INTERVIEW: Gaurav Banerjee, President, Hindi Entertainment, Star India

Charged with continuing Star India’s bold content strategy in a vastly changed and super-competitive environment, Hindi Entertainment President, Gaurav Banerjee, talks about the new Hotstar Specials unit and his unshakeable belief in story, next-generation production and content relationships, and how Star’s deliberate focus on social issues is playing out on screen.

There’s a lot more from where Indian versions of Hostages, The Office and Criminal Justice came from, Star India’s Hindi Entertainment president, Gaurav Banerjee, promises. “We are really trying to make Hotstar the canvas for India’s biggest storytellers and some of the really big passion projects they have. And... tell these across the length and breadth of this country, take some of them global and really invest in making them big,” he told delegates at the ContentAsia Summit at end August. 
Sitting at the epicentre of a fierce content battle and at the helm of the country’s most powerful video entertainment force, Banerjee is driving an agenda that runs from long-loved soaps (which he calls social dramas) to the trending premium series designed to power a subscription environment. 
He has India’s biggest canvas to draw on. Star India, now owned by Disney, creates about 30,000 hours of content a year. The company’s four-and-a-half-year-old streaming platform, Hotstar, has 300 million monthly active users. Hotstar, Banerjee says, “has a lot of the dexterity and modernity that digital brings with the scale of a huge television network”.
Hotstar Specials – the new originals division set up earlier this year to drive premium series production – kicked off with documentary, Roar of the Lion, and a slate of scripted formats, including crime thriller Criminal Justice, a remake of HBO mini-series The Night Of. Next up are three premium titles that tap stories from modern-day India and medieval India, along with a high-end animated show that pulls in talent from all over the world. The first of these is scheduled to be on air by early 2020. Meanwhile, Star India debuts its first bi-lingual Hindi-English series with TED on Hotstar as well as on linear services Star World and Star Plus. 
Banerjee says the Hotstar Specials’ programmes aim to be “deeply progressive”, edgy, wide ranging and talked about, rolling out against a backdrop of massive opportunity and Star’s ongoing imperative to be, among other things, entertaining as well as inspiring.
Until 2016, India had roughly 200 million screens on which consumers were watching content. “We believe in another couple of years, that will become a billion screens. That’s the scale of this opportunity,” he says. 
Hotstar Specials, he adds, is only at the beginning of its journey. Since it was unveiled in May this year, the brand has launched five shows, or about 25 hours of content – a fraction of the network’s output for its traditional TV channels. “So this is really, literally, the first few hours of day one for us,” he says. “We will get better at this... at this point we are deeply learning”. 
Star’s definition of entertainment has never been ordinary, from Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC/Who Wants to be a Millionaire) in 2000 to Aamir Khan’s unfearing talk show, Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Counts), in 2012, to the multi-lingual alliance with TED this year. KBC put pay-TV on the entertainment map. Satyamev Jayate, which also aired on state-backed broadcaster Doordarshan, started a conversation about issues such as domestic violence and child sexual abuse. The partnership with TED gives India’s greatest minds and most innovative ideas a national platform. “We don’t want to be offering you only escape. We want to be offering you inspiration,” Banerjee says.
This is not a lofty new ambition or, even if it sounds like one, a soundbite crafted in the marketing department. Banerjee says even the long-running soaps, pioneered by Star at the dawn of multichannel TV, play a role in shaping social fabric. “Really significant movements happened because of [Star India’s] social dramas,” he says. “This was the only entertainment in our country that was putting women first. Cinema wasn’t doing it. News wasn’t doing it. There was hardly any sport that was putting women at the center... our drama was and continues to do that. That’s been a massive change. It’s at the heart of everything we try to do,” he adds, citing studies that show women in India are now more likely to take a stand against domestic violence, and that the preference for male children is changing. 
Another example, if needed, is Star India’s 1,487-episode Diya Aur Baati Hum, a ratings juggernaut linked to a surge in women joining India’s police force. The series (2011-2016), is about a well-educated woman whose dreams of becoming a policewoman are shattered when she is married into a family that wants an obedient, uneducated daughter-in-law. 
Star has been bold in other ways. In 2010, the network premiered Maryada...Lekin Kab Tak?, prompting headlines like, “Another bastion falls. The first gay couple on Indian television has viewers hooked” (India Today, Oct 2011). “It was a really bold theme and we were going somewhat against the law in the country at that time,” Banerjee says. If eyebrows were raised, no official action was taken against Star that anyone can remember. “Artistic exercises like this are a big enabler for change,” Banerjee adds.
Clearly, themes that challenge convention, given that all the above predate OTT, aren’t the exclusive preserve of streaming platforms. And they won’t be in future. “There is a lot of conversation around the dichotomy between television and OTT,” Banerjee says, dismissing common OTT myths with, “that’s not necessarily how it’s playing out in India”. 
“Adult themes are not the only kind of content that works on OTT. You could create something that different parts of the family can watch together and that could work just as well,” he says, adding: “Even at this point in time, we don’t see Hotstar Specials as just edgy content or content aimed at only an adult audience. If there are adult themes we want to take up, of course we’ll do it, but not all our content needs to be that way”.   
Nor is length a factor. “People believe that duration and short series play really well on OTT, but the most successful show on Hotstar has been running on TV for the past 10 years, and it’s the number one show on TV as well. So I think this myth on length can be overcome with good relevant storytelling any day anytime,” he says.
It helps that Star India’s TV broadcast and streaming businesses have never been in competition with each other. Content is mirrored and promoted across both platforms. “We see ourselves as a content company where we help great writers tell phenomenal stories and it is up to viewers to decide where they want to watch it.” For him, what show goes where is less important than the story it tells. And to that end, he’s deeply focused on how Star works with creators. “There’s a huge opportunity still waiting to be unlocked,” he says, describing India as a “highly evolved telenovela market” but “not yet a short series market”.
There’s also a massive opportunity in collaboration. India’s storytelling talents are already being combined with “the power of some brilliant engineers at Hotstar” to go where no one has gone before. TED is an example. “TED conferences have existed for around 20 years. We figured out how to make that into a mass TV show. Traditionally, Satyamev Jayate would sit on a news channel. But we figured out a way for it to be an entertainment channel conversation driver. India’s epics are absolutely phenomenal, with great characters and wonderful conflicts that talk across generations, across languages... all of those could be massive opportunities.” 
Published in ContentAsia Issue Five 2019, 3 October 2019