Aparna Purohit revolutionised India’s entertainment industry and moulded our perception of content, as head of India Originals at Amazon Prime Video. From sharing the evolving demands of viewers to telling tales that travel, Purohit bares it all for HELLO!.
The Family Man, Mirzapur, Paatal Lok and Made in Heaven, Emmy-nominated Inside Edge and Four More Shots Please!, plus fan favourites like Breathe, Farzi, Jubilee, Dahaad and the Indian instalments of Modern Love, all have one creative mind spearheading their popularity — Aparna Purohit. As Head of India Originals at Prime Video, she tapped into a dormant form of content that’s ubiquitous today and changed the narrative from being star-driven to writer-driven. We pick her brain on the teething troubles they faced, boosting women’s representation both on and off screen and the tremendous effort it takes to stay ahead of the game.
HELLO!: Given your background in films, how did you cope with switching to web content?
Aparna Purohit: “I moved to Mumbai from Delhi with the passion to tell stories. It’s been over 20 years now, working in media and entertainment. When I joined in 2016, Prime Video had just started out in India, operating out of a one-room office with the belief that streaming could do for TV what multiplexes had done for films — allow for creating high-quality, yet differentiated, content. Back then, we had to build interest in Originals, which was a whole new format of entertainment. So market making was the real task before us. We also knew we weren’t programming for the “couch” anymore, but for every individual in the household with defined tastes.”
H!: What major changes have you seen since then?
AP: “From 2017, when we launched our first Amazon Original, Inside Edge, till date, tastes and interests have evolved. Localisation (subtitles and dubbing) did away with language barriers, and OTT is no longer niche as there’s immense headroom for growth. Then, during the pandemic, the industry witnessed exponential growth, thanks to omnipresent devices, cheaper data and changing consumer habits. Streaming has become the primary form of entertainment, leading to a growing demand for wider variety across genres, languages and formats. It’s even democratising opportunities for creators, giving them access to new markets and representing the cross-cultural diversity of India.”
H!: What goes into scripting shows you hope will appeal to audiences across borders?
AP: “Since our content premieres in over 240 countries and territories, our mission is to create something for everybody. We call ourselves “story-chasers” and are always open to listening to all kinds of ideas. While there’s no rulebook, there are some key tenets that guide our decisions — authenticity being the most important. We back creators on their passion projects and ensure that every character has its own arc. Finally, we believe in casting for the character. In fact, almost 50 percent of our released and upcoming slate has new talent.”
H!: Do you see a shift in the way roles are written for women today?
AP: “Absolutely! While the media and entertainment industry has traditionally been male-dominated, there’s been a noticeable change in recent years, accelerated by streaming. Women are no longer restricted within the conventional moulds of being a wife, mother, sister or love interest but have an independent, multilayered arc of their own. Take, for instance, Sheeba Chaddha’s character in Bandish Bandits, or Neena Gupta’s in Panchayat, or the whole of Hush Hush and Four More Shots Please! We’ve also been relentless in establishing a diverse, inclusive and an equitable creative ecosystem, which has opened more opportunities for female actors and technicians and brought more women into the writers’ room and part of decision-making roles.”
H!: Would you say OTT is more popular than the big screen these days?
AP: “OTT has firmly established itself as a viable — even preferred — window for film rights owners, while conceptualising and green-lighting projects. But theatre and streaming still remain symbiotic, with no reason for one experience to replace the other. It’s all additive.”
H!: OTT has shifted the gaze from the director to the writer. Has it also moved away from the lead actors?
AP: “OTT is writers’ medium; it’s the story that dictates everything. Writers are the connective tissue between the director(s), actors, cinematographers and editors. We insist on a diverse writers’ room, where different perspectives, mindsets and ideologies are brought to the table… An Original series creates a multilayered universe with several narratives, which helps populate it with multiple characters. So, unlike a film, there’s no over-reliance on any one actor to carry the entire show.”
H!: When it comes to online content, there’s so much riding on the relatability of the plotlines. Do you agree?
AP: “Absolutely! For us, everything begins with a good, authentic story that cuts through the noise. When selecting a story, we ask: why, and why now? Creators and their belief in their projects answer these. Our programming centres around creating binge-worthy content with the power to unify viewers with divergent tastes, both countrywide and beyond our borders — and that’s only possible when the story and characters are relatable.
When Raj & DK pitched The Family Man, they told us it’d be a spy thriller. We thought it’d be this larger-than-life spy wielding guns like a killer machine. But instead, the protagonist travelled by train, went from desk-to-desk to get his loan approved, managed his kids and expenses at home… It made me think of my father instantly. The character spoke to me and everyone else who heard the narration.”
H!: How do you know a story is going to do well? Is it intuition or a skill you develop with experience?
AP: “It’s a good mix of both, combined with data insights. While instinct allows one to think disruptively, experiment and take risks, tapping into one’s experience and data validates or challenges those decisions. It also helps address biases and identify white spaces for relevant selection of content. For example, during the pandemic, we saw an increasing uptake of standup comedy in urban India.”
H!: Do you think talent is either ‘meant for OTT’ or ‘better suited for the big screen?’
AP: “There’s something akin to a cultural renaissance nowadays. There’s opportunities and space for everyone to thrive. Earlier, there were pockets of popularity for stars, but streaming has redefined stardom; it’s no longer dependent on theatrical success. Srikant Tiwari (The Family Man), Kaleen Bhaiyya (Mirzapur) and Tara Khanna (Made in Heaven) are part of the cultural zeitgeist. Our shows are a melting pot of talent from different regions, backgrounds and experiences, where you find Shahid Kapoor and Abhishek Bachchan sharing the screen with relative newcomers like Ritwik Bhowmik and Shreya Chaudhry.”
This has been adapted for the web from a story originally published in the July 2023 issue of HELLO! India. Get our copy of the latest issue right here!