Regional Cinema: What Prevents it from Reaching out to a Wider Audience?

Lijo Jose Pellissery’s recent Malayalam film Angamaly Diaries has become an online favourite over the last couple of weeks or so. Thanks to screenings supported and promoted by filmmaker Bejoy Nambiar, people at 1018mb went on to organize a few screenings of the film in Mumbai. And there are already a couple of screenings lined up later this month. One has seen audiences thronging these screenings, this includes members of the film fraternity as well as media circle, and nearly everyone has only good things to talk about the film. It also helped that Lijo Jose Pellissery himself and a few others from the Angamaly Diaries team have been present for these screenings, indulging in a Q & A with the audience later on.  This is not the first time that something like this is happening. It has happened in the past with Lijo’s own Malayalam film, Amen (2013). Once again it was thanks to a screening arranged by Bejoy Nambiar that people started talking about the film.

Years ago something similar had happened in case of the popular Tamil film, Subramaniapuram (2008) when Anurag Kashyap personally made it a point to reach out to M.Sasikumar, the director and producer of Subramaniapuram. It resulted in a special screening of the film in Mumbai, helping quite a few of the discerning lot to watch and appreciate the film. Now before I elaborate anything further I wish to say that I am not against any celebrity supporting a particular film, far from it. In fact the efforts of a Anurag Kashyap or a Bejoy Nambiar certainly need to be appreciated, at least this way a few films (there are many that Anurag has openly praised on platforms like Twitter and Facebook) are getting the attention of the cinema literate audience who are active on social media. But then my question is why is it that in general regional cinema is not able to penetrate to people outside its home territory and reach out to a wider audience.

It is not funny but actually true when I find that even today a lot of people in a Mumbai, Pune, Delhi/NCR etc. either complain that regional films don’t make it to their city or that they are simply unaware of where these films are playing. Now this is sheer ignorance, or a lack of interest or probably both and it is not something that can be easily excused. Okay I understand that not every Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam or a Bengali film releasing in the rest of the country will come out with newspaper ads in say a Bombay/Pune/Delhi Times. But then are you not anyways checking Book My Show or the websites of multiplex players like PVR/Inox/Cinepolis/Carnival etc week after week to decide which movies to watch over the weekend and when? When you do it then can’t you perhaps notice the listing of films from languages other than Hindi and English as well?

The Problem-Distribution

This has been an age old problem, very often one finds that some good regional films, especially the small ones never make it outside the home market. There are various reasons for the same; sometimes the producer is not interested as he/she feels that it’s not lucrative enough for him/her to invest time and effort into the same. Sometimes the producer is a little unrealistic of the market realities and makes an offer that the distributors would certainly not find attractive enough. And sometimes it can be as silly as the producer trying to sell the Hindi remake rights, the player in Mumbai negotiating with the producer making a demand that the original version should not be released in Mumbai and ROI (Rest of India). A recent Tamil indie film which has been the flavour of the season (Dhruvangal 16) did not release in North India for the same reason. Also unless the film is really popular, features a popular star or is made by a phenomenally well-known director, it is unlikely to get a wide release. So often we hear complaints from people saying “who’s going to travel all the way across the city for just one film”?

Then there is this new trend of films from the south being sold in a bundle to a player in Mumbai who ends up buying the Hindi remake rights, dubbing rights as well as North India distribution rights for a decent price. When something like this happens the entity is hardly interested in releasing the original film, as he/she is not really a distributor of films from that particular language and has to depend on another distributor for the same. Case in point being a recent Tamil film called Dora which has Nayanatara in the lead. The film was also dubbed in Telugu and the complete Tamil+Telugu package was sold to an entity in Mumbai. As a result the Tamil version never released in North India while strangely the Telugu version alone released and in just 1-2 screens each in Mumbai, Pune and Delhi/NCR. Yes the situation overall is a lot better than what it was earlier. We now see Bengali films’ making it to non-Metro’s as well, a Pulimurugan or an Ezra among recent Malayalam films making to new centres like Ranchi and Raipur respectively. Tamil and Telugu films also are reaching out to more locations than before.

The Problem-Subtitling Woes

The other reason given for people to feel shy of patronizing regional films when they do get a commercial release in cities across India is about the lack of English subtitles. Now I agree that this is a genuine problem, after all it is tough to appreciate a film in a language that is totally alien to you, especially in genres like drama and comedy where the proceedings are difficult to follow. These days most films are getting subtitled, because of 3 reasons- 1) if its releasing overseas then you definitely need to get the film subtitled in English (and perhaps Arabic for the Gulf countries etc.) 2) also if you are going to submit the film for the National Awards and/or send it to film festivals then you will have to mandatorily have the film subtitled and 3) with digital platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar etc. gaining prominence and proving to be a good medium for release, subtitling your film becomes a must.

But then one cannot just relax on noticing that the film has been subtitled. On many an occasion it has been seen that while a particular film has been subtitled and with the producer/distributor confirming that the film would be released with subtitles, one finds the absence of the same while finally watching the film. The reasons could be many, maybe the subtitle file for some reason is not sent to the multiplex in question, perhaps the operator did not switch on the subtitle file, or perhaps the producer has not paid the digital cinema player (one needs to pay a UFO/QUBE/Scrabble etc. a minimum amount for enabling the film to carry subtitles in their screens) or something else.  Also while it is easy to find a film listed online on say a Book My Show, it is not possible to say from the same whether the film would be playing with subtitles or not. After all unless the information is passed on by the producer/distributor to the portal like Book My Show, they would not be in a position to reveal the information.

There are some producers who understand that their film can and should reach out to a wider audience. An excellent example of the same is Mani Ratnam’s latest film, Kaatru Veliyidai which is playing in theatres worldwide right now. Madras Talkies, the producer and Fox Star Studios the distributor have ensured that the film is playing in ROI with English subtitles across all screens available and this information has been conveyed online as well. Otherwise week after week I receive queries from people, both known and unknown for the availability of subtitles, following which I genuinely try to get information, not an easy task at times. This can certainly be a put-off for people who otherwise might be more than willing to take the time and effort to go and watch a film in a language that they are otherwise not comfortable in. I’ve also seen prominent subtitlists like Rekhs and Vivek Ranjit personally interact with people online and keeping a watch for information regarding the availability or unavailability of subtitles in their films.

The Problem-Multiplex Programming & Producer’s Rationale

One of the most crucial issues that affect the release of regional films in outside markets is the way the multiplex programmers allot shows and screens to the films. There is of course no problem faced by films featuring the big stars like a Vijay, Ajith, Suriya, Pawan Kalyan, Mahesh Babu, Nivin Pauly, Dulquer Salmaan etc. But not every film is going to feature a popular star in the lead; does that make the film not worthy of release otherwise? Films involving the big stars do get multiple shows and screens, prime time shows being given to them easily as well. But when it comes to smaller films the multiplex programmers do not really care too much, perhaps they are not all that cinema literate themselves to understand what works and what may not work. If you allot a 9 A.M or even a 2 P.M slot to a regional film in a multiplex do you really expect people to be patronizing the same on a weekday? On weekends the story is different and people might not be so conscious of the show timing but on a week day they are indeed not going to be in favour of going for shows at odd timings. The only way the situation can change is by having the programming team in the multiplex chains to be more sensitive to regional films and exposing them to relevant content.

On the other hand there are some producers who are just keen to put up big numbers when it comes to release centres. This is just to show off to trade that the film is in demand and hence getting a wide release. But often when it comes to ROI release one needs to be careful in choosing the number of screens and the kind of screens that you want. What is the point of having too many shows if at some places even the digital charges (payment for Qube/UFO/Scrabble/K Sera Sera etc.) are not recovered from the collections? Also at times the producer and the multiplex chains must be made to understand that sometimes it makes sense to bring in certain films to North India/ROI a week or two after its release in the home market. This can help in making the distributor and producer promote the film well using the positive feedback and reviews. Fox Star Studios has been trying to do the same, they released Ezra and Angamaly Diaries in ROI a week after its release in Kerala. Probably we need more such players to think and come up with good strategies for regional films in terms of their theatrical release.However a slightly delayed release by a week or two might work well for Malayalam films as there’s no major piracy problem to consider, while in case of Tamil and Telugu films, especially the former, a delayed release could mean trouble as one finds the film available online as soon as the film releases.

The Larger Problem-Mindset

Subtitling woes will continue for a while but eventually I see it taken care of or settling down and soon we should probably see most regional films playing with English subtitles everywhere. But would that alone make a change and bring in more people into the theatres? I can understand if a hard core commercial Tamil film like a Motta Shiva Ketta Shiva or a Telugu entertainer like Katamarayudu or a mass Malayalam film like The Great Father finds no takers outside the native audience. But it’s sad to see that even for differentiated content seen in the form of some interesting films like Dhuruvangal 16 or Maanagaram in Tamil, Oru Mexican Aparatha or Take Off in Malayalam or an Asamapto in Bengali, there is hardly any interest shown by someone not familiar in Tamil/Malayalam/Bengali respectively. Of course one is not expecting the aam aadmi to go all out and endorse all these films, but then these are not films meant for the masses in the first place.

But if you consider yourself to be a part of the discerning audience and yet cannot see yourself caring about films outside Bollywood and Hollywood then there is something wrong right? When one can go gaga over World cinema but not care for films from your own country unless it is receiving some strong endorsement from a person you look up to, it clearly is not a positive indicator. If you visit a film festival like MAMI or IFFI one usually finds huge interest among festival attendees for international films, but hardly any interest for an Indian film unless the filmmaker is someone very special. There is a valid argument in favour of the same when some people say it’s easier to get hold of an Indian film, chances of the film releasing theatrically are high compared to an international film. Fair enough and I agree to this point, but how many actually go on to watch the film after it really manages a theatrical release? For that matter where were all these people who are raving about Angamaly Diaries right now when the film played in theatres in Mumbai for a couple of weeks initially?

Why Some Films Work, Some Don’t?

We then see a concern emanating from people genuinely concerned as to why only a specific “type” of films is receiving love and attention. Why is it that an Angamaly Diaries or a Kaatru Veliyidai or a Kammatipaadam is seen and talked about but not a Maheshinte Prathikaaram, or a Munnariyippu or a Cinemawala. Well the answer to it is not something too complex, the films that receive better patronage or acceptance are perhaps due to a celebrity supporting or endorsing it (like an Angamaly Diaries) or if the filmmaker in question is someone with a good fan following (like a Mani Ratnam’s Kaatru Veliyidai) or if the film manages to make a splash across the country (like a Kabali or a Baahubali). If none of these elements are associated with a film, then you can forget seeing more and more people moving outside their comfort zone and warming up to a film. If you feel this is a harsh statement to make, then yes it might be but then sometimes truth is harsh.

Power of Social Media

Nearly all regional films that have created an impact outside their home territory have in all probability made good use of social media platforms. Not only is social media/online solutions a lot more cost effective than conventional mediums like TV, FM radio, outdoor etc., it also makes more sense to focus on social media as the target audience for these films would certainly be quite active on these platforms. So next time around do check out your Twitter feed and/or your FB timeline to know if any regional film is trending and why. Also if you do find any such film trending, perhaps its time to check if its playing in your city as well?

Way Forward

I see things improving on the distribution front for sure, more and more players are keen to explore markets not just overseas but also in ROI. I also definitely foresee the subtitling related woes getting taken care of slowly but surely in the near future. I also see more and entities like 1018mb, The Indian Express Film Club, The JIO MAMI Film Club with Star etc. to continue their good work and showcase good cinema, which includes Indian cinema as well. While these would certainly happen and perhaps on an optimistic note I might add that we might see many more good quality Indian films getting made from across the country, will they find a wider audience or not is a question for us to ponder over.

P.S: The author is a marketing and distribution consultant for films, having released a few indie and regional films across many cities. He is also into English subtitling of films, mostly regional films. Hence the points listed in the above article are borne out of his personal experience and observations within the market/industry.

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4 thoughts on “Regional Cinema: What Prevents it from Reaching out to a Wider Audience?

  1. The situations are worse outside India. As a Japanese follower of Malayalam and other South Indian cinema living in Tokyo, I have been struggling for DVDs of decent quality. But almost all online-retailers of DVD are cheats. Just take a look at this.
    https://www.consumercomplaints.in/myindiashopping-b112043

    Even professional importers here backed off of the deal of the South Indian videos, now they sell only Bollywood videos.

    • Oh! No that is quite unfortunate. I do hope the situation improves for people like you in Japan. It’s extremely heartening to hear of people like you who are so passionate about Indian cinema, especially films from outside Bollywood.

      • Thank you sir. The situation is always changing. Now Tamil movies’ DVD release is declining to the extinction, while the legal online streaming is flourishing. As for Malayalam movies, they still actively release DVDs. Since the DVD retailers are not trustworthy, it is an incentive to visit Kerala frequently for me 🙂

    • Oh! No that is quite unfortunate. I do hope the situation improves for people like you in Japan. It’s extremely heartening to hear of people like you who are so passionate about Indian cinema, especially films from outside Bollywood.

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