Smriti Kiran: Srishti Behl Arya is the Director for International Original Film – India at Netflix. She began her journey in films as an actor in Aisi Bhi Kya Jaldi Hai (by Sachin Pilgaonkar), and has been a prolific producer for the last 20 years. She joined Netflix, probably her first salaried job, in May 2018. India is one of the markets where Netflix has chosen to do original programming. For a professional who loves films, this is almost like getting the keys to a candy shop; but it comes with a lot of challenges and pressures. Srishti is here to unlock the matrix called Netflix and to make the opaqueness a little clearer.
Srishti, I don’t get the opportunity to publicly say this but I want to thank you and the team at Netflix for their unflinching faith in Jio MAMI. The first film we screened as part of our Year Round Programme in 2016 was a Netflix title, Brahman Naman. Over these past four years, Netflix has consistently worked with us to bring films and talent to Jio MAMI. Ted Sarandos and Erik Barmack have made time to do masterclasses at the festival. Last year legendary director Fernando Meirelles came to the festival. He spoke to jurors Hany Abu-Assad and Vetri Maaran. These are three of Netflix’s creators coming together at the festival: Vetri’s anthology Paava Kadhaigal recently dropped on Netflix; Hany might be working on a Netflix series – this is not confirmed, but something’s in the air; and Fernando, of course, directed The Two Popes for Netflix. You got Brad Pitt to our Year Round Programme. We premiered Sacred Games, Okja, Roma, and Stranger Things amongst numerous other titles. You hosted the Women in Film brunch at Jio MAMI and gave it a completely new and improved spin.
A homegrown festival like ours struggles with budgets and people taking a punt on us. We are grateful to everyone who supported and believed in us in these crucial years of institution building. So, a big thank you to you, Ted Sarandos, Neha Kaul and the entire team at Netflix, and, of course, Neha Sinha, Swati Shetty, Divya Pathak, who were once part of Netflix. Thank you, Srishti.
Srishti Behl Arya: Thank you. The work that Jio MAMI does is so important. To bring cinephiles together and get them access to things that they would normally not have come across is tremendous. If we can partner in any small way to encourage this movement, we are more than happy to do it.
Smriti Kiran: Srishti, how did you get this job?
Srishti Behl Arya: That was actually serendipity. I was working as a producer doing television and film, and I just got a cold email in my inbox saying, ‘Would you be interested in opportunities at Netflix?’ I got very excited, like most creators, I hope, continue to be. I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I want to do something on Netflix.’ I got onto this call late one night and there was this lady who came on and said, ‘Hi, I’m Caroline, and I work with talent.’ I was like, ‘Where’s the content person who’s going to speak to me?’ They were like, ‘No, no, we don’t want to give you a show, but we want to give you an opportunity to work with us.’ The way that she made me super comfortable was great.
I was really confused. I’d never done a job. It’s a huge corporation. You think about: ‘How am I going to fit in? I’m not even a graduate.’ They were just laughing. My brother Goldie (Behl), who was my partner at that point in Rose Audio Visuals, was like, ‘Didi, this is one of those things that if you don’t try out in your life, you will regret it. This is an opportunity to see the world of content and to see how a company like Netflix that has always been a disruptor thinks.’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ Then he said, ‘If you’re no good, come back. I’ll still take you.’ So, I got really lucky.
Smriti Kiran: You got on board at a time when the India office was just being set up. There were a few people, and now you’re over a hundred. You’ve never been in a salaried job. This was not film or television, but a streaming platform with a deep and wide imprint, both in terms of sensibility and density of subscribers. What were the first few months like, and what were your primary challenges?
Srishti Behl Arya: Netflix is a very entrepreneurial company, so it was kind of easy. Our basic tenet is always freedom and responsibility. As a producer, you do tend to understand that quite deeply. The one thing that really helped is that everybody at Netflix is a fan of content. That comes easily. That’s been something that one has been since birth. To just try and enable your creators to put out their best work in a format that’s best suited for their story that they want to tell. In that sense, working at Netflix has been really easy.
“We believe that we are here to enable our creators with only one goal in mind: to bring consumer joy.”
One got to see a lot like learning how to be on Hangouts, and now I love spreadsheets. To look at everything in transparency at Netflix is quite stunning. There were moments at the beginning where I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, should I even know this?’
But we believe a lot in the people who work with us, and we believe that we are here to enable our creators with only one goal in mind: to bring consumer joy. So, once that’s kind of set for you, everything else one knows. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read the book by Reed Hastings called No Rules Rules – that’s pretty much how it was. It was really easy to fit in. The only expectation was that you put in your best every day and you make sure you bring out content that people will love.
Smriti Kiran: Srishti, it’s a very tall task to be in charge of film in India. India has 22 official languages and is one of the most diverse film cultures in the world. It’s almost a religion. What is your vision and creative strategy, and how has that evolved in the last two years that you’ve been with Netflix?
Srishti Behl Arya: There’s a huge advantage when you do film. We are a country of storytellers. If you think about it, most of us are lucky enough to have a dadi or nani, who lives with us, or has somebody who visits very often. We’re used to telling tales. Even some of our songs have stories in them. There is a plethora of content to choose from, and we enjoy watching it. We love being engaged. We love emotionally connecting with the content that’s coming out. That gives us access to fabulous talent. It’s time for our storytellers to be on a platform that gives them access to 190 odd countries and for people to see what we can bring as India.
“When you come to Netflix, you should find the right content to connect with.”
We have a lot of languages. We have a lot of cinemas. We have a lot of styles of storytelling. It’s been interesting to even tell the rest of our global enterprise about how there are so many different kinds, and it’s not a one size fits all. We are getting there slowly as we do, and trying to find the best possible story.
So, the idea is to bring out all the diversity of this country. One of our biggest strengths is that we have tremendous diversity in storytelling. My favourite way to think about this is always that we want to have your next favourite show or your next favourite film, whatever mood that you’re in. When you come to Netflix, you should find the right content to connect with. But the strategy is always to make sure that there is much more representation on screen, whether it’s a miniseries or a continuing series or it’s a film, or it’s a bunch of shorts – we’ve found a lot of love for our anthologies, the latest being Paava Kadhaigal, starting off with Lust Stories, and we had Ghost Stories. We have a number of other such formats coming through because we have storytellers who want to tell their story within a certain amount of time and we try to tie it up thematically.
Bringing in a lot of diverse voices, either from women or people from different parts of the country, is the primary goal. And to make sure that we keep getting better as time goes on.
Smriti Kiran: When you got the job, did you have a list of creators that you wanted to work with?
“The idea is to tell the story that the creator can’t help but now bring out onto the service.”
Srishti Behl Arya: There are people who are very strong at what they’re telling, and having those voices on the surface allows us to then also bring in experimental voices, to bring in people who are new, and as we build equity, everything kind of grows together. But it’s been very simple. I work with an amazing bunch of people: be it my manager, Monika Shergill, or the team that works with me. We actually do physically read everything that comes to us.
Smriti Kiran: How do you do that?
Srishti Behl Arya: We’re late on a lot of responses. We are a small team. We try to stay very lean. It’s not a very large creative team because we do believe in personalising everything that we do. The idea is to make sure that we cover as much ground as we can as people and cover as many genres and as many voices as we can. So, we’re really excited that upcoming next year we will have our first LGBTQ film as well. We’ve had a wonderful year of a lot of female protagonists and female creators so far. We will also try and experiment with a few more genres that we haven’t yet tapped into, but lots of excitement coming up.
Smriti Kiran: Projects are either commissioned, bought or licensed. Can you tell me the difference between these three parts and how they’re positioned internally?
Srishti Behl Arya: If I may add to the mix, we have a lot of other points of entry as well. We are not fixed about the point that you come in from. We have the privilege, especially on the film side, where people can come in with films that are baked a lot more because people write in film. As we build out the series side of it, and how people think about series, this side is much simpler.
Sometimes people come to us with books. What we would request in that case would be that we have a take on it because it’s not like we want to control anything. The idea is to tell the story that the creator can’t help but now bring out onto the service. So, we need that strong, creative vision to be there in it.
Sometimes people come to us with just a concept, and they want help to develop it. Sometimes it’s with full-blown first drafts. Sometimes with what they believe to be the final draft. Oftentimes there’s a film that would come to us, which has already begun shooting but has not gotten there. And then, of course, the final stage is something that would come to us as a ready, packaged film. And if we feel that the film fits into the narrative that we have, we’re happy to look at it at any stage.
We have the privilege of people bringing their content to us, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that it comes out in the best possible way for all of our subscribers.
Smriti Kiran: How does a newcomer in the industry pitch a project to Netflix?
Srishti Behl Arya: That’s actually a great question. It’s wonderful that you’re giving us this platform to explain this as well. The idea is that first and foremost, a lot of times people need to know how ready their concept is because I have never been pitched an idea that somebody said is just okay. ‘This is not a great idea. This is an okay idea.’ That never gets pitched. Everybody pitches what they really believe in. So, a lot of times we find, especially with newer people, that you’re not quite there yet in terms of the idea. It’s potentially a great idea; it’s potentially something that’s going to become something, but at that moment in time it may or may not fit in.
“Ideally, you send in a logline and a treatment note, so that we know that the space that you’re in is something that we are currently looking for.”
We are trying to keep up as much as possible by making sure that we do go through everything that comes our way, which fortunately is a lot – people are interested in working with us. We have had times when it’s been really late. All I would say is, if somebody is really sitting on your concept for a while, it’s also sometimes because they’re trying to figure out how it fits in because there are a lot of moving parts. As we look at the slate, we need to kind of align as best as we can and make sure that when we’re putting something up, it’s in the best version that fits.
The process is, you send in an email. Ideally, you send in a logline and a treatment note, so that we know that the space that you’re in is something that we are currently looking for. Does that mean that we’re not going to look at that space ever? No, that’s not true, but that may also be that we’re doing something similar on the series side; we’re doing something similar already that’s coming up that you’re not aware of. That may or may not be to your satisfaction when it does come out for you, but that is somebody else’s vision and that is somebody else’s beliefs. So, there is that aspect to it as well. Then, sometimes people come in on a very slim idea that doesn’t necessarily pan out.
We’re trying to get to a point where we can turn things around in six to eight weeks and come back, and we try to acknowledge that. I think we do a pretty good job of acknowledging that we’ve received a submission. What we need to get better at is to respond faster. But since we try to be thoughtful about everybody’s submissions, especially with the newer ones, you feel that you’re holding hands a little bit. Let me give you an example: When Neeraj Udhwani came to us with Maska, he had no producer or director attached. He wanted to direct the film himself. It would be his debut film as a director. He did not come from any of the traditional pre-set up things. We eventually got him a producer, which was, again, a first-time independent producer, Mutant Films, with Seher Aly Latif and Shivani Saran, who had thus far been line producing but were confident enough to come and take this project on and find the right combination of people to come together to find that their chemistry matched because there’s a new person who also needs to be looked after and be empowered to be able to do what he believes is true and authentic to his film. So, that was something that came to us really early on. It took a while for that project to kind of get together.
We announced Cobalt Blue (by Sachin Kundalkar), for example, which, again, came to us with the director attached, who was, in fact, the author of the book, way back in 2018. But the life cycle of every film is different. By the time we arrived at the script, we found a new struggle in making it contemporary as the book is over 20 years old and things have changed in this country, but at the same time, you want to find that beast. So, there’s a lot that goes into it. Because of the large number of titles that we deal with, sometimes we may be getting a bit behind.
We need to get better at coming back sooner. What is not possible is to be able to give everybody individual feedback as to why this is not what we want to do. It’s something that would be really hard to do, and that’s something that we don’t really do across.
Smriti Kiran: What happens, Srishti, when a person doesn’t know anyone? You like the idea, you get the idea, you get in touch with the person and the person has no background in film, they’ve never done something before, but you know that they’ve cracked this great idea and you would like to see it panning out. How do you approach that situation?
Srishti Behl Arya: That is a lot more executive hours because you find that – it’s not a blanket rule – at that point, people are a little nervous and a little eager to please. They agree with you on whatever you say. Then you’re like, ‘No, no. You’ve got to push back.’ The title is not dependent on how much I like you. It’s dependent on how convincingly and authentically you can tell your story.
Marrying them with the right production house and to make sure that they’re supported are the primary responsibilities. Then, to also oversee that if they’re rank new in the business, they get the right support in terms of the crew that they get, who will be able to enable their vision and not say, ‘Tu nahi jaanti main dus picturein bana chuka hoon.’ That also happens, and people find it hard to push back.
The main thing – not just with newcomers – is to always try and make sure that the chemistry is right because all the hard work the creators are putting in any way, so all we have to make sure is that they stay true to their vision.
“It depends on how convincingly and authentically you can tell your story.”
Also, it’s very rare to find somebody who’s never been on a set to pull the mammoth that is a film. I would encourage people to work in different capacities before they decide to embark on making a film. These are great opportunities and great stories that we should try and hone. It’s not about how fast, but it’s about how good the film turns out to be.
Smriti Kiran: What happens when you’re looking at a slate of Indian original films that release here along with international content? Is there some kind of a programming slate that you follow about when things drop? How involved are you in terms of looking at what comes out at what point in time and what the strategy would be in terms of release?
Srishti Behl Arya: We have complete visibility on everything that’s happening. We also have an idea of the readiness and what is expected to come down the pipeline. Our priority right now is India, and we will continue to do what’s best for our Indian consumers, to begin with.
This is a good problem to have because the problem of plenty gives certain democratization to the viewer. They are able to access what they want to watch at the time that they want to watch, in the format that they want to watch in. There’s no one Netflix. There’s a line that we use: ‘My Netflix is not your Netflix.’ The beauty of Netflix is that it serves you what you would be most likely to enjoy. There isn’t that conflict in terms of what’s coming out. We’re putting out stuff everywhere. We are now finding that even Korean content is super popular in India and we see Indian titles popping elsewhere as well. But the point is that people tend to want to watch a particular kind at a particular time. It’s like home. We want to be the home for films, and coming home means sometimes you want dal-chawal, sometimes you want biryani, and sometimes you want to experiment with pasta. So, that option will always be open. We try to make sure that we have the whole thing. The Indian equation would be the thali – isme kuch chatpata bhi hai, kuch meetha bhi hai, kuch khara bhi hai. We make sure that everything is there for everyone whenever they want it.
Smriti Kiran: Over the years, people have come to expect a certain quality and kind of programming from Netflix. How do you reconcile a spectrum as wide as Drive (by Tarun Mansukhani) and AK vs AK (by Vikramaditya Motwane)? You began experimenting with genres and films and went into a zone which was not considered Netflix, there was a lot of criticism that you also faced for the slate, and appreciation as well. How do you process that?
Srishti Behl Arya: Criticism is the one thing that will always keep us honest and it’s always welcome. We do look at what everybody has to say at what particular time, but we also look at what people are watching on the surface, right? So, sometimes you want to watch what you believe is a brainless film, sometimes you want to be challenged by what you’re watching; sometimes you want to just lean back. Very often we see Friends trending in India almost every day because people just like to watch and rewatch things. So, the main job of a programmer is to not be judgmental towards what the people want to watch. And as we evolve we have to – everybody is different from each other – find what is going to satisfy everyone.
When Netflix enters a new country, it comes in with an existing library of content. Because of the service being the way it is, you are served things that you like to watch and you would probably enjoy watching as well. You have thousands of titles that come to you and you get served within the sphere that you are in. Even if you see globally, some of us may enjoy The Irishman (by Martin Scorsese), but somebody might enjoy Extraction (by Sam Hargrave). We have Bird Box (by Susanne Bier), but we also have To All the Boys I Loved Before (by Susan Johnson). We also have Marriage Story (by Noah Baumbach) and The Two Popes, for that matter, which are brilliant pieces of cinema, and we also have more light and fluffy stuff like Set It Up (by Claire Scanlon). When you come to a new region, you can’t expect everybody to love everything. What is most important in this particular situation is that the content finds the right viewers who love it and finish watching it and come to it again.
Also, while we’re still building out the slate, we tend to get identified with every piece of content that comes out. Everything becomes like, ‘Oh my God, this is not what Netflix is supposed to be!’ But if you look at the slate this year, we’ve seen a lot of diversity. In series, you have Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives but you also have a Jamtara and She. You will have a Masaba Masaba, which is a different format altogether. So, every piece of content adds up to a larger story and starts finding its audience.
“The main job of a programmer is to not be judgmental towards what the people want to watch.”
Similarly, on the film side – we opened the year with Ghost Stories (by Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap) – some of which were loved, some of which were not so loved. We also had Yeh Ballet. Then we had Guilty (by Ruchi Narain), which was really loved all across, and then we had a Maska (by Neeraj Udhwani). After Maska, we had Mrs. Serial Killer (by Shirish Kunder), which was again a hotly debated title. Then, we had a run of films that found more consistent love, starting with Choked (by Anurag Kashyap), then we had Bulbbul (by Anvita Dutt), we had Raat Akeli Hai (by Honey Trehan), Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (by Sharan Sharma), Class of ‘83 (by Atul Sabharwal), Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (by Alankrita Shrivastava), Serious Men (by Sudhir Mishra), Ginny Weds Sunny (by Puneet Khanna), all the way up to Paava Kadhaigal (by Sudha K Prasad, Vetri Maaran, Gautham Menon, Vignesh Shivan) now, with Kaali Khuhi (by Terrie Samundra) thrown in the middle. While every film may not find the same kind of appreciation, the fact is that when we put all these films on the table, we see that each one is different. We are also trying to understand better what’s going to get love from our viewers.
Smriti Kiran: With all of this experimentation that you did in two years, what were your key learnings? What do you think has worked and what are you leaning towards going forward?
Srishti Behl Arya: There’s a saying by Orson Welles, ‘I can think of nothing that an audience won’t understand. The only problem is to interest them; once they are interested, they understand anything in the world.’ That is now the screensaver on my phone – it reminds me that different people are interested in different things. The one learning is, whatever we decide to do, whatever genre we decide to follow, that is something that has to come from a place of authenticity by the creator. If the creator has an honest story to tell, they have an interest in sharing something that always resonates with the audience.
When we try to do something which is not authentic, and we try to do it thinking ‘Logon ko yeh pasand hai,’ if that’s the mentality, I feel that always ends up not resonating, because people are at different points in their lives. They are at different stages in their days. Some days you come back from work and you’re really exhausted and you don’t want to be challenged by what you’re watching. But on a nice Sunday, you make whatever it is that is your best choice of beverage and kick back and say, ‘Today, I’m going to learn something, engage with it, and widen my horizons.’
“There’s a line that we use: ‘My Netflix is not your Netflix.’”
So, we find equal love across for all these things. Paava Kadhaigal, for example, is not an easy watch. It’s very thought-provoking. It’s something that has resonated very strongly, not just with the Tamil audience. We are finding that people are willing to look into that as well. But when you have Ginny Weds Sunny (by Puneet Khanna), the kind of love that that title saw was because I think at that moment in time, a lot of people were looking for something that was lighter, easier, not so challenging. Then, you see love for a title like Axone (by Nicholas Kharkongor), that if you would have gone with a title like that and said that, ‘Oh my God, people are going to love this title,’ people would have been like, ‘No, kis ko samajh mein aayega. It is too niche.’ Different titles have very different effects on people. The content just has to come from a place of authenticity and then it finds resonance with the audience.
Smriti Kiran: Now that you’ve made this leap into making content in different languages, do you plan in the future to get consultants on board in terms of people in the South or creators and consultants in different parts of India that can also contextualize the work that is coming to you?
Srishti Behl Arya: Not just in our stories, even in the way that our office is structured and put together, we do look at a lot of diversity of people in any case. We do actually have people on the creative team who are not like me. The beauty is the difference in the taste of people is what enables us to look at things. The slate at a certain level is a reflection of the way I look at things, the way that we largely look at things, but the ‘we’ of us all come from different points of view. So, the ability to make the best content, even though it may not be your idea of the best content comes from the diversity of the people that we have. Across the company, we have people from different states who have moved to Mumbai. We have people from different income groups. That also helps us be honest as we grow. We are, right now, in the stage of learning, we have just about had original Indian content since 2018 on the service, and each one has been a fantastic learning experience. So, as we head out into other directions and we hope to cover as much ground as possible, we will learn how to do this better.
Smriti Kiran: In large companies, there is a decision-making chain. Is there a kind of pitching that happens in terms of global budgets, global vision and also in terms of making people understand the cultural context of why you would like the story made and why it should be made the way it is being made?
Srishti Behl Arya: We are very flat as a company. Again, going back to freedom and responsibility. It’s not just me, anybody on the team can have a favourite project that they really, really want to make, and to get to that. All we need to know is what is going to please our consumers, because once you have a very simple goal in life, ‘Who is this going to talk to and how exciting is it going to be for them’, it just all falls into place.
The idea is to not impose a particular point of view on any one person. If you just tick the boxes, it matters. There’s no real pitching mechanism that we have where we all have to go and prove why we believe in this. We are a very tightly-knit group. It’s mostly like, ‘This is what I want to do. Is it coming across rightly?’ amongst ourselves, whether it’s me checking in with the team that currently works with me, or me checking with Monika for that matter, right, or any of the other content executives who work across on series or on unscripted or on a documentary.
We believe that we are a great resource. We believe that we have a very high talent density at Netflix. So, it would be foolish to not lean on each other and use each other’s expertise. That’s how I think about it. If there’s really something that any of us has been compelled to do, there’s no proof of concept required. What is required is a clear vision as to what it is supposed to achieve.
Smriti Kiran: Netflix and streaming platforms have given so many creators across the board, such as actors and technicians, a new lease of life. There was a credits controversy that gained ground. I would like you to tell us a little bit about what happened and where the misunderstanding was.
Srishti Behl Arya: I wouldn’t call that a controversy. There was something that was called out that people were not getting tagged enough or put into a situation enough. So far at Netflix, there was a particular way that we’d been doing things; we’re learning and we’re leaning in to see how things work differently in different regions, and we’ll get better at it. Like I said, all criticism is, in a way, the way to keep us honest to what we’re doing because oftentimes we lose perspective of where we are, and we welcome it. Not all of it is fair always, but the main thing is to listen to it openly and to see what it is that we can do better. My favourite line that Reed Hastings has ever said is, ‘We’re better than everyone else, but we suck compared to what we are going to be.’. That can only come with introspection and by seeing how it is that you can get better. Part of this job also enables us to learn every day, and we take pride in it. We’ll get there.
Smriti Kiran: We strive very hard at Jio MAMI to have no boundaries between creators, and finding alchemy where one creator from one region works with another creator from another region. Is connecting Indian talent and projects to the international markets a goal at Netflix as we have recently seen in Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy, Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger and Russo Brothers’ The Gray Man, which Dhanush is a part of?
Srishti Behl Arya: The only active work that we do, Smriti, is to allow people to be authentic to what they want to say. There isn’t a mandate that you put in: ‘Oh, you know what? Going forward, you need to cast Indian talent.’ Neither is it that you’ve got to tell an Indian story or that in India we have to tell stories about another country. It depends on what people come with.
We are blessed to have the opportunity of introducing the right mix for the person who chooses to do it. It’s not always westward in. There’s a lot that we have to contribute as well. We understand our market really strongly. There is no content in the world that has spoken not to their country of origin but spoken to the rest of the world. If you see Parasite (by Bong Joon-ho), it was successful in its own country as well. That’s how a crossover happens. You begin somewhere and then you cross over. So, a little bit of aspiring to please other people and not taking away from where we are right now as a country is okay.
We have tremendous talent in this country. We have a unique style in which we work. Yes, it’s easier. There are people who are more experienced with certain technology that can be helpful to us, but we have our own grammar. So, in the marriage, that’s going to be something that the creator wants, rather than something that we insist on putting together.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Momita Jaisi: What is the scope for Indian documentary films on Netflix? Is there a dedicated slot to look at documentary features on the same professional level as fictional features?
Srishti Behl Arya: There is no slotting of anything. What we do is, we try to put it all together. Maybe that’s the beauty in the chaos that we are talking about. It’s not structured. We don’t look at things like, ‘Oh, we got to make five documentaries, three comedy films, two thrillers and two romantic films.’ That’s really not how we look at it. What we try to see is, how is it that we can make enough of an offering of everything put together. We saw great success with Bad Boy Billionaires: India, which came out of our doc features situation; we also had Rooting For Roona (by Pavitra Chalam, Akshay Shankar) that came out. We have been working on it. It is something that we’re always open to doing. It just has to be the right documentary.
Siddharth Menon: For a series that has received a lukewarm response but has been renewed for another season nonetheless, how do you go about reinstating your faith in it? Is it based on instinct or on the storyteller or based on the possibilities of where the story might go?
Srishti Behl Arya: I would not be the best person to speak about the series, but from my understanding, it would be all three – all the options that you’re talking about. It would have to be a belief in the fact that there is more to tell in this story that we need to find. The other factor would be to see that if it connected with a few people, how deeply did it connect; if it connected with many people, was the connection deep. So, it would matter how much of the story is there to tell, what does the creator want to do, do they feel that they’ve made it in the best possible form that they wanted to, is there something unsaid. There’s a lot that goes into it.
Success is very different. One of the interesting things that we find on Netflix is that people try to keep putting traditional ideas of success on every piece of content. But for every piece of content success looks different. It’s not the box office. Every time you work with a new filmmaker, on Friday evening, they’re like, ‘How is it doing?’ And we’re like, ‘Do you realise that the content is going to be premiering every single time somebody new watches it?’ So, there is no end game to this. There’s no box office number we can get; there’s no TRP that we can share. It works a lot in terms of just the joy that we find people take from it.
Ronit Jadhav: How can an independent filmmaker, who has made a film with a low budget/zero-budget, get their film on a platform like Netflix? If so, what can they do to ensure that their projects end up on a platform?
Srishti Behl Arya: Thanks for that question, Ronit. It’s something that’s very good for everybody to get a perspective on. If you look at something like Jamtara, it was filled with newcomers, made by new people, and put together on a not-so-traditional Netflix format – what people perceive to be a Netflix format. There’s always a possibility of getting stuff to come on. There is a possibility of being seen. It is just that we have certain ready content. I would say that there are certain technical qualifications that are required to be on the service as well, which is sometimes not necessarily kept in mind when anybody is making films, or a show because everybody does the best that they can in that circumstance. There are many, many factors that go into it.
But let me tell you one thing as a new-ish filmmaker. This was an interesting thing that I heard from Anurag Kashyap. He said that none of the films that he has ever made has done what he wanted from the film; every single one of those films that he has made has led him to be where he is today. It really made a big difference. It helped me at a time when there was a lot of criticism, and you’re wondering that despite doing your best and people enjoying it, why is it still not resonating the way you wanted it to? But you do find that at the end you do get something from everything that you do. You may not get it in the form that you’re seeing at that moment, but it’s going to add up to your journey as a filmmaker, and you are going to be where you want to be. Maybe the route you’re taking at that moment doesn’t look like what you had imagined it to be.
Shivani Tibrewala: Since Netflix-and most OTT platforms-give us the opportunity to reach out to a non-homogenous population in terms of audience, which could be scattered in pockets all over the world, you’re no longer restricted to the film festival circuit and can now reach out to people with eclectic tastes all over the world. So, when you say that your priority is to cater to the Indian consumer, isn’t that a bit restrictive? Also how much does Netflix invest in developing screenplays?
Srishti Behl Arya: We have to know who we are speaking to and why something comes from where it’s coming. There is no restriction to where it can go. Success, again, looks different for different pieces of content. So, sometimes, you have a piece of content that goes into the festival circuit. I do push back a little bit on the fact that a film festival film is different from a regular film. One of the reasons why we have what is mainstream is because it’s easily accessible to everybody – it’s a more accessible cinema. You know that when you’re getting into it, you don’t have to know the nuances. Like Smriti was saying, even when we’re commissioning and as we get deeper in and we want to get into different nuances of filmmaking from different regions, we would have to rely on that expertise as well. But not every piece of content has to speak to everyone. For that, you have the broader-based content. There’s no restriction in terms of who you’re looking at. The most important thing to do is to look at what it is that you want to say. That’s the only way that we can actually look at the content that we’re going to put onto the service and likely whom it is going to talk to. It doesn’t really matter. It’s not restricted because India is not one homogenous mass.
Regarding the second question: We do try and invest as much as we can, but we do limit the number of development projects because we do have the advantage of being in India, where there is a lot of stuff that’s pretty easy to see at the stage that it comes to. It also sometimes depends on the writer themselves. They may want to say that it’s not where they want it to be, and so they’d come back when they’re happy, without anybody else’s inputs. Sometimes you would also want, maybe, in the case of somebody who’s not really seen their work published in any way or form, to give them the support of somebody who knows what the end game looks like so that you arrive at it faster. But people want to collaborate, they don’t want to collaborate – so it’s very individualistic. Like everything else in this business, it’s very personal. We put our hearts out on a plate every time we put a piece of content out there. I think it’s the hardest for the writers.
Nasreen Munni Kabir: What are Netflix’s thoughts about archives, material that was shot in the pre-high-definition time, because some beautiful documentaries and beautiful footage are available that aren’t in high definition? I know that most streamers everywhere else in the world are very reluctant to get other formats. What is your thinking about this? And what are your feelings about subtitles? Do you think people have got over this problem of reading subtitles?
Srishti Behl Arya: I wouldn’t be the best person to get the answer from, but I am pretty sure that since we are fans of content, we will be working on something; but we have an incredible documentary department globally as well as working out of India.
We do find that people enjoy dubbed content and find it convenient. Again, that would depend on person to person: there are some people who like to listen to the language being spoken – they find it more authentic, and they’re comfortable reading. But I think it’s a question of practice. Especially in India, this is all still new and we are very adaptable as people, so we will get there. We are hoping that that little restriction doesn’t take away from the larger picture.
Swaratmika Mishra: As far as my knowledge goes, Netflix is a pioneer in research. Does that help you in creating new content, or when the content is pitched to you or in what you’re developing? Does that learning lean towards the content, because the demographic dividend is the power as it gives you the taste of the region, the dialect, the tone, the pitch and even the character formations, which they probably would like or they would dislike for us to enable to do?
Srishti Behl Arya: That’s not how we actually look at it. When you sign up on Netflix, all we ask you is whether or not you have a credit card. We don’t have any kind of age that we take from you or your gender that we take from you, and given that it all goes into a giant machine, the machine can’t tell whether Srishti is the name of a man or a woman. We don’t have that kind of material. You could be watching your Netflix anywhere in the world, and belong to another place as well. We don’t really know where you’re coming from, or how many people are watching, or if you’re secretly sharing your account with all your college friends.
What we do know is, there is content that people engage with and want to finish and some people keep coming back to the same piece of content. That’s a fair estimate to know that that worked. We also know what we don’t have, because a very important thing for us, from all the material that we get, is to know what is missing. So, to identify those kinds of gaps in programming is very useful to us.
Priyanka Arora: How do you decide the shelf-life of a film or series on Netflix?
Srishti Behl Arya: We don’t decide the shelf life. You do. It’s about how much you enjoy and engage. Honestly, the license term is always decided by the person who owns the IP (Intellectual Property). We try to see that if there’s something that’s really being engaged with and enjoyed a lot, we try to have it for as long as we can.
None of these restrictions, however, apply to the originals. You will be able to see films that were made really early in the day still on the service, and hopefully a lot of our films for a long time to come.
Anubha Yadav: If someone with some experience in television and documentary is coming to you with a project – largely, from a space of no experience – how safe would you be in partnering with a person like that? Would you be ready to risk getting attached to a project like that if it is developed?
Srishti Behl Arya: Actually, Anubha, I have a great example for you. We have a film called Kaali Khuhi on the service that was made by a documentary filmmaker, Terrie Samundra. She had never done any fiction or scripted film before. The confidence always comes from the material. You never know whether you’re going to be part of somebody’s next classic, whichever direction that classic may move in. We’ve had some of both types. So, the confidence will always come out of the content, the conviction and the clarity with which the creators come from.
Rachit Raj: What are the challenges you face in trying to come up with content in the Indian market that could appeal to the wide diversity of the audience that exists in a country like India?
Srishti Behl Arya: Rachit, if we are going to be in very specific cultural contexts, then it is a little harder; but you find that something that people talk about and becomes part of the zeitgeist that more and more people are open to experimenting with.
I’ll tell you one problem that I personally face a lot: nobody wants to give us happy things to do, because they all think Netflix should focus on some serial killer, and we should only have dark, dingy content, whereas people really enjoy seeing different aspects of the human condition that could be happy, for a change.
Shreyas Mandhare: Should we expect more regional content, as in originals on Netflix, in the near future parallel to Hindi content like the way it happened with Malayalam titles that are there?
Srishti Behl Arya: We are currently building our library in multiple languages. We have content in about 11 languages on the service right now. We are growing, which is why I said that we are taking baby steps; we’re trying to get better at this. We already got Paava Kadhaigal; we’ve got Navarasa, which is another anthology that is going to be coming out in Tamil; we’ve had Marathi titles, like Firebrand (by Aruna Raje), in the past. So, there have been baby steps from us in various languages. But as the license slate goes stronger, you will see a lot. We’ve seen so much of love. I’m going to try, in all vulnerability, in front of everyone, to say, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (by Trivikram Srinivas), which was a huge success for us. We found that members enjoyed it, and it was in the top 10 list in around 12 countries, and not just in India. That was great. Miss India (by Narendra Nath), with all the debate that it started, also, again, enjoyed a lot of love. So, it is a super encouraging story for us to keep in mind as we go forward programming.
Manahar Kumar: Where can we send in our logline and short treatment to Netflix? If there is additional material that we’d like to send across, what would be the best way of getting in touch with anybody at Netflix?
Srishti Behl Arya: Smriti Kiran is the best way for anybody to be getting in touch with Netflix.
So far, people have been emailing me directly. That might be a reason why things get a little bottlenecked because I’m unable to respond quickly enough to all the submissions. But we are going to lean on you, Smriti, as well your office to put it out, when we get a broader email that we can share with everyone.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session of Srishti Behl Arya in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.
For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.
P.S: The Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) conducts Dial M For Films, an online knowledge series, free of cost because we believe in fair and equal access to the insight and experience of talent from the world of cinema for all. If you find these sessions of value and would like to quote from them or distribute them further as study material, we request that you give MAMI and Dial M For Films credit while doing so.
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