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Why the OTT wave seems to be passing Marathi cinema by

While many Hindi and regional films have been sold to OTT platforms for handsome amounts during this lockdown period, Marathi cinema has remained largely neglected.

Suyog Zore

Since March, Indian cinema has been going through probably the toughest period of its existence. Almost six months have passed since the countrywide lockdown was announced by the government, forcing theatres around the country to close down, along with all other businesses, with immediate effect.

Now, while shooting for films and TV shows has resumed, and so have many other industries, uncertainty continues to shroud the reopening of cinema halls. However, OTT (over-the-top) platforms have come to the rescue of filmmakers in the interim.

There was an uproar by exhibitors and multiplexes when the makers of the Ayushmann Khurrana- and Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Gulabo Sitabo (2020) announced their deal with Amazon Prime Video in June. It was the first big film to be released directly on a streaming service.

But despite the criticism from theatre owners, others followed suit and we have since seen numerous Hindi and regional-language films being released directly on OTT platforms in the past nearly three months.

But even as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ Hotstar release back-to-back Hindi and regional-language films, one domestic film industry — Marathi — has remained untouched by the digital boom.

At the end of June, Disney+ Hotstar announced the acquisition and release of seven Hindi films featuring stars such as Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt directly on the streaming platform in what is estimated to be a ₹400 crore deal.

Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have also released some most awaited titles, including Vidya Balan's Shakuntala Devi (2020) and Janhvi Kapoor's Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020). Even in the South, each of the four major regional industries has had at least a couple of releases on one or the other OTT platform. And all of these films have been sold for handsome amounts.

But no Marathi film has found place in any of those deals. Nor has any Marathi film been acquired in the past five months by any of the leading streaming platforms.

Given that OTT platforms have generally been lauded for producing content-driven, low-budget films, this apparent lack of interest in Marathi cinema is baffling.

Acclaimed writer-director Nipun Dharmadhikari believes it is all down to demand and supply. "I don't think Marathi cinema has enough market value on OTT platforms and that is why they don't show any interest in Marathi films," he said frankly. "I believe their decision not to back Marathi content would be based on some research. I think these platforms would have collected data about how many people watch Marathi films on OTT as compared to Hindi and South Indian films."

Nipun Dharmadhikari

Dharmadhikari made two critically acclaimed films, Dhappa (2018) and Baapjanma (2017). His third film, Mee Vasantrao (2020), was slated for release in May but has been postponed indefinitely. His first film Dhappa, which was released after Baapjanma, won the National award for Best Feature Film on National Integration.

Despite winning several awards and critical appreciation, neither of Dharmadhikari's films was a hit at the ticket window. But Dharmadhikari firmly believes the quality of Marathi films has improved over the past decade and it is time for the audience to start supporting them.

"I don't know what more we can do to make the Marathi audience watch Marathi films," he said. "We have been consistently making quality films for a few years. In the past 10 years, Marathi cinema has won three Golden Lotuses at the National awards. If people start watching our films, OTT platforms will automatically start investing in Marathi cinema."

Amruta Mane, who runs the public relations firm Avdumber Entertainments and has marketed many Marathi films over the past few years, agreed. Asked why Marathi films not represented on OTT platforms, she said, "The kind of numbers you get for Hindi or South Indian films, Marathi films don't give you those numbers. We have sold Marathi films to OTT platforms after their release and the response was lukewarm. The kind of response they expected for Marathi films, they haven't got it yet from the films already on their platforms. So why would they risk money and buy films that have not even been released?"

One consequence of people getting used to watching films on digital platforms may be that they will no longer be keen to watch films in cinema halls when they finally reopen, or so theatre owners fear. But there is another side to this story.

Because Hindi and other regional films are getting released on OTT platforms at regular intervals, the audience is getting into the habit of watching them. And the situation is getting worse for Marathi cinema which is almost out of sight now. Except for the small film Idak: The Goat, there has not been a single Marathi film released on any OTT platform in the past five months.

Not just films, there is a dearth overall of content in Marathi on OTT platforms. Since the lockdown, more than 20 Hindi web shows have been released on various OTT platforms. In the same period, the number for Marathi web shows has been less than five. So is there a danger of the Marathi audience falling out of the habit of watching Marathi content altogether?

Dharmadhikari prefers to put a positive spin on this issue. "Maybe this drought of Marathi content will create a thirst for Marathi content among viewers and they will welcome the newer content wholeheartedly," he said.

Film critic Dilip Thakur

Senior film journalist and critic Dilip Thakur puts the dearth of Marathi content on OTT platforms down to money. "Only the producers can tell you the exact reason for this, but in my opinion, it's a monetary issue," Thakur said. "I don't think Marathi producers are not interested in selling their films to OTT platforms, but I believe the platforms are not offering attractive prices. You need to at least recover the money you have invested in your film."

To buttress his point, he drew attention to direct-to-OTT releases of Marathi films in the past. "Last year we saw films such as 15 August (2019) and Firebrand (2019) that were released directly on Netflix," Thakur said. "But it's true that in the last five months, when many Hindi and other regional films are getting direct OTT releases, Marathi cinema has been neglected."

Thakur, however, remained confident that this lack of Marathi content on OTT platforms would not have much of an impact on Marathi cinema. "This has been happening for the last five decades," he said. "Whenever any new technology comes, some people assume that it will be the end of the Marathi cinema."

Thakur, who has been reviewing films since the 1970s, recalled the paranoia among film lovers when television entered middle-class homes. "I still remember when Doordarshan started airing Marathi films every Saturday and Sunday in 1972, some people assumed that nobody would go to watch Marathi films in the theatres. But people still went," he said.

"The same fear was expressed when VCRs [video-cassette recorders] became popular in the 1980s. One could rent a film for Rs5 or Rs10 and watch the film of one's choice like in a cinema hall. But we know now that Marathi cinema not only survived, but also thrived in that decade.

"Later we saw the emergence of cable TV as a big threat to Marathi cinema but still it survived. So I don't think the growing popularity and availability of OTT platforms will be a threat to Marathi cinema. Having said that, Marathi cinema has to also up its standards because there are more options now than ever before."

Producer Ranjit Gugle, the man behind critically and commercially successful films like Double Seat (2015), Muramba (2017), Girlfriend (2019) and Dhurala (2020), said, "I think the primary reason OTT platforms are not investing in Marathi cinema is that they are spending most of their budgets on Hindi films. They want to cater to a pan-India audience, and they have realized that instead of investing in three or four regional films it is better to use that amount to buy one Hindi film with a big star and focus resources on promoting that one film. Unlike regional films, Hindi films get huge viewership outside India, too."

Ranjit Gugle. Photo: Courtesy of Ranjit Gugle on Facebook

Gugle also pointed to another possible reason for the lack of interest of streaming platforms in Marathi cinema. "I believe it can be attributed to the unpredictable nature of Marathi cinema," he said. "In Hindi or even in the South Indian regional films, there is some kind of assurance that if a certain actor is working in the film, he will give you at least a certain number of views. Basically, they are using the same model used by theatre owners when they allot screens. Unfortunately, we don't have any star actor or director who can guarantee a certain number of views. Because of this unpredictable nature of Marathi cinema, OTT platforms hesitate to invest in it."

The period between March and August is the most active, and lucrative, for Marathi cinema in a normal year. With the Indian Premier League cricket tournament taking place in April and May and schools and colleges reopening in June and July, not many big-budget Hindi films are released in this period. Marathi producers make the most of this lull, releasing close to 60 films in these four months.

Even when theatres reopen this year, if they reopen this year, the woes of Marathi cinema may not end. That is because there is likely to be brutal competition among big banners to corner the most screens for their films. Naturally, most of the screens will be allocated to Hindi films.

You might think the Marathi film industry would be getting together to try and find a solution to this clear and present danger. But no, the industry has not yet made any attempt to find a solution. "There has been no meeting or discussion on this issue among producers and filmmakers," Gugle admitted. "Frankly it is an old problem, and we should have had some discussion on it by now, especially given that nobody was busy in these past five months. The lockdown gave us an opportunity to sit down and discuss all the issues plaguing Marathi cinema, but nothing of that sort has happened yet."

Dharmadhikari agreed. "At least to my knowledge, there has been no discussion within the industry on this topic," the writer-actor-filmmaker said.

It is not just directors and producers who are worried about the state of limbo that Marathi cinema finds itself in currently. Even artistes are worried about the lack of fresh Marathi content on OTT platforms. The popular actor Amey Wagh, one of the few artistes from the Marathi industry to successfully venture into the digital medium, expressed concern about the lack of enthusiasm of OTT platforms for Marathi cinema.

"Truth be told, I'm worried about the stepfatherly treatment of OTT platforms towards Marathi cinema," Wagh told Cinestaan.com. "For years we have been fighting to get screens in theatres. Now, even OTT platforms are not showing an interest in Marathi films!"

Amey Wagh. Photo: Courtesy of Ameya Wagh on Facebook

Wagh said the biggest challenge for Marathi cinema is that most of its fans also watch Hindi films. "In fact, I believe Hindi films are watched more in Maharashtra than in any other state in India," he said. "So when these OTT platforms buy Hindi films, they assume they are already catering to the Marathi audience, and so they don't want to invest money on Marathi films."

Wagh, who has been working consistently in both critically and commercially successful films, is currently shooting for Aditya Sarpotdar's Zombivali (2021). Touted as the first zombie comedy in Marathi, Zombivali is one of the most anticipated films in Marathi cinema next year.

Asked whether there is a plan to release the film on an OTT platform, Wagh said, "We are looking to release it in theatres. Let's see what happens. It's too early to say anything. We don't have any idea when theatres will reopen, or if the audience is still interested to go to the theatres to watch a film. We have to see their response to big Hindi films first. Only then can we decide a way forward."

While everyone has their own hypotheses on why OTT platforms are not keen to buy Marathi films, there is a common thread in all of them: the lukewarm response of the audience to Marathi films in general. Unless that changes, streaming services are unlikely to look at Marathi cinema with interest.

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Disney+ Hotstar Amazon Prime Video Netflix