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Interview Marathi

Censorship won't do any good to online content, says Planet Marathi's Akshay Bardapurkar

Bardapurkar, founder and head of the first Marathi digital streaming service, opens up on the struggle to set up a new platform and formulate a content strategy, and the future of Marathi cinema.

Suyog Zore

During the COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown last year, when cinema halls and drama theatres were shut and shooting for television shows and films had been suspended, it was OTT (over-the-top) platforms that came to the rescue of people trapped in their homes with nothing much to do beyond the daily chores.

That was when it became painfully obvious that there was a serious dearth of Marathi content on the available streaming services. To fill the void, Akshay Bardapurkar, film producer, brand imaging expert, entrepreneur and philanthropist, announced the launch of Planet Marathi, a streaming service dedicated to Marathi content.

In an exclusive interview with Cinestaan, Bardapurkar opened up about the struggle to set up a new OTT platform and create a content strategy. He also spoke about the growing attempt by the government to exercise control over digital content and the future of Marathi cinema. Excerpts:

When did the idea of launching the first Marathi OTT platform come?

Because of the lockdown, we had to incur losses with our film AB Aani CD (2020). [The film's theatrical run ended after just three days when the Maharashtra government shut down theatres on 15 March 2020.] We couldn't exploit our box office, our digital rights or our satellite rights. Everything got hampered. We also had a lot of time on our hands during the lockdown. So, after a lot of discussion and introspection, we realized there was a void in the Marathi entertainment industry because cinema, plays, and TV, all three sections, were completely shut and the only thing working at that point in time was OTT.

That's when we realized that there is not a single Marathi OTT. So we decided that we should do something that will benefit both the content creators and audiences. The mood was that somebody needed to do this and we decided to be the first movers. And that's how we got the first-mover advantage also.

It has been eight months since you announced your platform, Planet Marathi. What has happened in these eight months? Because we haven't got any new content from you yet.

See, it's not a simple app where you invest your money and time and start putting in content. It requires a hell of a lot of research. If you ask me what has happened in the last eight months, of those eight months, six went in research. We are creating a robust app that is by far the best technology you will see in any OTT platform.

We are also creating our own content. We are making about 30 web-series. We are also doing certain web films as well as non-fiction shows. So content is getting prepared, our research is in progress.

The thing is, there is no precedence to what we are doing which we can just emulate. We are the first movers. Tomorrow people might follow us and study our model of business to learn how we failed or succeeded. But we are dependent solely on the research.

So when can we expect you to launch your OTT?

We will launch it in May, and we are planning to release around eight to 10 web-series simultaneously.

What kind of content can we expect on your OTT? Will there be any adult content or are you focusing primarily on family-friendly content?

We are doing thrillers, biopics, and other genres. Yes, we will be doing 'bold' content, but it's not bold for the sake of it. We will be exploring subjects that are considered taboo in our society. We are also doing sit-coms and paranormal shows, suspense, crime shows. We are also trying to target rural Maharashtra so we will also try to tell their stories as well.

Why do you think leading streaming platforms have shown little to no interest in Marathi cinema?

There are many reasons for it. Every OTT has identified its audience and has probably found that there is less traffic from the Marathi audience. Or maybe they have not found the kind of films they would have liked to have on their service.

I wouldn't say they are not doing it at all, otherwise [the web-series] Samantar (2020) wouldn't have done well. It's just that their focus is not on Marathi. Also, these OTT platforms don't allot much of their budget for Marathi or any other small regional industry, so out of that little budget allotted to Marathi content, whatever can happen is happening. Plus, they want to target pan-India so they try to target the Hinglish audience.

I don't think even other regional languages are getting enough representation on these platforms. They are not giving much space to them also. But compared to Marathi, yes, other regional languages are better represented on these OTT platforms.

We are also doing historical shows. We might get into mythological content also. So we are exploring every possibility. You will soon find out more about it from us.

Will you be streaming only new and exclusive content or you are also looking to buy old movies to stream?

If it fits into our budgets, we would definitely be interested to buy the digital rights of some of the famous old movies. We are in talks with some production houses and makers, if everything goes right, we will have eight to 10 films when we go live in May. It all depends on the budgets — if they are happy with the money we are offering and we are happy with the cost they are asking for. 

The Tandav (2021) controversy has made OTT censorship a hot topic again. What's your opinion on this subject?

Honestly, I haven't seen Tandav, but I feel that censorship doesn't do any good to online content. However, if your content is hurting religious sentiments it should be avoided, be it Hindu, Muslim or any other faith. Filmmakers should make sure they do not make fun of or depict any god or goddess in any sort of bad avatar. There are so many unexplored subjects you can make content on, why do you unnecessarily want to create a controversy by hurting people's feelings? India is a huge country, so try and be a sensible filmmaker and don't hurt people's feelings.

I think censorship should not be imposed upon the internet because it is of no use. Technically, legally, logically it can't be applied. The servers, the technology are all US-based. After all, if you don't like it, don't watch it. It's that simple.

Even before the lockdown, Marathi cinema was not doing all that great box-office-wise. Do you think this lockdown and the emergence of OTT will make things even more difficult for Marathi cinema? Or will OTT help the revival of Marathi cinema?

See, there are good times and bad times. Every regional industry has gone through these phases. And I don't think the advent of OTT is going to damage theatrical revenues. We are making Chandramukhi (2021). It is not an OTT film. It is an out-and-out massy, colourful film, so in spite of the fact that we have our own OTT, we are not going to release the film on OTT. We want audiences to come and enjoy the music, the whole larger-than-life experience on the big screen.

We recently saw the Tamil film Master (2020) being premiered on Amazon Prime Video just two weeks after its release in theatres. In Hollywood also, we are seeing films getting released in theatres and on OTT on the same day. What is your opinion about this? Will this for other regional films too?

Yes, the fact is that it will soon happen that the day you have a release in theatres, the same day it will be released on OTT. But that is completely up to the producer. There are also filmmakers like Rohit Shetty who, in spite of so many big Hindi films going the OTT route, stood by his decision not to sell his Sooryavanshi (2021) to any streaming service. He didn't budge under any pressure.

Somebody who has the capacity to hold, to accept temporary losses, can play the waiting game, but there are others who don't have the same luxury, they can choose to sell their films to OTT. To each their own. Like we are not going to release Goshta Eka Paithanichi (2021) and Chandramukhi on OTT despite having our own platform. Because we know they are the kind of films that require a theatre viewing. We want to give the audience that experience.

How many of your films are you going to release in theatres?

Currently, there are only three — Goshta Eka Paithanichi, Chandramukhi, and an untitled film which will soon go on the floors. It is being directed by Sanjay Jadhav. All these three films will have a proper theatre run and only then will we stream them on our OTT.

Correction, 27 February 2021: An earlier version of this interview suggested the Tamil hit Master (2021) was released on Amazon Prime Video just one week after its theatrical release. Prime Video began streaming it two weeks after it was released in theatres.

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