Despite finding his entire industry shutdown by this pandemic, Bollywood megastar Abhishek Bachchan says he has had a productive few months developing his own projects, recording an English dub for his new Amazon show Breathe: Into The Shadows, and most crucially, spending time with his loved ones. That’s not something that happens regularly for a family that is Indian film biz royalty – Bachchan’s wife is the hugely influential and world renowned actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and his parents are fellow movie stars Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bachchan.
Deadline hopped on a Zoom with the actor this week to catch up about the current situation in Mumbai, the epicentre of India’s film industry, and to talk about working on his debut Amazon series, which is a standalone follow up to 2018 show Breathe, and stars Bachchan as a man who must kill someone to save his daughter. The actor, who is known as a big screen star and is working with a VOD service for the first time on Breathe: Into The Shadows, makes some interesting points about the “equality” brought about by streamers. He also walks us through the contrasts between working on local Indian film and a series with an international streamer, telling us why Indian movies can be “too spicy” for foreign audiences, and why vice versa international shows can be “too bland” for a local crowd – ultimately it’s about finding that sweet spot.
DEADLINE: Hi Abhishek, how’s the situation in your part of the world right now?
Abhishek Bachchan: Our cases are rising. We’re still officially in a partial lockdown. The economy is opening up a bit, offices are allowed to function at 10% capacity – I think everybody is figuring out their own way to deal with this.
DEADLINE: What has your personal lockdown experience been like?
Bachchan: I’ve been spending time with my family, which is a rarity. Over the last 3-4 weeks I’ve been busy with the post-production of Breathe: Into The Shadows. During the lockdown the opportunity to dub the show into English came about, which I’ve done myself.
DEADLINE: Would you like to do more roles in English?
Bachchan: Dubbing myself was an exciting experiment for me. Having been educated in Europe, in English, I could say it’s almost my first language, I converse at home in English as well as my mother tongue Hindi. When I came back from Europe and started acting I had to understand the Hindi milieu, and I have, but because I thought in English I imagined doing that dub recording would be simple. But what you realize is that there’s a different tone and pitch to a Hindi film than there is to an English film.
DEADLINE: Breathe is your first foray into VOD content – how has that experience been?
Bachchan: You know, it was never a criteria for me. When I first met the co-creators of the show, Vikram Malhotra and Mayank Sharma, who is also the director of the series, they gave me a basic pitch in about half an hour and I’d already said ‘yes’. I recognized this was a medium for telling this story.
I do realize the benefits of a digital series. It affords you the luxury of time which is something we don’t really get in cinema. Indian films are predominantly 2-3 hours long and you have to tell your entire story, and justify your character, in that time. For this, we have done 12 episodes which are almost an hour long, that’s 4-5 films to take a deep dive into the characters and their nuances.
DEADLINE: What was it like working with an international streamer like Amazon on a project? They are producing Indian content for the local market and diaspora, but it always has the possibility of reaching a much wider audience too.
Bachchan: On the original Breathe series [which was also on Amazon but did not star Bachchan], 40-50% of the international viewers were from outside of the Indian diaspora. In India, our films are very unique to us. Our emotions are a lot more heightened, we love the pomp and pageantry, the song and dance, action, romance, tragedy – everything has to be served in one movie and at the end of the day the hero and heroine have to achieve poetic justice. It’s escapist and it’s the most magnificent thing to be a part of and to view, in my opinion.
But that’s a pitch and a tone that maybe the world does not understand…. It might just be a bit too spicy for them. But to an Indian, foreign films might be too bland. Indians prefer not to consume content that is hyper-realistic, so far at least. We like to go to cinemas with our families, enjoy ourselves, and forget our problems. There have been exceptions but by and large these are the trends Indian cinemas follows.
Keeping that in mind, we were very conscious of the fact that Breathe: Into The Shadows will be available in 200 nations worldwide in several different languages. We need to serve it to our audience in a cinematic language that is palatable to all of them. It has to be something that our Indian audiences will enjoy, and an international audience will not find too jarring. You want it to be something that everybody can consume.
DEADLINE: Global streamers have been trying to find that sweet spot…
Bachchan: Amazon had a breakout hit with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, that’s very American but has done very well for them worldwide. There are other examples of shows that have cut across borders and languages and have been consumed all over the world. There’s a great amount of equality that is provided to you by a streaming platform. We’ve made Breathe: Into The Shadows keeping that in the back of our minds, it’s not been a priority, but it’s been something we’ve been cognisant of.
DEADLINE: Film is so big and historic in India, but we’re seeing increasingly high profile TV series being made, particularly for streaming services – you’re known as a movie star but do you see more opportunities in TV nowadays?
Bachchan: Television is a thriving industry in India. I’ve lost count of the number of channels, there must be 300-400. We also have several streaming platforms. What’s really nice is that it has increased the demand for actors and for creative people who are storytellers. That’s wonderful. Each medium, be it stage, TV, cinema, streaming, are all telling different stories and catering to different requirements for the audience. Because steaming is available from the comfort of your home at the touch of your button, including on your mobile phone, you can concentrate purely on very content-driven material. I can’t complain, today we’re spoiled for choice.
With streaming platforms you don’t really need to compromise on any aspect of your vision. When TV initially came in, due to smaller budgets you would have had to compromise. At the end of the day, it’s about getting your product out to you consumer and audience.
DEADLINE: We’ve read some amazing numbers around streaming in India, Disney+ Hotstar is particularly huge, do you think the lockdown has accelerated growth?
Bachchan: I’m sure it has, I don’t have the statistics. I heard the content consumption on streaming platforms has grown 80-90% in this period, that’s huge considering that we’re 1.3 billion people here in India. I’m sure a lot of streaming platforms will concentrate on India and the Indian diaspora as a market because of the sheer numbers.
DEADLINE: Are local players a big factor?
Bachchan: Hotstar is really a local player [having been owned by Fox in India pre Disney takeover and eventual integration]. There’s several platforms and a lot of competition, but we’re seeing a lot of growth in the entire market, it’s not just one particular player. Maybe because they’ve all priced themselves so competitively people are willing to subscribe to two or three platforms simultaneously.
DEADLINE: Any news on cinemas reopening?
Bachchan: There’s no clarity from any government bodies yet, it’s the same for when we can get back to work shooting films and shows. I’m looking forward to getting back in front of the camera.
DEADLINE: During this period we’ve seen films go online that would’ve been theatrical releases, particularly with Amazon’s glossy seven-picture deal. As a movie star, can it be disappointing to see a film go directly online?
Bachchan: That’s been a big discussion in India over these last 2-3 months. It’s important to remember we wouldn’t be having this conversation if we weren’t in the midst of a pandemic, it would be different if cinemas were open. But we’re at this crossroads. To be honest, I’m going to give you a selfish answer – as long as my audience get to see my films or my shows without compromising their safety, I’ll take that.
DEADLINE: Are you hoping to get back on set soon?
Bachchan: I am actually in the middle of a film shooting in Calcutta called Bob Biswas – we had to cut that short due to the lockdown. We have 12 days of filming left and we can’t complete that until we’re allowed to get back on set. I have no clue when that will be, if I had to hazard a guess i’d say not before October.
DEADLINE: How do you feel about the safety protocols – distancing, PPE etc?
Bachchan: I feel terrible about it! Everybody’s got social distancing and PPE on but we [actors] have nothing because we can’t perform in it – we’ve been left out in the cold!
DEADLINE: Have you been developing new projects as a producer during the lockdown?
Bachchan: There have been several we’ve been working on for the last 2-3 years. But it takes a lot of toil to put a script together. We have about three ready which I hope we can start rolling out. I finance the development myself.
DEADLINE: Would you consider taking those to a steaming service?
Bachchan: I’m very happy to but I’d only like to get into that conversation once I see light at the end of the tunnel about how we can start shooting again. We can’t talk about schedule or casting until we know when we can get onto the floors.
DEADLINE: Your father appeared in The Great Gatsby – are you interested in acting in an English language movie?
Bachchan: It does depend on the role. We’re spoiled fo choice over here. My father did Gatsby out of his friendship and love for Baz Luhrmann. My wife has done 4-5 English films and enjoyed it thoroughly. I don’t look on it as ‘Bollywood or Hollywood’, and with the advent of streaming that barrier has a been broken further. At the end of the day it has to excite me creatively.