beyond bollywood

India’s Zee5 Isn’t Perfect, But It Speaks the Languages

From left: Fandry, Karan Arjun, and Sairat, all available to stream on Zee5. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Film Karavan, Digital Entertainment and Zee5

Dance battles against colonialism and sincere musical friendships between two ass-kicking hunks may not usually be familiar to American audiences, but these days, that kind of Indian cinema is only a click away. For many western audiences, the recent Telugu-language blockbuster RRR was a first foray into movies from the subcontinent. Curiosity in international programming is at an all-time high, and while major streamers like Netflix offer smatterings of Indian content, the best place to keep pace might be unfamiliar to most American viewers: Zee5, which launched in India in 2018 and finally made its way to the U.S. in June.

Targeted primarily at South Asia and South Asian diasporas, the platform has as its key selling point 18 major language options, which are organized even above genre categories on the desktop landing page. After all, “Indian cinema” as a genre term is so broad it’s practically useless, given the wealth of distinct film industries in the nation, which tend to be divided linguistically. India releases nearly 2,000 films a year, only about 20 percent of which are Bollywood (or Hindi studio) productions. Add to this the fact that Zee5 — still a relatively new streamer globally that hasn’t fully mastered its crashes and technological glitches yet — also carries syndicated TV shows, original series, live news, short films, trailers, music clips, and even recipe cooking videos for Indian dishes, and the breadth of options starts to seem almost impenetrable. Zee5, however, believes otherwise: “Today’s American audiences no longer see language as a barrier,” says Archana Anand, Zee5’s global chief business officer. “In fact, they are curious to explore content from other cultures and languages as it opens up a new world for them.” Given the many Indian streaming recommendations recently published at American outlets, and Zee5’s growth to 101.9 million monthly active users globally by 2022, they seem to have a point — and the service is plugged into South Asian film and TV in ways its competitors are not.

There’s no one correct avenue to watching Indian movies, and any list of “must watch” classics is likely to be divided among half a dozen different websites with their own ways of categorizing them. On Hulu, you need to find the Hotstar hub. On Netflix, they’re scattered under “International” or require inputting a specific URL. However, while Indian films are a mere spoke in the wheel for most platforms, they’re Zee5’s bread and butter, and digging through its options takes you across the spectrums of style and language.

Which is to say: Some scrolling might be necessary. It isn’t personally curated like MUBI or the Criterion Channel, which feature a handful of Indian classics and contemporary art-house films in the country’s socially conscious “parallel” tradition. Zee5’s suggestions are more mainstream and more algorithmic, and the categories often seem generated and ordered by artificial intelligence: wedding movies, war movies, Tamil classics, ’90s Hindi hits, or films featuring Bollywood king Shah Rukh Khan or Malayalam superstar Tovino Thomas. I counted 84 of these combinations in one sitting, but new ones spawned on each new device I logged into. Category roulette isn’t a bad way to relive the days of cable, where you could stumble across hidden gems at random, like reflective Marathi neorealist indie Lathe Joshi or Pride Month Bollywood selection Aligarh. However, the biggest advantage of Zee5’s Netflix-like recommendation system is that it not only displays what’s most popular in the U.S. at any moment but in India — and in different languages too — a direct peek at the country’s contemporary Zeitgeist.

In that vein, it may not have a deep roster of Indian classics — it has about as many as Netflix, which is to say, few — but it does have the first film I remember watching as a child in Saudi Arabia, the star-studded Bollywood reincarnation-revenge drama Karan Arjun, in case you’d like to start your journey from the same place I did. Of course, you could just as easily click on categories like “Timeless Telugu Classics” or “All Time Favourite Malayalam Films” and be off to the races.

The homepage, in action, linking off to a few of Zee5’s language hubs. Photo: Zee5

In terms of more contemporary fare, Zee5 is slowly becoming a prime hub for new releases directed by acclaimed Indian filmmakers. RRR, which is available on Netflix dubbed in Hindi, can be found on Zee5 in its original language (in addition to dubs in several others), while a recent hit like the Bollywood sports drama Jhund, directed by Nagraj Manjule, made its way to the platform just weeks after its theatrical run. Zee5’s selection of newer movies offers one great after another, from Manjule’s fiery Marathi-language indies Fandry and Sairat, to Atanu Ghosh’s touching Bengali Alzheimer’s drama Mayurakshi, to Geetu Mohandas’ heart-wrenching queer gangster saga Moothon or The Elder One, which is partially in the Jeseri dialect of Malayalam and partially in Indo-Pakistani Sign Language. Zee5 is also the first platform to offer an Indian film with onscreen sign-language interpretation (albeit for the highly controversial The Kashmir Files).

A quick scroll through the language tab yields everything from Hindi to Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada (languages associated with major South Indian blockbusters) to Bhojpuri and Odia, which are often ignored in the wider Indian cinema conversation. In fact, some of these hubs even go beyond India’s borders. Its Urdu options feature Pakistani dramas a-plenty, its Bangla (or Bengali) hub features Bangladeshi shows, and it even has numerous Indian films dubbed in Arabic, given the platform’s expansion into the Middle East. There are also a small handful of films dubbed in English for the subtitle-averse, but unfortunately, few of them are worth recommending except for Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hindi adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the language ouroboros becomes farcical anyway.

Regrettably, though, the platform’s linguistic hopscotch may also put non–South Asians at a slight disadvantage. Rather than Zee5 presenting one film with the option to toggle between numerous language choices, each dub appears as its own separate entry, so you have to Google to figure out which version is the original. In some cases, like the Rajinikanth sci-fi action bonanza Enthiran, or Robot, only the Hindi dub is available (the Tamil original isn’t streaming anywhere in the U.S. at the moment).

Depending on how you use it, Zee5’s platform isn’t the most user-friendly, either. The website, while overflowing with categories, freezes or glitches quite a lot. While the recently updated Apple TV app functions smoothly, it’s difficult to find its list of language categories — the platform’s raison d’être — forcing users to enter their settings menu and manually select which languages they do or do not wish to view. Meanwhile, the Fire TV app, where language selection is easier, doesn’t let you navigate to a videos tab for shorter material like recipes or music videos the way Apple TV does. So you’ll likely need a combination of devices to get the full experience if you don’t already know exactly which title you’re looking for. Currently, the iOS app seems to be the most complete and reliable of the ones we tested. (Zee5 is also available on Roku, Android, and Google Play.)

And yet Zee5 is probably worth the time, given its price point. While it may not offer free trials or a monthly subscription, its $20.99 quarterly plan — just under $7 a month — is cheaper than most major streamers, and the $49.99 annual cost is cheaper still, working out to about $4.16 monthly. According to Zee5’s reps, the platform offers 200,000 hours of content, so if more Indian cinema is on your shopping list, the economics work themselves out in the end — as long as you set aside time for Googling.

India’s Zee5 Isn’t Perfect, But It Speaks the Languages