Namah Chawla

The 'Drishyam' effect: Made in South India, watched and loved across regions

How subs, dubs and permeable language barriers are taking South Indian OTT content - Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada - across geographies.

The OTT market in India has grown significantly over the last few years and has made massive inroads into the southern states. What was once believed to be a land of soap operas and 'massy' movies, controlled by the likes of Sony, Zee and Star, now seems to be quite excited about welcoming independent OTT players.

Internet penetration and digital maturity have provided a lucrative opportunity to not only regional players, but also bigger ones like Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Hotstar and Zee5. Over the last few years, even regional OTT platforms have started focusing on increasing their reach and number of subscribers.

For quite some time now, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix India have been trying to strengthen their regional content. Good storytelling and content that connect with the audiences are not just limited to one language, but travel beyond geographies or regions.

Also Read: What explains the buzz around Gujarati OTT platforms - and where’s the return on investment coming from?

Vijay Subramaniam, director and head, content, Amazon Prime Video India, says that the platform has played an important role in bringing amazing regional stories to the audiences, while overcoming distribution constraints.

“There is a high-octane political drama like 'Malik'. A thriller like 'Drishyam 2'. A gripping drama like 'Sorrarai Pottru'. A high-intensity crime thriller like 'Kuruthi'. A movie like 'Sarpatta Parambarai' does a brilliant job of showcasing the nuances of a micro-culture. The best of home-grown stories across genres are now finding audiences globally,” he tells afaqs!.

The 'Drishyam' effect: Made in South India, watched and loved across regions
The 'Drishyam' effect: Made in South India, watched and loved across regions

A Netflix India spokesperson mentions that the viewing preferences of audiences have evolved. The platform has witnessed a trend of films and stories in a particular regional language finding new audiences across India, and even the world. The language barrier is no longer an issue, thanks to the availability of subtitles, and dubbing.

The 'Top 10' on Netflix is a great indicator of what Indian audiences enjoy watching. South Indian films such as 'Navarasa' and 'Jagame Thandhiram' (both in Tamil), and anthologies like 'Pitta Kathalu' and 'Cinema Bandi' (both in Telugu), 'Nayattu' and 'Kappela' (both in Malayalam), and 'Paava Kadhaigal' and 'Mandela' (both in Tamil), have featured in the 'Top 10' list in India.

The 'Drishyam' effect: Made in South India, watched and loved across regions
The 'Drishyam' effect: Made in South India, watched and loved across regions

While global players, with deep pockets, tend to dominate in metro cities, most regional OTT platforms have audiences in Tier-II and III cities.

An overview of key South Indian OTT players that offer content in four major languages, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada:

The 'Drishyam' effect: Made in South India, watched and loved across regions

Rich South Indian content slate

Most people tend to think that only Bollywood content is entertaining. But the South Indian entertainment industry has, time and again, proved this wrong. Experts have also observed that the content created by the South Indian industry is far superior, as compared to mainstream Hindi content.

What is interesting to note is that because of the COVID pandemic, the consumption pattern has shifted in favour of OTT platforms.

According to Sriram Manoharan, founder and CEO of GudSho, the OTT space is currently dominated by English or Hindi content providers. Various platforms need to step up and start providing more regional entertainment choices. “People are willing to spend, but the lack of awareness and preferred content are stopping them from doing so. On average, the time spent on OTT platforms is close to 70 minutes a day, and each session normally lasts up to 40 minutes.”

GudSho offers 30-plus titles and has a library of over 100 movies in South Indian languages. The platform is focusing on exclusive and non-exclusive movies, and series. Manoharan informs that the platform is also developing original content to entertain global audiences.

The 'Drishyam' effect: Made in South India, watched and loved across regions
The 'Drishyam' effect: Made in South India, watched and loved across regions

Sun NXT, the streaming platform run by Sun TV, currently has two crore-plus users. The majority of them have been acquired through tie-ups with telecom operators and other OTT players. The platform hosts a library of over 4,000 South Indian movies. Its production arm (Sun Pictures) is in the process of producing over five feature films in Tamil and, at the same time, acquiring content in Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.

Supporting upcoming content creators

Radhakrishnan Ramachandran, founder and CEO of Studio Mojo, talks about the reach of regional language channels, as evident from YouTube and other social media platforms. It means that regional content will be a huge factor in driving consumption in the OTT and digital space.

The reason why Ramachandran looked at launching Koode (Malayalam’s first independent OTT platform) in 2018 was because mainstream OTT platforms were not giving adequate space to regional content to grow, barring a few languages.

“Content creators were looking for another platform to express themselves. And we all know that Malayalam creates possibly the finest content amongst all Indian languages.”

Koode aims to build a content ecosystem in Malayalam by bringing together fresh talent that is looking for an independent platform. Ramachandran informs that the platform will help these creators in creating compelling content by providing infrastructure support and mentors. Koode has already built two ‘content spaces’, in Cochin and in Trivandrum, to work with these creators.

Made for Malayalis in India and around the world, another South Indian OTT player Neestream is also focusing on unearthing talent and creators.

Merits of good storytelling

‘Navarasa’, the latest Tamil anthology on Netflix, is an impressive example of how content, backed by great storytelling, can become popular across geographies, irrespective of the original language. The Tamil blockbuster was in the ‘Top 10’ in 10 countries, including India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. More than 40 per cent of its audience in the first week, came from outside India.

Similarly, Tamil action-thriller ‘Jagame Thandhiram’ drew an equal share of audience from India and abroad. The film was subtitled and dubbed in multiple languages, including English, Spanish, French and Portuguese.

Subramaniam points out that over the last 4.5 years, his platform has had programmes in nine Indian languages. They have realised how well great stories travel, both in India and abroad.

“Today, Amazon Prime Video is watched in over 4,400 Indian cities and towns. We have also conclusively found that good content transcends language barriers. In 2020, we premiered 20 movies in five languages. Our local language movies broke viewership records. In India, our local language (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada) titles are viewed in well over 4,000 cities and towns, with 50 per cent of the audiences coming from outside the home state.”

He adds that globally, these movies are being watched in around 170 countries. International viewers already account for 15-20 per cent of total regional language film audiences.

Benefit of reach for regional players

According to the latest FICCI-EY report, the share of regional language content on OTT platforms will cross 50 per cent by 2025 (it was 30 per cent in 2019). With the OTT industry witnessing high growth in the last year or so, more people have taken to regional content.

Manoharan of GudSho says that the majority of OTT platforms are focusing on urban pockets. “However, the only way to expand the scale is to explore regional and pay-per-view as the revenue model. For example, if there are 1,000 titles available in the market, the leading OTT players like Netflix and Prime Video can acquire only 50 titles. The rest will be acquired by regional OTT platforms easily.”

Ramachandran of Studio Mojo informs. “Apart from a few big budget movies, whose rights they (the global players) have picked up, none of these platforms are focusing on any original programming in Malayalam.” If you are a regional OTT player, you will understand the pulse of the audience better and also have a good rapport with many young talented creators, he adds.

The regional players may not have enough budgets, as compared to bigger platforms. But they can still reach their target audience easily by providing them with exactly the kind of content that they wish to consume.