LIBERATING LOCAL CINEMA
GQ India|December 2021
The revolution has been televised. | Streaming services in the pandemic provided a long-overdue boost for regional Indian films cutting across borders.
ARUN JANARDHAN

When the producers of the Tamil film Soorarai Pottru decided to release it on Amazon Prime Video last November—amid shuttered cinemas and an enraged Tamil Nadu Theatre and Multiplex Owners’ Association—its director was not the happiest person. Sudha Kongara felt that several rousing moments in her movie, which would have been otherwise boisterously celebrated in the cinemas with religious awe, would be lost in the solitude of domestic viewership.

She now says, in retrospect, the OTT (over-the-top) platform was the best thing that happened to the film. It went across borders, got dubbed in many languages, and earned a respectable IMDB rating.

Kongara’s desire got fulfilled two months later when three shows of the film were held at the Chennai International Film Festival. She experienced every vociferous reaction from the crowd that she had anticipated. “I got my closure,” she says, laughing. “Now I have actors from [film industries across the country]—Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi—asking me to make films. How could it have been possible if not for streaming?”

Soorarai Pottru is just one of several films that were released straight on a streaming platform over the last year and a half because a theatrical release was not possible. Major stars like Suriya, also one of the producers of Soorarai Pottru, and Dhanush, who was sitting on big-budget films, bowed down to streaming services rather than wait for better times—in part due to growing pressure from financiers. Blockbuster films like Vijay’s Master got the frenzied reaction in cinemas—the first major Tamil release of 2021, in January—but also raked up the numbers when it released online.

The power of choices, ease of discoverability, and range of content have led viewers down unfamiliar routes. Even Telugu films found a place in shared watch lists between friends, while Malayalam cinema’s Fahadh Faasil became a pan-India favourite. What Bong Joon-Ho, the director of Korean Oscar-winner, Parasite, said less than two years ago, came true: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

While streaming services shy from giving numbers, the success of films released straight to the web can be gauged anecdotally—and by following the chatter on social media. Backhanded compliments come in the form of remakes—the most obvious form of flattery. Soorarai Potru is being made in Hindi, directed by Kongara, despite already having a Hindi-dubbed version, titled Udaan.

Netflix’s Tamil anthology series Navarasa, co-produced by Mani Ratnam, was in 10 countries’ top 10 lists including Malaysia and Sri Lanka. In its first week, more than 40% of viewers were from outside the country. Another Tamil film, Jagame Thandhiram, was subtitled and dubbed in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. In the last year, Martin Prakkat’s Nayattu (Malayalam), Praveen Kandregula’s Cinema Bandi (Telugu), V. Vignarajan’s Andhaghaaram and Madonne Ashwin’s Mandela (both Tamil), and anthologies Pitta Kathalu (Telugu) and Paava Kadhaigal (Tamil) have all featured in the top 10 in India.

“The growth of streaming services in India provides a massive opportunity for new talent to share their stories with the world. We are excited to have stories by a new generation of incredibly talented stars and storytellers from South India,” says Pratiksha Rao, director of original films and licensing for Netflix India.

Some of the more prominent movies on Amazon Prime Video include The Great Indian Kitchen, Joji, and Drishyam 2 (all Malayalam); and Tamil movies Karnan and Master, which topped IMDB’s list of most popular films and web series of 2021. Prime Video has programmed films in nine Indian languages, including Marathi, Bengali, and Gujarati. Disney+ Hotstar got the Telugu film Maestro and the multilingual Annabelle Sethupathi, besides Mookuthi Aman and November Story, a Tamil film and series respectively, among others.

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