Netflix's rapid expansion in India proves the future of storytelling is here and it's in our hands
The multiplicity of Indian narratives on Netflix means that we as no longer have to rely on hopelessly dated characters such as Apu to represent us globally
When Netflix launched in India on January 2016, it entered quietly, without too much fuss. It had been in America since 1997, when it was primarily a video-rental service, and had already birthed a million “Netflix and chill?” memes. In the initial days, I remember logging on to Netflix, and complaining that Indian users didn’t have a great selection of movies to choose from. At the time, Netflix seemed to me like a decent alternative to cable television: its main appeal lay in the fact that it provided uninterrupted streaming of a few shows.
In the coming months, that would all change rapidly. Many of the shows that were previously only available to Americans were added to Netflix India, including critically-acclaimed Netflix originals such as Jessica Jones and A Series of Unfortunate Events. There was no separate schedule for Indian viewers. In my childhood, I had had to wait years for the newest season of Friends. But with Netflix, we got Season 2 of our favourite shows at the exact same time as the rest of the world. That was only the beginning.
Netflix India had some substantial challenges before it: for one thing, it was only producing English-language content. Secondly, it charged much more (around $8 or Rs 500 per month) than cable English channels like Star World or Hotstar (only Rs 200 per month). The competition meant that Netflix subscribers were still only a tiny portion of the enormous pie chart that was Indian TV-watchers.
However, Netflix is proving its prescience through aggressive expansion. It’s not planning for the immediate future; it’s banking on long-term investments in a relatively new market. Every single year, more and more Indians get access to the Internet, more entertainment apps and 4G. The number of Indians online is growing at lightning speeds – which is why Netflix is pushing to create a library of local content for them. Upper-middle-class, English speaking, culturally savvy Indians have been familiar with the American milieu because they have been exposed to so many shows that showcase the American way of life. From Baywatch (which aired in India in the '90s) to How I Met Your Mother twenty years later, we’ve become fluent in American slang, social mores and culture. But we haven’t had much choice when it came to representations of ourselves – all we’ve had are sports, saas-bahu serials or Bollywood movies that don’t reflect the experiences of much of the country.
2018 marks the end of that. This year, Netflix announced that it would create not one, not two, but seven brand-new, original series for Indian viewers. The most ambitious of these is Sacred Games, the show based on Vikram Chandra’s sweeping cop-and-robber Bombay saga of the same name. (It will be available to both Hindi and English speakers, so as to reach a wider audience.) There’s not a single amateur in the Sacred Games cast: the show will be directed by Anurag Kashyap and feature Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in lead roles. In addition, it’s Shah Rukh Khan’s production company – Red Chillies Entertainment – that has been tapped to produce the political espionage series Bard of Blood for Netflix.
Recruiting Bollywood heavyweights to direct TV series is practically unheard of, but it’s been in the Netflix playbook for quite some time. Directors such as David Ayer and Alex Garland chose to release their films (Bright and Annihilation) on Netflix worldwide. Although there is something to be said for watching action movies on a bigger screen than the laptops which are typically used to stream Netflix on, TV has one distinct advantage with books as lengthy as Sacred Games. Imagine what a director of the caliber of Kashyap can do with eight or nine hours to develop his story instead of two. The additional runtime will ensure that Netflix adaptations of books such as Selection Day – by Booker Prize winning author Aravind Adiga – are satisfying and thorough.
Equally exciting: Netflix isn’t overlooking smaller writers or more localised content. First – before Sacred Games is released – we have three smaller series coming: Leila, Ghoul, and Crocodile. Leila is based on the book by Prayaag Akbar, and tells the story of a woman in search of her long-lost daughter. Ghoul is a horror series, while Crocodile is a YA murder mystery. Erik Barmack (VP of international original series at Netflix) has gone on record to say that these stories “represent the tremendous diversity that Indian storytelling holds for a global audience.” This is the tremendous advantage of telling these stories: not only will they fulfil our need to have our own experience voiced, but they will be available to a huge audience. The multiplicity of Indian narratives means that we as desis no longer have to rely on hopelessly dated characters such as Apu to represent us globally. The future of storytelling is here, and it’s in our hands.
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