The Great Indian Streaming Wars
The battle over the country’s future is being waged one TV screen—and smartphone—at a time.
Disclaimers at the start of movies or television shows are fairly common, but the one that leads season 2 of the Netflix detective series Sacred Games is particularly exhaustive: “Resemblance of any character of this series to any persons, places, real events, linguistic groups, political parties, communities, religions or sects is purely coincidental and unintentional.” It could have added that viewers should lighten up. In 2018, an Indian politician filed a complaint to the police because a character in the show’s first season, while narrating a period of India’s history, called former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi the Hindi word fattu—translated in subtitles as “pussy.”
Netflix’s legalese may yet prove useful: On Sept. 3, another politician filed a police complaint against the streaming service for “defaming Hindus.” The fictional characters and circumstances depicted in Sacred Games do seem familiar in modern-day India. Based on the eponymous 2006 novel by Vikram Chandra, the series follows a Mumbai police officer named Sartaj Singh—played ably by the Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan—who is attempting to save his city from an imminent terrorist attack. The latest season, released on Aug. 15, India’s Independence Day, picks up from last year’s cliffhanger finale and reveals that a group of anarchists has acquired a nuclear bomb and plans to blow up the country’s financial capital.
While both seasons of Sacred Games race along, time seems to stop every time the complicated and amusingly foulmouthed gangster Ganesh Gaitonde appears on screen. The actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s mesmerizing Gaitonde is quite literally a haunting presence: It’s no spoiler to reveal that he shoots himself in the head in the show’s premiere but appears constantly thereafter in flashbacks. The self-made don serves as both the show’s narrator and the force guiding Singh as he struggles to save Mumbai.
Gaitonde may be dead, but his beloved city thrums with life. And through him we learn the details of Mumbai’s fictionalized-but-mostly-true inner life: its mighty slumlords; a never-ending supply of crooked cops and corrupt politicians; striving actresses exploited every step of the way up; a powerful right-wing Hindu party; and the connective tissue of crime and lust that links them together. Real-life footage of iconic moments in Indian history, such as the riots between Hindus and Muslims after the 1993 Bombay bombings, is spliced in to make Sacred Games feel like a modern history of the metropolis once known as Bombay. (The right-wing Shiv Sena party renamed the city after the local patron goddess Mumbadevi in 1995.)
As Singh, a Sikh, tries to decode Gaitonde’s warning about Mumbai’s looming destruction, viewers encounter a seemingly beatific guru, Guruji, who turns out to be masterminding the whole thing.
“Your orgasm is the biggest force inside you,” he tells his followers at one point, as he tries to explain how sexual jealousy ended the first era of truth in Hinduism. Guruji evokes any of several spiritual leaders who gained followings in the West while masking sinister plans. But he is hardly the only echo of real India. Viewers will need little imagination to connect the radicalization of a young Hindu boy (the son of a beloved character killed in season 1) to the current growing spate of hate crimes against Muslims in India. And the staged killings of gangsters by Mumbai police—known colloquially as “encounters”—happen all too often in the real world.
The most worrying comparisons, however, are not in how Sacred Games depicts India’s past and present but in how it envisions the country’s near future: an entire security system undermined by bureaucratic graft and ineptitude, where only a great hero can save the place from itself. Beautifully shot and smartly edited, Sacred Games, which launched in June 2018, was Netflix’s first original Indian-made series, generating national publicity for the streaming service.
Several more shows have since followed. Leila was also adapted from a recent novel, this one by the journalist Prayaag Akbar. Once again, Netflix begins the show with a disclaimer that ends with: “There is no intent to portray any religion or religious sentiments or beliefs of any person(s) or community.” If the legalese seems more targeted, that’s because Leila’s portrayal of religion in India is especially grim. The show begins in the year 2047, exactly 100 years after India gained its independence. The country is now known as Aryavarta, a sort of militarized Hindu state that segregates members of different religions and castes. Episode 1 opens with a wealthy man playing with his daughter in an indoor swimming pool. He is Muslim; his wife is Hindu; their young daughter is Leila. Suddenly, a government paramilitary group breaks in and beats the father to death. His wife, Shalini (Huma Qureshi), is taken to a center for reeducating upper-caste Hindu women such as herself. There she is reminded that marrying outside her religion is a sin, among other state dictums. The scenes draw from those in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale—which was also recently adapted for television—and are replete with regular beatings and doomed escape attempts.
Leila is a warning of what India could become. It is greatly exaggerated, of course, but its lesson is important. Under India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, who was reelected with a large mandate last May, the government has begun promoting Hinduism in ways that threaten the country’s formal secularism, and top leaders have repeatedly threatened the country’s Muslim minority. In the show, a maid in a wealthy household is asked if she has ever eaten meat, evoking the way upper-class Hindus frequently threaten Muslims and lower-caste Hindus in India today for eating meat, especially beef.
Meanwhile, water, used with abandon in the swimming pool in the show’s opening scene, turns out to be a particularly scarce commodity for the poor Indians shown in Leila. This motif also reminds viewers of contemporary problems, such as the city of Chennai’s recent water shortages as well as the rapid depletion of the country’s aquifers. If anything, Leila underplays the coming impact of climate change.
Will Shalini ever find her daughter? Will Singh, the police officer in Sacred Games, save Mumbai? For all that the two shows focus on the divides that separate haves and have-nots in contemporary India, the irony is that only Indians rich enough to have HD televisions, high-speed internet, and streaming services will get to find out—at least for now.
The proliferation of the internet in India, and with it the possibility of streaming television shows, has everything to do with the smartphone. In 2000, a mere 2 percent of Indians were online (compared with 52 percent of Americans). That was because personal computers and telephone landlines were restricted to a similar percentage of the Indian population; for various reasons, both amenities were inaccessible for the vast majority of the country.
While Americans got to evolve as the internet slowly grew over the last three decades, Indians are now experiencing a sudden revolution: These days, three of them discover the internet every second. Thanks to newly cheap smartphones and cellular data plans, tens of millions of Indians are coming online every year. With an average annual income of about $1,775 and a median age of 27, most Indians see these smartphones as their first-ever cameras, computers, and television screens.
Netflix, however, has caught on to India’s demographic shift a little late. Until very recently, its monthly subscription plans in the country broadly matched its rates in the United States. Yet U.S. streaming services owe their newfound ubiquity not simply to their content but to their cost: In the United States, for example, a $9 monthly Netflix plan looks very attractive compared with a $70 monthly bill for cable television. In places like India, however, a $9 monthly plan for Netflix competes not only with a similarly priced cable television bill but also with far cheaper streaming services such as the Disney-owned Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video.
It was only in July that Netflix launched a cheaper, standard definition, mobile-only plan for about $2.80 a month. Perhaps tellingly, that move came right after Netflix announced lukewarm growth in users in the United States, leading at the time to a 15 percent drop in its stock price. But as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has said, his company’s “next 100 million” subscribers will come from India, where some 800 million people are still waiting to discover the world of the internet and streaming content. As long as China blocks Netflix, no other single country has as much room to grow.
Competition among streaming services will be intense. While Netflix has an estimated 2 million users in India—it hasn’t released exact numbers—competitors like Hotstar, which also broadcasts popular cricket games, reach 300 million users every month on TVs and smartphones (although only a fraction of those users sign up to pay for its ad-free content). And then there’s JioTV, launched in 2016 and already the country’s second-most popular TV app with hundreds of free live channels.
Streaming services may be bleeding their investors’ money, but it’s a great time to be a writer, actor, producer, or viewer in the world’s largest democracy. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar, and several others have already commissioned slates of new movies and television series fronted by top local stars. And much of the new content—like Sacred Games and Leila—will be in the local languages that a vast majority of Indians speak. Bingeing will soon have equivalent words in Hindi, Bengali, and Tamil.
If any subject was made for television, it’s Indian weddings—spectacular events on which many Indian parents spend more than they would on an apartment, a car, or a college degree. No other ritual better encapsulates the best and worst of Indian society, from the family gatherings and traditions to the divisions in gender, caste, and religion. The makers of Amazon Prime Video’s Made in Heaven know this all too well, as they take viewers on a journey into New Delhi’s wealthy and upper-middle-class homes—and all their idiosyncrasies and tensions.
The show’s two main characters are Tara Khanna (Sobhita Dhulipala) and Karan Mehra (Arjun Mathur), who join forces to form a wedding planning business. Khanna comes from a poor family—the “gutter,” as she puts it—but has married an ultrarich industrialist and now lives a life of photogenic comfort. Mehra’s parents had more money than Khanna’s, but having failed at his first business, a nightclub, he’s now facing serious money trouble, with loan sharks at his heels. Mehra also happens to be gay, which in India could be a dangerous thing. (The country only decriminalized gay sex in September 2018.)
Each of the show’s nine episodes depict Khanna and Mehra struggling with their own personal and financial troubles as they also scramble to satisfy a new set of clients. Not since the filmmaker Mira Nair’s 2001 Monsoon Wedding has there been a portrayal of upper-class Indian life that is both this lush and this searing. Viewers meet a couple in their 60s, both widowers, who struggle to convince their children that they should be allowed to love again; a bride who sleeps with a film star before her wedding, only to rediscover her traditional roots and make up with her fiancé; a set of parents who threaten to call off the marriage on their son’s wedding day unless his bride-to-be’s family pays them a much greater dowry, which they demand in secret. Perhaps the darkest episode involves an Indian man living in New Jersey whose parents stage a beauty pageant back home to find his ideal wife—whom he then berates for his own impotence. No subject is off-limits in Made in Heaven, and the show lays bare all of India’s many barriers: rich and poor, urban and rural, English-speaking and not, progressive and traditional.
To what end are these fissures portrayed? The show’s main point seems to be that young Indians have grown remarkably deft at navigating the tensions between tradition and modernity—with all the deceits and hypocrisies that entails—while trying to find happiness and forge their own worlds. Nowhere is this shown more vividly than in Mehra’s conflict with his sexuality. While flashbacks reveal that in high school he tried to hide his being gay by acting homophobic, Mehra has since grown up to be out and proud. Little does he know, however, that his trysts with a revolving door of lovers are being secretly recorded by his closeted landlord, whose wife eventually shames him into turning the footage over to the police. Mehra is arrested and, in the show, ends up becoming the poster child for the gay rights movement that culminated in the real-world Indian Supreme Court ruling that overturned the colonial-era law barring same-sex love.
For all the problems Made in Heaven dramatizes, the show’s lingering message is one of hope and change. It should come as no surprise, then, that three of its four directors are women: as rare an occurrence in Bollywood as it would be in Hollywood. While shining an unstinting lens on the ugly sides of Indian society, they also depict a people who are tilting the country’s arc toward justice and equality.
If that progressive message is going to be heard and seen, however, streaming television shows will need to reach not only upper-middle-class Indian living rooms but also the smartphones that most of its newly connected citizens rely on to get their glimpse of a changing world—and an inspiration for what it could be.
This story appears in the Fall 2019 print issue.
Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports