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How regional cinema is taking the game away from Bollywood

From left: Posters of ‘Dracula Sir’, ‘Mookuthi Amman’ and ‘Soorarai Pottru’.Premium
From left: Posters of ‘Dracula Sir’, ‘Mookuthi Amman’ and ‘Soorarai Pottru’.

  • With a spike in regional language streaming, non-Bollywood cinema is likely to come out of covid in better shape
  • The path to recovery is already looking easier for regional cinema, since it can dish out new offerings in specific states without having to wait for pan-India theatre re-openings

NEW DELHI : In April, merely a month into the covid-19 lockdown, controversy hit Tamil film superstar Suriya hard. The Singam star was negotiating a digital premiere for his wife Jyothika’s courtroom drama Ponmagal Vandhal, which he had also co-produced. It was originally slated to hit theatres in late-March.

But caught off guard by the sudden lockdown, with absolutely no clarity on when cinemas would reopen, Suriya, like several A-list stars, was forced to take some tough calls. Because, what hung in the balance was his own big-ticket action film Soorarai Pottru, which was gearing up for a theatrical release. Theatre and multiplex owners were deftly hinting at the possibility of staying away from the action drama if Ponmagal Vandhal opted for a digital premiere.

Eventually, and quite significantly for a south Indian film industry dominated by superstar-driven theatrical blockbusters, both movies took the digital plunge and bet on the streaming platform route.

Despite the uptick in digital streaming platforms over the past few years, hero-driven, big-ticket films remained firmly in the theatrical camp. And that affinity was strongest in the south Indian market, where larger-than-life cult films are more common. The belief that the theatrical medium is the only true validation of stardom and digital platforms are a step-down was quite well-entrenched. But the pandemic has changed that. Regional language stars have realized that reinvention is key.

Apart from Suriya’s films, several south Indian and other non-Bollywood films have taken a major plunge into digital premieres this year. It is an early sign that the pandemic has the potential to leave behind a very different cinema landscape than the one that existed in India at the start of 2020. With regional language filmmakers seemingly more willing to take risky bets and innovate, Bollywood’s dominance may get cut down to size.

Besides, the path to recovery is already looking different, and easier, for regional cinema, since, unlike Bollywood, it seems prepared to dish out new offerings that can release in specific states without having to wait for pan-India theatre re-openings. While Maharashtra has announced the long-awaited reopening of its theatres this week, there will be no major new Bollywood release at least till January.

In contrast, this October, Amazon Prime Video announced an exhaustive slate of movie acquisitions which included Tamil film Maara starring Madhavan, Telugu movie Middle Class Melodies, Kannada movies Bheema Sena Nalamaharaja and Maane Number 13, and Malayalam comedy drama Halal Love Story. Vijay Sethupathi’s Ka Pae Ranasingam has already been picked up by Zee Studios for a pay-per-view release, while Disney+ Hotstar is eyeing its first regional language acquisition with a movie that has been forced to skip its theatrical release—Nayanthara’s Mookuthi Amman.

The quicker recovery, compared to Bollywood, is evident not just with south Indian films. This August, drama thriller Detective became the first Bengali language film to skip a theatrical release and premiere digitally on video-on-demand platform Hoichoi.

Meanwhile, several opportunities have opened up for regional language-specific streaming services, which were in a nascent stage of growth before the covid-19 pandemic. Marathi film producer Akshay Bardapurkar is floating a Marathi video streaming service called Planet Marathi, while veteran Telugu filmmaker Allu Aravind has launched a Telugu platform called Aha Video a couple of months ago.

Beyond Bollywood

The inability of movies to seek or afford a theatrical release or to find audiences willing to step out to watch them remains the biggest factor aiding the sudden spurt in the growth of regional streaming services.

“There are so many Marathi films lying around waiting for a theatrical release, but the truth is nobody knows what the future of theatrical showcasing will be like," film producer Akshay Bardapurkar had explained to Mint with regard to why a new streaming service made sense even though Planet Marathi is a late entrant in a market that seems cluttered to many.

He had added that as of now, none of the existing streaming platforms are really investing in Marathi content, except ZEE5 to an extent. In fact, the over-the-top (OTT) media category is still at a nascent stage in India, media experts point out, with an estimated 180-200 million active monthly users, which is significantly lower than the potential, and less than 25% of the television audience base.

Hence, there is bound to be more growth, particularly with more regional platforms emerging. It has taken television 50 years to reach 80% of India’s population, while OTTs have already been embraced by 70% of the country’s online population, said Vishal Shah, managing partner at GroupM-owned media agency MediaCom.

“Video streaming apps are a prime example of how one should never waste a good crisis," Sudish Balan, chief business officer at Tonic Worldwide, a digital-first creative agency told Mint, referring to the spike in viewership and the average time spent on online platforms during the course of the lockdown.

It also helps that streaming content is now being watched by people as old as 55 plus, often with the family, bringing them into the fold of what was considered a medium for the young and, thereby, necessitating more content in local languages.

According to a report by Recogn, the market research division of digital marketing agency WATConsult, 70% of Indians will access the internet in their native languages by the end of this year. It adds that programmes on topics like food, entertainment and education are always deemed better in local languages. An EY survey said that 21% of the respondents in non-metros said that they would spend more on entertainment as compared to 5% in the metros. The writing on the wall is clear—the next phase of growth for the entertainment business in India, and particularly for streaming services, will come from regional languages and small towns and the non-Hindi film industries that have, for long, remained on the fringes of Bollywood.

Hoichoi, for instance, had notched up 13 million subscribers this September and said 40% of its revenue today comes from international customers, with the lockdown having given it an opportunity to cater to the Bengali-speaking diaspora in countries like Bangladesh, West Asia and elsewhere. While the average Hoichoi customer was spending 70 minutes a day on the platform at the peak of the lockdown, the figure now stands around 50 minutes.

Capitalizing on the audiences whom they’ve seen embrace the regional language movie slates acquired from other producers, top foreign players like Amazon, Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar are now bolstering their original regional content library. Netflix has announced two Tamil original films, an anthology titled Paava Kadhaigal, and Navarasa, which is expected to be produced by Mani Ratnam.

Amazon Prime Video, on the other hand, has Putham Pudhu Kaalai, an anthology of five Tamil short films with top names like by Rajiv Menon, Suhasini Mani Ratnam and Karthik Subbaraj.

“This growth has been a once in a lifetime opportunity and we have to make sure we capitalize on the demand with adequate supply," Vishnu Mohta, co-founder of Hoichoi, explained.

Fighting traditional forces

The move towards digital has not been seamless for top regional names though, even though the shift in audience eyeballs is evident. While negotiating for Ponmagal Vandhal, Suriya was told unequivocally by the Tamil Nadu Theatre and Multiplex Owners Association that all upcoming films with him in the lead, or those backed by his production house 2D Films, would be banned.

Several sections of the audience believed Suriya would be conservative and not follow the route top Hindi movie actors like Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Alia Bhatt or Ayushmann Khurrana had taken (albeit hesitatingly) in the past few months, as their films (Laxmii, Bhuj: The Pride of India, Sadak 2, Gulabo Sitabo) all skipped a theatrical release in favour of direct-to-digital premieres. In an interview to Kochi-based digital news platform The Cue, Malayalam superstar Mohanlal said that while there’s no problem in releasing films made for OTT platforms digitally, if the movie is made for theatres, producers can always “show the courtesy of holding their release".

In fact, trade experts were quick to point out that the film business in the south is driven entirely by larger-than-life male stars who look at wide theatrical showcasing as a validation of their stardom. Independent trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai said a direct OTT release would ordinarily spell doom for a south Indian star’s career. “They have cultivated their fan bases like political parties do and believe in concepts like first day and first show," Pillai said. “However, post-covid, not only will their remunerations come down by at least 50%, the way films are marketed will change."

So, even as Bollywood battled allegations of drug abuse and denial of opportunities to actors not belonging to traditional film families, India’s non-Hindi local language industries have waged their own battle to come to terms with the fact that the entertainment ecosystem has broadened beyond the movie theatre.

Racing toward recovery

As cinemas across the country attempt to bounce back, states like West Bengal took the call to permit the reopening of theatres as early as Durga Puja. With pan-India theatrical release for Hindi films seeming unlikely for many months, local language films are expected to help restart the theatrical cycle in specific states. In West Bengal, for example, the three new Bengali films released for the big festival—Dracula Sir, Rawkto Rawhoshyo and SOS Kolkata—registered a healthy average occupancy of 40%. In fact, Dracula Sir is now slated to be dubbed in Hindi and released across the country for the Diwali weekend.

“Regional films could definitely benefit at the cost of Bollywood," film trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar pointed out. Big Bollywood movies have been pushed to January as of now, with the first high-budget, star vehicle, ’83, featuring Ranveer Singh, scheduled for a 2021 release. Clearly, Bollywood producers do not see value in experimenting with a theatrical release until people flock back to cinemas in significant enough numbers.

However, as is evident by the box office performance in West Bengal, regional industries are keen on new offerings to help recovery. While theatre owners in the rest of the country have scrambled to reopen screens with reruns of old films, cinemas in the south, particularly single screens in Tamil Nadu, say they will only reopen with new titles. Apart from Tamil superstar Vijay’s Master, Ajith’s Valimai, spy thriller Dhruva Natchathiram and Suryah’s Iravaakaalam are all waiting for the opportune time to hit the big screen.

Bollywood’s chances for a quick recovery are more muted. Coupled with the lack of new offerings and the disrepute that the industry has acquired since actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise this June, making a comeback seems like an uphill struggle to many.

“It will be difficult for Bollywood to bounce back (quickly) from this even if there is no truth to the allegations, simply because it has been totally bereft of storytelling that could connect with people for a long time now," said Uma Vangal, filmmaker and professor at the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy.

While other language industries are more organically rooted, Bollywood has been far too obsessed with the American movie industry and in trying to come across as niche, experimental and intellectual, has alienated a lot of audiences over the past few years, critics say.

In fact, it is interesting to note that the south Indian film industry, which has long set the bar for big-budget spectacles with movies like Baahubali, 2.0 and Saaho, is prepping with a slate of exciting films to draw audiences to theatres in the uncertain times post the pandemic. Made on big budgets of more than 200 crore each, these will be shot in multiple languages including Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, among others, and feature a mix of Bollywood and south Indian faces to draw on fan bases across states and geographies. While Baahubali director S.S. Rajamouli has Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt star alongside 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.

As the self-appointed face of Indian cinema, it is time Bollywood realizes it is just another language movie industry, Vangal pointed out. “People have been getting tired of it (Bollywood) and that discontent was brewing," Vangal added.

Lata Jha
Lata Jha covers media and entertainment for Mint. She focuses on the film, television, video and audio streaming businesses. She is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism. She can be found at the movies, when not writing about them.
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