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How South India is conquering the OTT universe as Hindi content remains dormant

Why is a Malayalam film that released in theatres two years ago, being watched now across India, including by those who can’t make sense of it without subtitles? The makers of Kumbalangi Nights are all but making notes in their gratitude journal. The story of a dysfunctional family of four brothers, the feature looks at their strained relationships with care, and traces their journey to a moment when they realise the importance of family. Lead actor Fahadh Faasil is now part of drawing room conversation in Mumbai and Delhi after the film dropped on Amazon Prime Video last year during the lockdown, with English subtitles. “It’s not even new!” exclaims Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of Ormax Media, a firm that track trends in the Hindi and South Indian film industries. “Urban audiences across the country are getting a taste of South Indian cinema because OTT platforms made it readily available. The language barrier is all but gone. It also helps that Hindi films are not releasing at the same frequency.”

The competition to Hindi cinema post-pandemic is not just from Hollywood films, dubbed or otherwise, it’s from content that’s being produced in our backyard. The frightening appetite for regular and new content created by the hours in the day that the pandemic induced lockdown freed up for most viewers who were working from home, and not distracted by leisure options outside, has meant that Indians have gone beyond the comfort of Hindi and English. Korean dramas have been the rage for a while, and Spanish shows like Money Heist have trended over a year. A mind-bending German show like Dark, has also found takers. So, why wouldn’t films made in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam, attract the viewer? Interestingly, the curiosity perhaps piqued by grand dramas like the Baahubali franchise is now traversing more nuanced terrain as smaller, breakaway films are finding fans. “What works for Malayalam cinema is its realistic portrayal of life. On the other hand, the grander Tamil and Telugu movies are also doing well. We have been tracking social media and doing online reproach and realise that a lot of the good word is being spread between friends. Word of mouth has been critical in the popularity of regional cinema,” he adds.

This, coupled with a generous marketing push by the platforms, has been key.

One of Amazon Prime Video’s most recent popular offerings has been The Great Indian Kitchen, a Malayalam film that follows the monotonous life of a young  progressive dancer, who marries into a prestigious traditional family and encounters deep misogyny and patriarchy. Director Joe Baby portrays this, largely through the glorified Indian tradition of cooking. Soorarai Pottru, a story of a young man with lofty dreams of starting his own airline service, has also done well. Netflix has got titles like Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (Telugu), Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadithaal (Tamil), Kappela (Malayalam), and Uma Maheswara Ugra Roopasya (Telugu), that have made it to the Top 10 list based on viewership across India.

Hotstar has offered its members Tamil blockbusters like Sulthan, and the romance, Thozhanda.

It even has it’s own Hotstar special Tamil thriller, November Story, starring Tamannah.

Mumbai-based YouTube movie reviewer Sucharita Tyagi puts it in perspective when she says, “I started watching regional movies firstly, because there hasn’t been a Hindi release for a while, and we have all this time on hand. Secondly, a lot of my audience includes cinephiles, and when they began suggesting that I watch South Indian cinema, I did. The Great Indian Kitchen blew my mind. I have watched many more since then, and even though I had no knowledge of them being around before the lockdown, I am now enjoying the process of watching and reviewing them.”

This flip to South cinema has been helped by the stunning growth of OTT platforms in India in the last two years. In 2021, according to consultancy firm Omdia (which excludes subscriptions from bundled offers), as of December 2020, Disney+ Hotstar had 18.69 million subscribers, a big jump from 5.36 million in 2019. Amazon Prime Video had 5.83 million subscribers—up from 4.34 million in 2019—while Netflix added more than a million paying users to reach 3.08 million subscribers in 2020. The subscriber count of Zee5 and SonyLiv stood at 2.7 million (up from 1.99 million) and 1.81 million (up from 6.5 lakh), respectively, in 2020. With numbers as high as these, if new Hindi content isn’t available to support and pump up viewership, the platforms are only going to look elsewhere. Pratiksha Rao is Director-Content Acquisition, Netflix India. She tells mid-day that, in addition to Hindi films, the channel has noticed that members have discovered and fallen in love with non-Hindi language features. She specifically mentions Paava Kadhaigal (Tamil), Pitta Kathalu (Telugu), to Nayattu (Malayalam), Mandela (Tamil) and Cinema Bandi (Telugu). “We are excited to bring Dhanush- starrer, Jagame Thandhiram, to our members on June 18, which will be soon followed by the highly anticipated anthology film, Navarasa, helmed by Mani Ratnam and Jayendra Panchapakesan,” she reveals, saying that subtitles and dubbed versions have both helped regional movies find new viewers. Women centric films are particularly popular, she adds. “This golden age of entertainment in India has opened up lots of opportunities and inspired writers and directors to build stories around female characters. It has also empowered more women creators to bring their unique perspective to the stories they want to tell. Our members have been inspired by complex, strong, layered female characters in the Netflix Tamil anthology Paava Kadhaigal (Tamil), and our Telugu anthology Pitta Kathalu.”

Telugu actress Lakshmi Manchu, who starred in Pitta Kathalu, which got together multiple stories about a variety of brave women, is now working on producing a Telugu movie, directed by a Malayalam director. She says it’s all happening because of the OTT boom. “Everything has become more accessible. It would have been very tough to go watch a regional movie in Mumbai before the pandemic. You would have to find a single screen that was showing it, and that too only for a few days after it released. Now, we [regional talent] are everywhere. It has opened up avenues for actors as well. Tamil and Telugu productions have typically catered to those who like drama, while Malayalam films have appealed to an audience that digs cerebral content. What this new access is also doing is giving the rest of India an entry and insight into our culture.”

Like Manchu, Parvathy Thiruvothu hopes that OTT platforms continue to offer space for regional movies to thrive. Her Malayalam movie Aarkkariyam, released on Amazon Prime during the lockdown, and was about the lockdown. “It was well received. I think good movies are finally getting the viewership they deserve. This movie, which is set against the backdrop of the lockdown, and has a meditative quality in its treatment, released across seven different platforms!”

Entertainment industry tracker Ramesh Bala reveals that platforms are spending big money on advertising regional cinema, using gimmicks like Twitter emojis to go along with the release. “These days, people are watching one movie a day, and they have long moved on from their own mother tongue. As I track social media, I see many reviewers talking about south Indian cinema, and audiences [outsider Southern states]  sharing their experiences. People have become brand minded and since moves are freely available in dubbed formats as well, they are experimenting. This will become the norm.” Along with mainstream platforms, even smaller apps, have seen a rise in subscription. Suriya Narayanan, vice-president,  ARHA MEDIA, the firm that owns Aha, a video app for Telugu movies, says they launched in February 2020. “We have also begun dubbing Malayalam movies for our Telugu audience. We have gained subscribers across India, and overseas too.” Their focus is on acquiring smaller, quirky movies. “For example, we had Colour Photo, which is about a dark man who loves an upper class girl. That specific film got us three-and-a-half lakh subscriptions. We now have one million subscribers. With respect to quality Telugu content, we are now equal to Amazon.”

But does the Hindi entertainment industry really have anything to fear? For Vikram Malhotra, who produced Vidya Balan-starrer Shakuntala Devi and her next, now soon-to-release Sherni, it’s all for the collective good. “Big South Indian films have always done well in cities like Mumbai. That being said, what streaming platforms have done is that they have taught Indian audiences to get used to subtitles. After all, they have been watching so many shows in other languages [through the lockdowns]. I personally see it less as competition, and more as a trend that increases the pie share for everyone. Of course, we should up our game, but now for the first time, even talent is moving seamlessly—be it movies, writers or actors.”

Film exhibitor Akshaye Rathi dispels fears when he says that just like television channels did a decade ago, streaming platforms are now smashing language barriers. “SetMax for instance, did it a long time ago. OTT platforms are taking regional cinema right into urban homes. But the difference between an actor and star defines the divide between OTT platforms and the big screen. A star is still defined by the box office draw, and a big theatrical release. Dhanush tweeted about his upcoming movie but after making sure he had said that he would have preferred a theatrical release. The bigger Hindi production houses are still making movies to give audiences the theatre experience that can’t be replicated at home. So, eventually the big game will be played in theatres alone.”

3.5 lakh
No. of subscriptions just one Telugu film, Colour Photo, helped streaming app Aha Video bag

1M
No. of subscribers Aha app gained in one year since it launched right before the first lockdown. MidDay

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