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How OTT saved the South Indian film industry during the Covid pandemic

A hybrid model of OTT and theatre release is the future, say experts.

September 25, 2021 / 11:59 AM IST
Still from 'Navarasa', an anthology film made for Netflix by Tamil writers, directors, actors during the pandemic. (Image: screen grab)

Still from 'Navarasa', an anthology film made for Netflix by Tamil writers, directors, actors during the pandemic. (Image: screen grab)


Last year, around this time, the Covid-19 pandemic emerged like a dark tunnel with no end in sight for the embattled movie sector, including the south Indian film industry, which was staring at huge losses.

Amid such a gloomy scenario, the over-the-top (OTT) space offered a ray of hope to the filmmakers, many of whom were stuck with completed projects. But it also seemed like a gamble for an industry used to grand gala premieres and high-octane, glitzy promotions.

Hardly any choice in hand, some producers decided to go for it with a simple thought in mind, “Do or die.” The gamble paid off and the streaming platforms, apart from managing to rescue many filmmakers stuck in the doldrums of Covid, delivered something they would have never imagined – a pan-India reach that knew no geographies and language.

Fahadh Faasil in 'Malik'. OTTs gave films a pan-India reach that knew no geographies and language. (Image: screen grab) Fahadh Faasil in 'Malik'. OTTs gave films a pan-India reach that knew no geographies and language. (Image: screen grab)

Apart from known and publicised Hindi titles, south Indian movies with solid content such as Soorarai Pottru, Maara, Joji, Malik, Home, The Great Indian Kitchen, Cold Case, Drishyam 2, etc., which were released on popular streaming platforms, became immensely popular, cutting across boundaries of language.

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Equally, talented actors such as Suriya, Fahadh Faasil, Nimisha Sajayan, Sai Pallavi, Allu Arjun, who would otherwise have remained within the confines of regional cinema, became known faces even in places such as North India and the Northeast on the back of their performances.

OTT: A new territory

Maara was a film made for the theatres. But we were stuck in the wrong time. As the pandemic was raging, and it would have been too risky to wait for theatres, we knew we had to go for OTT,” Dhilip Kumar, who made his directorial debut with the R. Madhavan-starrer, told this writer.

“When we went for OTT, we didn’t know what would turn up. It was a new medium for us. In Tamil, it was one of the five films to get released on OTT at that time. There was anxiety,” Kumar said.

After the film was released in January 2021 on Amazon Prime Video, the response surprised the makers. “The viewership outside TN (Tamil Nadu) was unexpected. Social media was crazy. We do not have exact numbers, but we got good feedback,” Kumar said. “Many Hindi channels called me for interviews. Such response wouldn’t have happened had been it been released in cinema halls locally.”

At least 20 big Tamil films released directly on leading streaming platforms, the biggest of them being Suriya’s Soorarai Pottru, Maara, Mookuthi Amman, etc., trade analysts said. Almost an equal number of big Malayam films have been released on top OTT players this year so far, various reports said. This is besides the numerous budget films released on smaller and local streaming players.

According to Subash Babu, a film enthusiast and critic based in Kerala, the OTT wave had been long coming, albeit gradually, though Covid accelerated the process.

“The OTT players had been sitting on huge budgets only to acquire Indian content, but initially used it only for Bollywood. After the pandemic, they decided to go for South Indian and Marathi movies,” Babu said.

Malayalam was a late entrant. Initially, the OTT players did not know how to go about it and used third-parties to coordinate. “In the beginning, they had flop movies in their library. Later they changed strategy and looked at actors and directors who could cater to the OTT audience,” Babu said.

The platforms went for producers with stuck projects. The makers of Malik, for example, had invested a lot and waited for theatres but later negotiated with Amazon for an undisclosed amount, Babu said, adding “They made profits and sold satellite rights to other channels.”

Mahesh Narayanan, director of Malik, said the film had been ready for a long time and they couldn’t have waited any longer. “There were huge costs involved and the producer needed to get back the money,” Narayanan explained.

The film’s theatrical release was postponed multiple times due to the pandemic. It was later released on Amazon Prime Video on July 15.

Sreedhar Pillai, a film critic and trade analyst based in Chennai, agreed that Covid was the single-biggest push for the OTT market. “Theatres were closed. Filmmakers had no other way but to go for the streaming platforms to survive. The medium was being experimented (with) anyway but Covid acted as a driving force,” he said.

An Amazon Prime Video spokesperson said the video-streaming phenomenon had been brewing in India for a while. “Even before the pandemic lockdowns changed the entertainment landscape and accelerated streaming adoption, cine and TV stars, writers and producers had started to engage with the medium. The unprecedented circumstances of last year provided a unique opportunity to pivot and innovate for our consumer.”

Amazon Prime premiered nearly 40 movies across Indian languages, directly on the service in the last 15 months. “We believe we played a role in expanding the audience base of local language films in India and abroad, and in reducing the linguistic and geographical boundaries, not just for a title, but for the segment itself,” the spokesperson said.

Rival streaming platform Netflix said this was an exciting time for stories in any language to be successful anywhere. “We are seeing tremendous success for films from South India on Netflix. Streaming has brought in more innovation and experimentation in storytelling. Creators have the ability to tell the story of their choice, the way they want, knowing every story can find its audience, without limitations on format or duration,” the platform’s spokesperson said in an email response.

“We are delighted to see how those stories are watched outside of their native language region and find audiences across India and around the world,” the spokesperson said.

Nani in 'Tuck Jagadish', streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The OTT giant has streamed at least 40 Indian language films over the last 15 months. (Image: Screen grab) Nani in 'Tuck Jagadish', streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The OTT giant has streamed nearly 40 Indian language films over the last 15 months. (Image: Screen grab)

Content and accessibility factors

What was a desperate measure for filmmakers became a boon for viewers, especially the binge-watching younger generation, who had access to great content in multiple languages. Plus, there was the convenience of watching movies sitting at home.

The OTT sector’s growth was driven by multiple tailwinds – young demographics, growing disposable income, smartphone usage, keenness to explore and experiment with content – augmented by easy accessibility of the platforms and anytime watching across devices.

“I couldn’t go out. Not many Hindi movies were being released. I started exploring regional content after I saw my colleagues and friends going gaga over Tamil, Malayalam and Marathi films on social media. I didn’t regret. I am now a regular fan of South films,” said Neil, a movie buff from Delhi. “It was initially a little difficult to read subtitles and watch at the same time, but it was so (much) better and different than the typical masala films dubbed in Hindi,” he added.

If one goes by social media, South Indian films and actors were trending equally with—or even more than—Bollywood actors among non-south language audiences, analysts said.

“Social media was full of good reviews of South films. People even reviewed the subtitles,” said Babu, who also writes subtitles for Malayalam films.

Tamil film Soorarai Pottru is inspired by a book written by G.R. Gopinath named Simply Fly, a Deccan Odyssey; Malik is a gangster-style political thriller that shows the rise to prominence of a man from a nondescript coastal village, reminding us of the 1987 Kamal Haasan-starrer Nayakan.

The Great Indian Kitchen portrays the travails of a newly-wed woman stuck in the confines of a kitchen, while Paava Kadhaigal through four unique stories explores how pride, honour, and sin influence complex relationships. Home is the story of a technologically challenged father who tries to reconnect with his young sons while Mani Ratnam’s Navarasa on Netflix is a nine-film anthology based on nine human emotions compassion, laughter, wonder, disgust, peace, anger, fear, courage and love.

All these films that rode high on content appealed to the average OTT viewer, irrespective of whether he or she understood the language.

“Yes, good content obviously played a role in attracting viewers. In the case of Maara, it had a pan-India appeal even though it was a Tamil film,” says Dhilip Kumar.

The fact that people were sitting at home and had loads of time during the lockdown further helped boost digital consumption, including OTT.

A recent report by RBSA Advisors said the pandemic was a game-changer for digital because of which OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+Hotstar, Voot and SonyLiv grew at a fast pace. The report said the video OTT market in India is expected to rise to $12.5 billion by the year 2030 from around $1.5 billion in 2021, driven by smaller towns and cities and the Indian language-speaking population.

Movies in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada broke all viewership records on Amazon Prime Video; 50% of the audiences for these films were from outside their respective home states.

“In India, the viewership of these local language titles is well over 4,000 cities and towns – giving these releases a pan-India viewing base. Globally, these movies are being watched in around 170 countries, with international viewers already accounting for 15-20% of total audiences of these local language films,” the Amazon Prime Video spokesperson said.

OTT has its advantages as there are so many choices at the click of a button, Pillai explained, adding people sitting anywhere in India can watch movies in different languages. “These platforms have made heroes of these people.”

The Top 10 on Netflix is a great indicator of what subscribers are watching, the Netflix spokesperson said. Jagame Thandhiram has been in the top 10 in 12 countries outside India and No.1 in the top 10 row in seven countries, including India, Malaysia and the UAE.

“In the last one year, Martin Prakkat’s Nayattu (Malayalam), V. Vignarajan’s Andhaghaaram (Tamil), Pitta Kathalu (Telugu) and Paava Kadhaigal (Tamil), Praveen Kandregula’s Cinema Bandi (Telugu) and Mandonne Ashwin’s Mandela (Tamil) were loved by our members and featured in the Top 10 in India,” the spokesperson said.

Dhanush plays Suruli, a rowdy-turned-saviour of immigrants in 'Jagame Thandhiram'. The film was among the Netflix top 10 things to watch in 12 countries apart from India. (Image: screen grab). Dhanush plays Suruli, a rowdy-turned-saviour of immigrants in 'Jagame Thandhiram'. The film was among the Netflix top 10 things to watch in 12 countries outside India. (Image: screen grab).

Is hybrid the future?

Will filmmakers go back to theatres when things are completely normal or will they opt for a hybrid model of part theatrical and part OTT release?  The answer is not easy. Despite the cons, many filmmakers and analysts agreed that the OTT model is here to stay and coexist with theatres is the future.

“Yes, the hybrid model is the future. OTT and theatres will live side-by-side even after things normalise, as they are different models,” said Narayanan, who is set to launch his first Hindi film Phantom Hospital, a medical thriller.

Pillai concurred. “OTT is here to stay even after theatres open up. Anyway theatres will take a hit in the present circumstances.”

He said that in the North, PVR and Inox barely have audiences as a result of which Bell Bottom has been a failure and the opening of Thalaivii in single screen halls has been poor. “If Maharashtra opens up and the 50% norms go, things might get better. Even after that we will need at least six months to gauge the situation,” Pillai said.

The Amazon spokesperson said there is a symbiotic relationship between theatre and OTT and this means they are not competitive but co-optive spaces. “It is our belief OTT and theatres will continue to co-exist, and serve consumers entertaining content.”

Babu agreed that the OTT trend will continue as people have taken subscriptions and the platforms are getting numbers too.

According to him, even though the starting was not easy, it now makes sense to go for OTT as there is some direction to it. He explained how when Sufiyum Sujatayum—one of the first Malayalam titles to go for streaming last year—opted for OTT, there was a lot of hue and cry.

Sufiyum Sujatayum was made for the theatres, and was completed just before Covid. Amazon gave them a chance. But there was a huge uproar and distributors objected and even threatened not to release their future films. But somehow a settlement was reached.”

The Great Indian Kitchen was also initially refused by OTT platforms but later picked up after it was released on a small platform and got great reviews, Babu said.

Though most experts agreed on the hybrid model, there were others who showed their preference for the big cinema screen.

Apart from the grand viewing experience of theatres, Kumar pointed to the distribution network of Tamil cinema, which he thinks is more robust, and the business side of it.

Maara was the second big Tamil film after Soorarai Pottru. People did not know days before release that such a film was coming. In normal circumstances, distribution would have been different… also looking at business as whole, theatre is better,” Kumar explained, though he defended the decision to go for OTT looking at the circumstances at that time.

“The producer didn’t want to go for theatres as it would have been risky. We did not know how many people would turn up. Again, if there was mobbing, the crowds would have been a concern,” Kumar said, adding people will go back to big screen but OTT is here to stay as it has now become a habit.

Narayanan agreed on the cinematic experience of the big screen. “On a small screen, you will not feel the same kind of impact. You miss out on details… Also the excitement over a hit after a theatrical release remains for months, but on OTT, it stays for a few days.

“But on the brighter side, so many people cutting across languages and geographies got a chance to see the movie. That would not have happened if it had a theatrical release,” Narayanan said, adding both genres will co-exist.

Suraj Venjaramood (left) and Nimisha Sajayan in 'The Great Indian Kitchen'. (Image: Screen grab) Suraj Venjaramood (left) and Nimisha Sajayan in 'The Great Indian Kitchen'. (Image: Screen grab)

Joint production

Apart from acquiring titles, joint production is the future, Babu said. “The next big trend on OTT is co-producing movies, starting with Hindi and other languages. There is Navarasa, a nine-film anthology jointly produced by Mani Ratnam and Jayendra Panchapakesan for Netflix.”

Netflix is building a slate of differentiated stories in multiple Indian languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam.

“We are investing in licensed and Netflix films, across genres, languages and formats. In addition (to) Hindi, our members in India have discovered and fallen in love with incredible non-Hindi language films such as Navarasa (Tamil), Jagame Thandhiram (Tamil), Paava Kadhaigal (Tamil), Pitta Kathalu (Telugu), Nayattu (Malayalam), Mandela (Tamil) and Cinema Bandi (Telugu). These stories, aided by subtitles and dubs, find audiences in India and across the world.”

Narayanan summed up on an optimistic note, “The mixed model of releasing movies on both platforms will help the industry in the long run.”
Nilutpal Thakur is an independent journalist and content creator based in Delhi

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