Prolific Indian studio Applause Entertainment is celebrating its fifth anniversary with a flourishing streaming slate, several films, an ambitious expansion model and a doubling down on investment.
The company is led by CEO Sameer Nair, a pioneer of Indian television with previous stints at Star TV, NDTV Imagine, Turner General Entertainment, and Balaji Telefilms.
On the film front, Applause’s Hindi-language “The Rapist,” by Aparna Sen, won the prestigious Kim Jiseok award at Busan in 2021. Next up is a film by actor-director Nandita Das, whose last film “Manto” was at Cannes. The film, which has the working title “Zwigato” and is a social satire about the Indian food delivery gig economy, is currently in post. It stars popular TV host Kapil Sharma and Shahana Goswami (“A Suitable Boy”).
Tahira Kashyap Khurrana’s feature debut, the Hindi-language “Sharmajee Ki Beti” is a social comedy that follows five women from different age groups from different walks of life and stars Sakshi Tanwar (“Dangal”), Divya Dutta (“Hostages”) and Saiyami Kher (“Choked”). “It’s a real heartwarming slice of life,” Nair told Variety.
Actor-director Saurabh Shukla directs Hindi-language “Jab Khuli Kitab,” based on a play by him, starring Pankaj Kapur (“Toba Tek Singh”) and Dimple Kapadia (“Tenet”). “This is what he call an ‘adult teen romance,’ which follows a pair of 70-year-olds and this is their love story,” says Nair about the film, which is also in post.
Kapadia also stars in a Hindi-language adaptation of short story “Salaam Noni Apa,” from the book “The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad” written by actor turned author and columnist Twinkle Khanna. It follows the unlikely romance between a widowed older Muslim woman and a Hindu yoga teacher and is the directing debut of advertising filmmaker Sonal Dabral.
Also in post is Tamil-language film in the thriller-serial killer genre, “Por Thozhil,” by debutant Vighnesh Raja, starring R. Sarathkumar (“Vaanam Kottattum”) and Ashok Selvan (“Hostel”). Getting the finishing touches is debutant Shirsha Guha Thakurta’s Hindi-language untitled romantic comedy starring Vidya Balan (“Jalsa”), Sendhil Ramamurthy (“Never Have I Ever”), Ileana D’Cruz (“Raid”) and Pratik Gandhi (“Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story”).
Applause is one of the leading suppliers of content to Indian streamers including “Rudra” for Disney+ Hotstar, “Scam 1992” for SonyLIV, “Mind the Malhotras” for Amazon Prime Video, “Hasmukh” for Netflix and “Bloody Brothers” for ZEE5. Much of the current film slate is streamer-bound.
“As a studio what we’re looking to do is the big theatrical event film or a bigger noteworthy action drama, but not turn our back on ‘The Rapist’,” says Nair. “From the streamers’ point of view, it also makes their offering more distinctive, adds more variety to it. And these straight-to-streaming firms are much more cost effective in that sense, Because, they’re also produced on those kinds of budgets. They’re not like, $20-30 million productions. So that’s our play.”
For the next round of films, a co-production and co-financing deal is in place with Sony India for a film and discussions are on with a studio in Hyderabad, home to the mammoth Telugu-language film industry. The new slate, which will go into production over January and February of 2023, will be with an eye on the theatrical market, says Nair.
Applause, a division of the $45 billion Aditya Birla Group conglomerate, was set up on Aug. 16, 2017 with a war chest of approximately $50 million. Nair says that the capital has still not been used up because the Applause business model operates on efficient cash flow management. Applause operates on the model of identifying properties, producing them with its own coin and then selling them on to streamers.
“What’s happened is that the way we’ve been working, and the way it’s been progressing, is that Mr. Birla is quite pleased with the way things have turned out,” says Nair. “He is a patron of the arts, but he’s also a businessman. Our conversations now in the last year have been more about ‘how do we scale this up further?’ Our current appetite is to grow this business in the next ten years to try and take it to five or 10 times of where we are, and to see how can we expand this model.”
Applause is now looking at bigger budget series and films and expanding into the hitherto untapped fields of animation, documentary and AVOD. “The sense now going forward is that obviously we’re going to double down on investment — it is going to happen,” says Nair.
Meanwhile, Applause is backing its core strength — producing high end series. The company is now 37 series old, including subsequent seasons, ranging from originals to book adaptations to localized versions of BBC shows. Coming up is a show on the late Ramakant Achrekar, who famously coached superstar cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and, as revealed by Variety, “Fauda” adaptation “Tanaav.” And, the Applause magnum opus is an as yet untitled series on Mahatma Gandhi, headlined by Pratik Gandhi, based on historian Ramachandra Guha’s books “Gandhi Before India” and “Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World,” directed by Hansal Mehta (“Scam 1992).”
“Gandhi is the kind of name and the kind of show, the way we are imagining it, to be a series that could be viewed globally. Because you know the character, you know the story, and it can be told in that sweeping saga manner that could reach out to larger audiences,” said Nair.