IN A SCENE FROM Shikaari, three middle-aged friends set out to reclaim their older, mischievous selves by pulling off an unlikely heist. To do so, they use the un-subtlest, but most audacious of tools—an old Mercedes. “Rab da dita sab kuch hai, bas shauk de patte hoay aa vaddu. (By God’s grace they have everything, but they’re still into fulfilling their idiotic desires)” a voiceover describes the three. Rooted yet bullish, this Punjabi archetype is a relatable mix of privilege and ambition. There is another rarity here; the sight of three middle-aged men fronting a TV show about an outlandish last job was made possible by Chaupal, a Punjabi OTT platform.
On March 13, 2020 Akshay Bardapurkar achieved a milestone. He had got Hindi cinema’s biggest actor to make his Marathi film debut. AB Aani CD, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Marathi stalwart Vikram Gokhale, released in theatres as concerns about a deadly virus were spreading across the globe. On March 25, India announced a nationwide lockdown. “We were stunned. This was a huge moment for Marathi cinema, getting Mr Bachchan to do this film for me was a feat but we weren’t prepared for what was to come. Luckily, for me, I saw opportunity in this difficult moment,” Bardapurkar says. The makers turned to Amazon Prime Video and while the streaming platform helped recover most of the film’s costs, shouldered by Bardapurkar as producer, the episode urged him to reconsider the immediate future of the entertainment business. “I was convinced that the future was online. Everything started going online,” he adds emphatically. A year later, he launched Planet Marathi, the first OTT platform dedicated solely to Marathi cinema and entertainment.
Planet Marathi is one of a handful of language-based OTT platforms, which have launched in India over the last few years and to the surprise of sceptics, have gone from strength to strength. On paper it perhaps always made sense; the linguistic diversity of India demands more platforms than solely a Mumbai-centric one. The restricted topography of our entertainment industry needed to expand. Before the launch of language-based OTTs this appetite was fed and nurtured by social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram Reels and the now-banned Chinese app TikTok. In fact, YouTube, instead of modern streaming platforms, continues to be every regional platform’s main competition.
Unlike Planet Marathi, however, not all origin stories have been seeded in adversity. Sandeep Bansal had worked in the Punjabi film industry for decades. Having launched Punjab’s first movie-only channel Pitaara TV and music channel 9X Tashan, the idea of a streaming platform for Punjabis in Punjabi had gripped him before Netflix made its national debut. Programming Head of the platform, Ajayvir Singh, says, “We had started to envision a streaming platform in Punjabi as early as 2018. The pandemic probably just reasserted our faith that there was a market waiting to be tapped. We spent the pandemic years building a catalogue that would create a strong first impression.” In February this year, Chaupal accomplished its own casting coupe of sorts by bringing one of Punjabi cinema’s biggest actors, Gippy Grewal onto the platform with an exclusive film titled Outlaw.
Both Planet Marathi and Chaupal have been set up inside ecosystems that have a long history of filmmaking and film consumption. There were challenges, but there was at least the foundational assistance of a cinematic culture already in place. Haryanvi OTT platform Stage.in, on the other hand, took upon the unenviable task of creating it from scratch. “There was nothing. We have practically learned the basics of filmmaking on the job. From stretched schedules to scouting talent, we have failed and learned. It’s a long-shot to become an entire industry, but at least you now know where to watch a Haryanvi film,” says Rohit Deshmukh, Chief of Staff at Stage. Unlike its peers, Stage’s conception was part sentimental conquest—co-founders Vinay Singhal and Praveen Singhal are from the state—and part a business call.
IN JANUARY THIS YEAR, Stage’s founders appeared on Sony’s Shark Tank India. Their 15 minutes of national fame got them attention, says Deshmukh, but that hasn’t necessarily translated into a spurt in user growth. Therein lies the challenges of catering to hyperlocal markets, where user behaviour can never be universalised. Chaupal, for example, is local in terms of language but global in terms of ambition. “We exist in more countries than Netflix actually. This is largely because Punjabis are spread around the world. I can’t give you exact numbers but our second-largest market happens to be Canada. This year we will, like Netflix, be launching diaspora-based stories for that specific market,” Singh says. Planet Marathi has similar global ambitions, but Stage is instead focused, for the moment at least, on capturing a burgeoning regional market. “Forty per cent of our subscribers are first-time subscribers. It means we are the first platform they have subscribed to in their lives. This is the kind of market segment that the more illustrious streaming platforms simply haven’t reached,” Deshmukh says.
Netflix India’s struggles with expansion have been well-documented. In 2022, the streaming giant dramatically slashed its prices to boost a sputtering subscription model in what many have retrospectively pointed out, isn’t exactly a “billion-user” market. Away from urban geographies, spending on entertainment becomes a socio-economic decision. Internet penetration might have grown manifold in the last few years, but technological sobriety remains a constraint. Both Planet Marathi and Stage, for example, only require phone number based logins. Deshmukh confirmed that initially the platform had offered email logins, but “99.99 per cent” users logged in with their mobile phone numbers. Even the subscription is referred to as a ‘recharge’. These tweaks have helped the platforms reach its desired custom base, which remains largely out of reach for the multinational players.
As for what is working on these platforms, there is at least the hint of a common thread. “Punjabis are a proud community. They want earthy, relatable stories that either have a sense of nostalgia or root them in their community. They also don’t want to see a lot of sex and sleaze, that despite the proverbial freedoms of the internet, we have simply chosen to stay away from,” Singh says. The Punjabi film industry’s last decade has been ruled by garrulous, dopey comedies. The industry’s biggest all-time hit is the Grewal led Carry on Jatta 2 (2018), a franchise that will release its much-awaited third instalment this year. On Chaupal, however, the content is far more self-serious, as is the case with Grewal’s action avatar in Outlaw. “This has been a conscious decision. We did not want to simply recreate the theatrical model. It would have been pointless to give people old wine in a new bottle,” Singh added.
For Stage, since there wasn’t a library to fall back upon, the creators have relied on folk stories and cultural artefacts familiar to the Haryanvi audience. “Local ghost stories, cultural ideas that Haryanavis are familiar with have become our go-to intellectual property in the absence of a more solid source of filmmaking inheritance,” Deshmukh says. Opri Parai, a series on the platform, for example, reflects the idea of a woman ghost who has been wronged in her previous life. However, building great content and telling stories are not the only challenges facing these platforms. “The Marathi film industry is going through the worst period in its history, because everyone has begun to gravitate towards a globalised idea of language. My own daughter doesn’t watch anything in Marathi. She’ll watch K-dramas or English instead,” Bardapurkar said.
The average subscriber age, common almost to all these platforms, comes from the 24-40 age bracket. But Deskhmukh claims that the viewers are not necessarily as young. “A large chunk of our subscriptions are gifts that younger people are giving to these parents,” he says. Will local entertainment then become a product for the old and proud? Bardapurkar insists that might be the “unfortunate eventual reality”. To add to that, piracy and user stubbornness remain issues, because Indians are by nature reluctant payers. Growth, thus, isn’t necessarily a guarantee as well. For Stage’s 2.5 lakh subscribers and Planet Marathi’s 3.5 lakh subscribers the economics of the filmmaking has to comply with the fees being charged. Naturally, the cinematic quality or lack thereof, accommodates the humble pricing—both Stage and Planet Marathi cost ₹350-₹400 for a year while Chaupal is slightly costlier but also visually superior at ₹700.
To capture a thrifty audience, these platforms have to innovate in the ways they market. Stage, according to Deshmukh, has done everything from painting itself on walls to organising community activities that potential customers can participate in. Chaupal has tried to leverage the popularity of the Punjabi music scene. Planet Marathi has, on the other hand, turned to local influencers, treating YouTubers and other social media assets as collaborators as opposed to competition. “I think to build regional platforms, we must tap into the talent that has already established trust and following in the community. Only then will you be able to convince someone to pay that fee, however small,” Bardapurkar says.
In the east, Bengali platform Hoichoi has exhibited impressive growth since its inception in 2017. Language-based OTT platforms have sprouted in the thriving southern (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam) industries as well. Telugu megastar Allu Arjun’s father Allu Aravind, launched Aha at the beginning of the pandemic, while cable giant Sun TV has been around for a while with the beefy Sun NXT. There are others but with the greater popularity of southern cinema, the industry has already cracked big urban players like Disney+Hotstar, Netflix and Amazon Prime. In comparison, Chaupal, Stage and Planet Marathi, are trying to fill a different kind of gap and in doing so, scouting previously unilluminated corners for talent.
Anjvi Hooda was born and raised in a small village in Haryana. She didn’t always want to act, but gained attention after becoming Miss Haryana in 2016. “Our culture is very restrictive. There are a lot of things that being a woman, you can’t do. But I’m glad things are changing. Stage has imported the kind of infrastructure that us artists never knew could be built here,” she says. Apart from Opri Parai, Hooda has now acted in several Stage productions. Having learned on the job, last year she took the ultimate leap and auditioned for a Prime Video series. This year she will star in the second season of Paatal Lok, a popular Prime show alongside a school senior and Haryana’s most popular acting export—Jaideep Ahlawat.
“Haryanvi culture is still untouched. One solitary film on the Phogats [Dangal] doesn’t quite tell you the entirety of our culture. We want to tell these stories,” she says. Hooda believes it is essential for artists of her ilk to be able to do professional work in their language, and their homeland. Not everyone has the stomach or the privilege to pay the proverbial ‘price’ by grasping for roles in Mumbai. “I won’t say everything has changed. But at least you can now learn dance and acting in a town like Rohtak. It’s like a new world is being built here. ‘Haryanvi mein kehte hain hum log Tene Mumbai se leke Rohtak mein dhar dun. (Or as we say in Haryanvi to pick Mumbai up and bring it to Rohtak).’”
Anxiety to Stay Relevant Amit Khanna
Return to Greatness Zakia Soman
‘This Is Not Fusion’ Akhil Sood