Netflix India’s Monika Shergill And Srishti Behl Arya On Balancing Abbas-Mustan With Chaitanya Tamhane, Film Companion
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Earlier today, Netflix India announced  its massive 2021 slate of close to 40 titles, a diverse mix of original films, new and returning series, reality shows and comedy specials. Their new slate is their largest announcement yet ranging across formats, genres, creators and sensibilities with new projects from everyone from Abhishek Chaubey to Abbas-Mastan to Kapil Sharma, and beyond.

The streaming giant announced a similar (yet far less expansive) slate in July last year. But of those, despite a strong handful of exceptions such as Bulbbul, Gunjan Saxena, AK Vs AK and Serious Men, most projects continue to meet with a lukewarm at best reception. To reiterate a line we’d written following last year’s announcement: “the hope is that their newest slate of originals can change that”.

Following today’s announcement, over a Zoom call, VP-Content Monika Shergill and Director-International Original Film, Srishti Behl Arya, spoke to us about their diverse slate, dealing with censorship, the mixed reception to Netflix India’s content and what the future holds.

Edited Excerpts:

Your new slate really is a varied mix of genres, formats and creators. Was the aim of this list to ensure there is something for every kind of audience?

Monika Shergill: Yeah, I think the idea is to really have so many great stories and storytellers on Netflix India that there is maximum choice for everyone so that we can entertain and delight everyone in every format possible. And 2021 for us is special because we have really taken a leap and we want to be that definitive service in India where you can find all the great stories that you want to watch. 

Everything that goes into telling a Netflix story, the number of people and passion involved right from when an idea starts, to it coming to life on camera to how it goes into the Netflix system to come out in its best possible way, really is a journey. So, we really hope that everyone really loves the line up that we have this year.

Is there a particular title you’re particularly excited about?

Srishti Behl Arya: I am very excited that we are starting our whole unscripted slate, particularly our true crime series. It’s a first for us here, but it’s something that has been so great for us globally, and now we have an India chapter of it, so I’m very excited. 

It’s been a difficult few weeks for the OTT space in terms of creative freedom. There are new government guidelines in place, Amazon Prime had to remove a scene from one of their shows and even issue a public apology. Does that worry you? Are you now screening projects to ensure there’s nothing controversial that someone might outrage against?

Monika Shergill: I don’t think any of the storytellers who want to bring their stories onto Netflix has an intention to hurt anyone. And in terms of the situation right with the new guidelines coming, we’ve been very really busy programming this slate and the fact that we have shared that entire slate with you is a testament to the fact that we are very committed to telling great stories in India. Eventually, the government and industry are going to work together to do the best for the consumers and creators and I think that is the focus going forward. 

The Indian OTT space is now bigger than ever with close to 50 platforms and new ones launching all the time. What do you make of the growing competition and just the rate at which the space is growing? 

Srishti Behl Arya: You know it truly is the golden age of entertainment. It is really giving an opportunity to a lot of creators to come forth. Everything that results in a good show or a good film or an opportunity for great writing or direction or performance, eventually benefits the entire ecosystem. So, it is really important to stay honest to what we are doing and keep an eye out for what we want to be but it’s wonderful to get more and more people used to watching things on streaming, whatever service they are watching it on, and to make sure that the talent is rising to ensure that the overall quality goes up.

What have been your learnings from last year’s slate that you announced in July? Many of those titles haven’t gotten the best reviews but many of them were still very popular and made it to your top 10 list. So, more than reviews, is it ultimately numbers that matter most?

Srishti Behl Arya: It’s about joy. It’s about making someone happy and finding the right audience. I think one of the most amazing things about Netflix is its recommendation engine, so that the right content should come in front of the right person. Not all of us will like something all the time. There are different things that appeal to different people at different times. There are moments where we want to be challenged, others where you want to be comforted. So, of course it is great when the whole ecosystem talks about an AK Vs AK or a Bulbbul or Gunjan Saxena for that matter. Then of course there are pockets who actually enjoy the lightness of a Maska and so on. You have many opportunities to be there for people in different moments, and I think that is success. I don’t think it is fair to put it to a number. 

Monika Shergill: Just to add to that, at Netflix we really want to be audience first and I think it’s about the people who want to watch that particular story. That’s why all of our Netflix homepages are so different.

Srishti Behl Arya: Yeah, and there will always be a certain broader piece of content from an Abbas-Mustan which you want to appeal to a different audience to something like The Disciple. Should we have to choose between them? I don’t think that’s fair. I think it takes the same amount of passion and same amount of commitment for all the storytellers, you just watch it at different times. And at Netflix that’s what we celebrate – the freedom that you get to tell different kinds of stories.

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