For Netflix India to conquer Indian market, they'll have to choose persuasion over attraction, conditioning over content
Indians may not use the thing you offer them for free but it is in our nature to prize that which feels abundant rather than that which feels appealing. Netflix India needs to cater to those needs, like other streaming platforms do with sports and other add-ons.
Devil’s Advocate is a rolling column that sees the world differently and argues for unpopular opinions of the day. This column, the writer acknowledges, can also be viewed as a race to get yourself cancelled. But like pineapple on pizza, he is willing to see the lighter side of it.
Last week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings publically admitted to being ‘frustrated’ by the platform’s lack of growth in India. On one end, it is really admirable for a customer-facing business to openly acknowledge its struggles. On the other, such an admission gives people ammunition to dive into all sorts of theories about why a globally successful business is struggling in a market most players consider the holy grail for its sheer number.
In all honesty, there is some truth to these theories, especially the most popular one – that Netflix is doing poorly because it is too 'woke.' But while an argument can be made for this theory, more than a content problem, Netflix India is dealing with a conditioning problem. Indians have grown up espousing the notion of more is less, and they have therefore perennially desired the ‘extra’ or the ‘bonus’ in things.
Indians may not use the thing you offer them for free but it is in our nature to prize that which feels abundant rather than that which feels appealing.
Let us first underline the seriousness of the problem. In all honesty, we ought to wish that Netflix survives this battle for competition for it is easily our most comprehensive window to global, previously inaccessible cinema. As far as the nature of this content goes, Netflix easily offers the widest palette – languages and geographies included. Other than HBO (largely available through Disney+ Hotstar), it is also perhaps the only other maker that has managed to create capture global sensibilities through iconic programming – most recently with Squid Game.
The content, in a broader sense, is certainly travelling well. Now let us come to the Indian market specifically. Here, the platform has made two criminal mistakes. Firstly, the assumption that the Bollywood superstar and big-banner films can be bypassed to create a fresh ecosystem. Contrarily, both Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video India have released films with theatrical potential (Atrangi Re, Sardar Udham, Shershaah, Lootcase to name a few) between them, in a way accepting that OTT cannot exist at Bollywood’s expense.
The second problem is the platform’s hesitance to aggressively expand in the regional markets. As the most literate and well-to-do proportion of the population, the southern states are, and perhaps should be, the mainstay. People are way off the mark when they argue that a Mirzapur helps capture audience from the hinterlands. There is a difference between subject and viewer. Yes, the content is sort of ‘woke’ too.
It is heartening to see indie cinema find a platform but you will not be able to get an Indian household or even a group of friends to sit together and watch a The Disciple or Meel Patthar anytime soon. We just are not there yet. But to make sure we get there, Netflix will not just have to deal with tricky content choices, but mostly, a condition that requires radical overhaul or cynical surrender. The condition that has programmed Indians to ask for 'something extra.'
A lot of Indians commit to subscribing to a newspaper because it serves more than just the purpose of news – a source of cheap paper. We even monetise our garbage. This behaviour, though divorceable, has translated to the OTT space as well. While Hotstar offers sports, Amazon Prime Video India, of course, comes bundled with its own door into limitless, deal-led shopping. Even small players like SonyLIV and ZEE5 offer sports as an add-on, because even if Indians are not going to watch any, it is the metaphorical equivalent of the plastic case your tea comes in. This same prosaic mindset guides our choices in entertainment because we would rather watch the flashy, predictable Marvel film than the avant-garde desi indie that critics have hailed as a masterpiece. It is in our nature to value returns as a function of largesse. Therefore, to us, streaming platforms ought to still function like marts, offer this that and the other, irrespective of whether we are even going to use it all.
This is a behavioural anomaly that is more an offspring of the culture of this country, than anything Netflix’s ideas table can hope to solve overnight. Yes, the content can be tweaked, Bollywood’s mediocrity whitewashed with a slew of no-brainer acquisitions, but there is more than just the content to solve here. I am not suggesting Netflix opens up an e-mart and starts selling phones or mops on it, but they will have to subsequently find a way to allude to the gimmickry of a deal, rather than the conviction of making only the best.
Stories are hit-and-miss for all platforms ,and Netflix’s sheer strength in volume should ensure that it is, for now, seen as OTT’s encyclopedia. This is after all their revolution. But the company may just be learning that capturing the Indian audience may be more an act of persuasion, than it is an act of attraction. The content is and has been there, but the average Indian will not spend that money simply for a bunch of films/shows, however grand or exclusive. They want something, even if it is the pretense of a freebie that answers the Indian buyer’s quintessential question – 'what else?'
Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.
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