It seems counterintuitive, but in the race for Indian content, Amazon’s Prime Video seems to have an edge over Netflix.
Streaming platforms in India are fiercely competitive and Netflix leads the chase for the biggest viewership numbers. In 2019, as per regulatory filings, the streaming giant’s total income in India grew eight times in 2018-2019; riding high on season 2 of Sacred Games. In fact, according to the data released end-2019, Netflix’s consumption pattern in India showed that seven out of their top 10 most-watched content were home originals. These included Bard of Blood, Delhi Crime and Chopsticks.
But data can be misleading. Netflix ranks the popularity of its shows based on the criteria of at least two minutes spent on the content in the first 28 days of its release on the platform. Given this benchmark, it is no surprise that a show featuring Emraan Hashmi, a Bollywood favourite of the past, and a film featuring Abhay Deol get two minutes of curiosity viewing.
The bigger question is, does the Indian original-content backed by Netflix India live up to the global standards? Do Indian viewers like these shows enough to keep watching them, or to return to them later? Are viewers across the world watching these shows/films?
The answer would be a definite no.
What Prime Video does right
Instead, Amazon’s Prime Video, which has been steadily creating original pan-Indian content, has built a slate of engaging shows and series in Hindi, Tamil and Telegu. (The company has not released specifics of its subscription and viewership in India for 2019). While stars and relevant writers and filmmakers feature in its line-up too, Prime Video’s focus has been on the content, not just faces and social media hype. This strategy, with successes like Made in Heaven and A Family Man and the intelligently comic One Mic Stand has brought the streaming platform consistent viewership and more importantly, peer approval.
Of course, Prime Video also has populist fluff like Inside Edge, and acquisitions like Hostel Daze from comedy channel TVF, but their content is varied and resonant. Their latest offering, The Forgotten Army – Azaadi Ke Liye by Kabir Khan, has been in the making for three years. Starring promising newbie Sunny Kaushal in the lead, its trailer lives up to the platform’s promise of cinematic quality in long-form finite fiction.
This is visibly different from Netflix India’s strategy.
What Netflix is going offtrack
For the past couple of years, courting media photo ops and hobnobbing with big names in Bollywood has been the key strategy for Netflix India. It markets itself as THE destination for content creators. In 2019, the giant positioned itself as the leader in original content by advertising its 10 films with 10 top Hindi filmmakers.
By working closely with Karan Johar and his production company, Dharma Productions, and by collaborating on content with Anurag Kashyap and Phantom Films, Netflix extended its wide, money-filled arms to embrace big (Bollywood) faces. It also gave the occasional nod to the free-spirited ‘indie’ idea, be it in the form of films or series. Little Things, a show created by Dice Media, was acquired by Netflix as an ‘original’.
It looked like Netflix India was here to make a difference by making differentiated content.
A spurt of fiction series and films with star-backing has popped up on their upcoming-slate (Mai, co-produced by Anushka Sharma; a zombie army show by SRK’s Red Chillies; and Masaba Masaba) as well.
Ironically, two of its much-loved Indian originals, Soni and Delhi Crime, do not feature big stars but focus on relevant Indian stories. Jamtara, the latest Indian original, has earned initial positive reviews and doesn’t boast of big names or budget.
Star cast but no star rating
Yet, it takes just a glance at reviews on social media to understand that most of Netflix India’s original content has been disappointing. Bard of Blood was just like a 1970s potboiler riding on filminess; Selection Day didn’t make an impact, despite strong reviews for its second season. Chopsticks earned average reviews from viewers. Sujoy Ghosh’s Typewriter didn’t sustain interest, and Leila by Deepa Mehta fell flat.
The biggest indicator of Netflix’s tendency of producing mediocre content is the recently released Ghost Stories. It follows up Lust Stories, an anthology of films directed by A-list filmmakers Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Bannerjee and Karan Johar. While the first managed Emmy nominations and some shock value, Ghost Stories fell flat. It’s almost impossible to go wrong with the horror genre; and when you do, it’s embarrassing. Ghost Stories is not scary or innovative, making one wonder why make this anthology in the first place if not to associate with big Bollywood names. That also runs the risk of raising expectations, but not delivering.
Unfortunately, the story-telling quality of most Indian originals on Netflix don’t match basic international standards.
Prime Video’s patient bet
One can’t absolve Prime Video from putting out mediocre content entirely. Four More Shots Please! doesn’t do anything surprising, and it too counted on celebrity faces.
But as the management of the online streaming platform changed hands, a patient game of building a loyal audience began. And it is paying off.
A Family Man was about a believable Indian intelligence operative. Made In Heaven is the finest representation of a gay man’s identity in Hindi content so far, as is the show’s handling of the complex, layered upper-class world of marriage. So far, Prime Video has steered clear of announcing original Indian films. Their focus is on building long-form stories or series that hold a viewer’s interest over time. As a platform, it assesses responses beyond initial reception and looks at repeat viewing too.
While Netflix India has the aura of delivering cutting edge creative content in an industry that is struggling with good stories, perhaps it could moderate the volume of Bollywood-backed content. A pan-Indian audience that is fickle and yet, loyal to international series tends to veer towards a strong story, regardless of who features in it.
Big names don’t matter, but a good story does. So far, with upcoming content as well, Prime Video is determinedly leading the game to create Indian fiction that the world would care to watch.
And the world has got too good a taste of Fleabag, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, Killing Eve and The Morning Show to watch Bollywood’s experiments with online streaming platforms
The author has tracked entertainment, cinema and urban trends for over 16 years across leading broadcast and digital media platforms in India including Times Now, News18, The Hindu and Firstpost. She also edits the film geek website The Film Hashery. Views are personal.