When Malik releases next Thursday, it will be Fahadh Faasil's fourth release in under one year. Starting with C U Soon in September 2020, there's been a Fahadh film releasing every three months or so, making him the most prolific star across industries. In comparison, megastars Mammootty and Mohanlal have had only one release each during this period (The Priest and Drishyam 2). His colleague Prithviraj too had Cold Case release a few weeks ago, while contemporaries Dulquer Salman and Nivin Pauly haven't had a release since the beginning of the pandemic.
Skip over the border and it's pretty much the same for the stars there. Except for Vijay's Master, Suriya's Soorarai Pottru and Dhanush's Karnan and Jagame Thandhiram, none of the major stars seem to have pivoted towards the OTT space.
In contrast, three of the four films Fahadh starred in were tailor-made exclusively for the OTT (C U Soon, Irul, Joji). Is he seeing something other actors aren't? Or is this productivity a result of his unique position as an actor who has fans outside of his home state? Also, what effect will this sort of stardom have on his theatrical releases once everything opens up? Here's what industry watchers have to say:
"Fahadh is the first OTT superstar," says journalist and industry analyst Sreedhar Pillai. "He always had fans outside Kerala but the numbers have skyrocketed during the last year. This is also due largely to how so many people have discovered Malayalam movies during this period. So when they get around to watching Kumbalangi Nights, Trance or even Bangalore Days, Fahadh is the constant and this has created a demand for his subsequent works."
This is why major platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are vying for his films. "The OTT space is still new and the landscape is developing. In the North, one can call Manoj Bajpai an OTT superstar thanks to Family Man. You may have also noticed actors like Ali Fazal, Pankaj Tripathi finally getting their due after their hit shows. But in the South, its the films that have created this sort of fanfare for Fahadh, an actor who had an audience outside of theatres. And in this period, one can say that no other South Indian actor has got the kind of reach he has in this space. In fact, OTT has made him a pan-Indian star," he adds.
In essence, it's what huge theatrical releases did for stars like Prabhas, Yash and their blockbusters Bahubali and KGF. If they needed to dub their films in other languages, Fahadh's films managed to travel wide thanks to subtitles. "But one shouldn't assume that his stardom is only limited to a certain type of niche audiences," adds Pillai. "The fact that he is cast in a negative role in Allu Arjun's Pushpa, that too for a whopping salary, is indication that his films are travelling to all demographics."
To be fair, he is the first to see the true potential of this medium. Along with director Mahesh Narayanan, Fahadh started work on C U Soon, an experimental "e-thriller" during the strictest restrictions of the first wave. And when the restrictions eased, he completed two more films, Joji and Irul, again for direct OTT release.
At first, it wasn't all smooth sailing. In Tamil Nadu, connected to the OTT release of Suriya's Soorarai Pottru, exhibitors had threatened a ban for the star once theatres opened up. In April this year following these releases, it looked like the same would repeat in Kerala as well. There was talk of the Theatre owners' association getting together to ban Fahadh Faasil from the industry. The association had to come out with an official clarification to ensure this wasn't so. In it, the Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK) said, "We have seen reports on news channels about FEUOK banning films of Fahadh Faasil in theatres. This is quite baseless. The organisation has no issues with Fahadh Faasil or the films he has acted in. The organisation maintains good relations with everyone."
This press release, in a way, is also an indication of an industry embracing change while also realising that business-as-usual is not what it used to be. And in terms of content, too, there is a difference adds G Dhananjayan, who is working to create original content as well as a strong library for SonyLIV. "On the OTT space, you need to create content that respects the audience. You don't have to make films to cater to everyone and this is something Fahadh's films are not trying to do. That is why every OTT platform wants his films in their library. In fact, instead of targeting one big film to enter into a particular State, it is more valuable to get one his films that work even internationally."
Dhananjayan adds that basic films are OK for theatres but not so for OTT. "It needs to be cerebral. It something is generic, the audience will fast forward or change the film. But if it is unique, they are wiling to watch even longer films like Andhagaaram. A film like Mandela too is an OTT superhit, but that would not have been the case if you saw it plainly as a theatrical film."
Even SonyLIV's lineup follows films that are far away from massy entertainers including Vaazhl (from the director of Aruvi), Naragasooran (by Karthik Naren) and Manikandan's Kadaisi Vyavasayi, all films where the directors are stars on their own right. With Malik releasing next week, it will be interesting to see how a big theatrical film of Fahadh's does on the OTT.
"The traditional concept of stardom itself has taken a beating," argues Pillai. "No government will allow more than 50 percent occupancy in the coming months, so it does not matter what opening an actor can generate for their films. The audiences themselves are worried after the second wave so it's smarter for films to be viewed safely within the comforts of their home."
Which only means that its all about increasing an OTT platform's subscriber base rather than 100 crore figures at the box office. "You cannot gauge the box office success of an OTT film as it goes into their library. But now, an indication of one's stardom is how they keep going back to a particular star. If it's a show, this means returning for second or third seasons. But with movies, its usually newer films with the same directors and actors. With actors like Fahadh, these platforms perhaps have seen their subscriber base grow when his films are being viewed across regions. It is a new way of looking at the star power."
And what happens when the theatres open up?
"I'm sure an actor like him will not alienate the theatre crowd. He has Pushpa coming up and there are many films that will need the theatres to make it affordable," Dhananjayan adds. At such a time, it's not risky to sell a film like Malik to OTT rather than holding on to it for even longer. It's not too far for other stars too to emulate this model of embracing two very different kinds of spaces."