Hungry for new content after Covid-19 hit production, Amazon, Netflix and cinema chains in India are betting not on celebrated Bollywood blockbusters to grow audiences but on films by non-Hindi rivals — Tollywood, Mollywood and Kollywood.
India, which has the world’s biggest number of cinemagoers, is home to dozens of languages, but films shot in Hindi, the most widely spoken, dominate.
Bollywood, the Mumbai-based Hindi-language industry, took 43 per cent of gross box office returns in 2019 even though it accounted for only 14 per cent of releases, according to EY, the professional services firm. India’s filmed entertainment industry as a whole was worth $2.6bn the same year.
But facing strong demand for original material and a dearth of new content due to coronavirus lockdown-related production shutdowns, streaming groups and cinemas are pushing dubbed or subtitled releases of south Indian-language films. Many were shot before the pandemic, but previously had limited national appeal.
Netflix released its first original film in Tamil, the drama Paava Kadhaigal, in December, while Amazon Prime Video has put out a string of regional-language titles like Telugu comedy Middle Class Melodies, C U Soon, a Malayalam-language thriller and Tamil drama Soorarai Pottru.
“We’re able to give reach to these films . . . which in the past may have been challenging given the screenings these films would have got outside their home state,” said Gaurav Gandhi, Amazon Prime Video’s country manager.
The push into regional language content, which began before coronavirus but was accelerated by the pandemic, opens another front in the competition between US streaming platforms in India, which are looking to expand their reach beyond English and Hindi speakers. The movie-mad country of 1.4bn is considered one of the most-promising entertainment markets globally, thanks to rapid internet adoption and rising disposable incomes.
Multiplex chains including PVR and Inox, meanwhile, are banking on a series of non-Hindi blockbusters due to be released in January, such as Tamil thriller Master, to lure back audiences kept out of theatres by Covid-19.
One industry executive said if these films were successful, it could encourage Bollywood producers to release Hindi blockbusters whose 2020 debuts were delayed by coronavirus into cinemas. These include cricket drama 83 from Anil Ambani’s Reliance Entertainment.
“The role [south Indian cinema] is going to play . . . is more important than ever before. We’re looking at a shortage of content,” the executive said. “If people turn up and these movies do well, then it’ll give a lot of confidence to other producers.”
“They’re experimenting,” said Rakesh Jariwala, a media and entertainment partner at EY. “They need something to keep going.”
Local-language film industries in southern states such as Tamil Nadu (Kollywood), Telangana (Tollywood) and Kerala (Mollywood) are already thriving, producing hits and stars that are followed globally by regional diasporas and beyond. Telugu-language 2017 action film Baahubali 2 was one of the highest-grossing Indian films ever.
Streaming businesses say that they are helping build interest in regional productions in India’s largely Hindi-speaking north and overseas. Malayalam-language Jallikattu, India’s official entry to 2021’s Academy Awards, was streamed on Amazon Prime Video.
Historically, southern Indian films “would get a really limited release” elsewhere, said Suparna Sharma, a film critic at newspaper the Asian Age. “Now with this lockdown and Covid, there are obviously [streaming] platforms which are desperate and hungry for content.”