series, what we also call cinematic television. That’s what we set out to do with Applause Entertainment as a content studio.

A venture of the Aditya Birla Group, we have set up a unique hub-and-spoke model. We are a core team of about 40 people—a creative team, a marketing team and a revenue team. We work with a variety of talented creators, directors, writers and production houses. We invest time and money in writing and development, we oversee the creative process and we finance the entire production. We make finished tape and then we show it to platforms. That was a punt—we’re going to have it ready and then show it to people.

We said we’d do three things initially to achieve speed-to-market. The first would be international adaptations—or as we call it, smart originals. We did Criminal Justice, The Office, Hostages and Your Honor, among others. Then we said we’ll take books as source material. One of our productions, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, is based on a book by Sucheta Dalal and Debashish Basu. We have also produced Avrodh: The Siege Within, based on India’s Most Fearless by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh. Finally, there is original writing. This was a three-pronged attack to create a myriad of content. In the last three years, we’ve produced 18 series that have streamed on Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, SonyLIV, MX Player and soon on Eros Now.

We work with a variety of excellent creative partners. Sudhir Mishra did Hostages for us, as showrunner and director, and Banijay Asia produced it. We then showed it to Hotstar and they picked it up. The market is colossal and the demand for content is massive. You have 500 million Indians who have walked into this candy store only wanting more. It takes 18 months to get one season ready from idea to screen, while the audience finishes a show in a weekend and starts asking for the second season right after!

TV ASIA: I’ve heard that the speed with which OTT is growing in India is outpacing the capacity of the content production community. Do you think that is the case?
NAIR: I agree with this completely. In the ’90s, when satellite television started in India, content and distribution grew together. Initially, there was Doordarshan and then satellite television came into being, which then prodded us to make content. When we did KBC (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) in 2000, there were 25 million cable and satellite homes; by 2010, there were 90 million, and now in 2020, there are 197 million.

As distribution laid the cables, content grew. In the case of streaming, because of the telecom revolution, you already have a billion phones. Those phones one day converted into 4G and 500 million people got access to 4G, but the content has not been geared up for that. The content is still TV. Even if someone says, I have a lot of cash, I’m going to throw money at this problem, you still have to make the content. There’s no HBO/NBC/ABC library to buy from. The broadcasters themselves have set up their own platforms, and all the big libraries are mainly daily soap operas.

TV ASIA: And the difference between those and the premium storytelling you are doing is staggering.
NAIR: There is an opportunity to tell so many different stories. There are brave new voices and ideas, allowing you to explore different genres and milieus. We’re doing a version of the French workplace comedy Call My Agent!, set in a talent agency in Bollywood, with cameos by real actors. It’s such a delightful experience. How could you do that on a daily soap on TV? There’s no chance.

We’re trying to tell really strong and intensely local stories that will have global relevance. We’re not trying to tell the great crossover story. You have to tell a story to your core market. If your core market loves it, the rest of the world might like it too. Stories with authenticity at their core often resonate with audiences globally.

TV ASIA: Tell me about your international plans.
NAIR: We’re doing a series with Gurinder Chadha and Sunder Aaron called Seeker, which is being written out of Mumbai, London, New York and L.A. We also have adaptations of the popular global series Fauda and Luther in the planning stages. We’re trying to do some co-productions with U.S. studios for a couple of films.

We have made many originals that I believe are unique and can be remade anywhere in the world. We did a show called Hasmukh about an aspiring small-town comedian who discovers he only performs well after killing someone; he has to literally kill offstage to kill on it! Stand-up comedy is today a universal phenomenon and this “small-town-big-dreams” dark drama in a comedic universe can resonate with audiences everywhere. There are many other original series that we have created that can be adapted in other markets and milieus. We’ve been speaking to producers in Canada, the U.S., Israel, South Africa, Indonesia. We’re happy to partner, co-produce and work together. I believe these Indian stories have global resonance. Not all of them, but some do.

TV ASIA: You’ve made so many scripted-format adaptations. What’s the key to getting those right?
NAIR: When we’re picking these formats, we firstly think about if we can imagine this in India. If you take all the international shows that get made, 90 percent don’t make the cut. They’re either too specific, too unique or too different. On the other hand, let’s look at The Office—I think it should be remade in every country. It is that show: a sleepy little town, a sleepy little office, a boss from hell who is self-absorbed and a bunch of people goofing off who think they are doing great. It has those universal insights. On the other hand, Hostages at its core is a thriller that can find expression everywhere. We’re also producing Fauda; the conflict over Kashmir lends itself to that Israeli-Palestinian storyline. It’s a matter of land and people separated by religion and, therefore, politics. We did Your Honor and set it in Punjab. It’s not urban. And everything doesn’t have to be in Hindi. Scam 1992, our most recent show, has so much Gujarati in it. The new streaming audience is up for a lot of color and variety.

TV ASIA: What are some of your plans for 2021 and beyond?
NAIR: We want to build on our hub-and-spoke model and expand it. We’re growing into movies, documentaries, animation and gaming—and we want to use the same strategy. Our business is finding like-minded talent, enabling them and investing in them to create premium content. That could be fiction series, a reality show, a movie, a documentary, an animated series—any story really, and technically, anywhere in the world.