EXCLUSIVE: SonyLIV has ordered its most ambitious original series yet, an adaptation of the non-fiction book of Indian independence Freedom at Midnightas the streamer gears up to become a global service within three years.
The news of the series order came in an extensive interview with SonyLIV Executive Vice President and Business Head Danish Khan, who also oversees Sony Entertainment Television and the Studio NEXT production arm. During the chat, he spoke several other new assignments, global expansion plans and the future of the popular scam crime thriller brand.
Drama series Midnight Freedom is based on a non-fiction book by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins and billed as an epic political thriller set in 1947, the year of Indian independence and partition. Abhinandan Gupta, Adwitiya Kareng Das and Gundeep Kaur adapt the text as writers.
“Independence was not just a shift from British rule to an Indian democratic system. It consisted of many elements, players, subtext and undercurrents and this text has been very well researched about the inner workings of the days leading up to India’s independence,” Khan told Deadline.
SonyLIV sister company Studio NEXT is working on Freedom at Midnight with Emmay Entertainment trio Monisha Advani, Madhu Bhojwani and Nikkhil Advani producing with the latter as showrunner. “We have the right partner — Nikkhil Advani did a fantastic job with our Rocket boy series,” Khan says.
Rocket’s second season Boy — about the men behind India’s nuclear and space programs — is one of many other upcoming SonyLIV originals, with the others including Vikas Bahl’s good bad girl† own production faadu† Tanaavan adaptation of Israeli drama fauda† and Garminwho is from Tigmanshu Dhulia.
Khan chief noted that since SonyLIV’s switch from a catch-up service to a subscription model focused on ambitious original shows in June 2020, the streamer had gone from less than 80,000 users to over 18 million.
The SonyLIV chief revealed Freedom at Midnight was the service’s largest production investment to date, with filming set to take place in India, Switzerland and the UK and casting several high-profile stars. “This is the most expensive and ambitious show we’ve done to date – simply because of the amount of people involved and the number of great lead performers,” he said.
The show is currently in an extended pre-production phase, with plans to film in the next six to nine months, COVID permitting.
He also unveiled three other original shows: Children of Freedomby showrunner Sudhir Mishra and based on a group of their mid-twenties in 1977 experiencing the government’s first performance of their lives; Jazz City ’71, which is about the liberation war in Bangladesh and is heralded by Khan as “the only language war”; and India’s first elections, about how democratic elections were held despite massive illiteracy after India’s independence in 1947. Rahul Dholakia is creator and director and StudioNEXT produces.
Global Launch Plans
SonyLIV, which like Studio NEXT is part of Culver Max Entertainment (aka Sony Pictures Networks India), operates in an extremely competitive Indian OTT market, with Disney+ Hotstar and Viacom18 competing for the rights to the IPL this week. It has access to Culver Max’s library of shows and movies, but is now focused on pushing through original commissions.
Khan said the service, which is known for the popular crime drama Scam 1992: The Story of Harshad Mehtawas able to extend well beyond its current subscriber base and now began its international expansion slowed in part by the pandemic – with plans to be a global service to the Indian diaspora within three years.
SonyLIV is currently available in 28 territories, including Europe, UK, Middle East, North Africa, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. In the US, it was launched on Sling TV.
†Every fifth or sixth person in the world is Indian, so the market is really really big, but the value hasn’t unlocked over the years,” Khan said. “The fact is that technology like OTT, direct-to-consumer and long -tail viewers good shows are more likely to travel. It may take a while, but we will be a formidable Indian content service to the global market.”
Turning ‘scam’ into big business
Elsewhere, Khan spoke to the future of the Applause Entertainment-produced scam franchise, which started with Scam 1992: The Story of Harshad Mehta and will soon continue with Scam 2003: The Telgi Storywith Gagan Dev Riar as the counterpart of newspaper mogul Abdul Karim Telgi and with Hansal Mehta as showrunner.
“Scam is not about the crime, but about a very smart and competent person who gets lost and loses his morality,” he said. “Those cases will continue to crop up in society. These are definitely bright minds, ambitious people, and they always have a story for everyone. The brand can pass for Applause and us.”
Scam 2003 will launch in 2023 as part of what Khan calls a strategy of “cerebral yet entertaining” original shows.