Netflix India is gearing up to face the competition with several fiction shows and follow-up seasons to existing series. New chapters for Jamtara, Delhi Crime, Masaba Masaba, Mismatched, She and Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives will be streamed over the next few months.
First off the bat in the original fiction line-up is Mai, created by Atul Mongia and directed by him and Anshai Lal. The Clean Slate Filmz production stars Sakshi Tanwar as a nurse who investigates her daughter’s wrongful death.
For Tanya Bami, Series Head, Netflix India, Mai is a leading example of the collaborations the streamer has forged with local creators since its first original Indian fiction show, Sacred Games, was premiered in 2018. Netflix is involved with shows such as Mai at their conception stage itself, Bami told Scroll.in.
“Our primary strategy is to look for distinct ideas,” Bami explained. “Mai was a commission, it came to us at an idea level. We have partnered very closely with Clean Slate and Atul and been a part of the entire process. What’s important for a series and the long journey it has to land is a clarity of vision. It’s great that lots of creators are doing that work and saying, this is what we want to make. That makes everything easier for all of us to come in and help, lift the show with any kind of guidance they may need.”
Netflix is also in the process of setting up its own post-production hub in Mumbai, as it has in other parts of the world, where it will offer 40 offline editing suites to filmmakers, editors and sound designers.
“We have a system where we are clued into what’s happening every day on the shoot, which doesn’t mean we’re breathing down the necks of our creators, but just being distant and objective,” Bami said. “I don’t think there’s a single film or series where there isn’t a certain amount of patchwork or course correction in hindsight when it’s all laid out on the edit table. However brilliant the creator is, everybody needs to have that leeway to say, it’s all laid out, I’d love to be able to go and tweak a few things.”
Netflix will eventually seek to develop its own original material alongside working on external pitches, Bami added. “We do have some projects, but these are fewer, and there’s nothing out there [at the moment]. We get a lot of pitches and it’s delightful to pick the ideas that we think will work for our audiences.”
The six-episode first season of Mai, which will be premiered on April 15, has the ingredients of the kind of Indian series that Netflix likes to put out. These include “the idea itself, the clarity of vision, how unique it is, the global nature of that idea, is it distinct and relevant to India but also has a certain perspective to it that is wide and all-encompassing”, Bami said.
Mai explores its heroine Sheel’s transformation from grieving mother to justice-seeking vigilante. “We have seen stories of oppression but not of rebellion,” Bami said about Mai. “It’s relatable and yet a complete leap.”
What Mai also shares with Netflix releases over the past year, including Aranyak, Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhein, House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths and even The Fame Game, is the overarching theme of crime.
“People enjoy watching all genres of crime,” Bami said. “There is a national propensity for Indian audiences to have that thrilleresque quality to the content. During the pandemic, people wanted to watch light comedy. If the highest watched content was comedy, the next by a sliver were crime thrillers.”
The well-performing Netflix titles in recent months include Bombay Begums, the anthologies Ray, Navarasa and Paava Kadhaigal, the Kapil Sharma special I’m Not Done Yet, Aranyak, Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhein and The Fame Game, Bami claimed. “Kota Factory is a fan favourite,” she added.
Netflix, which was launched in India in 2016, doesn’t reveal its subscriber base or the actual viewership numbers of individual shows.
Despite steady output, Netflix India hasn’t produced a global hit on the lines of The Crown, Narcos, The Queen’s Gambit and Squid Game just yet. Some Indian series have also performed well in foreign territories with existing pockets of the Indian diaspora and wider South Asian audiences, such as the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh and Mauritius, claims data provided by the streamer. These include Aranyak, Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein and The Fame Game.
Upcoming shows include CAT, starring Randeep Hooda and set against the backdrop of the drug trade in Punjab, and Abhishek Chaubey’s thriller Soup, starring Manoj Bajpayee and Konkona Sen Sharma. Netflix is also seeking to expand its documentary programming by bringing American-style true crime fare to India. In the pipeline is Indian Predator, which comprises mini-series dedicated to the exploits of serial killers.
Non-scripted Indian documentaries are still some way off, even though Netflix’s parent company has a host of them, such as the recently released The Andy Warhol Diaries. “These are much more challenging to create,” Bami said.
Limited series, which are popular on Netflix’s American rivals HBO and Apple TV+, are also not as favourable as shows with several seasons.
“We are very open to limited series and we are working on a couple, but they need to have a place on the slate,” Bami said. “A limited series needs to have an impact, like The Queen’s Gambit. It needs to headline the slate for that year.”
Instead, the focus in India is on “franchiseability” and “extendability”. Bami said, “Mai, for example, has multiple layers that we have planned season on season. Many of our shows – The Fame Game, or Kaali Kaali Aankhein, Aranyak – have the potential to extend themselves. The business model for an OTT [over-the-top] service is to have franchises. We write out the second season even while the first one is being made.”
The platform’s focus in India is on staying ahead of its rivals – including Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, SonyLIV, Zee5 and Voot Select – and “going higher and higher in terms of the intensity and cadence of titles”, Bami said.
Among the productions in the pipeline for 2023 are Rana Naidu, a remake of Ray Donovan starring the real-life uncle-nephew pair Venkatesh and Rana Daggubati, the Raj & DK-helmed Guns & Gulaabs and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Heeramandi, set in pre-Independence Lahore.
“What we hold our creators to and like them to bring to us is that power-packed narrative,” Bami said. “There is an easy parallel to make between, say, The Crown and Heeramandi in terms of scale and the world and the epic nature of it.”