There are a lot of firsts to actress, producer Niharika Konidela's career. She's the first woman from her family to step into the entertainment industry. She was the lead actress in the first-ever Telugu web-series and even went onto produce it. After tasting success with two web series, she's aiming big. Her next is a digital production Mad House, that will reportedly be the first Telugu web series to span across a 100 episodes that will be released weekly. We chat with Niharika about her credible digital innings and what it takes to run a production house (Pink Elephant Pictures).
The digital space has indeed come a long way since (your) the first-ever Telugu web series Muddapappu Avakai had released, three years ago. The expectations from audiences too have scaled up a notch higher with time. So, do you think it's going to be a much more difficult task to please audiences with Mad House?
Content has always been my priority from the days of Muddapappu Avakai, and it won't change merely because so many years have passed and the standards of the content have gone up in the digital market. I have invested all my savings into the production house (and I don't take money from others). I have put my best foot forward to make quality content within our budgets. Because my career has progressed a lot since then, the production values of the series have gotten better. But, from day one, my intention has been only to provide the best output to audiences.
Given the fact that your first web-series witnessed great success, you would have certainly received a flurry of similar digital/feature projects from young filmmakers. But you've remained choosy. How do you filter your script choices?
'How much passion that the director has?' is a factor that helps me decide my projects. Filmmaking is all about overcoming many obstacles and still giving out a good product. There were location problems, budget limitations and just to know how he deals with the stress, gave me faith in Mahesh Uppala, the director for my next web-series Mad House. There are 100 episodes in this series and the burden only increases with that number. Being the actor and the producer, the final call is in my hands. No one can force me to do things. Section 377 would have been a big taboo, had we shown it 3 years before. Right now, the debate has, sort of, normalized. Filtering doesn't take much time because I go to a lot of people for a second opinion.
While your first web-series was a direct Youtube release, the second one made it to the OTT platform Zee5. How contrasting have both experiences been?
I personally like releasing content on Youtube. With the comments, the feedback is immediate. Whereas in an OTT platform, they would have to do feedback research and go to a bunch of people who watched the series and take comments. Even when you put 'the end' card on a web-series on Youtube, you receive comments about audiences wanting it more and it's very fulfilling to see that. It gives me an insight into how much people are looking forward to such vibrant content. In Youtube, no one tells me to add this/chop that but OTT platform involves a huge team (and those many individualized opinions) that's investing its time and energy in you to curate/suggest about the content. With the reach too, I don't see much difference between Youtube and other OTT platforms.
What do you think was the reason behind this digital wave and how good have been the returns (for the projects you have invested in)?
The returns have been promising and I'll tell you why. With feature films, they have seven shows a day and a spectator has to make time, travel in traffic, go watch it, buy popcorn - all these involve money. With OTT too, you may be paying but it's hardly Rs 500 a year. You can see it whenever you want, there are subtitles in case you don't understand a language. There are a lot of options and the OTT platform is ultimately catering to the viewer. With films, the experience isn't as personalised, you're only one among many that the show is catering to.
Entrusting someone with a 100-episode web-series that's set to run for nearly as many weeks is indeed a risky proposition for you, both as a producer and an actor. What was so special that you trusted a rank newcomer like Mahesh Uppala with the job?
When I saw him first, I was very sceptical and he was fumbling and was shaky with his narration. Beyond the concept, I wanted to ease him up and asked about what he did in life. He told me he was a software engineer who (literally) threw his resignation papers on the face of his boss. He wanted to do filmmaking. His entire life can be seen in the first ten episodes of Mad House. There's a character called Shravan, that's quite similar to him in the series. I understand that only a millennial can tell the story of another millennial and make it relatable to many. I believe in taking chances. Otherwise, Muddapappu Avakai wouldn't have happened. When I looked at Mahesh's passion and his work with his associate Siddharth, I was sure of taking things ahead and asked him to come up with concepts. Even I pitched in a few ideas. I have also been a millennial who has gone through crazy situations with friends. Content like these doesn't run on a script but quirky characters, which we have managed to create. We could have even done 200 episodes with this, just that we had stopped with 100. There are so many situations that affect a bachelor daily.
But, why do you think the regional web-space hasn't quite matured yet?
I think people still don't these as a great opportunity and lap it up. I and my counterparts have realised it, that not many consider it a platform to provide interesting content yet. Many are still under the belief that films are the only way to do great work and reach out to a wide audience.
And our web-series too continue to be very soapy and dramatic. Is it because we can't make sit-coms?
Because, our culture, mindsets are a little like that. Even the first four episodes of Friends are quite dramatic and it's certainly unbelievable to see a guy marry a lesbian. We haven't still progressed there as a society. Our life is still basic. Once we get married, our lives are expected to be settled. It's husband, domesticity later on. There is no finding love and it's mostly arranging 'relationships'. That reflects in our content too.
You've teamed up with Infinitum Network Solutions and Mapprr for Mad House. How instrumental were their inputs with the series?
Infinitum Network Solutions has a wide experience in this field (digital content) and they are very good at what they do. They have a very good post-production team that gets through the edits, the dubbing (they even have a studio for it). None of them interferes with the content because they are very confident about the work we do. Mapprr had just joined us recently and we are looking to talk to them, coming up with ideas because the founder Subhakar is also a youngster who shares a similar line of thought like us.