Shailesh Kapoor: Language No Bar?

22 Oct,2021

Shailesh KapoorBy Shailesh Kapoor


Netflix’s Korean survival drama Squid Game is now the platform’s most-watched show ever, having found success across the world, including in India. In our tracking tool Ormax Stream Track this week (Oct 15-21, 2021), Squid Game scored higher on buzz among Indian streaming audience compared to Kota Factory S2, Sardam Udham, Shiddat & Little Things S4, recent Hindi language launches that had significant promotional spends backing them. Squid Game, in contrast, has grown through organic methods such as referrals and (unpaid) media coverage.


For a show that has way too many people dying (and that’s not a spoiler), Squid Game is a surprisingly easy watch. The same can be said for Netflix’s other September launch Money Heist S5 (Vol. 1), a Spanish show that’s now an established franchise in India. Money Heist also trumped big Indian shows on buzz a month ago.


Money Heist does not have the social sub-text of Squid Game, but there’s a lot in common otherwise between the two shows, especially when seen from an Indian audience lens. Both rely on elements that are, for most part, cultural-agnostic, and are more visual than language-led in their storytelling. These two features have helped content from different geographies, within and outside India, find audiences in languages not native to the content.


Over the last few years, the success of the Bahubali franchise and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in India has highlighted that when dubbed in a language of choice, content can find a much larger audience in India. However, these were seen as exceptions than rules, and a lot else has not worked in dubbed formats, including some prominent Hindi films that got no audience when dubbed in Tamil and Telugu.


The pandemic, however, has accelerated the breaking down of the language barrier. Streaming, by its very nature (choice of audio feed and subtitles) allows for multi-language consumption. Two languages that have made major gains in awareness and popularity in India in the pandemic period are Malayalam and Korean. But that could just be the start. With theatres now open across most of India, the breaking of the language barrier (though the phrase is a misnomer, as the consumption is often in a dubbed version in the native language) will be tested in a new medium. Some big films from the South are lined up for release, and carry aspirations of huge business from their Hindi dubbed versions. How these films, like KGF Chapter 2 and RRR, perform in Hindi will tell us if there truly has been a shift.


But there are so many factors at play in this topic, which can lead to strategically-flawed decisions on the part of makers, marketers and distributors of content. There’s, of course, the culture-agnostic and visual-led filter mentioned earlier. Then there’s the entire nuance of subtitling vs. dubbing. And finally, the medium itself. What may work on streaming (Malayalam films with subtitles) may find no takers in theatres. What may work in the film format (South dubs on Hindi movie channels) may find no takers in the series format in the same medium (multiple attempts at dubbing foreign content in Hindi for mass television has failed miserably). The tendency to take a success story from one medium-context combination and apply it to another has been a known problem in the Indian entertainment industry. And that will be on test in the ‘language movement’ that we are witnessing.


India was always a complex, multi-language culture, but with the introduction of content from other countries, India’s content-language ecosystem is poised to be most intricate and fascinating. The next two years will tell us where the Indian market stands on this subject. And some surprising, even shocking, success stories are not to be ruled out at all.


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