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Alternative Indian movies: Is Netflix at last embracing cultural diversity?

Screenshot from the Youtube trailer of the Taj Mahal 1989 series.

There is little doubt the Covid-19 pandemic has benefitted global streaming platforms as the lockdown imposed in most countries has shut down cinemas, and forced people to stay at home and create their own entertainment programs. One of the most successful ones, Netflix, gained a record 37 new million viewers in 2020, and is not only broadcasting but also producing its own series, movies and documentaries.

But while Netflix, like its competitors HBO, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and others, is enjoying a global expansion in terms of viewers, for most of its history, it remained Western-centered and predominantly in English. Yet a shift emerged and today the platform, as well as others, offer a wide range of content in non-English languages, produced or directed outside the Western world.

One region that has witnessed a growing and much more nuanced representation is South Asia. And while Netflix continues to produce and stream Western stereotypes of South Asia such as the action movie “Extraction”, it has also opened to a number of movies that are also different from the typical Bollywood industry and allow for an unprecedented diversity of languages, narratives, and genres.

To understand this trend, Global Voices talked to Shumona Sinha, a Bengali-French author, who gained international recognition through her awarded novel “Assommons les pauvres !” [Knock down the poors!]. Sinha, as many citizens affected by a strict lockdown in her home in France, is able to reconnect to her youth in Bengal via new Indian series and films that she perceives as a much welcome change in film production from the subcontinent. As she admits, as a person who has no TV set in her home, she has indeed spent much more time on Netflix than before the pandemic started, and explains the difference with what is offered on French TV:

Netflix investit dans les productions cinématographiques qui déjouent l’eurocentrisme ou l’occident-centrisme, explorent les cultures diverses peu représentées. Ces productions sont des collaborations entre les pays occidentaux et orientaux, africains, asiatiques, sud-asiatiques… Puis aussi il y a des films, des docus et des séries déjà produits par des pays divers et désormais disponibles sur Netflix. En tout cas, il y a une vraie diversité ethnoculturelle qui est totalement absente à la télé classique, française ou autre.

Netflix is investing in film productions that bypass eurocentric or Western-centric attitudes, explore diverse underrepresented cultures. Those productions represent forms of collaboration between Western and Eastern, African, Asian, South Asian countries…There are also movies, documentaries, series already produced by diverse countries and now available on Netflix. What is clear is that there is a real cultural and ethnic diversity that is completely missing on regular television, whether in France or elsewhere.

Asked about her favorite South Asian show on the streaming platform, she explains:

Taj Mahal 1989! La production me semble presque artisanale : peu de moyens et beaucoup de rêve. Elle ressemble davantage au théâtre engagé qu’à une série. Dès la première scène on entend le nom de Safdar Hashmi, dramaturge-poète-comédien communiste assassiné en janvier 1989 lors de sa performance de théâtre de rue par les suppôts du parti de droite Congress-I. C’est inédit dans une série ou un film indien. L’histoire de la série évolue autour de cet axe : l’assassinat de Safdar Hashmi et sa perception chez les protagonistes. Deux clans se dessinent : les politiquement engagés et les apolitiques, égoïstes, considérés comme peu cultivés ou de la culture commerciale massive et capitaliste. Le décor de la série est le milieu des universitaires, on y découvre le militantisme communiste et la politique de droite quasi féodale. Tous ces éléments me rappellent mon adolescence et ma jeunesse militante communiste à Calcutta: j’avais écrit un poème en hommage à Safdar Hashmi quand j’avais quatorze ans ; plus récemment dans mon dernier roman “Le testament russe” j’ai évoqué l’assassinat de Safdar Hashmi. Autant de raisons d’aimer cette série !

 Taj Mahal 1989! The production evokes handicraft: small budget and large dreams. It looks more like politically engaged theater than a series. Within the first scene, one can hear the name of Safdar Hashmi, a Communist playwright, poet and actor assassinated in January 1989 during one of his street theater performances by the henchmen of the right-wing party Congress. This is unprecedented in an Indian movie or series. The story revolves around this axis: the killing of Safdar Hashmi and how this is perceived by the main characters. Two camps emerge: those who are politically active, and those who stay away from politics, are selfish and considered not very educated or more engaging in commercial mass culture. The background of the series is the world of academics, and one discovers Communist political activism and right-wing, almost feudal, political ideology. All those elements remind me of my youth as a Communist activist in Kolkata. At the age of 14, I had written a poem about Safdar Hashmi; and in my latest novel  “Le testament russe” [The Russian Will], I did mention Hashmi’s killing. So I have many reasons for liking this series!

As can be seen in the trailer of Taj Mahal 1989, the series plays up a vintage feel:

But beyond the sheer nostalgia, Sinha points out that there is a new generation of Indian movies and series, that she attributes in part to three key names: the producer Anurag Kashyap, who also created Netflix’s first India series, an adaptation to Vikram Chandra’s novel “Sacred Games”, and incidentally started as an actor in Safdar Hashmi’s cast. She also recommends Vishal Bhardwaj, another film producer who will act as a the leading producer for  the Netflix series “Midnight’s Children”, adapted from Salman Rushdie’s novel.

According to Sinha, this Indian New Wave cinema is a real alternative to the Bollywood narratives:

Regardez les séries comme Le seigneur de Bombay, Pataal Lok, Leila, Delhi Crime ; les films comme Pink, Talvar, Haider… qui explorent l’Inde réelle de façon néoréaliste, la violence et les discriminations de la société indienne, le fondamentalisme religieux hindouiste mêlé de sale politique nationaliste, sanguinaire. Puis il y aussi des films et séries néo-réalistes plus agréables, qui se détachent de Bollywood sans être complètement des films ou des séries d’auteur, comme A suitable boy, Dil dikhane do.

Look at the series such as “Sacred Games”, “Pataal Lok”, “Leila”, “Delhi Crime”; or the movies such as “Pink”, “Talvar”, “Haider” that explore the real India in a neorealism fashion, the violence and discrimination present in Indian society, the Hindu religious fundamentalism that gets mixed with dirty nationalistic politics. There are also neo-realism style films and series that are more entertaining, yet differ from the Bollywood narrative without being art house cinema, such as “A Suitable Boy”, “Dil Dikhane do”.

The typical Bollywood storytelling, Sinha explains, is traditionally built on a clearly marked opposition between good and evil, and includes romantic love stories filmed in beautiful sceneries, in India and well as in other countries, and includes songs and dances that appear at regular intervals. This kind of movie is best epitomized by cult actor Amitabh Bachchan who has dominated Bollywood since the 1970s.

But regardless of the differences between Bollywood and art cinema style, what is clear for Netflix is that India has become a growing source of content, and a market in full expansion: it has just announced 41 new Indian titles for 2021.

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