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How south Indian cinema lured viewers across India

The Diwali of 2020 would count as one of the darkest periods in the 108-year-long history of Indian cinema. In late 2020, barely a month after the resumption of operations following the partial lifting of covid-induced restrictions, movie theatres were busy scrambling for new offerings. Theatre owners had to plead with movie studios and producers to consider releasing backlogged films quickly. The efforts bore little fruit.

Movie viewers weren’t complaining though. They had at least three big new titles on offer across OTT (over-the-top) platforms on the Diwali week—Tamil star Suriya’s Soorarai Pottru, Bollywood sports drama Chhalaang on Amazon Prime Video and Hindi language dark comedy Ludo on Netflix.

Google search interest for Soorarai Pottru indicated an important shift. In the week from 8-14 November, search interest for the Tamil film was at 100, compared to 17 for Chhalaang and 50 for Ludo. Search interest is measured on a scale of 0-100, with 100 indicating the highest number of searches in a given period.

That the south Indian film managed to gain maximum eyeballs in a week dominated by two reasonably well-marketed Hindi movies with popular names headlining them is, by now, hardly surprising. What is somewhat surprising is the geographical spread of this interest. Even in a state such as Sikkim, web searches during the week were dominated by Soorarai Pottru—a Tamil drama inspired by the life of Air Deccan founder G.R. Gopinath. The same was true in Goa (62), Tripura (67), Assam (64) and Maharashtra (52).

Trends on the internet are in line with on-ground box office figures over the past few years. Tamil star Vijay’s action flick Bigil, released for Diwali 2019, had a bumper opening, making ₹100 crore in just the first weekend. The Hindi ensemble comedy Housefull 4, released around the same time, made ₹49 crore. The other two Bollywood offerings for the festive weekend, Made In China ( ₹3.05 crore) and Saand Ki Aankh ( ₹2.47 crore), weren’t even in the running.

It would be a miracle if the upcoming Diwali in 2021 plays out any differently. While forays have been made in the past, it seems that southern cinema can finally boast of a pan-India audience now.

Having achieved iconic status in their home states, south Indian language films have made a conscious effort for many years to transcend geographical boundaries and reach out to a pan-India audience. The process that began with the war epic Baahubali franchise in 2015 relied primarily on scale, spectacle, dubbing in multiple languages and extensive marketing.

But the covid-19 pandemic has provided further opportunities, with OTT platforms offering dubbing and subtitling services for both mainstream and niche, experimental cinema. The rise of stars like Fahadh Faasil, Sai Pallavi, Nimisha Sajan, Allu Arjun, Prabhas and others is proof that the current generation of actors and filmmakers may have been able to achieve what even older superstars like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan couldn’t—draw a non-southern audience through a combination of spectacle, strong story-telling, well-etched characters and often, complete disregard for mainstream frills such as looks, songs and dance sequences.

Breakout on OTT
Given that they don’t have specific viewership numbers to speak of (akin to box office figures for theatrically released films), the popularity of southern stars on OTT platforms can only be ascertained via internet and social media chatter, including online conversations, comments and memes about them, the rates paid by streaming platforms to acquire big films, and the anticipation for the theatrical release of films featuring them in the coming months, even in north India.

For instance, Google search interest for Faasil had doubled in April 2021, compared to mid-2020. This was also the period that saw the release of a slew of breakout OTT hits, including Joji (Amazon Prime) and Irul (Netflix). States such as Maharashtra, Delhi, Odisha and West Bengal figure in the top 10 Indian states searching for information on the Malayalee actor, who is making his foray into Tamil and Telugu cinema soon with Kamal Haasan-starrer Vikram and Allu Arjun’s action flick Pushpa, respectively.

Recent research by media consulting firm Ormax Media showed that the top two most-awaited Hindi language films (among Hindi theatrical audience) were, in fact, Hindi-dubbed versions of southern films: period drama KGF:Chapter 2 and RRR helmed by Baahubali director S.S. Rajamouli. These films were picked over titles like Brahmastra (a Karan Johar production starring Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt) and Laal Singh Chaddha (featuring Aamir Khan in the lead). The contribution of the south to all-India box office can go up from 36% in 2019 (the last full-year prior to the pandemic) to nearly 45%, if not more, in 2022, according to Shailesh Kapoor, chief executive officer and founder of Ormax Media.

First embraced in the form of Hindi-dubbed versions on satellite television, movies in the four south Indian languages, particularly Tamil and Telugu (including their Hindi-dubbed versions), are now raking in big returns for online streaming platforms—contributing to 10-25% of the overall viewership.

“OTT platforms have substantially changed how content is consumed, especially when we speak of regional stories that have managed to transcend geographical and language barriers,” said Malayalam star Prithviraj Sukumaran, whose latest films Kuruthi and Cold Case premiered on Amazon Prime Video. “These movies were not only enjoyed by audiences outside Kerala, but even those residing outside India. We have witnessed a considerable increase in the amount of non-Malayalee audiences watching and talking about these movies,” Sukumaran added. “OTT has made entertainment more inclusive, experimental, and, at the same time, innovative,” said veteran Telugu film producer D. Suresh Babu. “In that sense, streaming platforms have been crucial in putting regional entertainment on the map for mainstream media.”

Actor Arya, whose Tamil sports drama Sarpatta Parambarai also started streaming on Amazon this July, said that before covid, films were mostly viewed in theatres and they would then move to television for a certain number of re-runs. “But the viewership would be specific to the region,” he said. “On the other hand, (the) OTT (platform has) brought a gamut of content to audiences across languages with subtitles. I’ve realized that people connect with stories, irrespective of language,” Arya added.

This has begun to show up in viewership numbers too. While streaming platforms don’t publicly disclose viewership figures, Gaurav Gandhi, director and country general manager of Amazon Prime Video India, said that 50% of the audience for Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada movies come from outside their respective home states.

On Netflix, the top 10 row is a good indicator of what people in India and around the world are enjoying, said Pratiksha Rao, director, films and licensing, Netflix India. The platform’s Tamil anthology film Navarasa made it to the top 10 row in as many as 10 countries, including India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. In its first week on Netflix, more than 40% of the viewers for the film came from outside India.

Likewise, in its first week alone, Dhanush-starrer Jagame Thandhiram drew an equal share of audience from outside India as it did within the country. The film has been in Netflix’s top 10 row in 12 countries outside India and has ranked number one in seven countries, including India, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the past year, Nayattu (Malayalam), Andhaghaaram (Tamil), Pitta Kathalu (Telugu) Paava Kadhaigal (Tamil), Cinema Bandi (Telugu) and Mandela (Tamil) have all featured in the top 10 on Netflix in India.

Mansi Shrivastava, senior vice-president and head- content acquisitions and partnerships at MX Player, said the southern film category, including dubbed versions, was huge for the platform, drawing 75% of its overall viewing minutes from north Indian states like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi NCR, Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The top 75% of the platform’s users spend 150 minutes per week, on an average, on southern content as compared to 100 minutes for Hindi content.

A decade ago when the dubbed version of south Indian films made their way to a Hindi-speaking audience via satellite television, these films largely belonged to the action and masala genre. “But OTT platforms have opened the doors for more story-centric films,” Ormax Media’s Kapoor explained. “For example, Malayalam cinema has rarely been dubbed in Hindi for satellite television, but it is immensely popular on platforms such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix,” he said.

The audience that is watching southern films on the OTT platform is mostly from the bigger cities, and hence, a diverse set of genres, including emotional dramas and family films, are working well on such web streaming platforms, Kapoor added.

Emerging faces and brands
Vijay Subramaniam, group chief executive officer and co-founder of talent management agency Collective Artists Network, formerly known as KWAN, said that south Indian movie industries had always functioned on a standalone basis. They were a self-sustaining engine, which was much stronger than Bollywood in many ways, he added. “What they have achieved now is a wider reach, deeper penetration and greater mindshare as the distribution of OTT platforms is universal.”

Big south Indian stars such as Allu Arjun, Rana Daggubati, Dhanush, Ram Charan, Samantha Akkineni and others have consequently seen an uptick in their social media popularity (albeit still dominated by local fans) and interest from mainline brands. While Arjun has endorsed brands including Colgate, Hero MotoCorp, Hotstar, Pro Kabaddi League, 7 Up and Frooti, Mahesh Babu has been roped in by Thums Up, Close-Up, Flipkart and others. “It’s no longer about the local retailer or jeweller who approaches them. They command price points on par with any major male Bollywood star—between ₹50 lakh and ₹2 crore per day depending on the star,” Subramaniam said.

The discovery of regional content on OTT platforms has clearly meant that actors other than mega stars such as Rajinikanth are being watched and appreciated, said Ajay Mehta, founder and managing director of entertainment marketing company Interactive Television (iTV). “Commercially, this can be a game-changer not just for advertising, but also in finding national releases for such films, even if it may be on limited screens,” he added.

Multi-lingual bets
Clearly, south Indian films are now reaching out to both the native population living outside their respective home states as well as viewers who may not have been able to watch the movies in theatres. As put forth by Amazon’s Gandhi: “improving access to high-speed, affordable internet services, higher disposable incomes and personalized recommendations are all factors contributing to the widening of viewing choices.”

This enhanced reach may soon benefit theatrical releases that the southern industries are planning in the next couple of months. Having set the bar for big-budget spectacles a few years ago with movies such as Baahubali: The Beginning, KGF: Chapter 1 and Saaho, the Tamil and Telugu industries are prepping with a slate of films to draw audiences to theatres post covid. “When Baahubali did huge business in Hindi, it was seen as a one-off,” Ormax’s Kapoor said. “But now, we can expect this to become a much stronger trend and OTT platforms have definitely contributed to this phenomenon, as (the) theatrical audience in India is closer in its profile to SVoD (subscription video-on-demand) OTT audience than to TV audience.”

Made on big budgets of more than ₹200 crore each, these films will be shot in multiple languages, including Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, among others. They will also feature a mix of Bollywood and south Indian faces in order to attract fans from multiple states and geographies. While Baahubali director Rajamouli has Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt star alongside Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, also known as Jr NTR, and Ram Charan in his upcoming movie RRR, Deepika Padukone and Amitabh Bachchan will be seen with Baahubali and Saaho star Prabhas in a film bankrolled by Telugu production house Vyjayanthi Movies. Prabhas also has a second film titled Adipurush with Saif Ali Khan as the antagonist, while the second instalment in the KGF franchise will feature Sanjay Dutt along with Kannada star Yash.

“Everyone has realized post the pandemic that the big screen experience matters a lot,” film trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar said. Be it Baahubali, Saaho or Hollywood spectacles like Avengers: Endgame, audiences know that the thrill of watching a big-ticket, larger-than-life experience in a theatre is unmatched, even though OTT platforms have been offering compelling content consistently. “That discovery probably happened because there are more film fanatics in the south. Movie-viewing is like a religion there and they enjoy the big screen experience much more,” he added. Live Mint

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