EXCLUSIVE: ‘OTTs rejected Ekam without watching a minute of it,’ say creators Sumanth Bhat and Sandeep PS

The first season of the long-awaited show, starring Prakash Raj, Raj B Shetty, and others, is set to drop on a special TVOD platform on 13 July.

BySwaroop Kodur

Published Jul 11, 2024 | 6:00 PM Updated Jul 11, 2024 | 7:20 PM

For Sumanth Bhat and Sandeep PS, creating a web series like 'Ekam' was akin to venturing into uncharted territory right from the word go. (Supplied)

For Sumanth Bhat and Sandeep PS, creating a web series like ‘Ekam’ was akin to venturing into uncharted territory right from the word go. Not only were they swimming against the tide by putting together a selection of disjointed stories to create an experimental series—but also sussing out the Kannada viewer base—back in 2019—which was yet to warm up to the idea of streaming a full-fledged show.

But their conviction put them in pursuit nevertheless and soon enough, things fell in place as a framework was laid out, stories and scripts were curated, the cast and the crew were signed on, and a producer (most importantly) was brought on board. If only, though, the rest of the journey was as smooth and rosy.

Cut to about four years later and Sandeep and Sumanth are finally here with Ekam, having profoundly endured the blues of the OTT show business world.

The seven-episode series, co-produced by Rakshit Shetty’s Paramvah Studios, is set to debut on the web on 13 July, but unlike a regular show, this will be hosted on a TVOD (Transactional Video-on-demand) platform named ‘ekamtheseries.com’, which has been created specifically for the show.

Sandeep and Sumanth explain that each season of Ekam is conceived to introduce the audience to a new region, its culture, its people, its idiosyncrasies, its geography and so much more. The first season centres on the Karavali region with seven episodes spread across different genres, moods, and languages.

Gifted hunters, young lovers, ageing movie stars, and many other fascinating characters and their stories are part of the show which derives its title (coined by Sumanth) from the belief that everything, after all, comes together as one, as Ekam. Noted actors such as Prakash Raj, Raj B Shetty, Prakash Thumminad, Manasa Sudhir, Shine Shetty, and many others are part of the cast.

South First caught up with the two creators to delve into the journey of bringing this show to fruition—its inception, production process, the challenges they encountered with major streaming platforms rejecting it, and their eventual success through a unique distribution strategy that could potentially bring about significant industry changes.

 Edited excerpts:

Q: Take us through the inception of this show.

A: Sandeep: The idea struck when Sumanth and I worked on this short film called Neeramelina Gulle in 2019. We initially aimed to explore new avenues with the short film format, intending to submit our film to festivals and later release it to the audience. This led us to conceive a series of short films curated as a disconnected anthology, akin to shows like Black Mirror (2011). In early 2020, we gathered to develop this idea with a small team.

Q: Interestingly, you say Shankar Nag’s Malgudi Days was an inspiration. How so?

A: Sandeep: At the time of putting this together, we looked at two main traits of the OTT shows that were popular. On the one hand, we saw shows like Sacred Games (2018) and Mirzapur (2018) wherein characters had shades of grey and weren’t blatantly black or white.

On the other, there were the metropolitan India-set stories that were enjoying the new-found freedom from censorship via the OTT—we wanted to curate stories that also referred to the polarising environment of the times because it was tough to have a proper discourse about most things.

That’s how Malgudi Days became the inspiration—if that show could tell the story of a fictional place and still resonate with an entire country, why not try that approach with a real place?

Sumanth Bhat: Given my background in Udupi, we aimed to tell stories rooted in this specific place. Malgudi Days served as a valuable reference point for another reason. It was created by a Kannada filmmaker using predominantly local actors who spoke Hindi, yet it became a nationally beloved show. Even today, many in Hindi-speaking regions remember it fondly, demonstrating that it’s possible to cross linguistic and cultural boundaries successfully.

Prakash Raj in 'Ekam'. (Supplied)

Prakash Raj in ‘Ekam’. (Supplied)

Q: How did you guys go about curating the stories?

A: Sandeep: There are two layers to this part of the process. The decision to announce that Season One would focus on Karavali meant that we had to figure out how we were going to represent a place and its personality through stories.

The aim was to present Karavali, as though, it were a person. And yet, we had to make these stories feel universal and relatable to anyone, anywhere across the world—so, it was about striking the balance between the two. Sumanth, who serves as the primary writer, brought many of his stories and we simultaneously curated stories from a bunch of other sources.

Sumanth: We included one of Sandeep’s former professors, who is a talented writer with an impressive body of work. We sourced numerous stories from writers across different regions, focusing on capturing the essence of our show from these narratives. While many stories weren’t originally set in Udupi or Karavali, if they resonated with universal human themes, we adapted them to fit our local setting.

I suppose we went against the tide here because we attempted to discuss all aspects of Karavali and for that, we chose varied genres and languages—there are Malayalam, Tulu and not just Kannada-speaking characters, in the show. And people would generally advise you to not take on so much at the same time.

‘Ekam’ trailer out: Prakash Raj and Raj B Shetty headline a web series where multiple narratives unfold seamlessly

Q: What was Rakshit Shetty’s reaction when they were first narrated to him?

A: Sandeep: He gave us a nod within five or ten minutes and we were good to go immediately. But, of course, the first Coronavirus pandemic hit us and it wasn’t until October 2020, now with a few newer investors on board, that we were back on floors.

Q: So, the big question is why it took more than two-and-a-half years to release the show. Considering you guys were almost done with post-production by October 2021.

A: Sandeep: There were several factors, but at the end of the day, it simply came down to the primary language of the show, which is Kannada. We were able to meet all the major streamers in India through Rakshit and pitch our show to them but none of those meetings fruitioned.

Streaming companies operate with small teams which means it took them at least 3-4 months to give us a solid response. On top of that, we know that we were, unfortunately, rejected by all of them without a minute of our work being watched. That was the biggest disappointment.

Sumanth: Another problem is that none of the OTT platforms have a dedicated Kannada team but instead a collective South India team. And even if they were to respond to you, after three-odd months, the answer is usually: “This sounds great and exciting but we are not in Kannada”.

Q: What’s the reservation though? One assumes that films like KGF 2 (2022), Kantara (2022), and Paramvah’s own 777 Charlie (2022) made a significant difference in how Kannada cinema was perceived.

A: Sandeep: On the one end, those films, as we gather, are generally seen as outliers because producers outside Karnataka took a bet on them once they proved their mettle and not the other way around. On the other, OTT platforms acquire a market mainly by acquiring local films and then gradually developing original content, and they do this by setting up a local team.

Since that hasn’t happened here, it means that none of them have entered the Kannada market. So, a lot of the feedback we would get is to develop something or the same piece of content in a different language like Hindi or Tamil.

Sumanth: It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. OTTs claim that a lot of their subscription base from Karnataka, primarily Bangalore, does not consume Kannada content. However, the counter-argument would be that they do not have enough Kannada content to encourage subscribers.

Raj B Shetty in 'Ekam'. (Supplied)

Raj B Shetty in ‘Ekam’. (Supplied)

See, even after a Kantara, Rishab Shetty isn’t able to sell Pedro (2021) or  Shivamma (2024) to any streamer because they seek a film like KGF 2 or Kantara every single time. It ultimately becomes a more mainstream number game where content takes a back seat in a way.

Q: Ekam will be released on your platform, which charges a one-time fee to watch the show as many times as one wishes. Do you suppose this revenue model is a way forward to deal with distribution and exhibition hassles for independent filmmakers?

A: Sandeep: We knew that if we were to put up a site and ask people to pay to watch something on it, the approach wouldn’t work. So, the endeavour has been to create a new distribution system in which we collaborated with social media content creators from the cinephile community and made them part of the deal like in the regular theatre model—every purchase that is made through their account earns them a percentage of the revenue.

That is the most exciting part of this whole process because if this works even to a 20-30% success rate, it tells us that anyone who runs a popular cinema-related page or community can distribute a film. And that will also get a few people worried (laughs).

(Edited by S Subhakeerthana)

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