It has been just over a month since the 2021-22 Premier League season kicked off. And Kolkata-based R.R. Varun Kaushik—one of four commentators chosen to present key weekend Premier League matches to viewers in Bangla throughout the season—is completely immersed in the action.
West Bengal’s relationship with football knows no boundaries. As Kaushik says, people call Kolkata “the mecca, the powerhouse” of Indian football. “We used to follow Premier League matches in English commentary and then discuss it in Bangla. Now, with the matches being broadcast in Bangla, the regional connection will be stronger,” says Kaushik, 32, a football referee and cricket umpire.
Bangla is not the only language at play here. Ahead of the season, the Premier League and its official broadcaster, Star Sports, announced that select weekend fixtures would be aired in Malayalam as well—across TV channels like Star Sports Select, Star Sports 1 Bangla, Star Sports 3 and the Disney+ Hotstar VIP platform.
The decision comes on the heels of a pilot programme last season that saw 10 Sunday night matches being broadcast in Bangla and Malayalam. These select Premier League matches saw massive growth in viewership numbers—a 10x increase in overall reach in West Bengal and a 7x increase in Kerala. Paul Molnar, its chief media officer, says on email that the results from the pilot programme were enough for them to introduce dedicated match commentary in the two languages for the 2021-22 season. “India is a very important country for the Premier League, where we have millions of incredibly passionate and loyal fans,” Molnar explains on email, adding that the league carries out extensive research in key markets such as India to understand how best to serve the fans.
“The idea is to upgrade the Premier League’s followership into viewership, and then upgrade that viewership to fandom. Regionalisation is a big thrust for us to complete that customer journey,” says Sanjog Gupta, head, sports, Star and Disney India, on the phone.
This is, however, just one part of how the world’s biggest football league is trying to reach out to Indian fans. Some clubs are making a concerted push too. Watford FC, one of the lower-ranked Premier League teams, recently announced a partnership with Bolo LIVE, an Indian live-streaming platform, where curated content, including match highlights, will be available to all Bolo LIVE users in Hindi.
In addition, pre-match updates from the Premier League are being presented in new formats on social media. Siju Mathew, a Mumbai-based presenter for Premier League India and a podcaster, is the face and voice of Premier League Varthaanam, Malayalam for “Premier League Talks”. Mathew previews every match week in the form of quick video snippets of match footage and analysis, in Malayalam, for Premier League India’s Twitter and Instagram feeds. “It definitely is exciting, but also challenging,” says Mathew, who also does podcast work for the storytelling platform Humans of Indian Football. “This is something new that I am doing. Having said that, it’s a lot of fun. I work on the script in Malayalam, taking a little help from my mother and cousin, and I feel watching Malayalam movies and news has also helped me in this process.”
While Mathew’s snippets set the tone for every match week, commentators like Kaushik and Shaiju Damodaran describe the live action. “For years, many of us used to see the English Premier League from far away. Now the league has come in our own language. As a commentator who speaks Malayalam, a pucca regional language, it was an absolute thrill to commentate on Chelsea vs Crystal Palace on match-day 1,” says Damodaran, who has been a commentator for over a decade.
Having commentated on the World Cup and the Indian Super League (ISL) in Malayalam, Damodaran is a familiar voice for Kerala football fans. For the 48-year-old, though, this is a different ball game. “With the ISL, I recognise and remember almost every player. But in the Premier League, you have so many new teams apart from the ‘Big Six’, like Palace, Brighton, Watford and Brentford, who were promoted to the Premier League for the first time in 74 years. As a commentator, it is a big challenge to familiarise myself with new teams and players, remember their names and pronounce them right,” he says.
Punch lines and goal shouts play a big role for commentators. Choosing the right phrase to describe an exciting moment on the football field is a rare art. To do so in an Indian language, and get it spot on, is even tougher. “Now, when a player scores, I can’t say ‘what an absolute rocket’ or ‘a screamer of a shot’. Instead, it is oshadharon (amazing) or durdanto (marvellous or splendid) or onyotomo (one-of-a-kind) shot,” says Kaushik, who counts John Helm and Peter Drury among the commentators who inspire him. “It’s a lot of homework, preparing for the fixtures. But when the matches get exciting, everything goes out of the window.”
Overall, football enthusiasts support the idea. Alen Joseph, a committee member of the Arsenal Kerala Supporters Club, started in 2009, likes the idea but believes there is scope for greater engagement. “A lot of our members have seen this (referring to Mathew’s PL Varthaanam) for the first time. While there are people who like to hear Malayalam commentary in football, Kerala already has a huge football-watching population. Most of them are comfortable with English,” says Joseph. Charles Raj, another committee member at Arsenal Kerala, point out that in areas outside the main cities and towns, there are “a considerable amount of people who prefer watching content in their mother tongue”.
Indian viewers have already experienced the Indian Premier League, ISL and kabaddi league in multiple Indian languages. “Based on the experience and growth we had with the ISL in markets such as Kerala and West Bengal, on the back of regionalisation, we thought of extending the same approach to the second biggest footballing property (the Premier League) other than the Fifa World Cup,” says Gupta.