Netflix plans big local content boost in quest for India edge

Netflix will roll out its biggest roster yet of Indian films and shows, releasing 40 local productions over the coming year as it fights for an edge over fast-growing competitors including Disney and Amazon Prime.

The US streaming company will debut films and shows featuring big-name cast and crew such as producer Karan Johar and actor Madhuri Dixit, as well as second seasons of series including the international Emmy-winning Delhi Crime.

The content roster will amount to a significant increase over the $400m Netflix spent on entertainment in 2019 and 2020, said Monika Shergill, the company’s vice-president for India content.

“We’re betting very, very big on India,” Shergill said. She declined to give a specific figure but added: “This slate is nearly three times that [of 2019 and 2020], so I think you can make an educated guess about how much we’re leaning into programming in India.”

With its giant, film-loving population of 1.4bn, India is a vital growth market for US streaming companies. But the country has proved tricky for Netflix, which has struggled with issues ranging from pricing to political scrutiny since it launched in 2016.

Netflix is the most expensive streaming service in India’s crowded field. Its primary international competitors, Disney and Amazon, have raced ahead in terms of subscribers. While Disney had more than 25m subscribers in December 2020, consultancy Media Partners Asia put Netflix’s India base at 5m.

However, Shergill said Netflix’s pricing strategy is evolving. The company has introduced a mobile-only plan and a tie-up with budget telecom operator Reliance Jio. 

“We are the most premium service in the market and everybody knows that,” she said. “Having said that, if you look at the value that we bring, if you look at the offerings that we have, we’re constantly looking to improve that . . . We’re also looking at how to increase access all the time.”

Netflix’s content push comes as India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party prepares to regulate streaming platforms for the first time.

The US streaming services’ productions have repeatedly sparked the ire of the Hindu nationalist BJP by delving into politically fraught territory.

Amazon is fighting to keep executives out of jail after airing a show with an allegedly offensive depiction of Hindu gods, and issued an apology on Tuesday. Netflix faced a backlash last year after A Suitable Boy depicted a Muslim boy kissing a Hindu girl in a temple.

The government’s rules, unveiled last week, would require companies to appoint a local grievance redressal officer and answer to a self-regulatory body that would be overseen by authorities.

Shergill said the company was still assessing the implications of the rules but was pleased that self-regulation was involved. She said Netflix wanted to continue “telling different kinds of stories” in a “responsible” way, despite the pressure.

“Sometimes people get offended with certain things, but it’s never intended and you don’t plan for those things,” Shergill said.

“I don’t think one can be overly anxious about that,” she said. “It’s important to really have the right mix of creative expression, the ability to tell a story and to be responsible about it. That’s the balance that one’s always striking.”

Additional reporting by Alex Barker in London

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