India did very well for itself at the recently held Oscars – and so did Netflix.
Kartiki Gonsalves’s The Elephant Whisperers, which won the Oscar for short documentary (a first for any Indian in this category), had been commissioned by the streaming service. Naatu Naatu from SS Rajamouli’s RRR, which was named best original song (another first for India), is available the world over through Netflix. The German-language All Quiet on the Western Front, which won four Oscars, is also a Netflix release.
Will Indian filmmakers seeking to bring more Oscars home increasingly turn to international streaming services such as Netflix? The Hollywood giant’s current strategy in India is to be the platform for “some of the best seasoned voices” and “best debut voices” rather than be a vehicle for the Oscars, Monika Shergill, Vice President, Content, Netflix India, explained to Scroll in this detailed interview about the OTT’s strategy and plans.
“This isn’t just about awards – they happen at the end of a very long journey,” she added.
Netflix is continuing its journey in India at a time when movies and web series with political themes are under greater scrutiny than ever. The initial hope that streaming services would be censorship-free zones was dashed when they quickly came to be subjected to policing, both official and unofficial.
The streaming services are now governed by a self-regulatory code, though there are periodic demands for them to be brought under the strict rules of the Information and Broadcasting ministry’s Central Board of Film Certification. Some people in the industry claim that OTT platforms are blocking or watering down politically sensitive material, which means that while they continue to take greater risks than television shows, they are cannot ensure a truly diverse, censorship-free viewing experience.
But Shergill drew attention to edgy dramas shows that Netflix has featured in recent months. These include Trial By Fire (which revisits the tragic fire at Delhi’s Uphaar cinema) and Class (a remake of the Spanish show Elite that examines the faultiness of inequality, caste, religion and sexual identity). Netflix has announced new seasons for Class, She, Mismatched, The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, Delhi Crime and Kota Factory.
Over the next few months, the service will premiere Vishal Bhardwaj’s espionage-themed film Khufiya, Zoya Akhtar’s The Archies, Hansal Mehta’s media series Scoop, Raj & DK’s crime show Guns & Gulaabs, Sujoy Ghosh’s Suspect X (an adaptation of the Keigo Higashino bestseller The Devotion of Suspect X), Abhishek Chaubey’s Soup and Pratim Dasgupta’s Tooth Pari: When Love Bites.
“Indian filmmakers are turning to Netflix for some of the best stories they want to tell in this medium for local and global audiences,” Shergill said. Here are edited excerpts of the interview.
How did you get involved with the Oscar-winning documentary The Elephant Whisperers?
We got involved very early. It was a commissioned documentary, it took over three years to make. Kartiki [Gonsalves] had originated the idea and Aloke [Devichand, former Head of Asian Original Documentaries] had commissioned the film. Aloke, Kartiki and Achin Jain [at Sikhya Entertainment, the film’s producer] worked on the storytelling narrative. Aloke worked very closely on getting the edit right.
But when you search for documentaries on Netflix, you are likely to run into sensationalist true crime shows.
True crime is very popular. There is no end to how much true crime we can watch. Crime as a genre works very well. It’s satisfies a very basic human need of knowing what happened.
We are doing a set of distinctive true crime documentaries, but are we over-indexing on this genre and will we over-index? No. We want to programme a mix of genres. It is important for us to find and programme documentaries like The Elephant Whisperers.
What is the genre mix that is currently working for Netflix? Has this changed since the service was launched in India in 2016?
Among the genres that work the best are crime, romance and relationships, young adult and true stories.
The [young adult show] Mismatched has been record-breaking for us. Similarly for Class. YA is an underserved genre. The value you get out of that audience cohort is disproportionate.
The true story genre is also working very well – Delhi Crime, Khakee: The Bihar Chapter, Jamtara, Trial By Fire. We are also focusing on dramas. Rana Naidu proves that dramas work well. It has been a blockbuster hit for us, a legit pan-India series.
There is always risk in the entertainment business. You can’t know what the audience will watch three years down the line. Did anyone know that the pandemic would change so many things? You have to lean in and see the creators’ vision, look for novelty, and programme for surprise, meaning, entertainment – sometimes shallow, sometimes deep, sometimes a mix of both.
Streaming platforms can potentially encourage the crossover of talent from various language industries. Will you be actively pursuing such projects?
Where pan-Indian content is contextual, we will absolutely do it. But what tracks well with the audience is when you cast organically, when you don’t force-fit something.
There is a high degree of discernment among streaming audiences. They are exposed to stories from across the world. They can see false notes more than the media. They can tell which stories are tracking and which content is doing well. They don’t care for metrics or a business success, they care only about the story.
Critics get it half and half, but audiences back with passion and destroy with passion. So you have to extra mindful when you are casting. For instance, Dulquer Salmaan is legitimately cast in Guns & Gulaabs. It’s not like we wanted a southern audience. Soup is set in South India, but it has a pan-India cast.
So no more films like Meenakshi Sundareshwar, a Hindi film starring non-Tamil speaking characters as Tamilians?
Meenakshi Sundareshwar did so well on the platform and yet it got a backlash. It was a lesson for us. Purely in terms of viewership, it was a success, but was it the right casting? Probably not.
You have to be authentic. If you remove the false notes, it only helps the content.
Post-pandemic audiences are okay with international stories. The German show Dark was huge in India. So why can’t stories from one part of India work in another part? We had the Hindi version of Kantara and it hit the roof.
Indian shows might be travelling across the country, but are they being watched by Netflix’s international subscribers? Simply put, will we have a global breakout show like the Korean-language Squid Game?
Why is everyone looking for India’s Squid Game? It travelled because it was such a unique idea and had so many things coming together. I want to ask everybody – bring an idea that can be our Squid Game.
This is not on Netflix. It is on the creators to come up with an idea that can appeal to local audiences and become a breakout. Having said that, I want everybody to dial down the pressure and not be in a stupid rat race. Indian audiences are becoming conscious of the stories they watch, and I understand the pride. But people are also looking for great stories.
As a creative community and as a service, we want to be enablers. Indian creators should not come to Netflix to trend internationally, but to get their content right. Then they will automatically do better for global audiences. It is a myth that you can be successful globally without being successful locally.
According to the recommendation engine that we have, if you are trending in your home country and doing well for your audiences there, you will start getting recommended across the globe to whoever is enjoying that genre of content.
So which Indian films and show have performed well globally?
Within three days, Rana Naidu broke through on the top 10 global non-English TV list internationally. Trial By Fire is the only Indian series on the IMDb’s global TV Meter. Khakee: The Bihar Chapter has also featured in the non-English Global Top 10 TV list. It has been trending for five months consistently in the top 10 row for TV shows in India
Monica, O My Darling had 10mn+ hours of global viewing in over 12 countries, while Darlings had 32mn+ hours of viewing in 28 countries. Forty-seven 47 Indian films and series featured in the global Top 10 for non-English titles.
Is it still the case that films that have underperformed at the box office get a new lease of life on streaming services?
That is now a slightly older trend. Trends are changing very fast.
Pre-Covid, movies that didn’t do well in cinemas would do well on streamers. Post-Covid, the movies that are washouts in theatres actually don’t track as well [on streamers]. They get less word of mouth. Movies that do well in theatres also do well on the service.
People value their time more. There is so much content out there. There is always a set of the audience watching titles that come exclusively on the service.
Will Netflix India adopt the same practice as its parent company in America, of releasing films in cinemas for a limited run? This was most recently the case with Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.
Glass Onion was released in cinema from an awards play perspective. We don’t have the awards challenge here.
It doesn’t make sense for us to release a film or two in cinemas. A lot of things are dictated from rules outside the streamer’s perspective. Globally, series are a staple for Netflix, and we are doing that in India too.