Huge billboards at a New Delhi junction announced the arrival last month of the first original series produced by Netflix in India: "Sacred Games," a thriller about the Mumbai underworld.
Huge billboards at a New Delhi junction announced the arrival last month of the first original series produced by Netflix in India: "Sacred Games," a thriller about the Mumbai underworld.

NEW DELHI - As entertainment giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime woo Indian audiences, they are investing millions of dollars in making films and serials locally. And for Bollywood, one of the world’s most glitzy movie industries, the entry of video streaming services with deep pockets has opened new opportunities.

“When a Bollywood film releases, I have access to audiences in metro cities like Mumbai and Delhi for just a few weeks. On Netflix, my film could reach global audiences,” said Dibakar Banerjee, Mumbai-based filmmaker. Banerjee is one of the four top Bollywood directors who produced “Lust Stories,” a collection of four short films for the video streaming platform this year.

Besides a handful of films like Lust Stories, Netflix has released two original series in the Hindi language in a blaze of publicity. Massive billboards in India’s big cities announced last week the release of Ghoul a horror show with a supernatural twist. An action-packed thriller, Sacred Games set in the Mumbai underworld, starring top Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan, released in July.

"Sacred Games," a thriller about the Mumbai underw
"Sacred Games," a thriller about the Mumbai underworld, was released in a blaze of publicity by Netflix last month.

Netflix presence known

Since launching in India in 2016, Netflix has been making its presence felt in Indian homes with popular American shows. But as it eyes a market that will have more than half a billion smartphone and Internet users by 2020, it is focusing on producing local content. Even in movie-crazy India, a massive drop in data costs is expected to turn the web into the prime platform for entertainment.

“We have witnessed a huge appetite for entertainment,” said Jessica Lee, Netflix’s vice president for communications-Asia. “Our content investment in India has scaled at a very fast pace, in fact one of the fastest we have ever made in any country launched.”

Amazon, whose subscription is much more affordable than Netflix, has also released several original Indian series, such as a drama about professional cricket and stand-up comedy specials.

Local competition

The American giants are up against stiff competition. For example, the subscriber base of Netflix in India trails local video services that are cheaper and have already made inroads. Hotstar, which offers sports, entertainment and movie channels, dominates India’s streaming landscape. Established Indian TV companies are investing their own money in online platforms.

But in a country where television is dominated by soap operas, analysts say Netflix hopes to offer higher quality content to win over the urban elite that can fork out $8 for the cheapest monthly subscription and has already shown an appetite for tuning into popular American shows like Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why.

“They are mainly riding on the fact that they will be producing original content of a quality and genre, which possibly will not be available on the other platforms,” said Frank D’Souza, a media and entertainment analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Mumbai.

With original shows like the horror show "Ghoul" s
With original shows like the horror show "Ghoul" streaming on Netflix, the entertainment giants hopes to woo Indian viewers. The advertisement is seen in a swanky mall in Gurgaon near Delhi.

Thirst for varied entertainment

That is where shows such as Sacred Games with a splash of big Bollywood names are likely to play a key role, after all, Bollywood has always been king of entertainment in India. It has been noticed: The Economist said the show announces the arrival of prestige television in the country.

In a young country thirsty for more varied entertainment, bolder shows could also be the key to winning viewers, entertainment analysts say.

D’Souza points to an advantage video streaming services enjoy: India censors movies and television but does not censor Internet content. 

“It gives them the ability to push the envelope a bit in terms of what is the kind of content that they can create and that too in the local language,” D’Souza said.

That is also a bonus for Indian filmmakers and storytellers, who always had to keep an eye on the country’s sometimes heavy-handed censor board. In the short films, Lust Stories for example, all four filmmakers focused on women and their desires, a subject that has remained largely unexplored in a country where conventional romances have been the staple fare. Scenes of sex and gruesome bloodshed in Sacred Games are not the stuff of India’s usual television shows.

For Indian artists, the entry of Netflix and Amazon has widened the canvas for storytelling and tapping a global audience, says director Banerjee, who is hugely optimistic about the potential of video streaming services. 

“It is exciting. It is giving a new platform to filmmakers,” he said. “People have been ringing me from other countries after watching Lust Stories.”

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