India is slowly emerging from the pandemic and cinemas have reopened, but the release model will remain disrupted, says Vijay Subramaniam, director and head, content, at Amazon Prime Video India.

Amazon has just had a massive success with war film “Shershaah,” starring Sidharth Malhotra, Kiara Advani and Shiv Panditt. Written by Sandeep Shrivastava (“Aarya”) and directed by Vishnuvardhan (“Yatchan”), the film is based on the true story of the Indian army’s Captain Vikram Batra who was martyred during the Kargil war of 1999.

Produced by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions and Shabbir Boxwala, Ajay Shah and Himanshu Gandhi’s Kaash Entertainment, the patriotic film skipped cinemas and streamed directly across Amazon’s 240-territory footprint on Aug. 12, in time for India’s Aug. 15 Independence Day holiday frame.

In India, “in the time from its launch, it’s become the most watched film on our service ever,” Subramaniam told Variety. He said that that the film has also  been appreciated far beyond the traditional Indian diaspora markets.

“Of course we were hoping for a theatrical release but the pandemic has thrown things off for everybody and as producers, what is most important for us is that the film should be seen by the widest audience across the country and the world,” Dharma CEO Apoorva Mehta told Variety. “Our biggest concern was the ability to ensure that it had a release that befits the theaters.”

Given that Malhotra and Advani are A-listers, Amazon approached the marketing of the film in a way associated normally with the theatrical release of potential Bollywood blockbusters. “What we did ensure was we marketed like a big ass, monster Hindi film,” says Subramaniam. “And the proof is out there.”

“All our fears were put to rest, they [Amazon] ensured that the film is projected as it would be releasing in the theaters,” says Mehta. “And we are so happy because, where would we have the opportunity for a day and date release in 240 countries.”

“I know the reach of Amazon, so I was thrilled that what we set out to achieve, we are going to go higher than the summit of our collective imaginations and which has actually happened for the world to see,” Boxwala told Variety.

Amazon was one of the first off the blocks when it came to direct-to-digital streaming of films starring marquee names intended for theatrical release. Its pickups included “Gulabo Sitabo,” starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, and Vidya Balan-starrer “Shakuntala Devi.”

That was in May 2020. In October 2020, when the pandemic appeared to be in retreat, Subramaniam was bullish about the direct-to-digital model continuing to flourish. The executive continues to remain so.

“It’s a little hard to predict how the future will unfold,” says Subramaniam. “Theaters did open, and the results are out there, and they haven’t been too encouraging – not to say that they won’t stabilize, but we don’t know what that normal looks like.”

“We believe that some things will remain disrupted and will be irreversible, and that’s good,” said Subramaniam. “The customer, she’s always had a choice to decide where she wants to watch a piece of content. That is not new. We’ve existed, pre-pandemic. Televisions existed and so have theaters and the customer, she’s always made that choice what to watch where, and that will continue.”

“What kind of stories will motivate customers to go to theaters? I don’t know,” says Subramaniam. “What we do know is certain things will remain disrupted and irreversible simply because customers have gotten comfortable with the fact that high quality cinematic presentations can happen in the comfort and safety of their homes. I don’t see that changing.”

Meanwhile, most of Dharma Productions’ theatrically-released film output so far is streaming on Amazon. Dharma’s digital arm Dharmatic has a separate output deal with Netflix.

Dharma’s partnership with Amazon is set to expand dramatically in the coming months, with several projects in development. ” ‘Shershaah’ has taken us several steps ahead in terms of both our ambitions with one another and the kinds of stories that we want to present to Indian customers and around the world,” said Subramaniam.