Musical dramas to mythological thrillers and more: India’s top OTT shows of 2020

OTT shows rested head and shoulders above all other forms of entertainment this year. Here’s a list of India’s best original series in order of their IMDb ratings.
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2020 will arguably go down as OTT’s breakthrough year in India. 

After ages of being relegated to the bottom of the entertainment industry’s pecking order — sometimes even dismissed as a passing fancy — web shows finally shone through in the absence of other forms of recreation. 

We’ve tracked the top OTT trends and the explosive growth of the online entertainment ecosystem in our past essays here and here

Here, we dive into the creative growth of the industry and the stellar shows that found their way onto our screens. 2020 saw a mix of original shows and web-only films releasing on Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, SonyLIV, Voot, and other platforms.

Almost validating how far digital entertainment has come in the country, Filmfare held its first-ever OTT Awards in 2020

We list some of the year’s top shows in order of their IMDb ratings

Scam 1992 (SonyLIV) – 9.4 

Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story is India’s highest-rated web series on IMDb. It also ranks 17th on the list of IMDb’s ‘Top Rated TV Shows’ of all-time and was ranked higher than even iconic titles like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Chernobyl upon its release.

The show is adapted from Sucheta Dalal’s and Debashish Basu’s book The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Got Away.

It traces the life of stockbroker Harshad Mehta, who ‘gamed’ the Bombay Stock Exchange in the early 90s, bribed officials, and amassed obscene amounts of wealth until it all came crashing down due to a gritty investigative journalist (Sucheta Dalal) who exposed the stamp paper scam.

Directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Hansal Mehta, the show stars Pratik Gandhi in the lead; his performance has been hailed as one of the best of 2020. 

Panchayat (Amazon Prime Video) – 8.7 

There’s a lot about Panchayat that reminds you of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s 1988 novel English, August. It traces the disillusionment — and the eventual coming of age — of a young civil servant posted in mosquito-infested rural India.

Panchayat is the story of a government-appointed panchayat secretary, who has reluctantly moved into UP’s Phulera village. He’s a classic misfit in the mofussil milieu, and often finds himself in the midst of tragicomic situations that offer a sharp social commentary on smalltown India.

Lead actor Jitendra Kumar (of TVF Pitchers fame) makes his exasperation utterly real and relatable, and shines through every frame of this linear slice-of-life series. Panchayat recently won top acting honours at the inaugural Filmfare OTT Awards.

Bandish Bandits (Amazon Prime Video) – 8.6

Many have called Bandish Bandits the ‘surprise hit’ of the year.

But what’s surprising about the success of a show that

a) is headlined by National Award-winning actors Naseeruddin Shah and Atul Kulkarni,

b) has a mesmerising original soundtrack by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy (one of India’s most accomplished music composers),

c) revolves around the venerable institution of Hindustani classical music, and d) is dotted with lush, expansive frames of Rajasthan.

Bandish Bandits is refreshingly different from anything seen on Indian OTT platforms until now. The 10-part musical charmed the audience with its portrayal of guru-shishya traditions and clashes between the old and new.

Shah’s towering presence as the unyielding patriarch will undoubtedly go down as one of the best acting performances of 2020. 

Special OPS (Disney+ Hotstar) – 8.5

Special OPS is a sprawling espionage thriller that depicts a R&AW officer’s relentless pursuit of tracking down the mastermind behind a series of similar terrorist attacks.

Directed by filmmaker Neeraj Pandey, who’s made some of India’s finest police procedurals and investigative thrillers, the series covers nearly two decades of espionage missions undertaken by the government.

Each episode is named after a Bollywood classic Mughal-e-Azam, Sholay, Guide, Kaagaz Ke Phool, etc — adding to the intrigue of the show. Actor Kay Kay Menon, who plays the earnest intelligence officer, sinks his teeth into the meaty role that takes him places in more ways than one.

Special OPS may have been more effective with shorter episodes, but it’s worth a watch nonetheless.

Asur (Voot Select) – 8.4

Asur: Welcome to Your Dark Side is probably one of the most under-discovered Indian originals. Clearly inspired by True Detective, the show is a classic whodunit featuring a team of forensic experts and a mysterious serial killer.

Set in the ghats of Varanasi, Asur intercuts between past and present, and seamlessly blends crime, religion, philosophy, and mythology. Every episode opens with a gruesome murder, with corpses left unattended in creatively chilling ways.

In essence, Asur starring a deliciously brooding Barun Sobti in the lead dwells on the dichotomies of good-and-evil, and raises the nature-versus-nurture debate: Can one’s upbringing lead them to the path of criminal fanaticism? If you can stomach endless gory visuals, give it a watch.

Aarya (Disney+ Hotstar) – 7.9

 Aarya was billed as Sushmita Sen’s onscreen comeback and she lived up to it rather impressively. An official remake of the Dutch series Penoza, Aarya is a gritty crime thriller with a family drama at the core.

The pacey nine-part series tracks the past and present of Aarya Sareen (played with grace and aplomb by Sen), who has to take over her murky family business after her husband is shot dead.

Despite the show’s women-centric narrative, with Sen standing tall — literally and figuratively — in almost every frame, Aarya also lets the other actors make the most of their supporting parts.

The hit series has been renewed for a second season, and we can’t wait to see what Aarya’s up to next. Also, we can’t have enough of Sen’s immaculate wardrobe. 

Paatal Lok (Amazon Prime Video) – 7.8

If the online buzz around web shows could be measured, Paatal Lok would possibly rank at the top.

Produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Filmz, the crime-thriller-cum-police procedural has strong mythological tropes and rests on four main pillars: a taut screenplay, flawless performances by an ensemble cast led by Jaideep Ahlawat, who plays protagonist Hathi Ram Chaudhary, an intriguing antagonist in Hathoda Tyagi (played by a terrific Abhishek Banerjee), and a scathing portrayal of contemporary India.

Paatal Lok opened to rave reviews, with filmmaker Anurag Kashyap calling it  “best crime thriller to ever come out of the country”. Last week, the show swept the inaugural Filmfare OTT Awards

Taj Mahal 1989 (Netflix) – 7.5

Taj Mahal 1989 is an ode to love in the analogue era before Tinder took over our lives. Released as Netflix’s Valentine’s Day special, the show is a slow-cooked, wistful tale from the 1980s when romance was peppered with poetry and pauses (thehrav).

Starring acting powerhouses Neeraj Kabi (what a year he’s had), Sheeba Chaddha, Danish Hussain, and Geetanjali Kulkarni, Taj Mahal 1989 is a mishmash of student politics, socio-economic divides, and the vagaries of love set in the backdrop of Lucknow University, with minor detours to Agra. Not entirely pitch-perfect, but certainly worth a mention.

If nothing else, Taj Mahal 1989 gave us one of the top dialogues of the year — “Love is a mutating virus” — even before the actual virus engulfed the world. 

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta

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