Netflix India is dialling up the diversity with its new 2020 slate, says Monika Shergill, VP-Content
Monika Shergill talks about how the lockdown has benefited streaming, and how they maintain inclusivity and quality control at Netflix India.
Editor's note: With the world in varying stages of lockdown during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, streaming services have seen a surge in consumption and consequently, commissioning of content. Firstpost engaged the content heads of three platforms in a conversation about how they're meeting the challenge.
Netflix India has announced eight new titles that have spruced up its slate for 2020 to 17 titles, including films surpassing theatrical release to premiere directly on the platform, and long-awaited series from India and the rest of the world.
In an exclusive interview, Monika Shergill, Vice President, Content, Netflix India, discusses the year that has been for the streaming giant so far, treating inclusivity and diversity as the pillars while filtering content, and the mechanism to ensure quality control on the service. Edited excerpts below.
Streaming sites have come to the rescue of cinephiles during lockdown. What has changed in the way your team operates while acquiring and positioning content since the lockdown came into effect?
Fundamentally, there hasn't been a dramatic difference, if I were to be honest. But one important thing I can share with you on what has helped us inform our choices is that people are more willing to experiment now. Whenever they get an opportunity, as they have gotten in the past three or four months, they've been exploring all kinds of stories, from different parts of the world and in different languages. There have been users from around the world who are consuming content in Hindi and other Indian languages. I think people are ready to travel through stories. Indian films are language-agnostic so they're also travelling the world.
The slate now includes a number of films initially scheduled for theatrical release that have chosen Netflix as their home because of the theatre shutdown. Do you think that will bring more subscribers to the platform who were previously hesitant to do so?
We had a lot of films that were already doing very well on the platform, like Kabir Singh, Love Aajkal, Malang, and Article 15. We have a strong catalog of great titles from India in the film space, and also global libraries like Jurassic Park and Mission Impossible. People know that we're the home of big cinema just like we're the home of big series and other formats like the unscripted. Fundamentally, a lot of people have acquired the taste of streaming in this period, and I hope that grows when more such films come on the service.
There is a viewpoint that with more content moving to streaming platforms, stardom will gain a new definition — of bringing more people to the platform, similar to putting more bums on seats in case of theatres. Do you believe that argument holds merit?
I think it's always a mix of emerging talent and known talent. It's more important to see that the talent fits into the story well, and there are no false notes. Streaming services, by the virtue of having licensed content, have always had all kinds of talent. We're just looking at it uniquely now because a lot of films are directly coming to the platform. But all those stars have, in any case, already been on the platform with their licensed films.
In specific terms, what do you believe have been the most crucial achievements of Netflix India in the first half of 2020? And what remain key areas of development that you hope to achieve in the next half?
We've got a lot of critical acclaim with films like Choked, Guilty, and Bulbbul, and series like She and Jamtara. Yes, we've also had titles that have been enjoyed by the users but haven't been talked about that much, like Betaal and Taj Mahal 1989. What has worked for us in the first half is the range of stories, and how different stories work for different people. In the second half, we're dialling up diversity and lighthearted content. We're not moving away from hardcore immersive thrillers and dramas we have on the service. We're also dialling up on series adapted from books, like Mismatched and A Suitable Boy.
Netflix has gained critical acclaim recently for its films, Da 5 Bloods and The Old Guard, for their Black stories, characters, and technicians. Is there a mechanism in place to vet stories through the lens of inclusivity for Netflix India?
Yes, absolutely. Axone (the film represents the Northeastern community living in Delhi) had come on the service a while ago, and has been doing so well. We bring a lot of diverse films through the licensing route. Even in terms of the Original content, we bring different stories in terms of both genre and scale. If you look at Jamtara, it's set in a very small town and has a very local flavour. Even the cast is authentic, and has all new people. Such a story finding such huge number of eyeballs and critical acclaim proves that people come to Netflix for diverse stories.
Netflix India has encouraged new directors, like most recently Anvita Dutt (Bulbbul). In the experience of your collaboration with them, what have been the advantages of teaming up with new voices, like Renuka Shahane (Tribhanga)?
We're always focused on finding new voices. We work with seasoned storytellers, and also believe in collaborating with new voices. Anvita Dutt's Bulbbul and Ruchi Narain's Guilty have been doing so well. Not just directors but there are so many new writers and producers in these titles. We've been able to tell diverse stories only because we're tapping into fresh talent.
You have also picked up festival-favourite films like Dolly, Kitty Aur Chamakte Sitare and Bombay Rose for your future slate. How much do you factor in the festival buzz and visibility factor before acquiring films?
We're always looking for distinctive stories. A lot of our consumers have that taste also. It's not something we seek out, and say you have to have them, but whenever such great stories come into our notice, we try to get them because it caters to a section of our consumers.
Netflix beyond India is huge on non-fiction content. What are your plans to build the non-fiction library of Netflix India?
Unscripted is a very exciting place that we're planning to expand into. Yes, a lot of unscripted titles like Floor Is Lava, Tiger King, Too Hot To Handle, and Love Is Blind are doing really well. In India, everything is in the works. You'll hear about them soon. (A documentary on Ma Anand Sheela, produced by Karan Johar's Dharmatic and executive produced by Shakun Batra, has already been announced.)
Since Netflix has stood for the belief that everything on the platform caters to one taste if not the others, how do you ensure quality control? How does the filtering take place?
We do filter in terms of the stories, how unique they are, and how many lives can get represented on screen, how authentic the stories are, and most importantly, what the vision of the storyteller is. We don't want to keep repeating stories so diversity becomes very important.
How important are reviews for Netflix, since a critic's opinion may not always be in line with that of the audience?
It's important to understand that there's a difference between high-watch and heavy-talk. In certain titles, it's true that they go hand-in-hand. Some titles that aren't being watched may be getting talked about a lot, and vice-versa. It really depends on the topic. Some are just meant to be entertaining titles. The reviews and opinions matter for us because every person giving that is a Netflix member. Their views really matter to us. We take that learning, and try to better our quality. But those don't inform choices. Tastes can't be determined only by the critical appeal of the title. If you see the top 10 row on Netflix, there are a lot of Indian titles there for weeks. They may not be particularly liked by critics, but are loved by the audience.
Images from Twitter.
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