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India

How first Netflix Indian series scored 100 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and became a hit with critics

Bollywood stalwarts Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Saif Ali Khan star in the hit crime thriller Sacred Games that debuted last week as part of Netflix’s worldwide drive to produce programmes in multiple languages

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2018, 10:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2018, 4:33pm

The first original Netflix series from India, crime thriller Sacred Games, debuted last week to overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics.

An adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel of the same name, the shows centres on a Sikh policeman in the Mumbai force and an enigmatic Mumbai criminal, and stars Bollywood stalwarts Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Saif Ali Khan and Radhika Apte.

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The drama series, which has a 100 per cent “fresh” rating on the reviews aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes in its first week, has been launched at a time when the US streaming giant is battling Amazon Prime for a slice of India’s fast growing market for video on demand.

Analysts say the gritty underworld thriller sets a new benchmark for Indian-produced internet shows as providers seek to capitalise on the country’s rising number of smartphone users.

“Sacred Games is probably the most high-profile content that has been made. Others have not been on the same scale,” says Girish Menon, who tracks media and entertainment for KPMG. Revenues from India’s entertainment streaming industry are expected to be US$823 million by 2022, up from US$297 million in 2017, according to a PwC report released this month.

Netflix, which is blocked in China, is investing millions in the world’s second-most populous country to attract young consumers with access to cheap mobile data and an appetite for something different.

“India is seeing the biggest and fastest investment in content for any country we have launched in,” says Erik Barmack, vice-president of international originals at Netflix.

Sacred Games is also a punt that high-quality Indian content will prove popular overseas, and is part of Netflix’s worldwide drive to produce programmes in many different languages, including Spanish and German.

The eight-part series – filmed mainly in Hindi – centres on the attempts of police officer Sartaj Singh, played by Khan, to capture mafia boss Ganesh Gaitonde (Siddiqui).

Critics lauded the series as a fresh take on the crime genre and commended Khan on his performance as Singh. The New York Times praised the alternating styles of the show, writing in a review: “The combination of dark humour and operatic violence may call to mind Fargo; the slightly hyperbolic characterisations and stylised dialogue are akin to those in Luke Cage.”

Sacred Games is the first of eight Indian series that Netflix has commissioned to be released. The company recently announced it would adapt Salman Rushdie’s multiple-award winning novel Midnight’s Children. Selection Day, based on Aravind Adiga’s novel about cricket and corruption, is also in the works.

Sacred Games follows Hindi-language movie Love per Square Foot and Lust Stories, a collection of four short films, which both came out on Netflix this year.

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Amazon has released a host of original Indian content, including crime drama Breathe and several successful stand-up comedy shows. Experts say producing high-quality programmes in Hindi and regional Indian languages is essential if Netflix and Amazon are to make up ground on market leader Hotstar.

“One needs to have local content. It’s a given,” says Frank D’Souza, a media and entertainment analyst with PwC in Mumbai.

Hotstar dominates India’s streaming landscape owing to its huge catalogue of entertainment and movie channels owned by Star India, many of which are free to view. It also streams live cricket and English Premier League soccer.

A yearly subscription for all content costs 999 rupees (US$14.55), the same as an Amazon Prime membership. Netflix’s India subscriptions start at 500 rupees a month, something that experts say currently restricts its appeal to well-off Indians.

“A challenge for Netflix is that their price points are significantly more expensive than anybody out there. That means their user size is very small at the moment,” says Menon.

India’s mobile entertainment market is a crowded one – other players include Eros Now, Jio TV and ALTBalaji. Turning a profit is difficult, with many platforms offering the same stock of movies and TV shows.

Netflix and Amazon have signed deals with Bollywood megastars Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan respectively to secure the rights to their films, setting themselves apart from their competitors somewhat.

Industry watchers also expect the American companies to try to snap up subscribers by producing bolder content.

India’s over-the-top media providers, as streaming sites are known, are not subject to the country’s notoriously stuffy censorship boards, which regularly cut scenes from films shown at cinemas and on TV.

“The content that appears on television is very homogenous. It’s typically soap operas aimed at women. We can expect slightly edgier, differentiated, new-age type content on OTT platforms,” says KPMG’s Menon.

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Netflix, which has 125 million subscribers in 190 countries, will be hoping that Sacred Games and its other Indian dramas become global hits like blockbuster shows Narcos and Stranger Things.

“Netflix is trying to create original content which can travel across the world,” Menon says.