How is it that Telugu actors dance so well

Netflix and Amazon conquer India

The streaming services Netflix and Amazon Prime have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in India, triggering an unprecedented boom. The online giants tackle taboo topics in Indian society in shows and series - such as sexual violence, discrimination against certain castes (which were officially abolished as early as 1950) and widespread corruption in everyday political life. At the same time, their investments are fueling a new generation of storytellers in the country who are bringing new perspectives to India - and a worldwide streaming audience.

"Sacred Games" triggered the series boom

The streaming boom in India was triggered three years ago with the Netflix series "Sacred Games" - a film adaptation of the 2006 book "The Godfather of Bombay", written by the renowned and multi-award-winning Indian author Vikram Chandra. The ingredients of the successful format: a lot of action and a satirical view of the corruption practices of the police and the encrusted traditions of the caste system. In the subplot, a theater agent appears who only gives Bollywood actresses a role against sex - the scenario could come straight from various real prostitution scandals of recent times.

The Netflix series "Delhi Crime" delves deeper into the depths of Indian society. The script is based on the files of the police who investigated a mass rape in New Delhi in 2012. The victim at that time died; the case made headlines around the world and resulted in the reform of Indian laws regarding sexual abuse. Shefali Shah, best known to Bollywood fans from the movie "Monsoon Wedding", plays the leading role in "Delhi Crime". The format was the first Indian series to receive an Emmy in the "Drama" category.

"Tanday" is the name of the Indian "House of Cards"

Time and again, women in India take to the streets after being raped

With the new realistic political series "Tandav", Amazon Prime is the Indian answer to the US-American success format "House of Cards". And Netflix launched the film adaptation of Aravind Adiga's book "The White Tiger", for which the author won the Booker Prize in 2008.

Before the streaming boom, such haunting and comprehensive narratives were virtually unknown. Indian television mainly broadcasts soap operas and series suitable for families. And most Bollywood films also avoid addressing controversial issues as much as possible; instead, long dance interludes are on the program, including a happy end guarantee.

The series compete with Bollywood cinema

The director Satyajit Ray, who was inspired by the neorealism of French and Italian cinema, had already cast a more critical and differentiated cinematic view of Indian society in the 1950s and 1960s. Similar approaches still exist today, for example with the filmmakers Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox) and Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur), both of whom were able to show their works at the Cannes Film Festival. But before streaming services gained influence, none of these independent directors had the financial means to produce lavish series, let alone show them to an audience of millions around the world.

"Bad Boy Billionaires: India": Series about industrial bosses

The high demand for streaming offers overlaps with changes in current Bollywood production. In the last three or four years, according to the Indian-Canadian filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray, the cinema films have become shorter. In addition, "fewer songs are sung, but more canned music is played". Gray, who directed Bad Boy Billionaires: India, a Netflix documentary series about India's most infamous and wicked industrial bosses, believes that such provocative online formats have only been made possible by a "change in the cinema landscape."

Dylan Mohan Gray, director of "Bad Boy Millionars"

Just two years ago, hardly any well-known Indian actor or actress would have signed a contract for a streaming project. "Now they would do it right now because the prestige and audience have changed a lot," says Gray. He has identified a head-to-head race between international and national providers who are vying for the favor of the Indians.

Netflix: Investment of 337 million euros in India

From 2019 to 2020, Netflix spent around 30 billion rupees (around 337 million euros) on producing and licensing Indian content. These include provocative series such as "Delhi Crime", but also mainstream formats suitable for the masses such as the children's cartoon series "Mighty Little Bheem" ​​or the trashy reality show about the fairytale life of Bollywood women. In addition to series in English and Hindi, the official language of India, Amazon and Netflix also produce formats in only regionally spoken languages ​​such as Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. The corona crisis has intensified the streaming boom. The cinemas in the country are closed so streaming has become a lot more appealing to both viewers and filmmakers. More and more producers are limiting themselves to pure online premieres.

Criticism on social media

However, the growing popularity of streaming series automatically attracts more attention - which is not always welcome. The Indian-born Canadian director Deepa Mehta, known for her acclaimed film series "Elements Trilogy", shot a kind of Indian version of Margret Atwood's dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale" (original title: A Handmaid's Tale), which was based on Prayaag Akbar's highly acclaimed novel " Leila "is based.

The Netflix series "Leila" is an Indian variant of "The Maid's Report"

The story takes place in 2047, a century after India gained independence. It tells of a military state of the Hindus, "Aryavarta", in which castes and religious communities are strictly separated. Anyone who marries outside of their group is severely punished.

The series clearly alludes to the nationalist politics of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his "Bharatiya Janata" party. A frequent accusation against his government is that he is building a nation for Hindus and thus dismantling the secular principles of Indian democracy. Many "Leila" viewers see it differently and accuse the series makers of "Hindu phobia" on social media.

Shitstorm against "Paatal Lok"

Other series are also massively attacked online. Including the Amazon production "Paatal Lok", in which police violence, rape and attacks on Muslim minorities are discussed. Or "Rasbhari", also published by Amazon: Bollywood star Swara Bhasker, an avowed critic of the government, plays several roles here; sexual oppression and inequality between men and women in India are central issues. Online users downgraded the series on the IMDB film page on the popularity scale from 10 points to 2.8 - some suspect a government campaign behind the crash of the former audience favorite.

Trouble with the censorship

Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta with the Canadian Screen Award trophy in Toronto

Until now, streaming series in India have not been subject to censorship - unlike Bollywood films or television, where nude or sex scenes are prohibited. Most Indians watch Netflix and Amazon on their tablets or smartphones. According to director Dylan Gray, it is helpful that mobile data traffic in India does not cost much and is therefore affordable for almost everyone. "Many Indians live with families. Television is being hogged down by the generation of parents and grandparents," he says. "So the younger ones watch series on their smartphones. And they are very popular because erotic or adult scenes and bad swear words are hardly censored when streaming. They wouldn't get to see anything like that in the cinema."

But the lax way of dealing with streamed content could soon change. On November 11, 2020, the Indian government announced that digital platforms would in future be the responsibility of the Ministry of Information. TV and other media content is checked there. That could be the end of the critical series formats in India.

Adaptation: Suzanne Cords