2020, the most dreadful year in our living memory, was a breakthrough year for OTT (over-the-top) platforms in India. With cinema halls shut, most filmmakers were forced to release their films on video streaming apps such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, etc. However, even after a year, big-budgeted Bollywood films having huge stars have still not realised the power of OTT and are waiting for the COVID-19 curbs to ease and release their films the traditional way. But, with the Delta Plus coronavirus variant making its presence felt and the possibility of a third wave, the future of these films seems bleak. Amidst this, Bollywood's often disregarded cousin, the Marathi film industry is witnessing a revolution. And the revolutionary is Akshay Bardapurkar, founder of the first-ever Marathi OTT platform 'Planet Marathi'.
Established with a vision of transforming Marathi films and taking them across the globe, 'Planet Marathi' was initially launched in 2017 as a digital platform in an exclusive partnership with Twitter India. It showcased custom-made digital shows exploring arts, culture, politics, society, and governance in collaboration with various celebrities from different fields. The company later got into production with films like 'AB Aani CD' (starring Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan), 'Goshta Eka Paithanichi' and 'Chandramukhi'. But, it was the pandemic that changed the course of Bardapurkar's brainchild 'Planet Marathi'.
"Our film 'AB Aani CD' was slated to release on March 13, 2020. 'Goshta Eka Paithanichi' was set to release in May. But then the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown rained on our parade. We all thought this would probably get over in a week's time, which really didn't happen. Fortunately, we had sold the digital rights to Amazon Prime Video. Although we weren't happy as there wasn't a full-fledged release, the OTT release was a silver lining. In the meantime, there were 70-80 producers ready with their films, all lined up from March to December 2020. And that is when the thought of an all-exclusive Marathi content OTT platform came to my mind. My team and I started doing a lot of research and realised that we had the content, the content-makers, the technology, but the only thing needed was to take this thought forward and sort out the commercial aspect. When it was done, we decided to announce the world's first Marathi OTT platform," Bardapurkar told the Free Press Journal.
In an exclusive interview after the release of the OTT platform's first original film 'June', Bardapurkar appeared ecstatic due to the rave reviews it has garnered from the audiences and critics alike. Speaking about the ultimate goal of 'Planet Marathi', the Aurangabad-born 'Mumbaikar' said he wishes to take Marathi content across the world and create job opportunities. The idea is to create progressive content, he said. "Language isn't a barrier these days. We have become used to watching films with subtitles and many good films, shows are also often dubbed in different languages e.g. 'Money Heist'. If the content is good it will always get recognition. It took five years for SonyLIV to find a Scam 1992, but when it did, it did really well and now they are doing 'Scam 2003 The Telgi Story'. It is all about good content," the 41-year-old said.
Speaking about the gamut of content on 'Planet Marathi', Bardapurkar said it not only offers movies and web series, but also has plays, television shows, infotainment, educational content for kids, reality shows, karaoke, songs, yoga, live-fitness videos, podcasts and more. With a PPV (pay-per-view) model, which allows audiences to purchase their tickets online at a one-time fee, it also enables the 'first day–first show' experience, he added. "We are doing everything possible to woo the Marathi audiences. It is going to be a combination of everything that encompasses the entertainment industry," he further said.
Despite there being several big players in the OTT market, Bardapurkar said he does not consider them as contemporaries. "I don't see it as a competition honestly. I would call it a competition when somebody else enters the Marathi space. You can't compare chalk and cheese. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video spend Rs 60-70 crore to make a series, on the other hand, we can barely shell out Rs 50 lakh to Rs 5 crore. Sometimes, their one episode can be equivalent to our 10 episodes. Hence, there can't be a direct comparison. In fact, we have got a better chance to prove a point by doing great work in a limited budget," he said.
When asked if he believes that Marathi producers cannot market their films well, irrespective of having superior content, Bardapurkar gave an affirmative answer. "Absolutely, it is 100% right. There is no corporate house in the Marathi film industry. There are pan-India brands like Jio, Zee, Colors, and Viacom, but they cater very little to Marathi audiences as they are not owned by Maharashtrians," he said. "We (Marathi industry) are the best content makers in the world. Our films have been winning international awards year after year. We have everything that is required, but the branding and packaging have always been abysmal. There have been a few instances of good marketing like the Nagraj Manjule-directed 2016 film 'Sairat' and Mahesh Manjrekar's films, but these examples are few and far between."
Bardapurkar is also of the opinion that Marathi films lack the glamour quotient which Bollywood has. "Big names from Maharashtra like Madhuri Dixit, Sonali Bendre, Urmila Matondkar, Madhur Bhandarkar have worked or are working in Bollywood. Great singers like Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosale have also sung significantly more Hindi songs. Sayaji Shinde is a huge star down south. In Marathi, stardom is very limited and difficult to attain. I feel the heroes of Marathi films are their writers and directors. But, I also believe this should change. Marathi actors and actresses should also be as famous as a Mahesh Babu or a Shah Rukh Khan. And hence, we started 'Planet Talent', which nurtures, harnesses, and cultivates talent," he said.
Spilling the beans regarding future plans for his company, Bardapurkar said he envisages starting a post-production house. "It will not be the typical post-production but we will try to do historical films, period dramas, etc," he said. "I also want to get into gamification. It will help in customer retention and engage people into playing games which will also revolve around history," he added. "If everything does well, I will be able to say goodbye properly," Bardapurkar chuckled.