Over the years, OTT platforms have developed their own star system which is completely different from Bollywood where eight-pack abs and conventional physical appearances are still preferred over hardcore acting skills. The rise and rise of Pankaj Tripathi, Shefali Shah, Manoj Bajpayee, Pratik Gandhi and Jaideep Ahlawat among others after the massive success of their respective web projects have proved that OTT stars don’t necessarily need to have their muscles perpetually pumped, magic hair, dazzling smiles, or extraordinary dance skills. These actors certainly don’t fit into Bollywood stereotypes but they have succeeded on streaming platforms because of their perseverance and great acting talent that they have not been credited enough for in the movie space.
In India, the OTT fever began with Anurag Kashyap’s 2018 crime-thriller Sacred Games, in which Nawazuddin Siddiqui played Ganesh Gaitonde, a Mumbai don with God-complex. It wasn’t that Nawazuddin hadn’t played a gangster in films, but the fact that somebody like him was cast as the lead in India’s first Netflix original series despite him not having much experience of headlining projects at the time was a game-changing step. Before Sacred Games, Nawazuddin had starring roles only in four films as solo lead, but all of them failed to work commercially. His casting definitely showed that an actor didn’t have to deliver a Rs 100-crore film to be able to get a starring role in a big-budget web series which is usually not the case in Bollywood, where every single failure of an actor is counted and kept in mind while considering them for next film, more so if they are an outsider.
“Nawaz was always my first choice because he plays gangster so well. The show is about Sartaj (Singh) trying to find out what happened to Gaitonde. So, Gaitonde has to be the king and a big character in the story. And, I think Nawaz has that aura and almost everything that’s required to play a gangster. Had it been any other actor, we would have spent a lot of time convincing the audience that he is the gangster. But with Nawaz, you don’t need to spend that time. You are convinced from the very first shot that this guy is the best,” Sacred Games showrunner Vikramaditya Motwane had told News18 about casting Nawazuddin for the role.
A few months after Sacred Games’ premiere, it was the crime thriller web series Mirzapur that forced people to stand up and take notice of yet another extremely talented actor, Pankaj Tripathi. Suddenly a new, rougher, tougher Pankaj Tripathi was born and he never looked back, bagging himself a bunch of accolades for the menacing crime lord, Kaleen Bhaiya. Today, he is one of the busiest and most respected actors in the film industry.
In 2019, 48-year-old Shefali Shah took the online world by storm with her powerful central turn as investigating cop Vartika Chaturvedi. After having worked in the film industry for more than 25 years, it was Delhi Crime that gave recognition to Shefali she truly deserved. She rightly called the Richie Mehta-directed show “the turning point of her life."
“OTT platforms have opened gates for all creative actors where they have broken out of the box of hero and heroine. OTT is all about characters and good stories. They do feel that women above 45 have someplace in it besides playing grandmothers. Would you have thought of a Shefali Shah playing the lead earlier? Probably you would, but you’d never cast her. So here she is in the lead and she’s proved herself," said Shefali about how OTT helped the audience rediscover her talent.
The huge success of Manoj Bajpayee’s The Family Man is yet another example of how OTT content is breaking the mould. The web series made waves in the OTT space for its depiction of the life of an intelligence officer in a tone that was more rooted and authentic than larger than life. In the show, Manoj plays the role of Srikant Tiwari, a skilled spy, who deals with dangers while trying to strike a balance between his personal and professional life.
“Manoj represents the common man very well and looks very shrewd and intelligent as well. He looks like a guy who can solve big cases, he has that personality. He also fits as a family man, a husband and a father. The show required the protagonist to play just the way you would play if you were a cop and that was the easiest thing for Manoj to do," said director-writer duo Raj & DK on casting Manoj Bajpayee as Srikant Tiwari.
In his decade-long career, Jaideep Ahlawat has consistently given critically acclaimed performances but received little acknowledgment or pushed into secondary or tertiary roles in big tentpoles like Gabbar is Back, Vishwaroopam II and Baaghi 3 that often don’t do justice to his talent. However, it was Anushka Sharma’s web production Paatal Lok that skyrocketed Jaideep’s career and made him a staple of OTT’s big-budget projects. Paatal Lok sees him in the role of a low-ranked police officer Hathiram Chaudhary whose integrity is put to test when four suspects are arrested for the assassination attempt of a high-flying journalist. Jaideep will next be seen in Karan Johar’s web production Ajeeb Daastaans, wherein he is paired opposite Fatima Sana Shaikh.
Similarly, it wasn’t until a few months ago that the audience woke up to the fact of what Pratik Gandhi was capable of doing. The 40-year-old actor, who spent months with no income, became impossible to ignore when he slipped into the role of the infamous stockbroker Harshad Mehta in Hansal Mehta’s most ambitious web series Scam 1992 – The Harshad Mehta Story. Pratik’s incredible transformation and nuanced performance as the controversial stockbroker truly heralded the arrival of a fearless talent in the mainstream space. Talking about how the show’s immense success changed his life, Pratik shared on a Humans of Bombay post, “I didn’t realise it’d become this huge. It was so overwhelming. And when Shabana Azmi ma’am told me it was the best performance she’d seen in 20 years, I was in tears. It’s been 5 months since Scam’s release & my life has taken a 180-degree turn. People see me as a ‘lead actor’ now."
There are so many other actors who deserve special mention for pushing the envelope and redefining the meaning of stardom through their brilliant work on the streaming platforms. Divyenndu (Mirzapur), Sheeba Chaddha (Bandish Bandits), Tripti Dimri (Bulbbul), Rasika Dugal (Delhi Crime, Mirzapur and A Suitable Boy), Barun Sobti (Asur and Halahal), Sayani Gupta (Inside Edge, Four More Shots Please and Axone), Abhishek Banerjee (Paatal Lok), Jitendra Kumar (Panchayat), Kirti Kulhari (Four More Shots Please! and Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors), and Arshad Warsi (Asur) are some of the actors who won over the audiences with their marvelous acting skills.