Opinion: Can Netflix win India with its 2021 slate?
Rony Patra -
Yesterday, Netflix India announced their ambitious 2021 slate of movies, series and non-fiction with much fanfare, and with a sustained social media campaign. Judging by initial reactions on social media, it finally seems as if the world’s largest streamer has finally got their strategy right as far as Indian content is concerned. The 41 titles announced in the lineup span various genres from crime to comedy and drama, and feature the crème de la crème of India’s filmmaking talent.
But this has been building up for quite some time. Amazon Prime Video, under the leadership of Aparna Purohit, has been racking up one hit after another (keeping the Tandav controversy aside), and the secret to their strategy has always been a simple one—they chose to invest in Indian stories, featuring Indian talent, and then make sure the world saw them as well. One of the reasons Netflix has had such low growth in India till recently has been their tendency to rely on international originals to drive growth in the country.
Now, with Monika Shergill at the helm of Indian content, and Srishti Behl Arya in charge of original and licensed films, Netflix India is finally getting its act together. We had earlier seen a glimpse of this when their 2020 slate was announced last year, but it felt cautious. However, with the 2021 announcement, they have finally thrown down the gauntlet at their competitors, Amazon, Disney+ Hotstar and ZEE5. Having worked in the Indian ecosystem before, both Shergill and Arya are aware of how sensitive certain themes in movies and shows can be, and that is why they are aggressively going all in and investing in original stories tailored first for an Indian audience.
One of the remarkable things about this slate is that, on first glance at least, none of the titles look like they could generate any political or religious controversy. With the I&B Ministry setting down rules for digital media, and Amazon still trying to recover from the Tandav debacle, the slate that Shergill & Arya have drawn up seems to be tailormade to entertain without arousing the ire of the government. Of course, it goes without saying that ultimately, the content of the show will decide whether it is “safe” or not.
The sheer scale of storytelling on offer is terrific. Netflix has collaborated with some of the best creators in the past, but this year, they have assembled an otherworldly lineup. Karan Johar’s Dharmatic Entertainment has the biggest package on offer, with the anthology film Ajeeb Dastaans, the romantic comedy Meenakshi Sundareshwar and the much-awaited Madhuri Dixit Nene-starrer Finding Anamika. They also have a second season of The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Lives lined up, but the most intriguing title in their arsenal is Shakun Batra’s documentary, Searching for Sheela, that delves into the colourful life of Ma Anand Sheela. Other notable production houses featuring in the slate include The Viral Fever (Kota Factory S2), Ramesh Sippy Entertainment and Roy Kapur Films (Aranyak), Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Films (Mai), YNOT Entertainment (Jagame Thandhiram), Ashvini Yardi’s Viniyard Films (Masaba Masaba S2), Vikramaditya Motwane’s Andolan Films (Decoupled), Balaji Telefilms and Guneet Monga’s Sikhya Entertainment (Pagglait), RSVP and Ram Madhvani Films (Dhamaka) and more. Biswapati Sarkar and Sameer Saxena, formerly with The Viral Fever, are also offering Jaadugar with actor Jitendra Kumar, under their new banner, Posham Pa Pictures.
The most heartening thing, however, is that Viacom18’s content studio Tipping Point Films, which decided to syndicate three of their shows to Netflix last year, are reaping the fruits already. Jamtara: Sabka Number Ayega and She were both extremely well-received by viewers last year, in spite of middling reviews. Evidently, that translated into great numbers for Netflix, which is why both these shows have got second seasons commissioned. Tipping Point Films is now gearing up for its next much-awaited series, Ray. Earlier titled X-Ray, this series will have Srijit Mukherji, Vasan Bala and Abhishek Chaubey bringing Satyajit Ray’s short stories to life.
In an interview to Forbes a few weeks ago, Netflix boss Reed Hastings had spoken about how the streamer had unofficially become a full-blown studio. He wasn’t that way off the mark. In the Asia-Pacific region, India and South Korea have become the streamer’s cash cows, and that is why, at least for the next two years, Netflix is aggressively ramping up content that speaks to the inherent values of each market, without dumbing them down for international audiences.
Shergill and Arya have at least ensured that Netflix India gets seen as an Indian entertainment powerhouse. Hopefully, each title they have picked will get their loyal viewers. However, they will now face intense competition from Amazon, Disney+ Hotstar and ZEE5 as far as content creators go.