Ashwini Gangal
Interviews

“We try to program for every mood”: Srishti Behl Arya, Netflix

As director of international originals at Netflix India, Srishti Behl Arya is responsible for ensuring the platform produces films, out of India, for every possible mood a user of the service might find herself/himself in. The work involves reading scripts, getting production houses and crewing-up. Recently, Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings said he would pump Rs.3,000 crore into the creation of original content from India across 2019-20.

Last month, Vanita Kohli Khandekar, contributing editor, Business Standard, interviewed Srishti about her role at Netflix and everything else that comes with it.

Sacred Games Season 2 and Lust Stories are among Netflix's most successful originals out of India.

Netflix is currently available across over 190 countries, and has 'dubs and subs', that is, dubbed and subtitled content, in over 30 languages.

Edited excerpts.

Watch the full interview here. Read on for highlights.

Vanita: What goes into commissioning a film? What are you looking for? And is it Srishti deciding, is it Netflix's data deciding... what's the dashboard like?

Srishti: We don't really lean on data to decide what to put out there; if that's what we did, then everything would be the same. The idea is to understand that no person is looking for one thing at every moment. We're looking for different things... we try to program for every mood that you may have. We try to make sure you are served what you would like to watch.

And we're very creator driven. The prism for us is the passion of the creator.

Vanita: What attracts you to a story?

Srishti: The main thing is whether the creator – the producer, writer or director – can pull you in, into the story. It doesn't have to be completely pre-packaged when it comes to us; sometimes directors come and pitch stories to us and we marry them to the production house, sometimes established production houses come to us and then they find a director, sometimes everything is pre-packaged with a cast in mind. But there should be clarity and passion. The story should make me feel something.

Vanita: How do you know when something has worked?

Srishti: The strange thing is, when something works everybody knows. It just becomes part of the zeitgeist. When everyone talks about it, it's successful.

Not all content is measured – if we are using that word – in the same way. Our primary goal is to make our members happy; later that will pay for the content that we make...

Vanita: Tell me about some of the good calls you've taken, the not-so-good ones, and the surprises...

Srishti: See, India is unique in that at least 70 per cent of our members watch at least one film a week, which is far more than any (market) globally. We do have an affinity towards films. We get a lot of feedback, consistently, about what people are watching.

Mostly, there are very few surprises, there are some disappointments, some things can turn out better than expected. It's not just about how they are received, it's also about how they're intended.

On a 'reception' level, our movie Upstarts (about the startup scene in India) saw a less than optimum result, to my mind. Then there are films like Drive (Hindi film that stars Sushant Singh Rajput and Jacqueline Fernandez) that get heavily criticised but the viewing is incredible.

L-R: Vanita Kohli Khandekar and Srishti Behl Arya
L-R: Vanita Kohli Khandekar and Srishti Behl Arya
at vdonxt asia 2020

Vanita: Do you see a lot of films coming out of India crossing over?

Srishti: Oh, we see that a lot. For Sacred Games Season 1, for example, two out of every three viewers were from outside India. Our content is not served by language; it's served by taste.

All our original content is dropped (released) at the same time across all countries; we don't phase it out. So it's a big responsibility for our creators.

The beauty of our service is that your Netflix is not a reflection of Netflix; it's a reflection of what you like watching... we try to cover everything. But essentially, your Netflix is who you are.
Srishti Arya Behl

Vanita: Does that give you freedom – or is that a limitation? How does this affect the way you brief the creative teams?

Srishti: We try not to prescribe anything to our creators... so there's no restriction. I'd say we have an opportunity – the world is watching. So we try to be as honest as we can to the material, when we're putting it out.

Vanita: When it comes to cinema watching, how are Indian viewers different from those in other countries? Do you see something which stands out?

Srishti: Data is very broad-based… it is eventually human intuition...

We look at data to find things that are under-served, rather than (for the data) to tell us what to do... the 'wider' the content, say, The Avengers, the broader it travels...

Vanita: What keeps you awake? What scares you?

Srishti: What keeps me awake is (the thought) that I might miss the next great film while I'm sleeping.

It's a great time for entertainment, in India and across the world. It's a fantastic time to be a creator. Indians are kathavaachaks, we are storytellers... there are just so many stories. The responsibility is making sure the right content reaches the right viewer.

Vanita: I remember telling Mr. Reed Hastings this when I interviewed him – I go to Netflix when I want to watch dark, intense stuff, and to Amazon for lighter stuff. Is there a 'Netflix genre' emerging?

Srishti: The beauty of our service is that your Netflix is not a reflection of Netflix; it's a reflection of what you like watching... we try to cover everything. But essentially, your Netflix is who you are.

Vanita: What's the most challenging part of your job?

Srishti: We have too many stories that we want to put on the service. But I'm going to get them one at a time.

This interview was conducted in Mumbai on January 29, 2020, at the 4th edition of vdonxt asia, an annual convention on the business of online video, organised by afaqs!.