Netflix is betting big on female filmmakers in India

Starring Bollywood’s Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte, the eight-episode series — directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap — is the first in a long list of local content that will soon join the league of International Originals like Dark (German) and Narcos (Colombian). “Sacred Games is the beginning of a wave of local productions. We have seven series in production right now, and numerous others in pre-production,” Ted Sarandos, chief content officer, Netflix, said at the show’s premiere in Mumbai. 

We caught up with Netflix’s Los Angeles-based executives Kelly Luegenbiehl (vice president, creative, International Originals) and Simran Sethi (director of creative for India, International Originals) to discuss India’s role in the fastest-growing vertical at what is reportedly the most valuable media company in the world.

ELLE: Why did you decide to kick off with Sacred Games?

Kelly Luegenbiehl: We had all been fans of the book, and it had been in and out of option over the years. Then there was this moment where it became available, right as we were expanding into India. Around the same time, we had met Anurag and Vikram, and Vikram’s passion for the novel, and seeing the synergy of that book, our platform and their storytelling come together — it was a perfect storm of timing.

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For us, when we think about what we want our first Originals in a country to be, Sacred Games has all the DNA — complex storytelling and layered characters, a hook that keeps you going episode after episode, and a really specific local nuance. We’ve been seeing as a company, at the International Originals team, that the more specific and authentic the content is, the more universal it tends to be, and the more we’re seeing our global audience devouring it.

Simran Sethi: We’re very hopeful that Indian audiences are going to become super passionate about it. The fact that it’s streaming all over the world means that we’re also taking these amazing Indian film-makers and sharing their content in other countries. It starts a conversation.

ELLE: How did the cast work out?

SS: We got very lucky and got our first choices the first time round. When you look at how Radhika, Saif and Nawaz personify those roles, I don’t know that you could have ever pictured anyone else. If any of them had turned us down, I’m not sure what we would’ve done, but we got lucky.

ELLE: The success of shows like Dark and Narcos has clearly brought global focus to indigenous content.

KK: Exactly. And it’s primarily non-English language [content]. Apart from a couple of things in the UK, we’re working on our first Australian original. Then we have a lot of shows that are multilingual, like Sacred Games, which has four languages.

Netflix sacred games

Image courtesy: Netflix

ELLE: From 800-odd titles to almost 5,000 in two years — the catalogue’s growth has been substantial. Tell us about the other titles commissioned for India.

SS: Since our launch, we’ve ramped up faster and bigger than any other country in the world. And now we have a steady drumbeat, starting with Lust Stories, Love Per Square Foot before that, and Sacred Games. Ghoul is coming up, which is our horror series. We have Leila, Selection Day, Bard Of Blood, and Mighty Little Bheem, which is a children’s series. It [the Indian market] is very important.

ELLE: What is the content process and acquisition brief for India right now?

SS: So, we work with mostly established film-makers, producers and directors, through established channels. We also have projects that we’re working on with young film-makers and writers. And we are always very, very excited and eager to find female film-makers, directors and show-runners. Getting that diversity in our point of view in front of the camera and behind it is super important to us.

In terms of what we’re looking for in Indian storytellers, it’s really about finding the voices that we think are the most vibrant. We look at films that we’re drawn to, and the films that we think have strong points of view, and we seek out those film-makers, and ask them what stories they want to tell, and provide them the platform and creative freedom to do that.

ELLE: What about content in other Indian languages?

SS: We think and talk about it a lot, but we’re a growing service, and this is just new. We look to our audience to learn from what they’re watching to try and grow that side of the business. But we are fans of the great Marathi, Bengali, Telugu stuff that’s out there.

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