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Interview Marathi

Content has no language barrier: Letsflix founders on rise of regional films and series

With the announcement of their platform, Narendra Firodia and Rahul Narvekar are looking to jump into the competitive OTT domain with a fresh perspective. 

Shriram Iyengar

With OTT viewership at an all-time high, Rahul Narvekar and Narendra Firodia believe it is time to focus on the development of regional content for a new audience. The founders have announced the launch of Letsflix, a regional-content-focussed OTT platform.

Along with Narvekar, Firodia founded the LetsUp app, an infotainment platform offering regular updates on entertainment and current news across the country. The platform has more than a million users. Narvekar said the decision to shift to OTT was taken after the duo realized that video is the medium that is in demand.

Excerpts from the interview: 

What compelled you to launch a language-specific OTT platform? 

Narvekar: Essentially, we had a platform called LetsUp with million-plus customers in Hindi, English, Tamil, and Bangla. While we realized that text has engagement, it was video that was in demand. Honestly, even we had not seen this, when we realised that even Marathi has no OTT platform. In the OTT space, while you have Netflix and Amazon Prime, it was mainly the Alt Balaji's of the world that holds the regional demand. That was giving a very bad name to the content. 

Also, one statistic that came to our attention was that in 2020, Netflix and Amazon Prime lost almost 35% of their subscribers to regional. Also, since [the Netflix series] Narcos, there has been a seminal shift when we realised content has no language barrier. If there is no language barrier, we can make something in Spanish, or any other language and people will still watch it. Take [the Spanish series] Money Heist, for example. People are binge-watching it in the millions, with subtitles on. 

Firodia: Letsflix will be a platform where we are going to go regional. I, being from Maharashtra, have already produced two movies — Aga Bai Arechya 2 (2015) and Triple Seat (2019). So I am close to the Marathi film industry. If you look at it content-wise, after the South film industry, Marathi has a lot of content. That was the reason why we thought we should go in for a Marathi OTT platform.

This shift has not gone unnoticed by the OTT giants like Netflix or Amazon Prime either. In the last couple of years, they have invested heavily in acquiring regional content. Does this pose a challenge, considering the money power these platforms possess? 

Narvekar: Let me give you a different perspective. In 2009-10, I founded a company called FashionAndYou. Seven of us started out to do high-end luxury e-commerce. A few years later, the India Today group entered the space. The first reaction was that we were now screwed. Reliance launched Big Adda around the same time. Money does not solve everything. It is certainly an entry barrier. Both Netflix and Prime, where they were buying content outright, are now making it pay-per-view. A lot of people had created a lot of content before the pandemic, and one of their assumptions was that they would sell the OTT rights for an 'X' number. Now, that doesn't necessarily exist. 

Users tend to get lost among the huge catalogue with these big players. For regional, the problem is discoverability. There is also viewer fatigue that is setting in. In regional languages, the production values and marketing are not necessarily sophisticated. So, when they go on a platform like Netflix, there is a stark difference between something that is well produced in, say, Spanish, or even Hindi. They do not get their due there. This is where we saw a niche focussed only on a genre. 

If I am a Marathi, I would like to watch Marathi content. Today, my challenge is that I have to go searching on Netflix, Hotstar, Prime, and other OTTs before I find something I want to watch. Honestly, the habits of viewers suggest that we want everything in one click or less. So, if you want something to watch in Marathi in one space, to watch with your family and enjoy yourself, that's the space we are looking at. 

Firodia: There might be an initial struggle, but there is a space. In terms of Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Zee5, there is space. The clientele we are looking at is a Tier-3 or Tier-4 person. OTTs have only emerged this year because of the lockdown. Netflix has been in India for some time now, but only truly exploded in the last couple of years. Going forward, if we provide the right content, this will really work out well. 

Are you also looking to curate content as originals for web-series and shows? 

Narvekar: Absolutely. We are a platform, and I need a certain minimum hours of content. The beauty of the web is that there is no allotted prime time. So most of the audience binge watches. I need a clear amount of original programming, and to establish our identity as well. 

So, does that mean you will be backing content creators, along the lines of Netflix or Amazon Prime productions? 

Yes, absolutely. But we have just put out a survey that will give us data about the current needs, the gap, and will help us decide who are the first people we want to talk to. It will also help us decide how to curate, create and acquire content for the platform. 

How soon and when will we know about the completion of the survey and the subsequent launch of the platform? 

Right now, this is slightly confidential. It should not take too long. Soon, but honestly speaking, even I don't know exactly. But the tech is almost ready. We are waiting for the survey to come out about the nature of the content. The first level of interviews is already happening for key leadership positions. 

An interesting aspect of the project is bringing Marathi theatre to OTT audiences. Will it be challenging to draw this binge-watching audience of web-series and films towards theatre?

My partner, Mr Narendra Firodia, has been organizing one of the largest theatre festivals in Maharashtra for the last seven years, Mahakarandak. This was the only year we could not do it. We already have a deep connection and understanding of that space. 

We make a lot of assumptions when saying that the younger generation might not like Pu La Deshpande's Batatyachi Chaal. We will have to repurpose it and start giving the experience. There is this Marathi movie called Singhasan (1979). If you take that movie today and digitize it, most people will relate to it in today's political context. 

These are assumptions. If a Maharashtrian growing up in Palo Alto can connect with Money Heist, a completely different cultural phenomenon, then won't he connect with Batatyachi Chaal, which is part of his own culture? 

I was blown away by Soorarai Pottru (2020), the Suriya movie. I was watching till 4 am, with subtitles. This is a regional film with such high production values and beautiful storytelling. I think the storytelling in Marathi cinema has not seen that level of production. I asked a lot of people I meet about this. Many of them say the market is too small. But my learning is that supply creates its own demand. 

Take Baahubali for instance. They took that risk, but they said, 'If we invest like a Game of Thrones, we might get the audience'. Unfortunately, in the Marathi industry, nobody has created the supply. For me and Narendra, our idea is this: create the supply and demand will follow. 

Firodia: Right now, theatre is the culture and from where everything evolves. We do one of the biggest stage play competitions in Maharashtra, the Ahmednagar Mahakarandak. Since I am closely associated with it, I have seen some of the best plays coming out of it. Yet, they remain unheard or unsung. We even have an idea about developing these one-act plays into a short series. This will help them grow. There are immense opportunities out there in that field. The only issue is to provide them with a platform. 

But there have been tremendous developments in terms of narratives, performances and aesthetics in Marathi cinema.

Narvekar: Yes, but there can be further improvement. 

Firodia: We will make sure that we back the right content from the right production houses. I also see a lot of newcomers coming into the industry. Since I have produced two movies, I can tell you that the biggest expense is not the movie-making cost. It is marketing and selling cost. You don't always get the right platforms. There are many films that are ready right now but are not getting the right buyers. The biggest challenge is that, since there are no buyers, they need to put this content somewhere. If we really connect with these people, we can have some good series and movies. 

How do you see Letsflix progressing in its first years? Is there a set target? 

Narvekar: I think honestly, nobody knows. It would be dumb of me to say that I know. What 2020 has taught all of us is that we know the broad direction, we know the data and numbers. I am a senior citizen in the start-up world. I founded my first start-up in 1991, the analogue world. I launched a music channel, Channel Oxygen, in 1997, then launched FashionAndYou. What used to happen in a decade, now happens in the span of a month. 

Timelines are crunching, the speed with which the web becomes a playground of a massive level. So, because of what you call the 'zero effect', of the dynamic of us being the youngest country in the world, or the massive money being poured into the startup ecosystem, it would be dumb of me to even attempt to predict it. 

We now know that content has become individualized. Earlier, it was a group viewing experience, which has now gone out of the window. It will primarily be mobile-driven. It will be now broken. Earlier, we would watch a film from end to end. Now, I myself start watching a film somewhere, watch some part of it sometimes, and end it at some later point. 

It is quite like the phenomenon in e-commerce called 'abandoned carts'. People like a product, and put it in their carts, but never checkout. This phenomenon is now happening with content. 

This year is going to be a fabulous year for content. Our idea with Marathi content is to give new avenues of distribution to producers. The challenge for a Marathi film producer is that theatrical release is uncertain, OTT has now become too competitive. Not many have the means to look for a release outside India either. We have the connections, the network, and capability, to syndicate their content to South America, Asia and monetize content capabilities for the creator.

You are coming out of a recession year, and entering a field with some major brands like Netflix and Amazon Prime, which have established themselves. Will the financial aspect be a challenge? 

You can't compete with the bigger giants 100% on the financial level. We are making a slow start right now, and still strategizing. We are doing expensive surveys on what exactly is required. We will take a very calculated risk. We will make our place in the market. For Marathi, right now, there is no specific OTT platform. We are not only looking at Marathi, we'll also be doing Bhojpuri, Bengali and Tamil. 

Though they might get opportunities with bigger players, it boils down to quality. Every region has a different culture and a different take. We are focusing on going regional first and acquiring content that is connected and rooted. 

Would you be looking at subscription options or a pay-per-view model? 

Narvekar: Honestly, we have not arrived at that decision yet. We do know that we need a certain number of subscriptions and need to understand their approach before we decide on a pattern. The market will tell us as we go along. It requires a sort of patience capital. It is not a quick in, quick out. 

It is so exciting. I am feeling alive after a long time.

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