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After tasting success with dubbed southern films across India, content makers and streaming services platform owners are taking regional languages like Marathi, Punjabi and Bengali to wider audiences.

While Har Har Mahadev, a Marathi film by Zee Studios will release in multiple languages in cinemas this Diwali, OTT (over-the-top) streaming services like Netflix, SonyLIV, ShemarooMe and ZEE5 are investing in both films as well as web shows in these languages. 

To penetrate deeper into the market, content platforms need to offer films and shows from across the country, said media industry experts. Marathi content is first in line to benefit from this trend– given its strong film industry and great talent, while Gujarati and Punjabi content are also finding traction.

“The success of southern language programming has somewhere blurred the distinction between mainstream and local content. Consumers today want to view high-quality content in the language of their choice, in a convenient format and at a price that offers the highest value proposition. The geographic gap in the creative world is now thankfully bridging, as the next chapter of entertainment with OTT is more transparent and stands for quality content," said Manish Kalra, chief business officer, ZEE5 India.

The platform forayed into Punjabi-speaking markets last year and has witnessed traction for releases like Qismat 2, Puaada and Main Viyah Nahi Kara Tere Naal while Marathi content has seen an uptick in demand with projects like Pandu and Zombivali. The Bengali line-up includes Shikarpur, which marks the OTT debut of Bengali star Ankush Hazra, Raktakarabi featuring Raima Sen and Vikram Chatterjee, and Swetkali. “The content catalogue is created keeping consumer preferences in consideration, as we aim to bring good quality stories whether through producing or acquiring them. Our focus is to collaborate with the talent from the regions for enhanced authenticity and higher resonance alongside enabling them to connect with the global audience," Kalra said.

With the growth of digital video platforms, regional preferences of consumers are becoming sharper and scaling up, said Hiren Gada, chief executive officer at Shemaroo Entertainment Ltd. The company is focusing on Gujarati and Marathi content but also offers titles in Punjabi, Bengali and other languages. “In Gujarati, we are acquiring films as well as creating original web series whereas in Marathi, it’s primarily films. We have also rolled out large consumer propositions with marketing and other on-ground activities in the Gujrat market as well as in other Gujarati-speaking diaspora markets around the world. India is a heterogeneous country with diverse languages, so we looked at those language opportunities where scalability is available and we have a right to win," Gada said.

Initially, streaming services focused on Hindi and four southern markets as these were assumed to have the biggest audience base, Hima Bulusu, associate director, key accounts at digital agency TheSmallBigIdea said. “However, severe content fatigue developed in 2020 due to the lockdown and a lot of the audience migrated to watching fresher content, especially in their native tongues," Bulusu said, adding that as eyeballs moved online and viewers crossed the subtitle barrier to watch language content, OTT platforms had no choice but to offer content in regional languages.

For instance, Netflix is now streaming titles like Firebrand (Marathi), 15th August (Marathi), Rooting for Roona (Bengali) and The Disciple (Marathi). SonyLIV recently premiered a Marathi show called Pet Puraan. “Especially since regional-specific OTT players like Hoichoi, and Planet Marathi have acquired quite a fanbase with their content, bigger OTT players are investing heavily to play catchup and capitalize on this new wave," Bulusu added.

“India is consistently looking inwards, and the focus has been shifting from India to Bharat in recent times. Just like any other field, it is the market forces which decides what and when content get consumed," said Sidharth Singh, co-founder of marketing agency CupShup. OTTs are looking at populous states like Punjab and Maharashtra to add new audiences," Singh said, adding that acquiring is a go-to strategy for OTT as it is a tried and tested formula and is less risky than originals.

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