We started doing a review of the streaming films available – a best of Indian recent movies – and when we researched most of the big releases on Netflix we found that most of them managed to piss a lot of people off.
Netflix came of age during the 2010s – the time of Donald Trump and then went ballistic during lockdown. Therefore it has the political nature of being careful what it puts out, being sensitive and occasionally sending messages. However, the messages that we see are not about uplifting the people of the subcontinent and diaspora, but little digs at the very identify of being Indian.
We caucused some of our advisors and got similar views: in many cases they thought they were the only ones to see the portrayal. Some weren’t offended, but said they would be if they were the only group being targeted in this way. We’re sure you’ve seen some of these films, share us your views at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do a follow up.
Year: 2018-2019. Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Saif Ali Khan
This is actually a good series, with a big budget and very rich storyline. They made the villain a Sanatani Guru who was going to destroy MumbaiIt. On top of that, the cult would keep repeating, “Aham Brahmasmi“, which became a catch-phrase of the series. That phrase of course means “I am one with Brahman” – a key concept in Hinduism especially Advaita Vedanta. This was Netflix’s first original Indian series and highly successful, also based on a book, but very culturally insensitive.
Year: 2021. Starring: Panja Vaisshnav, Tej Krithi Shetty, Vijay Sethupathi Director: Bucchi Babu Sana
Uppenna (High tide, or even Tsunami) is a modern classic. The cinematography of the Indian East Coast and its fishing villages is superb. The smouldering love between Bebaama and Aasi is intense, matched only by the street-fights and the brooding menace of Raayanam, the father of Bebaama.
As good as the film is, they could not move away from some of the usual tropes: the father is strict and patriarchal, Hindu girl falls in love with guy, from other religion (Christian, in this case) and of course … he’s from a lower caste.
Year: 2019 Starring: Huma Qureshi, Siddharth, Seema Biswas Director: Deepa Mehta
Also a good film, stunning visuals, dark, good story arc. The India of the near future is a Hindu dictatorship – and again a catchphrase – Jai Aryavarta. Every one else is an enemy of the state and has to be re-educated. Aryavata is an ancient name for North Indian regions. The rich irony that such states do exist, and that the region known as India today is one of the very few societies that have been open about beliefs throughout history. This makes this otherwise good story ultimately ring false.
A scan of the Internet reveals a list of issues. Politicians and rights bodies have petitioned Netflix and organised boycotts, which does not seem to have achieved much. Some of the issues are flimsy – eg a negative Hindu or Muslim character does not mean that ALL Hindus or Muslims are being discredited. Take the case of Bombay Begums – a corrupt character reads from the Bhagavad Gita and explains it allows him to take advantage of women. Is that a reflection of the writer or the corrupt character, and why should we care?
Its not just Hinduphobia
India has a track record of pushing out patriotic films and these blockbusters are predictably Anti-Pakistani and anti-terrorism. Its not a fad, its a recurring motif: think Lakshya, Panther, Wild Dog, 1971 etc and these films are well spread on the streaming platforms, not just Netflix. Predictably, the baddies are nearly always terrorists and Pakistani.
This is not too different from Hollywood and its anti-Russian, anti-Vietnamese, anti-Eastern European, anti-South African (!), anti-Arab action films. Hollywood acts hand in glove with the US military and in turn with US foreign policy. Want to borrow an aircraft carrier for that epic scene? Go for it – let’s just run your script past our creative consultants.
Bard of Blood, a SRK-produced action fliek but without too much Jai Hind patriotism, got massive criticism in Pakistan and its diaspora.
Its not just Netflix
Year: 2019 Starring: Saif Ali Khan Director: Ali Abbas Zafar
Tandav is/was a political thriller with big names and a big budget, one of Amazon Prime’s flagship productions. it was meant to be India’s version of House of Cards, or The West Wing. The unfortunate decision to mock Shiva in an episode (in fact Scene 1, Episode 1!) and then go after dalits left a bad taste and the Director Zafar issuing a very public apology after being charged.
Laxmii (Laxmii Bomb)
Year: 2020. Starring: Akshay Kumar, Kiara Advani Director: Raghava Lawrence
Much like the Padmavaat film, Laxmii underwent a name change after it offended huge sections of the community. This film was launched on the Disney Hotstar service in 2020. The film achieved what it set out to do, create hype, but then left audiences disappointed and irritated at once. Not knowing when to stop, they also managed to anger transgender people with some of their depictions.
To be fair..
Netflix is a subscription based service. Money talks. If they feel their audience wants certain films, they will run that If you don’t like it, don’t subscribe or don’t watch. Netflix has a reputation for having a certain world view and pushing certain content and not others. There are enough substitutes that we will cover.
Of course, a nation like India has sensitivities. Mocking religions – either your own or another – in film that tens of millions of people will see, is irresponsible. Riots and killings have been started over less.
Sacred Games and Leila were books for a number of years before they were turned into film, why were they not cautioned back then?
Indian Culture has been around for over 5,000 years. Hinduism, or SanAtana Dharma, doesn’t really require anyone’s intervention. It’s tolerance, openness and own internal logic will test and reject any adharmic material. Bollywood taps into Hindu culture for so much inspiration, Ram Leela, Durgamatri, Savitri are just some recent films that are jumping onto the back of the ancient religion – how should this be viewed? Why do we even have to ask “does netflix have an indian problem?”
Shows like Sir, Lust Stories, Panipat, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Gunjana Saxena and nearly every SRK film manage to be respectful towards cultures yet relevant and rich.
The absolute worst and most unforgivable depictions in Indian cinema remain..
…those of the British and Moghul invaders 😄. I mean, those crazy beards, straggly moustaches and Hindi accents – its just cruel.