Apart from the pricing, packages and deals, understanding cultural differences and preferences is key to attracting new audiences.

Sanya Malhotra and Abhimanyu Dasani in Meenakshi SundareshwarMeenakshi Sundareshwar/Netflix India
Flix Wednesday, February 02, 2022 - 18:25

A few days ago, Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, expressed his “frustration” at the company’s lack of success in the Indian market in an investor call. According to reports, Netflix added 2.6 million paying subscribers in the Asia Pacific region in the last quarter, showing good growth in Japan and India. However, the Over-the-Top platform said that it only expects to add 2.5 million subscribers in the current quarter. There are various numbers put forth on the market share of OTT platforms in India but they all agree that Disney+Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix lead the pack followed by platforms like Zee5 and SonyLiv. There are also smaller players like Aha, Neestream and others which are jostling for space in the crowded market.

There are several factors at play when it comes to OTT subscription in India, from pricing and perceptions about value for money to widespread piracy through websites and Telegram groups that allow viewers to watch content for free. But even if a user were to be drawn into the OTT world despite these factors, how good is the content getting picked by these players? Especially for a south Indian audience that's not already on these platforms, and isn't necessarily into international content yet?

SonyLiv was the first OTT service to be launched in India, in 2013. Hotstar was launched in India in 2015 by the Star group and was eventually bought over by Disney in 2019; Netflix and Amazon Prime Video came to India in 2016, with the former getting a headstart; Zee5 entered the market in 2018. In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing nationwide theatre shutdowns and desperate film industries turning to OTT platforms to make and release films, the game has considerably changed. OTT platforms are not only focusing on wooing urban, metro audiences but also viewers from tier-2, tier-3 cities, and small towns. 

According to reports, India has over 500 million (and growing) smartphone users, which makes it an extremely attractive market for OTT platforms. But India is also a very diverse country, with several languages and differing sensibilities when it comes to consuming content. Apart from the pricing, packages and deals (Disney+Hotstar, for instance, has rights to stream sporting events like the IPL and ICC World Cup while Amazon Prime Video comes with Prime delivery, Prime music and more), understanding the cultural differences and preferences is key to attracting new audiences. 

How south Indian content fares

In an attempt to capture a wider market, Netflix slashed prices for Indian consumers in December 2021 by 60% for its basic plan that allows viewers to watch content on mobile screens. The move is a clear signal that the company, which had previously targeted English-speaking, upwardly mobile, urban households in India, wants to compete with Disney+Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video that have better pricing and packages in terms of content and screen options. All of them are gunning to expand their reach across the country.

However, when it comes to making originals in south Indian languages, OTT platforms seem to be at a loss. The strategy appears to be approaching big names in the hope that they will deliver good content and excite viewers enough to get a subscription and watch the films. The originals in Tamil and Telugu — Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidiyaadha (Amazon), Pitta Kathalu (Netflix), Paava Kathaigal (Netflix), Navarasa (Netflix),  have been of uneven quality and described as disappointing by critics and audiences. Zee5’s Auto Shankar and Disney+Hotstar’s November Story received some publicity but did not grab enough attention to break language barriers. 

When it comes to direct-to-OTT films, Amazon Prime Video has had the upper hand, buying several highly anticipated new south Indian titles, be it Soorarai Pottru (Tamil), Maalik (Malayalam) or V (Telugu). Not all of them turned out to be good, but the streaming giant has delivered many well-received films like C U Soon (Malayalam), Joji (Malayalam), Sarpatta Parambarai (Tamil), Jai Bhim (Tamil), Home (Malayalam), Sara’s (Malayalam) and so on. Though it is said to have initially rejected The Great Indian Kitchen (Malayalam) which went to Neestream, the platform later bought it, seeing how popular the film became. Karthik Subbaraj’s Tamil film Mahaan, with Vikram and son Dhruv Vikram in the lead, will release next week on Amazon Prime Video as a direct-to-OTT film. 

Watch: Trailer of Sarpatta Parambarai

In contrast, Netflix’s direct-to-OTT south Indian releases have not really generated much excitement, barring its latest release Minnal Murali (Malayalam) and Mandela, a small budget Tamil film that received good reviews. The highly marketed direct-to-OTT Tamil film Jagame Thandhiram ended up being a damp squib. 

Disney+Hotstar, which has a fairly large collection of old Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu films, has mostly come up with underwhelming direct-to-OTT south Indian films, be it Anabelle Sethupathi (Tamil), Keshu Ee Veedinte Nadhan (Malayalam) or BroDaddy (Malayalam). 

SonyLiv, however, is quickly making a name for itself as a platform that chooses quality content, with direct-to-OTT films like Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam (Malayalam), SkyLab (Telugu) and Bhoothakaalam (Malayalam).

Very few Kannada films have had direct-to-OTT releases and none of them really made an impact. 

Quality of India-specific content

Netflix made a big splash with Sacred Games in 2018, its first Indian original. Subsequently, Delhi Crime (2019) became the first Indian web series to win an international Emmy. There have also been some series, documentaries and films like Little Things, Lust Stories, Ajeeb Dastaans (in particular the Geeli Pucchi short film), House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths, Kota Factory, Bombay Begums and Indian Matchmaking among others that have generated discussions on social media. But the general impression among viewers is that Netflix has squandered its initial advantage because of poor content strategy. 

Watch: Trailer of Sacred Games

Amazon Prime Video has its share of duds but it has also had widely watched and discussed originals like The Family Man, Mirzapur, Made in Heaven, Panchayat, Pataal Lok and so on. SonyLiv’s Scam 1992 was a big hit, too. 

All of the content mentioned above is in Hindi, and though many viewers from the south also watch such films and series with or without subtitles, the mediocre south Indian originals made by these streaming giants are unlikely to attract new subscribers from non-metro regions in the south.

Cracking the code

According to a report by Accenture, 70% of Indian OTT subscribers are frustrated with their OTT viewing experience, and find that over 60% of the content is “irrelevant” to them. This is hardly encouraging if OTT platforms want to attract new customers. It’s clear, however, that they are going hard at it. For instance, Netflix’s recent choices like Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhen, Aranyak, Kapil Sharma: I’m Not Done Yet are tailored to appeal to small town as well as urban audiences in the Hindi belt while Decoupled is clearly aimed at an English-speaking metro audience across the country. 

Amazon Prime Video’s The Family Man Season 2 was about the Eelam struggle and though it received flak for its portrayal of the LTTE, it was a widely watched series and ranked fourth on IMDB’s list of most popular shows across the world. The series also had Samantha, a top billed actor in the Tamil and Telugu film industries, playing a key role. 

But while OTT platforms are making some headway in Hindi, their strategy in the south definitely needs tinkering, if not an overhaul. Why, for instance, would Netflix invest in Meenakshi Sundareshwar, a Hindi film set in Tamil Nadu with Hindi actors playing Tamil characters who speak Hindi??! Why not invest in a Tamil film or series instead? The decision also shows the team's ignorance of attitudes towards Hindi in Tamil Nadu, a state that has a long history of resisting Hindi imposition. 

However, in spite of criticism and launching a Netflix India South Twitter handle, the OTT platform seems to be following a Hindi-centric approach. It recently announced ‘Take 10’, a “short film workshop and competition that aims to discover and support emerging filmmakers from diverse backgrounds in India”. According to Netflix, 10 aspiring filmmakers will get the opportunity to attend workshops by “the best in the creative industry” and then receive a $10,000 grant to make a fully funded short film that will be showcased on Netflix India’s YouTube channel. Though the announcement reiterates Netflix’s commitment to inclusion and diversity, no south Indian name figures in the panel (Abhishek Chaubey, Hansal Mehta, Juhi Chaturvedi, Neeraj Ghaywan and Guneet Monga) that will supposedly conduct the workshops.  

Despite the fact that OTT platforms are yet to invest and experiment in the south Indian film industries to the extent that they have in Hindi, several south Indian films have done very well on these platforms. Jai Bhim (Amazon) became the top ranked film on IMDB, beating several Hollywood films. Sarapatta Parambarai (Amazon), Joji (Amazon), The Great Indian Kitchen (Amazon), Jai Bhim (Amazon), and Karnan (theatrical release, Amazon) were among the top 20 highest rated international films on Letterboxd, a global community of film lovers. The only Hindi film on the list is Sardar Udham. Joji received international praise, with The New York Times calling it ‘the first major film of the COVID-19 pandemic’ and featuring it on a list of five international films worth streaming. Malayalam superhero film Minnal Murali (Netflix) made it to the streaming platform’s Top 10 non-English films. 

Clearly, it’s not that the south Indian industries don’t have what it takes to produce hard-hitting, innovative and experimental content; the fault lies with OTT platforms who are looking at the wrong places and failing to identify talent. Though Hindi content has a much wider audience than the south Indian languages, the data shows that good content will break linguistic barriers and draw in fresh audiences -- look at the success of South Korean series Squid Game, for instance. And isn’t that what OTT platforms want too? 

India is a strange and surprising beast, and the challenges are aplenty; but the first step would be to acknowledge that ‘India’ isn’t any one thing and it’s impossible to encapsulate its differences in a tidy definition. Apart from breaking their heads over pricing and packaging, OTTs should also take a serious look at the content they’re making and cater to the diverse tastes and languages that exist in the country. That’s the way ahead if they wish to expand and grow.

Also read: Beyond Amazon and Netflix: Tracing the growth of regional OTT players from the south