Netflix Indias Monika Shergill Talks Local Content Strategy, Success Of RRR & Gangubai Kathiawadi & Why Streaming Has Revolutionized Cinema In India

As Wall Street anxiously awaits Netflix’s second quarter financial results today, with the streamer having already warned it could face more subscriber losses (as many as 2 million this quarter), the push for growth in India feels more crucial than ever for the company.

Last year, Netflix India made a bold move in slashing prices across its four subscription tiers, notably cutting its popular ‘Basic’ plan by a huge 60%, reducing it from $6.24 (499 rupees) a month to just $2.49 (199 rupees). While the company didn’t state a reason at the time for the price cut, Netflix India’s Vice President of Content Monika Shergill now tells Deadline that the strategic move was made in a bid to open up the service to a broader range of audiences across the Indian market.

Six months down the line, Shergill says the pricing cut is “working very well for us, and it’s brought in a whole new set of audiences,” enabling Netflix India to prioritize subscriber growth at a time when the company had begun to ramp up its licensing and original programming slate beyond Hindi and English-language content.

“It’s a very different pricing model,” she says of the Indian streaming market, adding that most local competitors work on annual plans with the benefit of big discounts from telco partners. “For us, our revision of the pricing was very well-timed with our content strategy and the new slate we were rolling out. We were very clear that when we started programming for a broader set of audiences that we would need to increase access and the pricing was a very important part of it.”

Tapping into the multi-cultural nation, which has a population of more than 1.4 billion, 22 official languages and more than 800 TV channels and multiple film industries, was always going to be a tall order. But Shergill, who was previously EVP and head of content at Viacom18’s digital platform Voot, says that India is a market ripe for local stories that can resonate locally and globally and that diversifying Netflix’s slate with non-Hindi, local language content is paramount.

“As a service, Netflix is an ocean of content globally and it’s essential that we cater to the diverse tastes of the Indian audience because we know that different regions and different sets of audiences want different things.”

She notes that the “largest share of content” that Netflix India has been programming until recently has been in Hindi and English. But, in the last 18 months, the service has been licencing titles in southern Indian languages and programming original content in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi and Bengali languages.

“Strategically, as we are growing, it’s really important for us that we are able to go deep within a certain language,” says Shergill. “If I’m just going to put three or four titles in a language on the service, that’s not entirely doing justice to that language. So, our strategy is to really ramp up in certain languages and, gradually, as we add more audiences, we can see what is the next language that we can go deep into.”

One recent success reflective of the type of varied slate Netflix India is cultivating is Telugu-language title RRR (dubbed to Hindi on Netflix) from director S.S. Rajamouli. The 1920s action epic, about two Indian revolutionaries, has grossed nearly $100M worldwide since its March 25 release and became the most popular Indian film on Netflix globally. The title was the number one non-English film on Netflix for three weeks running. Meanwhile, Hindi-language title Gangubai Kathiawadi, from director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, became a worldwide hit on the streamer reaching number one on the global top 10 of non-English films.

“We really believed in the vision of these filmmakers,” says Shergill of Rajamouli and Bhansali. “Gangubai Kathiawadi was such a disruptive and edgy story about a sex worker in the red light district which would have been an uncomfortable watch for a large part of Indian audiences. But Sanjay’s craft and vision of the film was something we really wanted to join hands with him on. Similarly, for R.R., his vision is so unique and he thinks so large-scale and mixing these two genres of history and fantasy was so appealing to us.”

Additional non-Hindi language titles that have been luring in local and global audiences include Malayalam language Minnal Murali, a Kerala-set superhero movie starring Tovino Thomasa and anthologies Paava Kadhaigal and Navarasa in Tamil, Pitta Kathalu in Telugu and The Disciple in Marathi.

Shergill says that streaming market in India has really benefited from the crowded theatrical market in India in the last few years. Each year, around 1,800 to 2,000 titles vie for screen space across the nation’s 9,000 cinemas.

“It’s a staggering volume of theatrical films jostling for space,” she says. “Titles are trying to own release windows and therefore, a lot of big-ticket films are clashing with each other at the box office. Streaming has really revolutionized the theatrical cinema space in India because a lot of these big, theatrical titles come to platforms and then are available to audiences in India and globally.”

She adds, “A big part of our content strategy and what we have been working on and strengthening in the last couple of years are the kinds of licenced cinema titles we bring onto the platform. In India, it’s important to be in this post-theatrical business as well as the original stories that we have always invested in and commissioned.”

While licencing these bigger, local Indian language titles is a big push for Netflix India now, the company will continue to make a “small number of original films that have a big impact on our audiences.”

Since the pandemic, which had created a backlog in already bursting theatrical space, she stresses that many of the filmmakers have been keen to work with them in the streaming space as an alternative means for getting their stories to reach India’s audiences. “We support all formats, it truly depends on the creators,” she says. “It’s a very creative-first approach, just like in our content strategy we have a very audience-first approach.”

Shergill points to upcoming Netflix original Darlings, starring Alia Bhatt and Vijay Varma, as “an important and defining film” coming up on the company’s slate. The Hindi-language black comedy drama, which follows the lives of a mother and daughter as they find courage and love in exceptional circumstances, is the directorial debut from Jasmeet K. Reen. “This is something we are so proud of and excited to bring to the service,” she says. “It’s an important and urgent story that needs to be told.”

There’s also crime-drama Monica, O My Darling, from director Vasan Bala, which follows a young man desperately trying to make it big with some unlikely allies and a diabolical plan to pull off the perfect murder. “The film is a very raw, spy agent story that is a little on the scary side,” says Shergill. “It really shows the breadth of our work.”

While there are no plans to sign exclusive deals with talent, Netflix India does have a multi-year partnership with Ritesh Sidhwani and Farhan Akhtar’s Mumbai-based Excel Entertainment, the banner behind cult classic Dil Chahta Hai and Shergill has indicated that “there may be a couple more [deals like this] in the offing.”

“I’m really excited about the opportunities and room for growth in India,” she says. “India’s audiences have dramatically widened their tastes through their exposure to global content through streaming. Since the pandemic, we’re seeing a lot more people experimenting in different languages such as Korean and Spanish content. This is the time to tell really great stories which will cross borders and bring a melting pot of cultures.”

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