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Netflix still hasn’t figured out India

The drama stood out in a country best known for romantic musicals, which was the point. The New York Times named Sacred Games one of the best foreign-made shows of the last decade, and Netflix described it at the time as its most-watched locally produced show in the country.

March 31, 2022 / 07:18 AM IST
This photo taken on July 4, 2018 shows Indian commuters travelling past large billboards for

This photo taken on July 4, 2018 shows Indian commuters travelling past large billboards for "Sacred Games", the upcoming Indian series on Netflix, in Mumbai. - Netflix's first original Indian series released on July 6 as the US streaming giant battles with Amazon Prime for a slice of India's fast growing on-demand video market. Photographer: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images

Two-and-a-half years after it launched in India, Netflix Inc. had its first big hit. Based on a sprawling novel by Indian-American author Vikram Chandra, 2018’s Sacred Games was a Hindi-language TV show exploring Mumbai’s criminal underworld and one police officer’s efforts to save the city. The drama stood out in a country best known for romantic musicals, which was the point. The New York Times named Sacred Games one of the best foreign-made shows of the last decade, and Netflix described it at the time as its most-watched locally produced show in the country.

The success seemed to indicate that the company’s plan for India was coming together. Netflix’s formula for international expansion, which has worked everywhere from Canada to Japan, starts by targeting wealthy, young consumers in large cities who’ll pay to watch Stranger Things or Narcos. Then, to reach progressively larger audiences, the company hires a local team to commission projects from the country’s biggest producers, offering them creative freedom they wouldn’t get elsewhere.

Netflix Subscribers | As a share of population, Q2 2021 estimates

Certain things about India were working in Netflix’s favor. The country has a robust local film industry, a growing middle class, and rapidly expanding access to the internet. Several months before Sacred Games was released, Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings told a group of Indian business leaders that Netflix would sign up 100 million customers in the country.