Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and their rivals go head to head in Modi’s India
The showrunner of Sacred games, Vikramaditya Motwane, told me that after the fury around this episode, he was told to avoid “anything to do with religion”. Local media reported that the government has started to seriously consider censoring streaming due to the lynching scene. News that this could happen has ricocheted through the industry.
I traveled to India at the end of 2019 to see how the country’s nascent streaming industry is faring in its struggles against Hindu nationalism.
Srishti Behl Arya comes from a family of Bollywood filmmakers. His father, director and producer, worked with Amitabh Bachchan, a legendary actor. When she was little, she accompanied her parents to the scene, where she and the other children of the cast and crew posed as movie stars. “We ran like psychopaths,” she told me when I visited her at the Netflix offices in Bandra-Kurla, a wealthy suburban Mumbai business district.
In 2018, Netflix hired Arya to commission feature film content. In that year, the company made more than 20 original films and five original series in Hindi. But that hardly changed his public personality. In a country with over 24 major languages, Netflix was still viewed as an English language platform for Westernized Indians. And that’s where Arya, who knew everyone who mattered in the Hindi film, fit into the picture. She worked in advertising, then as an actress and writer, before moving on to television production.
Soon, she enlisted many of her childhood friends, who had grown up to be one of the most powerful people in the Hindi film industry, to work for Netflix. She signed on Zoya Akhtar, whose last feature was India’s official entry to the Oscars, to direct a short film. Like Arya, Akhtar comes from a film family, but since Bollywood is a male dominated industry, it is still almost impossible for a female director or female films to raise capital. On the other hand, several women have led projects at Netflix. The platform’s biggest star is Radhika Apte, a Bollywood actress who has appeared in so many Netflix productions that the online joke is she’s in all of them.
But working with Bollywood meant facing its shortcomings. Netflix has held several workshops in Mumbai to train Indian content creators. It taught them how to develop a major series, but also helped them familiarize themselves with the basics like writing, scheduling, and budgeting. “This is how we can add value to the industry,” Arya told me. “By helping him to organize himself more.”
On my last day in Mumbai, I went to visit Red Chillies Entertainment, a massive production house owned by Shah Rukh Khan, which produces shows for Netflix. In 2017, Hastings and Khan appeared together in a staid promotional sketch announcing a new spy thriller called Blood bard.
The foyer was deserted the day I arrived, except for a beautiful sculpture of Ganesha, a Hindu god considered the patron of the arts. It was wrapped in plastic to protect it from construction dust. Around him, barefoot workers were using power tools without protective gear. On the fourth floor, an exhausted-looking man with slippers on his feet and salt in his dark hair emerged from an editing studio. Several years ago, a recent London School of Film graduate, Patrick Graham was struggling to land projects when a friend suggested he try Bollywood. He floundered at first, suffocated by censorship. But then, in 2018, Netflix India gave Graham the budget to produce a fictional series in which Muslims are gathered in internment camps. They also got him to co-write the screenplay for Leila. When we first met he was finishing production on Pay, a four-part zombie series coming out next year. Months earlier, in a conversation on the phone, Graham had seemed delighted to seize the opportunity. “It’s huge,” he had said. But in person, in Mumbai, he was shot. “I have to go through the series and remove anything that might offend,” he said grimly. “Hypersensitive people win.”
In November 2020, Hindu nationalists attacked Netflix again. The critically acclaimed adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel by Mira Nair A decent boy showed a Muslim boy kissing a Hindu girl. A leader of the youth wing of the BJP lodged a complaint with the police against the series for “having filmed scenes of kissing under the premises of the temple”. The leader accused the show of promoting the “jihad of love” – a conspiracy theory that claims that Muslim men seduce Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam.
In January, another group of Hindu nationalists took offense, this time over a political drama on Amazon Prime Video called Tandav. They laughed at the portrayal of an actor disguised as a Hindu god Shiva. The director quickly issued a public apology and deleted some offensive scenes. But he was still named in complaints against police in six states, along with members of his cast and team. Prosecutors have also charged Aparna Purohit, who runs the original Indian programming for Amazon, of counterfeiting, cyber-terrorism and promoting inter-class hatred.
The following month, the government announced what it called a “soft-touch self-regulatory architecture” for streaming services. This new code of ethics, theoretically voluntary, is accompanied by ratings and a grievance system that make streaming, in fact, as strictly regulated as cinema and television.
After the announcement of the new code, Amazon canceled the next season of The man of the family, a planned spy thriller, and the follow-up to Paatal Lok, a detective show. He also announced plans to co-produce his first Indian film – a mythological tale starring Akshay Kumar, an actor known for his close ties to Hindu nationalists.
Netflix entered India just as hundreds of millions of Indians discovered the Internet. It helped create a new language for Indian streaming. In 2020, its subscriber base was estimated at 4.2 million. But the success of the business – and of streaming services in general – depends to a large extent on matters beyond their control.
Kashyap, the director, thinks he has the censorship problem under control. “We’ll say what we want to say,” he told me. “We’ll just find different ways to say it.” On March 3, his home and those of several other Bollywood stars were raided by tax authorities in what Nawab Malik, a spokesman for the opposition Congress Party, said. described as an attempt at intimidation. On the same day, Netflix India announced a list of 40 new movies and series.