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The Rise Of Regional: A Multilingual Decade

Looks like we are all set. With many good stories waiting to be told we are entering what everyone is calling the golden age of content.

Photo Credit : ShutterStock


Whenever Bejoy Menon encounters another Malayalee in Mumbai, he greets him with the phrase 'Evite Vit?',  meaning 'where's home?' This is his way of establishing a connection back to his roots, to see if they are from the same town or neighbourhood in Kerala and if they potentially share some common roots. No matter how many years Malayalees like Shibu may have spent in Mumbai or Dubai or in any other city, their connection with home remains stronger than ever. This is true for any migrant whether he or she speaks Gujarati, Tamil, Punjabi or Bengali and they are a significant majority in India.

As per census 2011, only 43.6% of Indians speaks Hindi as a mother tongue, while 56.4% speak the other 1370 languages as their mother tongue including the 21 national languages which have over a million native speakers. Recognizing this, brands are increasingly turning regional to reach out to customers in their languages. A few years ago, Bisleri began writing its brand name on its water bottles in various languages so people didn't get confused with another brand trying to pirate its name. Last year, Google launched its Assistant in 9 Indian languages. Twitter has launched a 6 language feed in India and now reports that only half of its tweets are in English, followed by Hindi and Tamil. Content apps like Facebook, Netflix and Amazon support 8-9 Indian regional languages, in addition to the many international languages they serve their content in. The IIT's recently announced that the JEE exam will now be held in 9 Indian regional languages in addition to Hindi and English. 

Indian content creators have known this for long. We have had incredible talent creating great cinema in their regional languages for many years. However, there has never been a possibility, except for a few exceptions, to create movies of the scale and returns that Bollywood provided while also telling a great story. This had been the biggest challenge to the development of the Indian regional film industry till the last decade. 

Go Big or Go Bust
The holy grail of films has always been the search for the universal story that appeals to a much larger universe than the one it is set in. When Disney makes a film based on a Lion set in the jungles of Africa, the raw essence of the tale, the storytelling craft, and the emotional involvement of the audience as it connects with the characters laughter or tears irrespective of whether he's watching the movie in the Philippines, in Sudan, in Kiev or in Bhopal, makes it a story with a universal appeal.  And then using its distribution might, Disney reaches these audiences across various markets and collects its billions of dollars. 

In India, that universal storytelling space was occupied by Bollywood, and a few film stars held sway on how the story was told. There was no way a different 'niche' story could be told without wide and expensive distribution and thus there was no way to recover money by making such films. Such films had to be satisfied with the 'Art' or 'regional' cinema tag and stay in their territorial boundaries defined by their language and cultural settings. A film could either be a blockbuster or win awards. You either had money in the bank or trophies on the shelf.

Till the nineties, in order to fill the 1000 seater theatres, Indian films had to throw all emotions into the story to draw and satisfy the audience. They were multi-starrers with great drama including tragic, comic, thrill and high emotional elements to appeal across the length and breadth of the country. Hollywood and Bollywood movies sparred at the box office with their large format storytelling leaving regional language films fighting for breathing space in the limited screens available for distribution. 

Films in Tamil and Telugu with their superior stories and control on local distribution managed to survive the Bollywood onslaught and thrive. Perhaps the fact that film stars in these languages became political leaders helped build these regional film industries.  Films made in other languages like Gujarati, Punjabi, Marathi, Bhojpuri or Bengali fought to get proper releases as film distributors in their states majorly patronized Hollywood and the large format formulaic Hindi films. Even art or parallel cinema lost the battle for screens available for their distribution, sometimes going directly to TV which was growing into a formidable content distribution force in the late 90s. 

The Award-Winning Urban Blockbuster
Then in Aug 2001, at the turn of the century, came to a trendsetting film called Dil Chahta Hai. A slick city movie about very rich, urban people with urban people problems didn't cut much ice with the semi-urban and rural theatre goers. It didn't have any of the jingoistic big movie storylines which mainstream movies like Gadar or Lagaan that had released in the same year had, but it did something more. It won 24 awards including the Best Film at the National Film Awards and clocked a gross INR 45cr at the box office, nearly three times its investment. It became both a commercial success with a smaller urban audience and won a large number of awards for its fresh breadth of storytelling, thereby inventing a new kind of film - award-winning urban blockbuster and went onto becoming a cult classic.  

The movie chain PVR had opened India's first multiplex in 1997 which not only gave an option to watch a movie any time of the day compared to the fixed 3-6-9 time slots traditional single-screen theatres but also introduced the concept of 4 screens in one theatre with 250-300 seats instead of one 1000 seater screen which was getting increasingly difficult to fill and the story had to have a very low content quotient to appeal to everyone. In the 4-5 years that followed, India was ready to accommodate content-driven cinema and Dil Chahta Hai was a sign of things to come. The story's writer, Farhan Akhtar, was the son of yesteryears screenwriter Javed Akhtar who had delivered many a blockbuster with great storylines over the last few decades along with his co-writer Salim Khan. It was a generational shift.   

The growth of multiplexes now made it possible to make an earthy arty film, win awards and yet get commercial success. It also made room for regional cinema with small capacity screens which could host regional audiences while still having the ability to run the Bollywood & Hollywood movies in the others. The ability to tell a diversity of stories that appeal to sub-segments of the population, and to be able to monetize and appeal to audiences beyond their language set with good distribution aided by an encouraging ecosystem, growth of regional TV and the emergence of platforms that seek fresh language content has resulted in regional cinema growing by leaps and bounds. 

2010-2019: The Rise of the Regional
In 2018, as per FICCI Frames media and entertainment report, for the first time ever, more Kannada films released than Hindi. A decade back if there were 2-3 Gujarati films every year, now over 50 release per annum, or one a week. Box office performance of regional films has exceeded expectations in the last few years, with nearly every language setting a new benchmark in box office collections. 

The Bahubali effect: Every regional language breaks the glass ceiling

The two Bahubali films, Bahubali 1 (Telugu/Malayalam/Tamil/Hindi, 2015) grossed INR 650cr and its sequel Bahubali 2  grossed INR 1810 cr totalling INR 2460cr for the franchisee. They lay the grounds for a slate of ambitiously mounted films in various languages to stand up and be counted. Box office performance data from some of the movies released in other languages in the last 4-5 years throws up numbers that one has only seen for Hindi films.

Film(language, year) reported gross box office collection, native speakers(census 2011)

Bigil (Tamil, 2019) Rs 285cr, 6.90 cr

KGF(Kannada, 2018) Rs 243cr, 4.50 cr

Rangasthalam (Telugu, 2018) Rs 235cr, 8.10cr 

Puli Murugan (Malayalam, 2016) Rs 125cr, 3.50 cr

Sairat (Marathi, 2016) Rs 108 cr, 8.30 cr

Char Shahibzaade (Punjabi, 2014) Rs 78cr, 9.50 cr 

Amazon Abhigyon (Bengali, 2017) Rs 42cr, 9.50 cr

Chal jeevi Laye (Gujarati, 2019) Rs 35cr, 5.50 cr

None of the above was dubbed in Hindi for a nationwide release like Bahubali was, but each of them managed to draw audiences and rake in big monies at the box office. Some of them were eventually remade in other languages. 

Considering that only 3.50 cr people speak Malayalam, what explains a box office of INR 125cr for a Malayalam film or INR 300cr for a Tamil film at the box office when only 6.50 cr speak Tamil, compared to say a Hindi film clocking the same number at the box office with a significantly larger potential audience?  

A few factors at play have made this possible this past decade. 

The Multiplex Effect
In the 20 odd years since Dil Chahta Hai, multiplexes have grown to be over 25% of the screen capacity in India and with smaller seating capacities, are able to draw in audiences of different types and tastes. As per a Livemint Oct 2018 report, the multiplex count in India is expected to double in India in the next 4 years and over 7000 new screens will get added, many in smaller towns covering 70% of the country. Meanwhile, in bigger cities, large format multiplexes which enhance the viewing experience are the new norm. In Oct 2019, INOX launched an 11 screen megaplex in Mumbai with 1586 seats, with the capacity to screen 60 shows daily and host an audience of over 6000 daily viewers with ticket options from INR 150 to INR 1500. PVR has set a target of 1000 screens in 100 towns in the next 4-5 years. Mukta arts announced in Dec 2019 that they will launch 60 new screens in the next 18 months.  

This has helped create a potential distribution footprint for high on content regional films, unavailable earlier.

As per Bookmyshow data, in Mumbai, now on an average only 15%-20% of the films are in Hindi, another 10% in English and 75%-80% are in languages as diverse as Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bhojpuri and Haryanvi.

A Focus on good stories
Recently released Malayalam films like Kumbalangi Nights, Sudani From Nigeria, Unda are universal stories incidentally told in Malayalam. There's no make-believe, unnecessary drama, songs or dances. In Unda, at the film's climax, the key character, a police officer on election duty, can't fire a bullet to kill his target, a Naxalite, because he's not used a rifle in action before. Its natural. Its real. The sound design of Liju Jose's Jallikattu is of international standards. In the Gujarati movie Hellaro, the remarkable story of a set of rural women struggling to find freedom from their harsh patriarchal realities, there is no star. With a box office collection of over INR 15cr, nearly four times its cost, Hellaro is the winner of the Best Film at the 2019 National Film awards, including a critics award for each its 13 actresses and is still running in 5 screens in Mumbai, seventeen weeks after it released. This is art cinema within a commercial setting. 

Since 1957 when India began sending movie nominations to the Oscars and till 2009, only 12 of the 42 movies sent were regional. But in this decade, 7 of 10 movies nominated were in a regional language, a testament to good stories emerging from the hinterland. These include 2 each in Marathi (Harishchandra chi factory, Court) and 1 each in Malayalam (Abu, son of Adam), Gujarati (the Good Road), Bengali (Rakthkarobi), Tamil(Vetrimaaran) and Assamese(Village Rockstars) films. The list of recognitions at other festivals is only growing. 

Growing audiences for regional films
The ability to distribute nationally, dub and subtitle films so stories can be consumed beyond its borders, significantly helps grow their reach and revenue. 

Online ticketing platform BookMyShow reported an average occupancy of 45%-46% for regional films in 2019, an 18% increase over 2016. Of all tickets sold on its platform in 2019, Malayalam reported a 76% annual growth over 2018, followed by Tamil at 35%, Kannada at 25%, Bengali at 24% and Bhojpuri at 14%.  Gujarati films registered a 44% increase over 2016 in terms of transactions on the site. The strong movie-going habit in the south ensures that there is an appetite for good content. Annual language theatrical footfalls in the 200 million and 300 million range are now common. Interestingly, there were 9% lesser movies made in Tamil in 2019 (327 vs 361 in 2018), but they had a 35% growth in tickets sold and a 26% growth in Box office collections over 2018. 

The new Rajnikant film Darbar is being marketed in Mumbai the same way it is marketed in Tamil Nadu, with huge cut-outs, massive posters and fan association banners.  With subtitles, it can also be consumed by people who don't speak Tamil.

The Story is the Hero
The biggest grosser in Marathi has no stars, just first-time actors with no prior acting experience. Malayalam film industry has churned out hundreds of movies without any star cast in the last few years, most of whom have made money at the box office. The highest grosser in Punjabi is an animation film. The story is the hero in regional language films. Audiences seek a rich story, not just stars.  

The Regional Long Tail 
Added to theatrical recovery from increased screens in multiplexes across cities, the regional film monetization journey has only got better. The steady demand for regional content from digital players like Netflix, Amazon and Jio and from satellite TV broadcasters like Zee, Viacom, Star which are not only continuing to launch new channels in various languages but as per BARC, have seen a 55% increase in language viewership from 2017 to 2019. This is also driven by a spate of new channel launches in recent years. Zee TV which launched a Malayalam General Entertainment Channel in 2019, is set to launch a Punjabi and Tamil GEC in 2020; Sun network launched a Bengali channel in 2019 and is scheduled to launch a Marathi channel in the next few months. In January this year, Shemaroo and Zee TV announced the launch of a movie channel in Marathi and Bhojpuri respectively. Most new channels create a few regular narrative serials but depend on the new films to build audiences. 

OTT players like Netflix, Amazon, Jio studios, Hotstar and Zee5 are also seeking regional content aggressively, leading to good revenues for regional films from these avenues. Newer ones like Flipkart video, Apple TV, payTM will need new movies for audience traction, resulting in a scramble for content. Reportedly, Malayalam film Lucifer received over INR 10cr from Amazon Prime for multi-year streaming rights, which also marketed the film across various platforms

Meanwhile, State governments are providing subsidy basis in film branding through production sops to promote their states. In Maharashtra, one can get up to Rs 40 lakh, in Gujarat up to Rs 75 lakhs and in Uttarakhand up to Rs 1.50cr if you shoot a film there. Now if a Gujarati film's budget is INR 1.50 cr, imagine getting 50% back from the subsidy and another 50% from the digital and satellite players. A potential break-even before the movie hits theatres. Unlike Hindi, for regional films, up to 45% or more of their returns could come from the long tail. 

Music rights and international revenues add to the ability to get revenues in addition to the box office. Chal Mere Putt(2019) became the highest overseas grosser for Punjabi films when it collected over $3.5mn in the international territories, and bigger than what a lot of Hindi films collect there.

Make it, then Remake it
Telugu movie Arjun Reddy, a modern Telugu language adaptation of Devdas about a man who has anger management issues and turns into a self-destructive alcoholic when his love affair goes sour, earned double its production cost in its first week itself. Its remake in Hindi, Kabir Singh made INR 370cr to became one of the highest grossers of Bollywood in 2019. Its set to be remade in Tamil, Malayalam ad Kannada.

Regional films are now being retold in other languages to much greater success. Adaptations of Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu movies are growing in number, with the performance in each new language surpassing the previous box office performance. Reportedly, Karan Johar has brought the remake rights for Telugu film Dear Comrade for a record INR 6cr. Drishyam, one of the highest-grossing Malayalam films till date has been remade in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, and in Hindi. Hindi Medium is a remake of a successful Malayalam film which was are a remake of a Bengali film. Some of the biggest Bollywood grossers Wanted, Bodyguard and Ready are remakes of South films. 

As regional films create stronger storylines, the box office success of their remakes has only multiplied.

Better returns on regional investments
Regional cinema has also shown progressively impressive returns at the box office. Cinema exhibition chain Cinepolis has reported that from the 90% revenue that Hindi films contributed in 2005, with Hollywood and regional bringing in 5% each, in 2017 the Hindi film contribution had declined to 60% with regional and Hollywood bringing in 22% and 18% respectively. 

Regional cinema with a focus on low budget, high quality diversified stories and very good storytelling and growing appeal to urban audiences is delivering very good returns on investments. The 2018 Box office performance data throws up interesting results. The top 25 small budget Hindi films(<40cr) made a 16% return at the box office, while big-budget Hindi films reported a negative return of -28% and top 25 regional films (other than Telugu and Tamil) delivered a 107% return on investment, clearly showing where the money is being made. In 2017, the same regional segment returned 58%, in 2016 115% and in 2015 156%. This is without considering Tamil and Telugu films.

Gujarati films which used to be made in budgets as low as Rs 50 lakhs, with little or no marketing and no distribution beyond Gujarat even though there are more people who speak Gujarati in Mumbai than there are in Vadodara and it was a largely untapped market. Of late, Gujarati films have stepped out of their staid limits with engaging stories for the urban and young audiences, investing in good production quality, distribution beyond Gujarat and have shown a remarkable improvement in box office returns. In a lot of ways with slick storytelling, Bey Yaar(2014) turned Gujarati cinema around with an INR 8.5cr at the box office, over four times its budget. This was quickly followed by Chhello Divas(2015) with INR 18 cr at the box office setting a new benchmark bringing newer urban Gujarati audiences to the theatres for the first time for a film in their language. The comedy film, Shu Thayu?(2018) made over INR 21cr at the box office with a limited number of screens. Exhibitors subsequently increased shows as the weeks of its consistent performance kept ticking. In 2019, Gujarati film Chal Jeevi Laye pushed the envelope further by grossing a record-breaking INR 34cr at the box office, running for over 6 months in Mumbai and seeing through bigger Hindi and Hollywood releases. 

Made in a budget of  INR 50cr,  the Ram Charan starrer Telugu movie Rangasthalam(2018) earned Rs 215 cr at the box office and was appreciated by the audience and critics alike. The three big stars Tamil films Bigil (Vijay), Kaithi (Karhik), Asuran(Dhanush) all released in Oct 2019 had a cracking Diwali with an over INR 450cr cumulative gross box office collection.  Low budget movies like Adhai and Super Deluxe also won critical acclaim along with box office success. Word is going around that the new Tamil movie starring Vijay has signed up INR 200cr of revenue guarantees with theatrical rights locked for various territories and platforms even before the film has gone to the floor.

Daljit Dosanjh's Punjabi movie Shaada(2019) grossed INR 52cr at the box office, ten times its budget, while his Hindi film Arjun Patiala struggled to even reach its production costs. Just like in Gujarat, local collections of Punjabi films over this decade have begun to become better than the local collections of Hindi films released in Punjab. With Zee launching a new Punjabi GEC, it now gives an opportunity for films to be marketed aggressively, so box office numbers can be expected to only get better from here.  

Given that most theatre chains report nearly 45% non-film ancillary revenues, having good occupancy is important for popcorn sales and the corresponding ad revenue. BookMyShow now doesn't show movie listings beyond 2-3 days and theatre owners keep the option open of substituting a poor performing Hindi movie with a regional movie at the slightest sign of a dip in occupancy. There are movies that begin big on Friday only to be reduced to very low screens by Monday and completely out by Wednesday. Regional movies are always waiting for more screens to open up. 

Hollywood goes regional
Hollywood learnt that India lives in its languages and now regularly dubs and subtitles its movies in key languages. Avengers: Endgame which had a gross box office collection of over INR 400cr is the biggest movie in India of 2019. Released a few months later, Lion King collected INR 180cr. The hidden truth in these numbers is that nearly 40%-45% of their revenues have not come from English. Regionals account for 25% of their box office now. Fast and the Furious released its pre-release trailer in 10 Indian languages. The net average box office collection for a Hollywood film has grown 8 fold in the last 10 years compared to Bollywood where it has come down by 10%. 

The Mighty Little Bheem effect
While one of India's top-rated fictional TV series is Naagin (now running into its 4th season with over 250 episodes)a supernatural fantasy thriller created by Indian TVs best-rated storyteller, Ekta Kapoor is available in around 7-8 countries in 10-12 languages, on the other hand, Netflix has taken Mighty little Bheem across 180 countries it operates in to make it its second-biggest kids animation show for its 150mn audience globally. 2 out of 3 viewers for the first Indian original series Sacred Games on Netflix, were from outside India. The unique ability to create a universal story and present it to a sticky set of a large number of global subscribers is helping good content travel farther. 

Indian regional language content can now go international without having to worry about laying distribution pipes into various broadcasters globally. Building a regional language content base is a key part of their strategy to acquire new customers. 

Bollywood moves in 
Priyanka Chopra's Purple Pebble Productions has produced 10 films in 6 different regional languages (Marathi, Assamese, Bhojpuri, Punjabi, Sikkimese and Nepali) in the last 3 years. Leading actors such as Akshay Kumar, John Abraham, Madhuri Dixit, Sanjay Dutt, Ajay Devgun have produced Marathi films, namely Chumbak, Savita Damodar Paranjape, Bucket List, Baba and Apla Manus respectively. Zee Studios and  Viacom18 Motion Pictures have also produced a few regional films in the last few years.

2020-2030: The decade of the regional
Looks like we are all set. With many good stories waiting to be told we are entering what everyone is calling the golden age of content. 

Regional was always the place where the best stories were coming from, but now they will be told in their original language and will not only just win awards and critical acclaim, but will reach global audiences and become commercially successful at the same time. 

Bejoy's next question may just as well be, 'Ningal ethu cinimyanu aduthathayi Kannan pokunnathu? loosely meaning  'which movie are you going to next?'

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Naveen Chandra

The author is Managing Partner, The Storytellers Fund

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