EXCLUSIVE: Applause Entertainment is readying a sketch comedy show billed as ‘Saturday Night Live meets The Kumars at No. 42,’ as the company turns five. Also on the slate is a travelog tracing the journey made by legendary prince Lord Ram and a documentary on the climate crisis in India, Deadline can reveal. An access doc on Hindi movie megastar Salman Khan is also nearing completion.
Applause, led by Indian broadcasting veteran Sameer Nair, is best known for scripted drama series such as Scam 1992 and Taj – A Monument of Blood and adapting the likes of The Office, Luther, Guilt, Hostages and Criminal Justice in Hindi, but is now pushing heavily into unscripted and genres such as sketch comedy. The Woke: This Week is from the latter, with Mumbai-based Applause producing alongside creators Kunal Vijaykar and Cyrus Broacha.
It’s billed as “a mix between” NBC weekly sketch satire Saturday Night Live and The Kumars at No. 42, which was an International Emmy-winning comedy talkshow featuring a fictional British-Indian family on BBC Two between 2001 and 2006 that starred the likes of Goodness Gracious Me co-creators Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal. Vijaykar and Broacha will lead The Woke: This Week‘s cast, along with Satish Kaushik, Sheeba Chadda, Cyrus Sahukar, Anshuman Malhotra, Shibani Bedi and Saurabh Ghadge, with and Saad Khan directing.
A pilot has been shot ahead of a planned weekly series. Each episode follows an upwardly mobile, dysfunctional family watching a sketch comedy show that addresses burning current topics, taking bold jabs at the woke, unwoke and everyone in the middle.
Applause is also working on travelog meets mythology show Finding Rama and an Indian climate crisis feature called Red Hot Nation. Finding Ram is based on Vikrant Pande and Neelesh Kulkarni’s book In the Footsteps of Rama – Travels with the Ramayana and co-produced with Pawns Don’t Like Chess Productions. The book followed the authors as they retraced the journey taken by Hindu god Ram, from Ayodhya in northern India down to Sri Lanka.
The travelog will maps that same journey across the Indian sub-continent, while revisiting the narrative through the lens of mythology, religion and modernity. Authentic traditional performances and views from experts in fields ranging from religion, history and gender studies will be included as host Aparshakti Khurana visits more than 40 locations across India and Sri Lanka. Avijit Mitra directs. “The tale changes as you go from north to south and there are 200 or 300 versions of this story,” said Nair. “Different people have different takes on what actually happened.”
Most of the shooting has taken place already, with some footage still required from Sri Lanka — a task made trickier by the precarious political situation in country, which sits south of India on the map.
Red Hot Nation, meanwhile, is a doc that explores the impact of climate change on health, water, ecologies, food security and nature-based livelihoods throughout India. The series features first-hand accounts of people who are coping with climate change impacts in their day-to-day lives across the country. It engages with Indian leaders and gets views from experts affected citizens.
Celebrity biopic Beyond the Star: Salman Khan, which Applause is co-producing with Wizfilms and Salman Khan Films, is nearing completion.
Billed as an “unafraid, unapologetic and bold” franchise, each Beyond the Star series will explore the journey of a superstar, with its first season focusing on actor Khan. While highlighting the massive machinery that works to create his image and supporting him, the show will also look into his life through the eyes of those close to him, and engages him in candid conversations. Hosted by Iulia Vantur, Beyond the Star will be intercut with input from Bollywood A-listers and Khan’s family, team members and friends. The 56-year-old Khan is one of Indian cinema’s most successful and most controversial acting stars.
Channeling Steven Spielberg
Mumbai-based Applause, best known for series such as Scam 1992, has upended the Indian content scene with its unique streamer-focused business model since its launch in August 2017. Nair tells Deadline his ambitions are growing every year. “In the next five years, we want this business to grow five or ten times, both in quantity and quality,” he says during an exclusive interview in a boiling hot London in July.
Unlike most TV-focused production companies, Applause’s model more closely resembles a U.S. film studio, whose strategy is broadly to identify a slate of titles aimed at different audience segments, finance, develop and produce them, and then shop the finished products to distributors. Applause does the same but with TV production and targets sales to India’s burgeoning streaming market. Continuing with the U.S. studio analogy, Nair says: “The way the economics play out is that on each year, for each slate you get, say, 10 that don’t do so well, five that are good average hits, three that are smash hits and one or two blockbusters. And that takes care of the math entirely.”
To date, Applause has launched 37 series (several that have returned) and a handful of feature films, almost all of which have gone to streamers. Several new film titles are coming and a co-financing movie deals with Sony India is in place.
In general, streamers like to acquire film and TV projects at the earliest possible stage, but Applause has been successful at selling finished projects as original content to the likes of Amazon Prime Video (Mind the Malhotras, Rasbhari), Netflix (Hasmukh), Disney+ Hotstar (Rudhra, Criminal Minds), MX Player (Ghulaam) and ZEE5 Global (Taj – A Monument of Blood, Mithya), Voot (Humble Politiciann Nograj). Arguably the most notable of all is Applause’s partnership with SonyLIV, which bought the studio’s calling card show Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story and has ordered a follow-up series.
“India’s in a unique place because, unlike the U.S., when Netflix was able to grow by licensing content from all the big broadcasters, India has no such system,” says Nair. “Even if you throw a billion dollars at the market, you’ve still got to make the content because there is nothing to buy. The thought was that we would operate it like a movie studio, but we would make series.”
Nair has no desire to go direct to consumers despite his background in broadcasting: before Applause he was best known as the Star India exec who ordered and oversaw the mega-popular Indian remake of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (known locally as Kaun Banega Crorepati) and was CEO of Turner General Entertainment Networks India after selling the channel he founded, Imagine, to Turner in 2007. Instead, he is focused on establishing Applause as a top gun-for-hire for streamers in India, a market where major studios such as Yash Raj Films and Eros International are well established and have themselves launched streaming platforms.
Nair had originally planned to launch his studio around the turn of the millennium, when he was at Star, which is now part of Disney India. He had watched Hollywood moguls and was determined to recreate their approach in India, where Bollywood companies dominated. “I had got to this point where I said, ‘Okay, now I’m done with TV and broadcast and I want to set up a movie studio,’” he recalls. “I was very inspired by Spielberg and wanted to do an Amblin, getting together like-minded people, almost like a United Artists.” However, after launching Kaun Banega Crorepati in 2000, it took 17 years for him to team with Aditya Birla Group to create Applause, having moved into production in 2014 to run indie giant Balaji Telefilms.
Many of Applause’s early shows were formats co-produced with the likes of BBC Studios and most of its original productions have had local co-production partners — nods to Nair’s belief that collaboration is the key to success in production. Upcoming series include big-budget series Gandhi, which Deadline exclusively revealed news of in May, and Scam 2003, for SonyLIV, co-produced with the streamer’s subsidiary Studio NEXT. It will also be adapting publisher Amar Chitra Katha’s entire comic book catalogue into animated series.
With Applause now turning five, Nair is looking to a future of more international partnerships. “We want to make more adventurous and ambitious content and partner with a lot more global co-producers – whether they’re companies out of LA, London or Israel, or somewhere else.”
Deadline understands several high-profile projects are underway with U.S. partners, and that Gandhi will film in India, the UK and South Africa, as the show, which is being billed as akin to Netflix modern history drama The Crown, traces the early steps of the revolutionary leader and follows him through his life. Scam 1992 director Hansal Mehta and Kaun Banega Crorepati host Siddhartha Basu are both attached in key roles, with Pratik Gandhi taking on the iconic lead role.
There will also be a big push into series and films created and shot in southern India, in local languages. Applause has produced in Kannada and Tamil and Nair notes that many of the largest-grossing Indian films of 2022 such as RRR, K.G.F: Chapter 2 and Vikram weren’t shot in Hindi and the growing global appetite for Indian content means language barriers have been torn down. “We are going to really double down on that,” he says.
Intriguingly, though streaming has underpinned Applause’s business model, he now sees potential in theatrical releases. To date, Applause has made a handful of Indian features, most notably Aparna Sen’s Busan-winning title The Rapist, which won the Kim Jiseok award at Busan. And while most have been direct-to-streamer, Nair says: “Going forward, our ambition is now theatre. I’m a big believer in the theatrical business — I think that it should be theatre-streamer-broadcast. All the windows need to exist.”
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