With companies like Netflix and Amazon seeking ever larger international customer bases, one thing that distinguishes the streaming wars from previous TV conflicts is the global scale. And in 2019, India became one of the most hotly contested fronts.
American streamers began dipping their toes in the Indian market in 2017, when Amazon Prime Video released the cricket drama ‘Inside Edge’, its first original series from India. Netflix followed in 2018 with the crime-thriller ‘Sacred Games’.
But both companies dramatically increased their investment in Indian shows in 2019. They also struck partnerships with some of Bollywood’s most beloved actors, writers and producers.
Last year, Netflix released five original series and eight original films produced in India. Among the most high-profile was the series ‘Bard of Blood’, produced by Red Chillies Entertainment, the production house owned by Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan and his wife, Gauri Khan.
In September, the platform also announced a multi-year collaboration deal with Indian producer and director Karan Johar’s streaming production house, Dharmatic Entertainment. Johar’s first production with Netflix, ‘Drive’, was released in November. New projects slated for 2020 include debuts for Bollywood actress Kajol as well as fashion designer Masaba Gupta.
Amazon released 10 original Indian shows in 2019, including the spy series ‘Family Man’, starring veteran Bollywood actor Manoj Bajpayee, which was the company’s first original series from India to be dubbed in English. (Previous original offerings, like ‘Inside Edge’ and ‘Made in Heaven’, used a mix of Hindi and English and have been dubbed in other regional languages.) Amazon, too, is pulling in star power: In addition to Bajpayee, his fellow Bollywood leads Akshay Kumar and Anushka Sharma have Amazon projects in the works.
It’s easy to see why Netflix and Amazon would want to expand their presence in India, and not just because it is home to 1.3 billion people. As in much of the viewing world, streaming has exploded in the country — at least 30 companies now offer video streaming services there, up from nine in 2012.
What sets the American streamers apart is a focus on original programming and an ability to market series for a global audience.
Hotstar, which controls an estimated 75 per cent of India’s streaming market, carries critically acclaimed HBO shows like ‘Succession’ and a Hindi version of ‘The Office’ alongside plenty of existing programming from its parent company, Star India.
“We look for stories that not only resonate with our Indian members but can also travel globally,” a Netflix spokeswoman said. For example, two out of three ‘Sacred Games’ viewers were from outside India.
The upshot is that a global audience has more access than ever to an array of great South Asian series. Here’s a look at some of 2019’s best original streaming shows from the region.
The first season of ‘Sacred Games’ earned critical acclaim, as well as an International Emmy nomination. Starring Bollywood actors Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the second season was Netflix’s most popular release in India and continues the same cop-and-robber plotline. While the second season has a slower pace than the first, its deep dive into the past of its lead character, Sartaj Singh (Khan), is thrilling.
Created as a true-crime anthology series that will follow a different crime investigation each season, ‘Delhi Crime’ focuses in its first season on the aftermath of the horrific rape and death of a young woman in New Delhi in 2012. Starring Bollywood actress Shefali Shah, the procedural series — which unlike in America, are rare on Indian television — covers the six days between the attack and the arrests of the perpetrators. Though the outcome of the case is known to many, the details remain gripping, and the show also explores the sense of unity that came after the attack in a country that still struggles with violence against women.
On Amazon Prime
‘Made in Heaven’
Amazon made a big splash earlier this year with ‘Made in Heaven’, a series about two friends who run a wedding planning company. Unlike some of Netflix’s most popular Indian series, ‘Made in Heaven’ didn’t just enlist big names from Bollywood, opting instead for some new faces alongside seasoned actors like Kalki Koechlin. It received critical acclaim for its nuanced handling of topical cultural issues.
‘The Family Man’
“The Family Man,” starring Bajpayee, is the story of Srikant Tiwari, an average middle-class father who’s trying to balance his family duties with, well, saving the country. His family remains blissfully unaware that he’s a spy, and he tries (and often almost fails) to keep up the ruse that he is a humble government employee with a boring desk job.
What sets apart ‘The Family Man,’ by writers and directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, is its clever way of fictionalising current events. “The way we saw it was that when you open a newspaper and you see various new stories in front of you, we wanted to put those stories on-screen,” Nidimoru said in a recent interview.
For Bajpayee, though, it’s the uniqueness of Srikant, and the relatable quality of his predicaments, that drew him to the project, he said. “I look at him as a very open-minded modern man trying to understand each and every point of view and still trying to do his job,” he said.