From small, quirky independent films to our very own local superhero, Malayalam cinema has had a fantastic year both creatively and in reaching global audiences. As we draw 2021 to a close, Vishal Menon speaks to filmmakers who've made a mark this year. Joining Vishal Menon are: Senna Hegde (Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam), Rojin Thomas (#Home), Chidambaram (Jan-E-Man), Jude Anthany Joseph (Sara's), George Kora (Thirike) and Ranjith Sankar (Sunny).
Edited excerpts below.
Vishal Menon: People tend to assume that making a film an OTT release is an easy process. In your case, you've made your directorial debut with Thirike – a lovely small film starring newcomers. Can you tell us about the process behind taking a film like Thirike to an OTT platform? What are the problems that come with not being able to land bigger streaming services? And how do you go about assessing viewership and feedback to your film in these circumstances?
George Kora: We wrapped up Thirike around November 2020 and wanted to see our film released in the theatres. But since Covid-19 hit, we had to turn to an OTT platform. As a first-time filmmaker and an actor who wanted to see himself on a big screen, this shift felt like a significant compromise. Even today, in my outbox, you will see mails we sent out to nearly every OTT platform in the country. Enclosed in each mail was the film's trailer along with a detailed presentation that we'd prepared. We haven't heard back from any of the national-level streaming services we approached. Later we tried reaching out to them via call but this too proved unsuccessful. Even before we can narrate our films we're asked about the stars involved in it. If you didn't have a Fahadh Faasil or a Prithviraj spearheading your project, streaming platforms weren't interested in picking up your film.
It was around this time that I realised the potential of OTT platforms catering to regional languages. Neestream was the first such platform to watch Thirike. They were yet to release The Great Indian Kitchen back then, so to us it seemed like just another start-up. Initially we were reluctant to release our film on this platform. We thought nobody would watch the film on a new streaming service. Regardless, it was mind-blowing to us when an OTT platform finally reached out to us after watching Thirike.
Neestream blew up with The Great Indian Kitchen and destiny had it that Thirike too would find a home in it. Since it was an OTT release on a relatively new platform, I still don't know how many people watched our film. But my take away from this experience is that to big faceless corporations like Netflix and Amazon, the Malayalam film industry is ultimately among the smaller ones. They're never going to pick up too many films from regional languages. They'd rather spend their budget on bigger films from the industry while smaller films have to rely on revenue share models.
It's important that we start supporting Indian streaming services. In the South for instance, Aha is doing a brilliant job with Telugu language content. Both nationally and internationally, Malayalam cinema is being celebrated today. They say that Malayalam content is king. And while smaller films are doing well in our industry, the truth is that economically, the filmmakers themselves are not doing so well unless they're a part of star-driven films. The digital paywall is inhibiting, in that, the audience would rather pirate films from Telegram than pay for Indian streaming services. However, I hope we can overcome this by supporting our regional language OTT platforms. We need to fund them and take them seriously so that they can showcase our films.
Senna Hegde: When I spoke to an executive from a national level streaming service, his complaint was that the Malayalam film industry is small in terms of its demography. But a bigger issue is that even when people are subscribed to OTT platforms they go ahead and pirate films on Telegram and the like.
George Kora: We're not alone in this. I know around twenty to thirty really good films that are yet to find a space on these streaming services. Some films just get lucky while others get overlooked. An amazing film like Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam deserves more views on a bigger OTT platform but that isn't the case.
Vishal Menon: While #Home would have been successful even in the theatres, the film has amassed fans beyond Kerala owing to its release on Amazon Prime Video. The film is celebrated not just by the Malayalee audience but by viewers everywhere else as well. Has #Home benefited from an OTT release more than it would've from a theatrical one?
Rojin Thomas: Definitely. #Home was never conceived as a made for OTT film. I first wanted to make this film five years ago but it was only during the pandemic that we began filming it. When theatres opened after the first lockdown we moved our film forward under the assumption that it would be a theatrical release. This was implied even with the film's trailer. Suddenly we entered a second lockdown. I realised that a lot of the themes in #Home was relevant to our circumstances.
If we had put the film on hold due to the pandemic and insisted on a theatrical release, then many of the ideas presented in it would become outdated. Content-wise, the film felt appropriate to our times. So we were able to bag an Amazon Prime Video release. I must admit that personally it was a bit disheartening to have a film written with a theatre audience in mind become an OTT release. I was worried about the reception, especially since the film would open only at night as opposed to the regular noon show. I wondered whether people would stay up to see our film. But just hours after it was made available to stream, I started receiving calls and messages from people who had seen the film. With my first film Philips and the Monkey Pen many people told me they'd heard the film was good but never found time to watch it. But with an OTT release, people can watch the film at their own time.
Vishal Menon: Both Sunny and #Home take inspiration from the pandemic. Not just logistically in terms of OTT release but thematically too these films have incorporated Covid-19. Do you look at this as a silver-lining since you were able to work on subjects previously unknown to the audience? Have certain stories become more relevant now?
Ranjith Shankar: The story in Sunny takes form only because of our experiences with the pandemic. I had always wanted to make a one-man film but I could never arrive at the right subject. With Covid-19 happening I felt like there couldn't be a better premise to my film. This was also an opportunity to make a film free from constraints. I was able to work on a film I liked since I didn't have to worry about how it would fare at the theatres or about the demands of specific audiences.
Of course, working with streaming services can prove to be quite challenging. With Malayalam films in particular, deciding whether a film will be a theatrical or OTT release is a difficult call to make. Filmmakers and producers can never go ahead with a film under the assumption that it'll land the desired OTT platform. However, this is new terrain and developments can be made to widen the scope of filmmaking.