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LATA JHA : Top South Indian actors are following their Bollywood counterparts to feature in web originals, even though they belong to an industry that has long acknowledged the dominance of the theatrical medium and hero-worship culture originating from wide releases in cinemas. 

Telugu star Rana Daggubati will be seen in a Netflix original titled Rana Naidu along with uncle and veteran actor Venkatesh; Vijay Sethupathi will feature in The Family Man director duo Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK’s next Amazon Prime Video original, while Trisha will appear in a show on SonyLIV called Brinda

Industry experts and platform executives say at least the younger actors are recognising the enduring appeal of the medium which is here to stay even as theatres open up and give them opportunities to consolidate their stardom among mainstream audiences. Most southern language offerings are also grabbing more eyeballs than Hindi shows on OTT (over-the-top) streaming platforms, including and beyond native speakers.

“We are seeing the entire southern film ecosystem undergoing a transformative change. As we take the stories to a greater number of viewers and enable a growth in the audience base, the industry itself is expanding. There is a healthy surge with more movies, more TV shows, more digital series being commissioned, opening new avenues for both talent – actors and creators, both new and established, to reach beyond the known and explore the unchartered territories," said Manish Menghani, head of content licensing, Prime Video India. Like good content, fans also are not restricted by geography or language barriers, Menghani said, referring to the following for southern actors like Rajinikanth, Mohanlal, Chiranjeevi, Fahadh Faasil, Suriya, and others.

That said, a lot of older, mass-market stars like Rajinikanth, Vijay and Ajith still swear by the theatrical medium much like top Bollywood names like Salman Khan but some of the younger names are happy straddling both worlds, according to independent trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai. An actor like Samantha Ruth Prabhu found herself on the global map after the second season of The Family Man, a primarily Hindi language show, Pillai added.

“Superstars in the south enjoy almost a demi-god status. Every release of theirs is like a festival or a joyous celebration for the fans. They have definitely missed all of this euphoria which can’t be experienced with a pure OTT release," producer and director Vidhyaa B Reddy said adding that the pandemic forced many stars to accept the due reach that OTT platforms provide across demographics. However, while OTTs may have ruled for the past two years, the real test starts with the reopening of cinemas, Pillai pointed out.

To be sure, on-boarding southern actors is also a factor in the success of regional language offerings already out on OTT platforms that want to deepen penetration into the country. Amazon’s Menghani said that 50% of the audiences for Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada films on their platform have come from outside their respective home states. Globally, these movies are being watched in over 170 countries, with international viewers accounting for over 20% of total audiences of these local language films.

Pratiksha Rao, director, films and licensing, Netflix India said the service’s Tamil anthology film Navarasa, helmed by Mani Ratnam and Jayendra Panchapakesan was in the Top 10 in 10 countries including India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka. In its first week on Netflix, more than 40% of the viewers for the film were from outside India. In the last one year, Martin Prakkat’s Nayattu (Malayalam), V. Vignarajan’s Andhaghaaram (Tamil), local anthologies Pitta Kathalu (Telugu) and Paava Kadhaigal (Tamil), Praveen Kandregula’s Cinema Bandi (Telugu) and Mandonne Ashwin’s Mandela (Tamil) have also featured in the Top 10 on Netflix in India.

“Great stories have the ability to become a part of our cultural zeitgeist. As we expand our film slate to have original and licensed films from South India, we heard from many of our members and fans that they would like to engage with us more on these films," said Rao whose platform has launched a Twitter handle specifically for south Indian offerings called @Netflix_INSouth.

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