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Why Real-Life Stories and Biopics Dominate ZEE5’s Content Slate: An Analysis.


ZEE5 is producing several original web series and films based on real-life events and people. There is appeal for such content but is this strategy successful enough? Here’s an analysis into the inner-workings of adapting real-life stories for the web.


Since the past two decades, the Entertainment Industry in India has been dominated by tried-and-tested concepts such as romance, family dramas, comedy, and crime thrillers. The rise of Web Entertainment opened up new doors for content creators – providing a much-needed way towards experimentation. The mainstream film industry has, only in the last few years, learnt to embrace the reality of life for the big screen, churning out several biopics in the process. Now, the digital space seems to be moving in the same direction, and not merely mirroring the shift but taking it a step further.

An interesting trend that emerged out of the creative liberties on the digital space, other than book adaptations as we previously explored, are stories based on real-life people and events. Web Series and Web Films, not just biopics, but also ones based on historical events, high-profile cases, and factual and impactful true stories, seem to have grown in appeal. This shift towards thoughtful productions more rooted in facts, history, and reality is led by several OTT platforms and quite intensively led and adopted by ZEE5.

ZEE5’s Journey: From Trial and Error to Trendsetting

ZEE5, the video-on-demand OTT platform by Zee Entertainment Enterprises, was launched merely 2 years ago, in February 2018. By the time it made its late entry into the digital space, the streaming wars had already begun.

What is not known to many is that ZEE5’s parent, Zee Entertainment, was one of the pioneering OTT service providers in the country – with the launch of dittoTV in 2012. It was a time when India’s Web Entertainment Industry was still in a nascent stage, and the digital ecosystem was not quite ready, with low internet speeds and higher data charges causing a hindrance to the spread of such a service. In short, dittoTV was quite ahead of its time. Zee made another attempt in 2016 with OZEE – an ad-based service similar to YouTube, which failed to make an impact either.

When ZEE5 came into picture, they arrived with a content-rich library, and what seemed to seal the deal was their decision to venture into regional languages, allowing them exposure to regional audiences and a pan-India presence. This localisation strategy, which ZEE5 pioneered, was soon adopted by other platforms looking to expand their base.

Coming to its offerings, ZEE5 recently seems to be following a unique strategy here as well – sourcing its stories, officially or unofficially, from novels and true events from the past, which is inspiring a new wave of fresh content on the digital space. ZEE5 has now emerged as a sort of a trendsetter on the web.

The Appeal of Real-Life Stories on the Web: A Newfound Love for Reality.

While we still need our daily dose of romance, comedy, drama, action, and the like, the recent rise of real-life stories and biopics on the web is a welcome change. This rise is quite similar to the one witnessed in the film industry in the previous decade, as Bollywood churned out biopic after biopic, beginning with Mary Kom, and later, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Neerja, Dangal, and dozens more. Biopics became the flavour of award shows, with every other actor using them to showcase their prowess.

ZEE5 seems to be attempting a similar strategy, making real-life stories one of its unofficial content cornerstones, to make its presence and content profile stronger. It feels like the platform has developed a newfound love for reality.

Creating a series based on a real person or event offers various benefits, which ZEE5 is using to its advantage. The past, which forms the source material, is ready and waiting to be adapted. When there’s a dearth of fresh content, it is safe to fall back on the life of a personality or an event. It is easier to imitate than to create, and faster too – perhaps that’s also why the platform has been able to churn out stories so frequently. It’s also more convenient to market shows based on true events, since there is already a public recognition for the same, making it easier to attract eyeballs.

ZEE5 has brought out stories that have been left untouched or underserved by other platforms and mediums. The story of gangster-criminals Shiv Prakash Shukla and Anandpal Singh had not been efficiently portrayed on screens until ZEE5’s Rangbaaz anthology. The platform also managed to bring to the front forgotten events like the Syed Modi murder case with its recent release ‘The Chargesheet’, the serial killer sisters of Maharashtra with ‘Posham Pa’, and the shocking event from 1995, chronicled in its series, Kaafir, which followed a woman from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir accidentally entering India, where she was jailed and raped inside the prison, leading to the birth of a daughter, and a case for their freedom. ZEE5 also took on the task of portraying the life of Sunny Leone with biopic series Karenjit Kaur, Gandhiji’s Satyagraha and Dandi March with docudrama Khaar, and its original film, 377 Ab Normal, was billed to be about the life of the petitioners who challenged Section 377 in the Supreme Court.

Coalescing Facts with Entertainment

Shows based on real-life events try to do justice to facts without compromising on factors like entertainment – leading to a voyeuristic depiction and dramatization of stories that is neither mundane nor unreal – making it a perfect recipe that can attract young audiences, providing them with a wholesome viewing experience, and a window to curiosity about stark realities that they may not be aware of.

Like everyone, ZEE5 too knows that covering the life of a famous person or a well-known incident is a great way to get a premade structure for your project. People are already aware of the story, you just need to convert it into a taut screenplay that maintains interest. Writers often have to take creative liberties with true stories, since you cannot cover all the nitty-gritties without some sort of creation and dramatization. Not all reality is available, hence, some elements are made up to fill the gaps. It is also inevitable that filmmakers sometimes keep distance from advertising their creation as truth, for creative, logistical, or even legal reasons, while also maintaining factual authenticity. That could be why ZEE5 stays away from billing its shows as direct adaptations (which they mostly are), and describes them as mere inspirations from true events. This takes away the platform’s liability and blame for presenting fiction in a fact-based story, since biopics can end up influencing how we remember the past. ZEE5 News ZEE5 News ZEE5 News ZEE5 News ZEE5 News ZEE5 News ZEE5 News

The Real-to-Reel Trend: A Hit-or-Miss Scenario.

In the past two years, several OTT platforms, homegrown and international alike, have ordered productions revolving around real-life events and people, with ZEE5 making it one of its experimentational content creation cornerstones. However, things are not as fancy as they seem, and biopics and true-events stories, like in Bollywood’s case, have become hit-or-miss attempts on the web as well. ZEE5 News ZEE5 News 

The trend, however, seems to be here to stay, and ZEE5 is leading the charge, despite the several hurdles it faces. Truth on screen is a tricky manoeuvre – you risk misinterpretation of facts or hurting sensibilities, you risk going too far with entertainment and escapism or inversely making it mundane and uninteresting, and you risk being blamed for fabrication, falsification, and propagation of only a certain version of reality. Not all biopics work, and not all biopics are liked by people. And ZEE5’s reality-based creations present a typical hit-or-miss scenario – where some like Karenjit Kaur and Rangbaaz were instant hits, and some others were plagued by either long-drawn-out plots, creative glitches, excess dramatization and fictionalization, low production value, or external interferences. The platform has also frequently faced delays and had some of its shows renamed and storylines altered at the very last moment, all for reasons undisclosed. ZEE5 News ZEE5 News ZEE5 News ZEE5 News

Clearly, the homegrown digital arena, which does not have as much cultural and creative freedom like the international one, still needs time to develop further. Nevertheless, we’re moving past a content stagnation phase on the web and expanding our frontiers into uncharted territories of unique genre experimentations. At the same time, we also running the risk of stagnating at these new genres – leading to the same ‘tried-and-tested’ concept making a comeback in a new form. The way ahead is to continue experimenting and trying out new genres, styles, and narratives, instead of looking for a formula that solves it all. ZEE5 News ZEE5 News ZEE5 News ZEE5 News ZEE5 News

Also Read: Best of 2019: Short Films that Make You Want to Come Back for More


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