Go language-specific, go cheap and go hyper-local to reap success appears to be the playbook of a range of streamers operating across South Asia.
With countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan, South Asia is a vast region populated by 1.9 billion people speaking a welter of languages. It is no secret that people in the region prefer consuming content in their own tongues. The narrative around streamers in South Asia is understandably around the existing market-leading global streamers such as Disney Plus Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, with an air of expectancy around the impending launches of HBO Max and Apple TV Plus.
The majority of the local programming among the bigger streamers and their competitors including SonyLIV, Lionsgate Play, ALTBalaji, ZEE5, Voot and ErosNow is in Hindi, an Indian language that is consumed around the region thanks to the soft power of Bollywood. It is only in recent years that the larger players have begun expanding into the large South Indian market. Meanwhile, the established local language players, which have a first mover advantage but not necessarily bottomless pockets, are forging ahead with plans to retain and expand their loyal audience bases.
One of the market pioneers is India’s Shemaroo, which began in 1962 as a book-lending library, evolved into a video library in 1976, a home video rights company in 1987 leading into broadcast syndication in 1993, film production in 2004, digital distribution in 2009 to launching streamer ShemarooMe in 2019.
During this journey, Shemaroo went through one of the largest IPR consolidation exercises in India, buying the rights in perpetuity for 1,600 films across languages. The company established a YouTube presence and the Shemaroo channel has 35 million subscribers, while the music-based Shemaroo Filmi Gaane 58.1 million.
The company had also been building a vast library of Gujarati-language content, including filmed plays that are hugely popular among the Gujarati-speaking audience, who are concentrated in India, U.S., U.K. and East Africa. Like many other streamers, the consumption of ShemarooMe soared during the pandemic’s lockdown period. “By the end of the first lockdown [in 2020] we saw the data and figured that the Gujarati audience is hungry for content,” Shemaroo CEO Hiren Gada told Variety. Gada notes that in a heterogenous market like India, all other media, including TV and print, is segmented by language.
In April 2021, ShemarooMe relaunched with a new consumer proposition where subscribers would get one new piece of content every week – a series, play or film. “And that meant that the audience has a certainty of flow of content every week,” says Gada.
ShemarooMe now has 500 Gujarati-language films on the service and nine original series, with more commissioned. While subscriber numbers were not disclosed, the rates are affordable – INR999 ($13.38) annually or INR349 ($4.67) quarterly in India, £49.99 annually or £6.99 in the U.K. and $100 annually or $10 monthly in the U.S.
The success of ShemarooMe meant that even within the segment-specific Gujarati market, there is competition. Oho Gujarati launched in May, 2021 and has amassed 50,000 subscribers who pay INR499 ($6.68) in India, £33 in the U.K. and $20 in the U.S. for an annual plan. Oho Gujarati has 24 hours of original content including 14 originals. The plan is to release two originals every month and 18 are currently in production. Oho CEO Suryadeep Basia does not consider Shemaroo as competition as “they are a very big player” who are in a “different league altogether.” “We are the new kid on the block and a smaller player, but we will, at the end of the day, rely on our content – for that to speak,” Basia told Variety. Oho is also in discussions with U.S. and U.K. streaming platforms for carriage deals.
Across India’s eastern border is Bangladesh’s Bongo BD, which commenced operations in 2014 buying up thousands of hours of digital rights for local content on the cheap and putting them up on YouTube. The Bongo BD YouTube channel proved to be a hit and today has 5.34 million subscribers. The Bongo management team then dealt with Bangladesh telecom companies and built streaming infrastructure, where none existed, and started the streaming service in 2015. Over the years, Bongo BD also built a separate B2B model, which also proved to be a success.
“We built a platform to basically help other content producers and content creators to distribute and monetize their content online,” Bongo BD founder and CEO Ahad Mohammad Bhai told Variety.
In 2020, when coronavirus struck, the Bangladesh information ministry reached out to Bongo BD and other startups to help the country’s 167 million population to stay at home during lockdown. Bongo BD ran a campaign saying that the service would remain free as long as Bangladesh remained in lockdown. The campaign worked and Bongo BD now reaches 200 million people worldwide monthly. After lockdown was lifted the streamer shifted to a mixed AVOD and SVOD model, with premium content available to Bangladeshi subscribers at BDT50 ($0.58) monthly or BDT300 ($3.50 annually). Internationally, the SVOD service costs $3 monthly or $15 annually. Bongo DB currently has 405,000 paying subscribers.
The content is Bengali-language and hyper-local, with a base of 1,000 films, 15 original series currently streaming. The plan ahead for 2022 is two original series per month, a single drama every other week, one new acquired film streaming every week, four specials around festivals like Eid and national holidays and four original films. Thirty titles are currently in production.
Bangladesh shares a border, cultural heritage and language with the Indian state of West Bengal, which has a population of 101 million. The biggest streamer there is Hoichoi, which was launched in 2017, backed by SVF Entertainment, the state’s biggest studio.
In 2021, Hoichoi revealed an aggressive push into the Bangladesh market with tie ups with local telecom companies. The service boasts some 600 films and more than 100 originals. In 2022, Hoichoi plans to release 32 new originals, of which 22 will be focused for the Indian and the international markets and 10 will on focused at the Bangladesh market, alongside at least 12 new world premiere films along with another 50 films to their overall movie library. Discussions are on with West and Southeast Asian telecom operators to carry the service.
“The key objective is to tell differentiated stories,” Soumya Mukherjee, VP, revenue and strategy, Hoichoi, tells Variety. “Our content strategy should help us to grow at 50-60% year-on-year in the Indian Market and at above 75% year-on-year for Bangladesh.”
Hoichoi currently generates 30% of its revenue internationally. An annual subscription costs INR599 ($8) for five devices or INR899 ($12) for eight devices in India, the equivalent in Bangladesh is BDT500 ($5.82) and BDT700 ($8.15) and monthly $8.99 and annually $49.99 in the rest of the world. Hoichoi declined to reveal subscriber numbers.
Competition is growing in the Bengali-language segment in South Asia. Besides Bongo and Hoichoi, Indian players include ZEE5 Bangla and Addatimes, while Bangladesh has Bioscope, BanglaFlix, Chorki and Toffee among many others.
For Planet Marathi, the streamer launched in August 2021, catering to approximately 84 million Marathi-language speakers around the world, there is no competition at the moment. Founder Akshay Bardapurkar, a producer, started putting his own content and third-party content that he packaged on Twitter in 2017 under the Planet Marathi brand. By 2018 Planet Marathi had spread to Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. While it created brand equity, the monetization was not enough and Bardapurkar decided to launch Planet Marathi as a streaming service.
Singapore-based Vistas Media Capital stepped in as backer and the Planet Marathi streaming service was launched by Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit Nene in August 2021.
A Planet Marathi annual subscription plan costs INR365 ($4.88) in India and $9.99 internationally. The service has 100,000 paid subscribers. For its growth strategy, Planet Marathi is looking inwards, at the untapped rural market. INR365 works out to one rupee a day, something that the rural market can easily afford, says Bardapurkar. And that needs to be backed up by content. “It’s all about storytelling — you have to get hyper local, something that happens in your backyards, something that people associate it with you, your lifestyle, your life — creating that kind of content,” says Bardapurkar. Planet Marathi currently has 120 licensed films available and eight originals, with several more in the works.
Telugu and Malayalam
Streamer Aha Telugu, serving the Telugu-language market, was launched in March, 2020. An annual subscription currently costs INR349 ($4.67) in India, $49.99 in the U.S. and £24.99 in the U.K. The service has 1.8 million paid subscribers who have access to 300 films and 25 original series, with another 15 in the pipeline.
Competing in the Malayalam-language space, leading player ManoramaMax, backed by the giant Malayala Manorama media group, costs INR999 ($13.38) annually in India, $24.99 in West Asia, where there is a large Malayalam migrant worker population, and $29.99 across the rest of the world. The service has 400 films and 15 originals, with plans to scale up. “We would like to engage with every Malayali across the globe,” says Sathyajith Divakaran Nair, GM at ManoramaMax.
Malayalam also has SainaPlay, Heeroz is in Punjabi, a language spoken in India and Pakistan, Nepal has Nepali language Prabhu TV and Fopi and Sri Lanka has Sinhala-language Kiki. Afghanistan’s Darya offers Afghan, Turkish, Western, Indian and Korean content in the Dari, Farsi and Pashto languages and Pakistan’s UrduFlix specializes in Urdu-language content.
So far, outside of Hindi, expansion of global streamers Disney Plus Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix have been mainly focused on the South Indian languages of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. But that could well change.
For now the language specialists aren’t too concerned. Srinivas Balabommala, head, acquisitions and associate VP at Aha Telugu, tells Variety, “We don’t want to boast about ourselves, but almost all of them are trying to copy what we are doing,” adding that his service is backed by veteran, deeply entrenched, industry players. It’s a thought echoed by all the players with deep industry connections including Shemaroo, ManoramaMax and Hoichoi, who are also of the opinion that there is market enough for multiple players.
“There will be enough room for many players. If we serve our consumer well, with great content, great user experience and a very deeply culturally entrenched and connected service, we should be in a good position to make it a success overall,” says Shemaroo’s Gada.
“Our research is much better, our contacts are much better,” says Planet Marathi’s Bardapurkar on the battle between local language specialists and the platform giants. “The only area that they can beat us is in production and artists payments, where they will probably try and hit us very, very hard.”
Bardapurkar is also confident that when the big players do enter his patch, his investors will rally around with more funding.