Bollywood’s biggest film studio is talking about feminism, sex, and dildos—on YouTube

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Image: Yash Raj Films.
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Until two months ago, YFilms had only three films to its credit.

But, in September, the four-year-old Indian studio with a focus on youth entertainment veered away from the big screen. Instead, it poured money into a big-budget production purely for consumption on laptops and smartphones.

The format, termed as “web series”, was pioneered in India by The Viral Fever (TVF). The five-year-old online-only collective already has two successful web series—Permanent Roommates and Pitchers—under their belt.

YFilms, on the other hand, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bollywood’s (and India’s) largest production company—Yash Raj Films.

“The success of Pitchers may have opened the floodgates, by giving confidence to other players that this medium can indeed work,” Shailesh Kapoor of Ormax Media, which tracks Indian films and television, told Quartz.

And what if the player is Yash Raj Films? “It legitimises the format so that more people want to try it, because a Yash Raj is doing it,” Arunabh Kumar, founder of TVF, told Quartz. “And so the online ecosystem gets bigger, too.”

On Sept. 25, YFilms released the trailer of its first web series, Man’s World. The four-episode series is about a hypothetical world where roles of men and women are reversed.

At the end of Man’s World‘s finale, the production company released the teaser for its next series. Bang Baaja Baaraat, which will have five episodes, is a story about a couple and their dysfunctional families. It will premiere on Nov. 4.

“It (web series) has always been on the radar for us. We are talking to the millennial audience that consumes a ridiculous amount of content on the smaller screen,” Ashish Patil, who heads YFilms, told Quartz. “It’s a function of really wanting to stay relevant to this audience, where you make content not only for the large screen but also devices.”

In the past, YFilms infrequently made online videos and posted them on its YouTube channel, but nothing really took off. But after Man’s World, the number of subscribers has increased exponentially from around 18,000 to more than 100,000 now.

However, Patil conceded that they are “late” entrants, and so they are “trying to learn” from the country’s biggest YouTube collectives, including All India Bakchod (AIB) and TVF.

“Our audience base is much smaller compared to them,” 42-year-old Patil said. “Those guys are the baap (owners) of the internet.”

Raising the bar

By entering the web series space, YFilms has raised the bar for online videos in India.

The videos match India’s mainstream film industry, Bollywood, in terms of production quality and casting. In Man’s World alone, 22 film stars and celebrities came on board for different cameos (though Patil said it wasn’t because of the Yash Raj brand name, but the subject of gender equality the web series explored).

“(YRF chairman) Aditya (Chopra) is available as a bouncing board, as someone to brainstorm with and take feedback from. But he gives you enough creative freedom to go forth and do what you need to do,” Patil said.

Film mogul Chopra reaped in more profits than any other producer in India last year. In 2013, his company Yash Raj Films was worth Rs2,900 crore ($445 million).

But observers of the digital ecosystem argue that since the online space is a leveller, too much importance cannot be given to either celebrities or a brand name.

“There is no need for celebs. YouTube has the power to make YouTubers into celebrities, and that’s the route to go,” Sudipta Dhruva, chief creative officer of The Ideas Box, an ideas and content company for television and digital, told Quartz.

And it’s the script that ultimately wins. ”Stars can add a layer of appeal, but the key is how the word-of-mouth spreads in social media, which in turn is largely a function of how good the script and the performances are,” Kapoor of Ormax Media said.

Just like others

Like TVF or AIB, YFilms is backed by sponsors, partners and advertisers.

“The business model on YouTube is non-existent. There’s an advertiser model, but the ratio of revenues to views is just so ridiculously low that when you hit a million views, you probably land up with a hundred thousand bucks,” said Patil.

Man’s World was backed by the United Nations and more than 20 other brands who helped fund the project. Bang Baaja Baaraat has so far two brands, including cosmetics brand Lakme, but Patil is optimistic that more sponsors will come on board.

“A subscription model like a Netflix is not going to work because the Indian market is still very nascent. Then the solution lies in the sponsor model or the partner model. So, in both the pieces of content, we have sponsors and partners both,” he said.

“So whatever comes in now, in terms of YouTube revenue or any other syndication or licencing, is money for jam.”

Bold and raunchy

In 2010, Yash Raj produced and distributed Band Baaja Baaraat, a superhit film about Delhi-based wedding planners, who after a string of misunderstandings, eventually marry each other. The name of the web series, Bang Baaja Baaraat, is inspired from that earlier’s film. Bang, of course, is an innuendo for sex.

The series seems to have a more open attitude towards sexual relationships. In the trailer, the groom catches his small-town father using a vibrator to massage his head. This is a far cry from most of Yash Raj Films’ escapist Bollywood movies that typically represented sex on the big screen, or even a kiss, through two flowers meeting each other.

“The attempt was to break the typical romantic, pious and pure feeling around weddings, which is generally how they have been depicted in our cinema. But it was still important to create characters that were lovable and relatable,” Amritpal Bindra, one of the makers of the web series, told the Indian Express.

Patil blames the limited scope of bold content in Indian films on the censor board.

“Whenever we have created content earlier, for cinema, you always have the constraint of censorship of what can be said, what can be done, what can be shown, or not,” he said. “Now, given this content is made for the medium which is not governed by these guidelines, it’s important you’re delivering content that’s not available anywhere else.”

Compared to India’s censor board that each film has to pass through, YouTube doesn’t scan the videos uploaded. It relies on its community “to flag content that is offensive or violates our community guidelines.”

“Films’ loss will be online medium’s gain,” Ormax Media’s Kapoor said.

“Being free of censorship will allow writers to write with more freedom for web series, something young writers would certainly enjoy.”