As the leading global OTT platform, Netflix continues to win the streaming wars, offering some of the most talked-about movies and shows. During the pandemic, subscribers and users of the service hit an all-time high, reporting an increase of 15.8 million subscribers in the first quarter of this year.
But in terms of its Indian originals, the platform continues to stumble, failing to produce a winner after 2018’s Sacred Games. The hope is that their newest slate of originals can change that. Earlier today, they announced 17 new titles including Bollywood biopic Gunjan Saxena, Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy and Prajakta Koli-starrer Mismatched.
Ahead of the announcement, Netflix India’s VP of Content, Monika Shergill spoke to me about the lukewarm reception to their recent shows, how the pandemic is going to change things for them, and why there hasn’t been another Sacred Games.
You’ve got an exciting slate of upcoming originals. Is there one you’re particularly excited about?
I’m really excited about Gunjan Saxena. I think it’s a story that cuts across gender and all segments of society. It’s a beautiful story of a girl’s dreams and a father-daughter relationship and, of course, India’s first female Air Force pilot.
How has the current situation impacted Netflix? There’s been a lot of talk about how subscribers are at an all-time high, but there’s also a fear that it’s a bubble that could burst as soon as things go back to ‘normal’.
I have a very contrarian view to this. We feel very fortunate that we’ve been able to be meaningful to people at this difficult point in time. We’ve always maintained that we’re a service that’s about connecting people and bringing different stories from different cultures to people across the world. The fact that during this time people have been watching more Netflix to distract and comfort themselves is something we’re very grateful for. We know this kind of a surge is temporary and there will be a new normal on the other side of this, but having said that, many more people have experienced streaming content and Netflix and the kind of stories we tell and a new habit has been cultivated because of that.
How is the pandemic going to change how you operate? I’m assuming you’re getting more pitches than ever before?
Yes and I think that’s true for all streaming platforms. A lot of creators have had the time to flesh out ideas a lot more and they’ve also had the time to watch a lot more on Netflix. So yes, we’ve been very busy at work identifying stories and virtual writers rooms have been going on. So nothing has stopped and we are fortunate that we can work remotely with minimal disruption.
Netflix India’s series so far haven’t had the best reception. They’re interesting ideas which have met with a lukewarm reception and there hasn’t really been a big winner after Sacred Games. Why do you feel that is?
There are two things to this. Firstly, Sacred Games was such a huge winner that everything else gets dwarfed in comparison and I think we must remember that. Yes, there will be titles that will be massive and zeitgeisty but there will also be other very successful titles. For example, Jamtara has been incredibly successful both from a consumer and critical lens. Guilty has been very successful, Bulbbul is doing so well, Imtiaz Ali’s She has done well.
It’s also like a double-edged sword because where Netflix is concerned, everything has to be at a certain level and I think that it’s really important that we keep reminding ourselves that we are a full-scale service. We have all kinds of titles of different scales and moods and all of them find their own audience and have a different level of success. We’ve actually had tremendous success with our titles this year but everything gets compared to Sacred Games.
Sacred Games was such a huge winner that everything else gets dwarfed in comparison and I think we must remember that. Yes, there will be titles that will be massive and zeitgeisty but there will also be other very successful titles. For example, Jamtara has been incredibly successful both from a consumer and critical lens. Guilty has been very successful, Bulbbul is doing so well, Imtiaz Ali’s She has done well.
You also get the sense that what’s worked well for Netflix abroad isn’t necessarily the same for Indian audiences. It feels like we’re a lot more price-sensitive and we don’t attach as much of a premium to great content. Would you agree?
Price sensitive is one way of looking at it, value-conscious is another. As an audience, we are very mindful of the value we are deriving out of everything. We are mindful that we are a premium service and there is a price attached to it. That’s why when we look at the kind of originals we plan, it always comes from our learnings of what consumers are watching. We shouldn’t be a single-title service which is just known for one title people keep talking about. For us it’s about getting people to watch and experience different titles and be relevant to our consumers month on month, which is why when you look at our upcoming slate, you can see we have a mix.
So far you’ve stuck to Hindi content. Do you have plans to commission originals in other languages?
We have a lot of films in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam which have done very well on the service and we are really looking to build on that. The language and regional focus is really big for us.
Recently there’s been a lot of outrage from certain sections claiming Netflix content is Hinduphobic and ‘boycott Netflix’ was even trending on Twitter. Does that worry you at all and does it change the kind of content you greenlight?
At a very fundamental level, we believe that it’s important to give consumers choice and control. We are very transparent about the information we provide on the service in terms of age rating, synopsis, trailers, etc to help people make a choice. Also, to give creators the freedom to tell the best stories, along with our industry peers, we are working with the government to ensure that we have a self-regulatory mechanism and a set of best practices which allow for that freedom to be maintained. But yes, when we see those hashtags, it doesn’t delight us for sure.
People are constantly dissecting Netflix India’s content, but the reality is whatever decisions you make today, the result of those will only materialise in a year or two. Does that ever frustrate you?
I’m glad you understand this end of things because yes, making great content does take time. But also, I feel feedback is feedback and it’s good to know what people like and don’t like. Though sometimes the few people who dislike a particular piece of content are far more vocal than the many people who love it, that’s okay. We have many different kinds of stories and if we start worrying about this we won’t be able to programme in the best possible way. Some things will fall right and some things may not. That’s just the learning curve.