Shekhar Kapur and Vani Tripathi Tikoo

For the citizens of a country with a breathtaking diversity of languages and cultures, Indians seem to have one thing in common – the love of stories and storytelling. Stories are the medium through which most of our culture and values are imbibed in us as children. We all have memories of an elder – a mother, a grandfather, or perhaps even an elder sibling – regaling us with tales from the battlefield of the Mahabharata, or stories of the clever Birbal, Akbar’s brightest courtier.

Different people often told the same basic story differently – imbuing it with their own style, perspective and interpretation. This national pastime is an ancient one, and flows from a rich culture of oral traditions, and grew over the ages into many forms – including our love for cinema. As a nation, we produce more TV and film content than any other. India is home to thriving film industries across multiple languages – Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and Malayalam, among others.

It stands to reason, then, that we must pay attention to a profound storytelling shift underway. Technology has disrupted the media and entertainment industry and this is apparent today, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Indians continue to watch compelling narratives in the comfort of their homes, often in the palms of their hands because cinema halls remain closed due to a lockdown.

However, digital streaming is only one of the ways entertainment has been disrupted by technology. Artificial intelligence too has been used to analyse viewers’ tastes and tailor recommendations to them. Virtual reality transports viewers into fully immersive alternate worlds, allowing them to be participants in the story. These technologies are having a profound effect on the entertainment industry, changing consumer demands and expectations, and are likely to continue to play a transformative role. These changes, in addition to impacting the entertainment industry, are also going to have a profound effect on how stories themselves are told and allow for much greater flexibility in the craft of storytelling.

Traditional media has, for the most part, focussed on linear narratives. It’s concerned with telling a single story to masses gathered in a darkened room, or writing a book to be printed into thousands of identical copies. But with new technologies, storytellers are not bound by the same limitations. The hyper personalised and private nature of modern consumption means consumers can be served a number of new experiences.

So, while sports films of yesterday showed viewers the massive crowds in the stadiums, it’s very likely that future movies in the genre will allow them to be a part of that crowd and watch the story unfold from different vantage points. We’ve already seen some instances of unorthodox storytelling in the past few years – such as Netflix’s Bandersnatch, where viewers are prompted at various points to pick between choices of a protagonist’s perspective, leading to different story outcomes.

The linear narrative is on its way out, and complex, branching and multi-layered narratives are the future. This phenomenon presents a unique opportunity for India because we are already familiar with multi-layered narratives. Our cultural heritage is replete with examples, such as the epic of the Mahabharata, a collection of thousands of smaller stories woven together into a great narrative. One could read different Mahabharatas over the years and still continue to find side plots, minor characters and details they did not encounter earlier.

This familiarity with non-linear storytelling is a natural advantage, as is a repository of source material. Our film industries must embrace cutting edge technology to make the most of this advantage. This requires bold investments and an upskilling of the workforce and can reap significant dividends in return. With strategic thinking and support, India’s media and entertainment industry could become a powerhouse on the global stage, serving stories, old and new to domestic and global audiences.

This requires us to have a clear goal in mind, be cognisant of our strengths, and ensure we do not rest on our laurels. It’s important to acknowledge the role technology has played to disrupt creativity and embrace it, ushering in the new while retaining our existing strengths. The very stories that capture India’s hopes, dreams and fears can be an engine to her prosperity and influence in the world.

Shekhar Kapur is a filmmaker. Vani Tripathi Tikoo is a member of CBFC

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