Aishwarya Ramesh

A chat with Srishti Behl Arya about Netflix’s movie mojo

In the blitz of Netflix’s original movie content, we at afaqs! caught up with Behl at vdonxt 2021 to figure out how the streaming platform keeps up.

The vdonxt asia week runs from March 1-5, 2021. Voot is the presenting partner; PubMatic, Vidooly and ZEE5 are the associate sponsors; and Nepa is the insights partner.

Netflix has announced 30 films that will go on air in 2021. 3 films are already on air, which makes it 33 movies in this year. This includes the 17 original films released last year. Where does Netflix get its movie mojo from?

Hint: it's got a great deal to do with the decisions taken by the woman in charge - Srishti Behl Arya, who leads Netflix India’s efforts on original films. We had Janine Stein, the editorial head at Content Asia, interview her in an effort to find out more about what drives her.

Srishti Behl Arya at vdonxt asia 2020
Srishti Behl Arya at vdonxt asia 2020

She mentions that the idea is to partner with filmmakers and talent, both seasoned and upcoming, to ensure the service is home to diverse and entertaining stories, across genres as well as formats. Here are some edited excerpts of the conversation...

Q: Netflix recently announced a massive slate of 41 movies + 17 from last year. What were the considerations in going broad with the content strategy?

A: We want to make sure that when you come on the platform, no matter what mood you’re in, you’ll find exactly what you're looking for. We want to be a companion in the form of the content you’re watching. What we really look for is passion from the creators and authentic storytelling.

Authentic doesn’t necessarily always mean gritty, but it’s something that is true to the world that its meant to be in - whether it' a sci-fi or mythology film. Ultimately, you want to make sure the members enjoy themselves and feel all the feelings – it could be fear, joy, love, sadness, etc.

Q: In the slate of movies that you’ve launched on the global scale, what’s on the other end of the spectrum?

A: A lot of the darker gritty stuff ends up being fan favourites. Each viewer receives personalised recommendations, but people are more curious about content in different languages, different types of stories, films from different parts of the country. During the pandemic, we’ve seen that people have tried a lot of different things, including films from all over the world.

Last year, Ludo, which was our biggest comedy film last year was viewed by more than half our members and Gunjan Saxena was our most viewed drama film – which was somewhat unexpected.

We also had Raat Akeli hai – which was in the noir thriller space and it starred Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Later, we introduced a film called Serious Men – which also starred Siddiqui, it was gratifying to see the response.

Serious Men is based on a Manu Joseph book, and is a satirical take on the different places that you could come from, and the different advantages that you have, by birth in this country. It was really gratifying to see that the audience just wants to see a really good movie - a good story well told, with the right intention.

Q: You have a global canvas that you’re playing with as Netflix. How far can you stretch genre and content boundaries? What would you say is a perfect example of a film that would never have been made, if not for Netflix?

A: What we’ve seen this year so far is that a lot of our titles, including some titles that are licensed for us, have been popping in different countries. Ak vs Ak which was our Christmas launch was a movie that popped up in 40 countries as well.

We’ve seen this Telugu film called Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo which was on the top 10 list in over 13 countries. There itself, a bit of cultural exchange begins. I think another great ambassador for Netflix is the film The White Tiger – it's an Indian story that has been received well globally.

AK vs AK is another film I have been told, is something that only Netflix could do. It was a meta thriller, where the protagonist and the antagonist played themselves from real life. The hyper realistic characters blurred the lines of what was happening in real life and what is happening in the film.

It was really interesting, because the director of that film became Vikramaditya Motwane, who also was the showrunner on Sacred Games. He's also made films like Lootera and Udaan.

We had to ask him how he was going to do this; because there's so much of dirty laundry being washed in this title. Which actor would agree to do this and which directors would agree to this kind of bashing?

But my God, the two AKs, they just took the opportunity with both hands. Not just through the making of the film, but also when we were marketing the movie.

Q: Diversity is a global theme at Netflix. Tell me how you make sure that you are as diverse as you possibly can be. I'm particularly interested in women filmmakers, because you said 50 per cent of the cast and crew and directors are female…

A: This is something that we're very proud of. At Netflix India 50 per cent of our slate last year was held by either a female producer or a female director - which is a highly unusual statistic in this market and the global market as well.

We also had a 50-50 split in women and men as protagonists of movies and shows. If you truly want to be diverse - you have to show representation of half the population of the world.

Women filmmakers come with a particular gaze. Sooni Taraporewala waited 12 years after working on Little Zizou, to make Yeh Ballet for us. It was a story about two boys from an underprivileged background, learning to do ballet and it was based on a true story. Reed Hastings (Netflix’s global CEO) personally mentioned it as a movie he enjoyed watching last year.

We also had first time filmmaker like Sharan Sharma making a film about a female protagonist based on real life Air Force pilot - Gunjan Saxena, and he captures the nuances of a father-daughter relationship with so much sensitivity.

Q: You've also been extraordinarily kind to a few first time filmmakers, how has the access to more opportunity changed the production environment?

A: People have been really kind to bring their stories to us first - we feel truly privileged. It’s also encouraging to see so many female storytellers - whether they're writers, directors, producers or actors. It's nice to see them come forward and trust us to bring their vision onto a larger global platform.

Q: You joined Netflix nearly three years ago and a lot has changed since then. Even Bollywood has changed significantly in the past three years. How have you tried to re-engineer the local filmmaking ecosystem?

A: I believe that we have tremendous talent in India. What we need is a little bit of channelizing. I feel that that is our role, as the Indian executives in Netflix - to marry the talent, and storytelling. It’s been gratifying to see people who worked with us, try and use the same practices while making a theatrical production or working elsewhere.

Q: What's the biggest learning you've had in your three years at Netflix?

A: There's a quote by Orson Welles that goes on the lines of – ‘there's nothing that people don't understand - what's important is to interest them; and then they understand everything’. This has been become a sort of mantra for me.

vdonxt asia week 2021 is ongoing and registrations are open. Watch the full discussion below -