It is the dead of night as a convoy of black jeeps rumbles through a roughshod Indian city, throwing up clouds of dust as they swerve into an abandoned factory.
Leaping out and pulling open the doors of a truck, a bearded man flicks his switchblade and slashes open a bag of drugs, tasting it on the tip of his tongue.
“Maqbool. Lala has kept his word. The dark chocolate is good quality and will give an effective high.”
This isn’t real life, but the latest Hindi-language offering from Amazon Prime Video and part of Jeff Bezos’s latest ambition: a plan to conquer Bollywood.
Mirzapur, a big-budget nine-part series billed as India’s answer to Narcos — the hit Netflix show based on the exploits of Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar — is Amazon’s new gambit aimed at winning over millions of movie-mad Indian viewers, who are enthusiastically embracing video streaming.
As Amazon, Netflix and others square up for a battle for domination of the rapidly growing global streaming market, they are pumping big money into original regional content like this as they hunt for growth in emerging markets.
And India, home to the world’s most prolific film industry, and where the market for online video streaming is growing by nearly 50pc per year and is on track to hit $2 billion (Dh7.34 billion) by 2023 up from $558 million this year, is perhaps the richest prize of all. With a population of 1.3bn set to outstrip China’s by 2022 and a growing middle class, it represents an eye-watering opportunity. But it is the scope for future growth as smartphone penetration continues to soar from 400m users today to a projected 700m by 2022 that has investors excited.
Well over 100 million Indians already subscribe to a video streaming service, but the figure is rising quickly.
“India is an incredibly important investment for Amazon,” says Tim Leslie, global vice president of Amazon Prime Video and responsible for building the company’s streaming business outside Europe and the US. “We are making a big investment based on the opportunity to redefine things.”
It’s unlikely to be plain sailing, however. First there is the need to cater for viewers in dozens of different languages — Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and others — while dealing with powerful vested interests in Bollywood and other vibrant regional film industries in Chennai, Bengaluru and Kolkata. The US giants are also up against tough competition in the form of Hotstar, a streaming service bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox and Viacom18’s Voot. Hotstar, which launched in February 2015 — a head-start of almost two years on Amazon Prime Video, has amassed an estimated 75 million monthly users, mainly through its screening of IPL cricket, which attracts a frenzied following in the subcontinent.
Voot, a free service backed by advertising, has about 22 million.
That compares to just 11 million for Amazon and 5 million for Netflix — although both are growing fast as they invest in original content, TV shows and sign deals with existing Bollywood studios for libraries of existing movies, according to estimates from Counterpoint Research.
Critics have described Mirzapur, an epic crime drama series set in India’s heartland, as a direct response to Netflix’s hit show Sacred Games — a sinister cop thriller set in the seething megacity of Mumbai, which has riveted Indian audiences.
And Leslie is convinced it has similar potential to Narcos to grip viewers far beyond the subcontinent.
“It’s something that we think has global appeal,” he says.
Amazon hopes its Prime Video investments will also support its retail operation in India, where it is investing $5 billion to take on local ecommerce rival Flipkart, which was acquired earlier this year by Walmart.
Online retail is exploding in India and the nation’s overall media and entertainment market is expected to hit more than $31bn in two years from $22.7bn in 2017.
Looming large over all of this is the towering figure of Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest man, with a $44 billion fortune. To a large extent, it is the colossal investments he has made in upgrades to India’s 4G telecom networks via Reliance Jio Infocomm, his mobile and broadband business, that has paved the way for the explosion in India’s video streaming market.
His investment of $30 billion has prompted Indians to embrace cheap smartphones, and free voice and cut price data plans in vast numbers.
“The growth in digital infrastructure is definitely fuelling growth,” says Mr Leslie.
But Ambani, whose company now has over 250m subscribers, may not be content to sit by and watch others reap the rewards of the video streaming market indefinitely.
That is why Amazon, Netflix and others are racing to build large-scale streaming businesses quickly, before new entrants disrupt the market.
Amazon has 30 original shows and now offers streaming services in 1,000 cities and is offering cut-price subscription rates of around $1 per month to boost subscriber numbers.
That is a very different approach to Netflix, which is charging about $7 per month. But if Amazon really wants to hit the big time in India, it may have no choice but to follow Hotstar into sports streaming.
When asked directly, Leslie demurs — but he refuses to rule it out.
Star India, which operates Hotstar streaming service, shelled out an astonishing Rs163 billion last September for the TV and digital rights of the IPL for the next five years.
Whether Bezos will consider an investment on that scale to turbocharge its streaming business in India is unclear, but Amazon is certainly not short of cash.
Either way, it’s likely to be a dizzying ride ahead.