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Niche streaming platforms offer hope to struggling regional cinema

India’s smaller regional language film industries including Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi and Bhojpuri, severely hit by the covid-19 pandemic are now seeing hope in emerging vernacular streaming platforms willing to buy their movies. These smaller films have been, by and large, ignored by the larger streaming platforms. Also, actors operating in these industries are also hopeful of being cast in web shows that these platforms are likely to make in native tongues.

Platforms like Pitaara TV (Punjabi, Haryanvi, Bhojpuri), Planet Marathi and OHO Gujarati said they may not have the kind of deep pockets that foreign players do but some of these films will now see the light of the day and be able to recover their investments thanks to India’s burgeoning appetite for regional content online.

A report by Recogn, the market research division of digital marketing agency WATConsult released last July, said 70% of Indians would access the internet in their native languages by the end of 2020. It had added that programmes around food, entertainment and education are always deemed better in local languages. An EY survey said that 21% of the respondents in non-metros said they would spend more on entertainment as compared to 5% in the metros.

This June, Planet Marathi started streaming a drama titled June that had toured the Pune Film Festival, Kerala Film Festival, and New York Indian Film Festival earlier, on a pay-per-view basis. Meanwhile, Chandigarh-based television channel Pitaara TV, known for its Punjabi language content will launch an over-the-top (OTT) streaming platform this month with programming in Punjabi, Haryanvi and Bhojpuri. It has picked up titles like Jinde Meriye, Zakhmi, Dil Diyan Gallan and Teri Meri Jodi that had been unable to reach wider audiences and have sold the ancillary rights after a nominal release in theatres.

“We can obviously not pay as much as foreign services to buy these films but it will at least serve as some sort of attempt to come to the rescue of the industry,” Akshay Bardapurkar, founder, Planet Marathi said adding that they are looking at releasing six more titles in the coming weeks.

As a newly launched service, they are also in need of ready-made content, Bardapurkar said, since shoots for many of their originals were halted or delayed because of the second covid wave. While there have been few purchases of Marathi films post-theatrical release by big OTT platforms in the past few years, there is not one original web show made in the language, except Samantar on MX Player, Bardapurkar pointed out.

This adds to the woes of these regional markets that would anyway barely ever make more than the cost of their production at the box office given that most of their films are concept-driven and do not come with much star value.

Sandeep Bansal, managing director, Pitaara TV said all films made in the Punjabi language until 2019 are stuck and are now looking at releasing only in 2022 even though theatres are in the process of reopening. “A lot of the Punjabi movie audience, especially in rural areas, is known to not venture out during the November to January winter period. Plus, most of the youth and kids’ population flocks more to Hindi and Hollywood films,” Bansal said.

Most OTT platforms prefer to pick up Hindi films and titles in regional languages do not recover their cost of production, even if they do manage digital sales occasionally. However, many films that did manage theatrical release, especially in languages like Bhojpuri, are not available on any online platform.

Abhishek Jain, filmmaker and co-founder of OHO Gujarati said OTT platforms can prove a boon for new-age content creators, given that they have helped new genres, content styles and talent to emerge. “The best part of this new medium is that there is no time limit, one can tell a long or short story, also the pressure of mainstream release is lifted, it gives a sense of creative freedom,” Jain said.

Owing to the pandemic, and subsequent phases of lockdown, a lot of Gujarati films are yet to be completed. The platform, however, is open to the idea (of acquiring films) and is looking for the right content that has the potential to appeal to its audiences, he said. Live Mint

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