Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and their rivals compete in Modi’s India

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The showrunner of Sacred Games, Vikramaditya Motwane, told me that after the furore around that episode, he was told to avoid “anything to do with religion.” Local media outlets reported that the government began seriously considering censoring streaming because of the lynching scene. The news that this might happen ricocheted around the industry.

I traveled to India in late 2019 to see how the country’s nascent streaming industry was faring in its struggles with Hindu nationalism.

Srishti Behl Arya comes from a family of Bollywood filmmakers. Her father, a director and producer, worked with Amitabh Bachchan, a legendary actor. When she was little, she accompanied her parents on location, where she and the other children of the cast and crew pretended to be film stars. “We ran around like psychos,” she told me when I visited her at Netflix’s offices in Bandra-Kurla, a wealthy suburban business district in Mumbai.

In 2018, Netflix hired Arya to commission feature-length content. That year, the company made more than 20 original films and five original series in Hindi. But this did little to alter its public persona. In a country with more than 24 major languages, Netflix was still viewed as an English-language platform for westernized Indians. And this is where Arya, who knew everyone who mattered in Hindi film, fit into the picture. She had worked in advertising, and then as an actor and a writer, before moving on to TV production.

Soon she enlisted many of her childhood friends, who had grown up to become some of the most powerful people in the Hindi film industry, to work for Netflix. She signed on Zoya Akhtar, whose last feature film was India’s official entry to the Academy Awards, to direct a short film. Like Arya, Akhtar comes from a film family, but because Bollywood is a male-dominated industry, it’s still almost impossible for a female filmmaker or female-oriented films to raise capital. By contrast, several women helmed projects at Netflix. The platform’s biggest star is Radhika Apte, a Bollywood actress who has appeared in so many Netflix productions that online wags joke she’s in all of them.

Srishti Behl Arya
Srishti Behl Arya, who runs Netflix’s division of Indian original films.

NETFLIX

But working with Bollywood meant dealing with its shortcomings. Netflix held several workshops in Mumbai to train Indian content creators. It taught them how to develop a major series, but also helped them brush up on basics such as how to write, schedule, and budget. “That’s how we can add value to the industry,” Arya told me. “By helping it get more organized.”

On my last day in Mumbai, I went to visit Red Chillies Entertainment, a towering production house owned by Shah Rukh Khan, which produces shows for Netflix. Back in 2017, Hastings and Khan had appeared together in a stilted promotional skit announcing a new spy thriller called Bard of Blood.

The foyer was deserted on the day I arrived, except for a beautiful sculpture of Ganesha, a Hindu god who is viewed as the patron of the arts. It was wrapped in plastic to protect it from construction dust. Around it some barefoot workmen were operating power tools without any 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, newly graduated from the London School of Film, Patrick Graham had been struggling to land projects when a friend suggested he try Bollywood. He floundered at first, stifled by censorship. But then, in 2018, Netflix India gave Graham the budget to produce a fictional series in which Muslims are rounded up in internment camps. They also brought him in to co-write the screenplay for Leila. When we met, he was wrapping up production on Betaal, a four-episode zombie series that would be released the next year. Months earlier, in a conversation on the phone, Graham had seemed pumped at the opportunity. “It’s massive,” he’d said. But in person, in Mumbai, he was downcast. “I have to go through the series and remove anything that might offend,” he told me, gloomily. “The oversensitive people are winning.”

In November 2020, Hindu nationalists went after Netflix again. Mira Nair’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy showed a Muslim boy kissing a Hindu girl. A leader of the BJP’s youth wing filed a police complaint about the series for “shooting kissing scenes under temple premises.” The leader accused the show of promoting “love jihad”—a conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men are seducing Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam.

still from A Suitable Boy
A scene from the film A Suitable Boy. From left: Danesh Razvi, Tanya Maniktala.

MILAN MOUDGILL / ©ACORN TV/BBC ONE / COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION

In January, another group of Hindu nationalists claimed offense, this time over a political drama on Amazon Prime Video called Tandav. They didn’t care for the depiction of an actor dressed as the Hindu god Shiva. The director quickly issued a public apology and deleted some offending scenes. But he was still named in police complaints in six states, along with members of his cast and crew. Prosecutors also charged Aparna Purohit, who heads Indian original programming for Amazon, with forgery, cyber-terrorism, and promoting hatred between classes.

The very next month, the government announced what it called a “soft-touch self-regulatory architecture” for streaming services. This new ethics code, notionally voluntary, comes with ratings and a grievance system that make streaming, in effect, just as tightly regulated as film and TV.

After the new code was announced, Amazon canceled the upcoming season of The Family Man, a planned spy thriller, and the follow-up to Paatal Lok, a crime series. It also announced plans to co-produce its first Indian film—a mythological tale starring Akshay Kumar, an actor who is known for his close ties with Hindu nationalists.

Netflix had entered India just when hundreds of millions of Indians discovered the internet. It helped create a new language for Indian streaming. In 2020, its subscriber base was estimated to have risen to 4.2 million. But whether the company—and streaming services more generally—can ultimately succeed depends in large measure on matters outside of their control.

Kashyap, the director, believes he has a handle on the censorship problem. “We will say what we want to say,” he told me. “We will simply find different ways of saying it.” On March 3, his house and those of several other Bollywood stars were raided by tax authorities in what Nawab Malik, a spokesperson for the opposition Congress Party, described as an intimidation attempt. That same day, Netflix India announced a slate of 40 new films and series.