Ahammed Khabeer is excited about the release of his upcoming Malayalam web series Kerala Crime Files on Disney+Hotstar, but he’s also a bundle of nerves. “This is the first ever Malayalam web series and that’s a lot of responsibility. If it does well, it will open up many more opportunities for the Malayalam industry that’s struggling to get people into theatres,” said the young director.
Kerala Crime Files will be out on June 23 on the OTT platform that has the largest subscriber base in India, and Khabeer is hopeful that it will be watched by people across the country. Hotstar’s Hindi shows feature regularly on the compiled by the media consulting firm, Ormax. The number of views matters because the Malayali subscription base is small, compared to Hindi – one of the reasons he believes OTT platforms have been slow to invest heavily in original content from the south.
In Hindi, there’s been a slew of popular web series in the past five years, such as The Sacred Games, Delhi Crime (Netflix), Made in Heaven, The Family Man, Panchayat, Dahaad (Amazon Prime Video), Scam 1992, Rocket Boys (SonyLiv) and most recently, Scoop (Netflix, 2023). According to an , the number of Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) web series released in Hindi was more than double those in all four south Indian languages put together. These Hindi series span genres ranging from comedy and crime thrillers to drama and police procedurals. Yet when it comes to originals in the south, it’s the anthology film at which the big players seem to be throwing their money.
Sudha Kongara, who has been part of two such anthology films – Putham Pudhu Kaalai (Amazon Prime Video) and Paava Kadhaigal (Netflix) – said that barring the Malayalam film industry, which is known for nurturing writers, the other south Indian industries are yet to figure out the web series format. “There is a dearth of good writing here. Writing a web series is a completely different ballgame from writing a film or TV serial. The standard of writing has to be international. Look at A House of Cards or The Crown. It’s so difficult to match up to that,” said Kongara.
The Tamil, Telugu and Kannada film industries primarily run on larger-than-life stories and star power, and this has helped them make inroads in other markets when it comes to mainstream cinema. But a web series isn’t the same – here, it’s the strength of the storytelling that keeps a viewer hooked for a runtime of eight hours on average. “That’s like making four films. I don’t know if we are educated in that kind of writing yet,” said Kongara, adding that popular filmmakers in the south are capable of cracking the web series format, but are too busy making mainstream films.
As for the not-so-popular filmmakers, the OTT platforms aren’t looking at them because the priority seems to be to back projects with prominent names associated with them. “I feel OTT has become as difficult a space to survive as mainstream cinema for any mid-road talent because the platforms are also looking for brand value and big names,” said Kongara.
That’s where the anthology film comes in – it’s less time-consuming for individual directors to make and it’s possible to put together an impressive cast and crew that will attract viewers. From veteran directors Mani Ratnam, Bharathiraja and Priyadarshan to acclaimed younger directors like Pa Ranjith, Vetrimaaran, Thiagarajan Kumararaja, Nag Ashwin, Venkatesh Maha and Nandini Reddy, the anthology films boast of enormous talent from Tamil and Telugu cinema, which are also the biggest film industries of the south.
Most anthologies have a common theme connecting the short films, which otherwise work as standalone stories. For instance, Navarasa (Netflix) is about the nine emotions considered fundamental in classical Hindu philosophy. Paava Kadhaigal (Netflix) looks at honour killing; Modern Love Hyderabad and Modern Love Chennai (Amazon Prime Video) were about contemporary relationships in those cities; love and lust connect the films in Pitta Kathalu (Netflix), while victimhood is central to Victim: Who is Next? (SonyLiv).
But though these anthologies arrive with a lot of fanfare, usually only a few of the films register with the audience and critics. Kongara said she probably will never do an anthology film again. “It’s something that I wanted to learn at that point, but frankly, it holds no excitement for me any more. I’m bored, and I’d rather do a series – something that I haven’t done yet,” she said.
Bejoy Nambiar, who directed a short film in the Tamil anthology Navarasa and some episodes of the Hindi web series The Fame Game (Netflix), believes the opportunities are only just opening up for web series in the southern industries. “A lot of it is in the pipeline. It has taken some time from the ideation to the execution. You will definitely see more long format stories coming out in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam,” he said, acknowledging that the web series is a new and different beast for writers and filmmakers in the south.
Nambiar was initially supposed to direct only a few episodes of The Fame Game but ended up directing every alternate episode. The mystery drama stars Madhuri Dixit in the lead, and is about a Bollywood star who goes missing. “It took me a while to adjust to the new format. A web series takes up a lot of time, but it was great working with my co-director [Karishma Kohli]. I was very sceptical to begin with but she became a friend for life. I also got to work with a legend like Madhuri Dixit, and that was really exciting for me,” said Nambiar.
The Solo (2017) director is a fan of anthology films, and considers the short he made for Navarasa to be among his best work. But Nambiar is aware of viewer fatigue towards anthology films today. “I think ‘anthology’ has become a bad word now. I don’t think the OTTs are putting out any new anthologies other than the ones already in production. It’s a phase,” he said.
Among the few web series from the south that have come out so far, Suzhal (Amazon Prime Video) and Ayali (Zee5) received mostly positive reviews and triggered social media discussions. Suzhal also made it to Ormax’s of ‘Top 10 OTT originals’ based on buzz in the week of its release (June 17-23), and was the only Tamil web series to do so.
Suzhal: The Vortex, created by Pushkar and Gayatri of Vikram Vedha (2017) fame, is set in a small town in Tamil Nadu and is about a young girl who goes missing and the secrets that tumble out during the investigation. Amazon Prime Video left no stone unturned in promoting the crime thriller, launching it at the 22nd edition of the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards in Abu Dhabi. Starring Aishwarya Rajesh, Kathir and Sriya Reddy in the lead, Suzhal was released in over 30 Indian and international languages, including French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Arabic, and Turkish.
A Prime Video India spokesperson said the streaming giant has over 100 projects in various stages of development and production in India, and that there are over 20 Tamil projects in development currently. According to the spokesperson, local is the new national, and viewers are watching content across linguistic barriers. In fact, 60% of Prime Video customers stream content in four or more languages, and 50% viewership of local language content comes from outside home states. “Prime Video content is seen gaining fans worldwide with 25% audience of Indian titles coming from outside India,” the spokesperson added.
The numbers are good news for the south Indian industries that are jostling for space with Hindi and international titles on OTT platforms. The success of Zee5’s Ayali is even more encouraging since it doesn’t fall into the tried-and-tested genres that have worked well in Hindi. According to Manish Kalra, chief business officer of Zee5 India, the coming-of-age series created a record for content in regional languages with over 100 million streaming minutes.
Ayali, directed by Muthukumar, is set in a Tamil Nadu village and is an eight-episode series about a young girl who fights against patriarchal traditions. It won rave reviews from critics, many of whom hailed it as the best series to come out in Tamil so far. “Due to its immense popularity and to cater to a broader audience base, the series has been dubbed in multiple languages, such as Telugu, Hindi, Kannada, and Bengali,” said Kalra. The southern region forms a significant share of Zee5’s audience base, and the OTT platform has also brought out Telugu web series like Vyavastha, Puli Meka and Recce among others as part of its exclusive sale of originals. It’s yet to foray into Malayalam and Kannada originals but plans to invest and strengthen its presence across southern markets soon.
It helps that OTT platforms have hired people from the southern region to listen to story pitches and take the ideas further. Speaking of his experience with Disney+Hotstar, Ahammed Khabeer said that OTT platforms want to make sure that the content will work not only for the local audience but also others who may not know the language. “Kerala Crime Files is about a sub-inspector, a circle inspector and three constables solving a case over a period of six days. Parallely, we also see their family stories. In Hindi, the preference is for taut thrillers, but I included these arcs for the Malayali audience. I should say though that I had complete freedom and support to do what I wanted,” he said.
As of now, the suggests that in the southern market, people are more likely to watch international series like Money Heist and Stranger Things than web series in their local languages. The next few years are crucial for the south Indian industries in the OTT space for originals. If the upcoming web series promised by the big players in the market click with the audience, it will usher in a new age for experimental content from the region. And that’s just what viewers from the south who’ve grown tired of one anthology after another will be hoping for.