Anirban Roy Choudhury

"Going pay while offering only Bengali content, Hoichoi was considered to be a laughable proposition four years back": Vishnu Mohta

Amidst all the players with deep pockets and international content, who would pay for Hoichoi, is a question that the co-founder says he was often asked at roundtable discussions and industry conventions.

Park Street, Rajarhat, Gariahat, EM Bypass, VIP Road... from Puja pandals to bus stops to billboards at every busy destinations in Kolkata, there is hardly a corner where Hochoi hoarding is not screaming at commuters. The video-on-demand streaming platforms completed four years of operation in September. It has announced a new slate of content with aim to acquire more subscribers. The bombardment of hoardings now is an aim to garner scale.

Four years back when Netflix was signing Rs 100 crore plus cheque to commission 'Sacred Games' or Amazon Prime Video was promoting 'Inside Edge', 'Breathe' - all big-budget shows, quietly in Kolkata, Shree Venkatesh Films (SVF) announced the launch of Hochoi. SVF is a powerhouse when it comes to media and entertainment business in the east. It is one of the largest film distributors in the region, owns screens, it even makes chartbuster shows for Star Jalsha, Zee Bangla and also produces movies. There is one thing that SVF never ventured into and that was direct to consumer media channel. Hochoi is just that.

Hoichoi announced that it will be an "only paid" proposition and will target Bengali-speaking people all across the world. "Many thought it was a laughable proposition," recalls Vishnu Mohta, co-founder of Hoichoi. Amidst all the players with deep pockets and international content, who would pay for Hoichoi, is a question that Mohta says he was often asked at roundtable discussions and conventions. Four years since "We are over those discussions," he smiles. Hoichoi announced it gets 40 per cent of its direct subscription revenue from international markets.

Today, there are OTT platforms in Gujarat, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Maharashtra and other parts of the country offering content in regional languages. Most of them believe that going pay is the best option. Reports suggest that these Indian independent OTT platforms are giving a hard time to Netflix and the likes. At the end of the day, there is only that much one can watch.

In an interview with afaqs! Mohta talks about the lessons learned in the last four years and the road ahead.

Edited Excerpts:

What is your reaction to Hochoi's journey so far?

I am as bullish as I was on day one. It is just that we have grown wiser, we have more data to analyse and we are putting all our learnings behind the content we create. Because of consumer insights, the technology has also leapfrogged. Having said all of it, I would like to make it clear - there is a long long way ahead for us as I feel, we have just started.

Vishnu Mohta
Vishnu Mohta

Is it content that excites you more or do you spend more time figuring out the technology?

A mix of both. What we have learned so far is that it is a game of science and art. Technology is constantly evolving and it keeps getting complicated. Every two years, there is a new way of doing things which is good in a way as it keeps us on our toes. There is a constant challenge to stay ahead of time.

During the launch, you had said that you are going to target Bengali speaking audiences all across... beyond Kolkata, which is the biggest market for Hoichoi?

Bangladesh has been a huge market for us. We have made five shows so far in Bangladesh and in the current financial year, we intend to release five new shows. The last two shows we have made in Bangladesh were big hits. We want to double down our push in that market and we have already signed partnerships with several telecom players for distribution.

Hoichoi was viewed as a niche proposition and suddenly, due to Covid-induced lockdowns, there was a spike in consumption. Were you caught off-guard by the spike?

Regional was considered niche and then going pay while offering only Bengali content, Hoichoi was considered to be a laughable proposition four years back. What has happened in the last four years is we are over those conversations. There are more and more players launching with premium strategies and at the same time, everybody is looking regional. What Covid did is it fast tracked digital adoption by at least a couple of years. Yes, it has forced us to relook our projection and therefore restrategise. But were we caught off guard? Not at all. We are in this for a long run and so, two years here and there does not make a big difference.

Are you after the same set of people who subscribe to Netflix, Amazon, or is Hoichoi, sort of expanding the market?

If we look at the early days of television, we had ZeeTV, Star Plus and those were national channels. Then ETV and others segmented and launched channels operating in regional languages which expanded the market. The same thing has happened in digital. Not only in Bengal but in all the markets. There are people who subscribe to multiple platforms and then there is a large chunk with a high affinity towards Bengali and they are only interested in Bengali content.

Today, the discussion in OTT ecosystem is - how to grow the direct subscriber base and come out of rev-share partnership deals with telcos and other distribution means, where do you see Hoichoi's growth come from?

There is a scope of growth in all channels. Our aim is to expand the distribution as far as possible. Not only telco partnerships, but any means that can offer us reach and visibility is of our interest. We are extending our distribution channels through kirana shops and mobile top-up stores where one can go and buy a Hoichoi subscription. We are also promoting Hochoi subscription as a gift item. Direct or through partnerships, it does not make a big difference to us.

Where is Hoichoi in the overall mix of SVF as a business?

It is a very important brand of SVF. The whole idea was that the content production engine - SVF will benefit from the direct-to-consumer company. That is why Hochoi was launched. At the same time, Hochoi has had its own journey because it is not just the SVF movies or shows that are streaming on Hochoi. There is content from other producers as well.

Mergers and acquisitions are making headlines in the media and entertainment ecosystem. How does this phase of consolidation bother you, are you open to amalgamation or acquisition of a new platform?

Look, I don't believe that we are in a consolidation phase as far as OTT is concerned. There are new OTT propositions being launched every now and then. The recent deals that we have read about are all amalgamations of large organisations with multiple businesses under respective umbrellas. However, we are always open to collaborations and partnerships, our content is streaming on Disney+Hotstar, Amazon Prime, MXPlayer. We are producing content for Star, Zee... More than mergers and acquisitions, our focus is on content delivery and customer acquisition.