Those who have seen the power of cinema, storytelling and pop culture would tell you that there isn’t a more democratic field than entertainment that benefits most from the world-view, sensitivity and lived experiences that women bring in. This is something the three women executives who are leading Netflix India — Monika Shergill, Vice President of Content; Tanya Bami, Series Head; and Ruchikaa Kapoor Sheikh, Director of Original Films — believe in, as top hats in a field, that like any other industry, is considered to be much harsher to women and other marginalised genders.
Monika says that Netflix is that rare company with almost 50% women leaders. “We have women not just in content, but in every other function like product, tech and marketing,” she adds. To Monika, working on strategy and content for the Indian audiences — who she says are the most dynamic of audiences with heterogeneous tastes — is a privilege. ”This presents the opportunity to speak to them through stories and that’s a moment in time; this is an exciting phase in the journey of streaming entertainment in the country.”
Tanya points to how fascinating it can be to work with two like-minded women with the same kind of vigour and passion. “Women per se bring a certain nuance and depth to whatever they do, and content is just the business that can actually benefit from such an outlook. Being a woman with certain life experiences helps. Someone said, and I quote, ‘A woman is like a tea bag; you don’t her true strength until she’s in hot water.’ I feel this is that cup of water that brings the best out of all of us.”
“Besides being strategic and driven, we do possess a certain intuition and gut in picking stories. Because there is no secret sauce, there is no formula, and we work with our instincts towards knowing what makes our members and audiences happy,” says Ruchikaa.
Excerpts from a conversation with the trio:
There was no dearth of content in 2023. Can you tell us what stood out for you amongst the films and series that released on Netflix this year?
Tanya: There have been several moments of celebration and recognition for all the hard work we have put in. The Railway Men was an amazing moment for all of us; when the conversations about a series transcend to your WhatsApp groups and you hear it around on your flights, you know it has captured the zeitgeist. Bringing the Bhopal gas tragedy back into the conversation was a big win. Kohrra and Kaala Paani were two novel stories that also landed exceptionally well. There was unique storytelling and fresh voices that emerged in terms of directors, showrunners and actors; Suvinder Vicky winning the Best Actor Filmfare was a major highlight. In the non-fiction space, we got an Emmy, an Oscar and multiple awards at Busan Film Festival and we are grateful for all the love.
Ruchika: We’ve had an incredible year. We had titles like Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga, Mission Majnu, Jaane Jaan and Khufiya among others; each one of them is so different from the other. While one was the streaming debut of a director like Ajay Singh, the others brought Vishal Bhardwaj and Sujoy Ghosh to streaming. We are also proud that stars like Sidharth Malhotra and Kareena Kapoor Khan chose Netflix for their streaming debuts. Our success this year has been across several genres and the audiences have been really receptive to new and engaging stories. Kho Gaye Hum Kahan is our year-end gift to the audiences in 2023.
Monika: Looking back at the industry, it’s been a tremendous year for content. Post the pandemic, it has been the year of comeback for storytelling and Netflix. Across our series, our original films, documentaries and licensed cinema, all manner of content has worked this year. Barring a few, almost every big film across Hindi and southern languages has been on Netflix, like Jawan, Leo, OMG 2, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, Thunivu, Vaathi, Waltair Veerayya, Kushi and so on. As an audience member, I would have a tough time picking a title on Netflix. With Tanya, Ruchikaa, Abhishek Goradia (South Content Head of Netflix) and Vibha Chopra (Head of Hindi Films Licensing, Netflix India), we have a dream team here. We challenge and collaborate like a dream team internally, and that is how we want to work with our creators. We want to be very, very consumer-focused and we’ve seen the wins of really being that.
Except for Bollywood, there haven’t been many series titles from regional languages across streaming platforms. Tanya, how are you planning on encouraging creators to try long-format storytelling?
Tanya: As we look to grow in India, we are mindful of how we utilise the diversity of our country to reflect the diversity in the content. For instance, a title like Khakee: The Bihar Chapter can travel from Bihar to any part of the country. A series like Rana Naidu that has Telugu stars is another way of bringing the best from two parts of the country together. Third is by doing a series like Delhi Crime that has an international appeal. Looking at Netflix as a melting pot of culture, locally and internationally, is crucial to expanding the scope of storytelling within the country. We are working with creators from the south who are developing titles for us for the Hindi market.
Monika: The lack of series in languages down south, across streaming platforms, is also a function of the popularity of the film format with creators and audiences. We did Navarasa, Paava Kadhaigal and Pitha Kathalu, and there’s a team in the south that is developing films and series. Now, we want our southern series slate to feel different from the Hindi series slate. Creators from the south have a slightly different grammar of storytelling and the subject matters also vary. We need to consider all that.
Anthologies are easier to do because they are smaller films; a continuous story or franchise-building is a different thing. But we are also seeing more and more creators from the south realise the power of long-format storytelling, and the kind of worlds it opens for them. So, we are working on a slate of series and we’ll share more news on that in a few months
A series like ‘Rana Naidu’ has clocked over 44.2 million hour views and it’s a Hindi show starring two Telugu stars. Are there plans to do more such titles that tie multiple regional markets?
Tanya: Yes, but we have also done a brave experiment like Kohrra, which is 80% in Punjabi and it has a compelling Hindi dub as well. So for a Punjabi-language series to be that widely received was fascinating. To see a fresh cast from that regional market take centre stage at Filmfare showed the power of content.
Ruchikaa, every regional market has distinct sensibilities. Do you guys consciously keep this in mind while setting up original films?
Ruchikaa: I predominantly look at Hindi cinema, and we look at different things while setting up different projects. However, the common factor across all of them is how distinct the idea is and the audience to whom we are talking. The nuances in the south change but with films, we are lucky to be dealing with a format that India is familiar with. That makes the entry point easier. Four years ago, creators were grappling with and figuring their way around a format like long-form series. Now, the way a film is written on streaming is different from how it is written for theatres, but that line is blurring, especially now with us collaborating with YRF for Maharaj. We have a lot of fun with our characters, we are allowed to make them greyer and more flawed, which may not happen in theatres.
Monika: We need to be local first. People come to Netflix thinking ‘Oh, it is a global platform for a global audience.’ But there is no global audience. You have to tell the stories of your milieu for the people who will see themselves reflected in those stories. When we talk about different languages, we need to be hyper-local. With titles like Khorra, Scoopor Kathal, we are talking about characters that reflect real people from those regions. Minnal Murali was set in a fictional town, it was shown as authentically as possible and it had the potential to go global. So the idea is to find a way to make these hyper-local stories appeal universally because a story that can make you cry or laugh can make everyone cry or laugh.
Ruchikaa and Tanya, what have been the biggest challenges in setting up original films and series in India?
Tanya: The COVID-19 pandemic (laughs). Because that affected all of us, and all of this would have happened a year earlier. On a serious note, this format is newer to us as a country. When we started in 2019, we used to translate and develop one or two pages of an idea into some 10 episodes. That is a whole journey of realising that idea and understanding that the one idea may not carry through to become a series or become bigger than 10 episodes. So for the industry to articulate in this format has been a journey, but as Indians, we learn and adapt so quickly. We’re at that wonderful stage because everyone’s done their first or couple of series and now we’re ready to take the game higher. We have Killer Soup and Heeramandi coming up, and we are excited about them.
Ruchikaa: Three years ago, the smaller, eclectic films were assumed to be for a slightly niche audience or the strange entity called the global audience. For us, it’s about bringing more distinct ideas that may have been too risky for theatres. We’re not too nuanced in how we tell stories because the audience enjoys the familiarity of the format. It’s how much fun we have with that structure that makes our job fun. What was always challenging was how we could make content compelling enough to ensure your viewing experience got better and better. The aim is to make content that is like an unputdownable book.
Monika: The series format has its own challenges like the gargantuan job of creating a world to live in people’s minds, setting up characters a certain way, and so on. Now, with films, our original films compete with the best of theatrical cinema that streams on the service. When you know that Jaane Jaan is a massive hit on Netflix, you know that we also have successes like Ayushmann Khurrana’s Dream Girl 2, Akshay Kumar’s OMG 2 and Shah Rukh Khan’s Jawan. So what the film team has to do is to ensure that when an audience clicks on Netflix, they have to pick this over the other.
A lot of filmmakers in the west like Zack Snyder and Martin Scorsese are exploring the idea of extended cuts to their films or telling stories over a longer run time. Is that something you are looking to do here in India, Ruchikaa?
Ruchikaa: This format has a certain runtime and that has a lot to do with how long the story takes to be told. Strangely, in theatres, come what may, you are not going to leave. With streaming, you can choose to leave if we don’t excite you enough. So we’re particular with how we’re telling a film. We’re always trying to keep true to the story and the way it should be told.
Tanya, just a few days ago Krishna DK spoke to us about the demand for a ‘Guns & Gulaabs’ spin-off for Gulshan Devaiah’s character of Chaar Cut Atmaram. Are you thinking about concepts like cinematic universes?
Tanya: We are not averse to it. This is something that was led on by international titles. We watch more seasons of a show because it immerses us in a familiar telling or a familiar character. We are making a second season of Khakee and we have so many cop series that we joked about making our own cop universe! An Atmaram spin-off is something we knew people would ask for when we wrote it; we thought it could be our Better Call Saul. But we haven’t cracked it yet. We are however working on something else with Raj & DK, which we hope to come out with as soon as possible.
From what was perceived as a space for alternate cinema, streaming has become a place for all kinds of cinema. However, filmmakers have said that some platforms ask for pitches to have certain commercial viability that is akin to making content for theatres. Is that a parameter in selecting scripts?
Monika: For us, it’s really important to appeal to the entire spectrum of audiences. Take documentaries for instance; they are usually not meant for everyone, but we program them because world-class stories that can only be told in that format are well-loved. Any story that appeals to a certain size of the audience and is told at the right investment values should be commissioned. A creator never wants to tell a story on a big streaming platform only for a small set of people. If told with the right investment values and if it has the right heart, it results in titles like Trial By Fire or Kathal. Also, the stories have to be engaging, firstly; engagement is a core reason why people watch content.
Ruchikaa: There’s been such a shift in what streaming films look like since the pandemic and what we’re trying to do is intentionally make stories as wide as we can without compromising on its organic nature. So if a story like Kathalis a satire set in a small town and for a certain audience, we won’t demand for it to have four songs or something. A title like Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga is trending in 60 countries; at no point did we put a nuance to make it go viral. We looked at the story in its most authentic form and asked, how do we make this wider?
Monika: Even globally, you will see a Maestroand a Rebel Moon. You will also see a Fair Play and an Extraction. From the UK, you will see a series like The Crownas well as a Heartstopper. That’s the range we operate with. As fans of entertainment, we try to bring creators’ voices to people and bring the widest range of flavours to the audience.
A queer filmmaker once told me that when he takes his script to a streaming platform, they tell him that it’s too early for the Indian audience to watch content that is so ‘risky’, but OTTs already have content from other countries that are bolder in themes. What is your take on this?
Monika: Dilton’s character in The Archies is the most beautiful example that I can think of. It’s a story set in the ‘60s and it has a character who owns his sexuality and speaks to the boy he has a crush on. These are themes which exist across our content. The streaming industry has encouraged themes and characters that were considered too tough to portray.
Ruchikaa: Inclusivity and representation are really in taking broader stories and ensuring that it’s reflective of several people. Titles like Badhaai Do do extremely well and find their audience. We believe it’s a responsibility to ensure audiences find a little bit of themselves in stories.
Tanya: It is about normalising these themes because it’s a reflection of our lives and that’s the way we encourage our partners to think of these strands in our stories. Now, one of the key storylines that popped up in Class was the positive love story between two gay characters. Mismatched is a show that has always championed queer themes and we are taking that ahead in our examples as well. We’re representing a college environment from today; how can we then hold back from inclusion of all kinds, right?
When we commission something, we don’t do it because it is of a certain theme. We need a fresh story to break forward and Cobalt Blue, for instance, had that story. We don’t shy away from telling stories with queer themes, but we also don’t go looking for a story with a specific sexuality at play.
Ruchikaa: Yeah, it’s not about ticking the box. We don’t want the audiences to look at these themes as ones that are on the fringes of content. We’re trying to bring it into the mainstream by reflecting it as it is. Our goal is to make more people watch other people’s lives and experiences.
We are stepping into 2024 now, what are some of the titles that you all are looking forward to?
Tanya: 2023 has been great and we have been consciously trying to raise the bar. Curry & Cyanide: The Jolly Joseph Case and Kho Gaye Hum Kahan are coming out this week. We start January with Killer Soup and then we have fan-favourites like Kota Factory 3, Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives Season 3 and Khakee Season 2 returning.
Ruchikaa: If 2023 looked interesting, we’re just getting started. Imtiaz Ali’sAmar Singh Chamkila is a title we are excited to have on our service and then we have Maharaj, which is a cinematic film with YRF, one of the biggest studios in the country. Murder Mubarak has an interesting ensemble that we haven’t seen in a long time.
Monika: Expect some amazing fireworks across the formats because we have been gearing up for 2024. When any subscriber comes to Netflix, they have an array of choices, whether it’s Bollywood, Korean or Spanish. And when you see so many Indian titles in the Top 10 that are trending even outside India, it tells you how much the world loves our stories.