Ajit Thakur, co-founder of fast-growing Indian OTT service aha, looks forward to an IBC2023 conference session that will explore the company’s future content production and diversification plans.

Establishing a distinctive presence in a highly competitive streaming sector can be easier said than done, but there is no doubt that aha – an Indian OTT service owned by Geetha Arts and My Home Group joint venture Arha Media & Broadcasting Private Limited – has achieved that with distinction since it debuted in early 2020.

Ajit Thakur Headshot

Ajit Thakur, aha

The Hyderabad-based service’s co-founder is Ajit Thakur, who explained: “a-ha is an SVOD OTT service that has become popular in parts of India and has a unique proposition that nobody else has in this area of the country, which is to offer our audience a 100% local service. At the moment we are providing a service in two languages, both from the south of the country: Telugu, which we launched with in 2020, and Tamil, which we added in 2022. And over the next couple of years, we want to add a couple of other languages, starting with Malayalam.”

These and other future plans will be addressed during an IBC2023 conference session taking place at lunchtime on 15 September. ‘OTT’s aha moment: pursuing the power of “glocal”’ will feature Thakur in a fireside chat with fellow co-founder Allu ‘Bobby’ Venkatesh, a ‘serial entrepreneur’ whose other credits include the founding of Allu Entertainments – one of the top five production companies in India – and online movie ticketing operator Justickets Private Limited.

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As the co-founders will doubtless convey during their session, the rise of aha has been impressively rapid. “We now have over 2 million paying subscribers in Telugu alone, and those are all direct-to-consumer,” said Thakur, whose career prior to aha included associations with brands including UTV, Star India and Sony Pictures.

“We have done a lot of research since we started, and [it’s clear that] we are now among the top brands in this language. That is going to be one of the key themes of our IBC session, which is how a local app from local entrepreneurs has been able to take on the might of the some of the biggest OTT players all over the globe.”

Nonetheless, Thakur indicates some surprise at the speed with which aha has made a mark on India’s streaming sector. “There were already quite a few players when we entered the market, including Prime Video – which was a dominant player – Netflix, StarPlus, Sony Live and a couple of local services as well,” he recalls. “Some of them were offering multi-lingual programming content to their VOD consumers and had much bigger libraries than us. But we entered with a certain target in mind, and I can say that we are very happy with where we are now.”

Reaching the Diaspora

Crucially, aha has also quickly established a connection with the Indian diaspora. “There is a significant Indian diaspora around the world that is counted not in thousands, but in millions,” explained Thakur. “About eight months after the launch in India, we made our service available in over 100 countries, and it’s been incredible to see the kind of growth and love for our programming that we have seen since then.”

With each new language added, aha can expect to boost its profile in specific countries and regions. “To give you an example, in the US there are about 200,000 homes where people primarily speak Telugu,” said Thakur. “We have about 120,000 subscriptions there, which [represents a] 50-60% penetration into the available homes in a matter of two years since launch.”

As Thakur outlines the development of the business, it’s not hard to see why he is so enthusiastic about the concept of ‘glocal’, which in aha’s case evidently entails the building of a global presence through the provision of carefully targeted, locally oriented content. He continued: “When we launched Tamil, the diaspora there is more situated in Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Then when we launch the next language, Malayalam, we can [expect to engage with] a significant presence in the Middle East.”

Along with its multi-language offering, Thakur indicated that aha’s range and turnover of content have ensured a lasting connection with audiences around the world.

“My observation is that if you want to be a significant player and don’t want [your app] to get uninstalled, you cannot achieve it by doing five original things,” he said. “You have to provide a lot more volume in order to build a global [audience]. It’s something that we have done from the launch, and [despite the challenges of the pandemic] we have managed to give viewers a new piece of content every week.”

Stories of the Land

Moreover, aha has evolved a content offering that is remarkably extensive given the service’s relative infancy. In terms of scripted content, “rather than try to find big universal stories, we have focused more on what we call ‘stories of the land’ – ie. stories rooted in the states that we operate in,” said Thakur, adding that this focus can nonetheless be applied to a host of genres, including “crime, comedy, real-life stories and more.”

aha’s non-scripted programming is also continuing to develop.

“We have had a very successful talk show, as well as a local version of [Pop Idol], a dance contest, cooking shows and lifestyle programming. So there is a good amount of non-scripted content in there, too.”

Looking ahead, Thakur anticipates that an increasing amount of content will be produced by its own in-house studio operation. “The studio is less about ‘last mile’ production than it is about controlling the development [of content] ourselves,” he said. “So we have hired some writers and show-runners who are now developing ideas and scripts that we will either produce or co-produce [in-house].” In particular, he thinks there is a major opportunity “to make content from the south of the country for the rest of India.”

Expect to hear more about the company’s content plans in the IBC Conference session, along with insight into another planned target of diversification – gaming. “As enthusiastic as we all are about getting OTT right, I think that it’s important to remember that the 15-year-old of today [has different requirements],” said Thakur. “They probably don’t want to binge-watch a 10-part series. Attention spans are getting shorter and that’s why you see [younger people] spending so much time on TikTok and Instagram. But one way in which you can still get them to immerse is through a game, so we are looking at our strategy there.

“I don’t think we have to become a gaming company overnight, but we are thinking about how we can produce content in more immersive ways which will engage that 15-year-old viewer. We have already tried out a few things to test the water and think that there will be a lot more work in that area in the future.”

aha co-founders Ajit Thakur and Allu ‘Bobby’ Venkatesh will take part in the IBC2023 Conference session, ‘OTT’s aha moment: pursuing the power of “glocal”, in the Forum on 15 September (1345-1415)