So, finally Netflix is in India - perhaps sooner than one expected although its imminent launch in the country has been doing the rounds for some time. Given its long history from the time they started couriering video cassettes to American homes to their latest model of streaming high definition content via the Internet, Netflix has been a brand that has won the hearts and minds of millions of movie buffs across the (developed) world. Its recent foray into original productions exclusively for its subscribers made access to its service more coveted and grand too.
Whenever I saw the announcement of a new original production by Netflix - be it Narcos or Beasts of No Nation - I looked up the company website which told me that the “service is not available in your country”. But last night, the doors were open. There was no entry barrier. What greeted me instead was the pricing - Rs 500, which in dollar terms was cheaper than their US pricing of US $ 9.99.
Setting up the account was over in a minute and I was ready to stream without even paying a rupee because the connection is free for a month. They do take your credit card details, but won’t charge you for a month. During this period, you can exit (discontinue your subscription) without paying anything and after watching as many movies or series or documentaries you want.
I signed up for the Rs.800-a-month connection, which is the most expensive among the three options they have in India. Rs.500 is the basic connection, which offers access to everything but in standard definition (must be like the normal DVD quality); Rs.650 is for HD and Rs 800 for HD and UHD (4K). The prices also decide how many devices you can use with a single subscription. On a Rs.800-connection, you can stream to four devices, including your smart TV.
So, here I was at about 3AM ready to browse on my Android TV through the Neflix app. If you have an Android TV, it does come with a pre-installed Netflix app. All you need is to sign in (I had already signed up using my computer) and click a few of your favourite genres and titles so that Netflix can suggest the movies and series you may want to watch. There are a number of original series, movies, documentaries, TV productions etc, all arranged according to various genres.
However, after a few minutes of browsing, I wasn’t too sure if the repertoire matched my excitement. I searched for a few masters and contemporary film makers, but there were only a handful. For instance, the search for Tarantino and Robert De Niro returned only a couple of titles. Similarly, there were hardly any arthouse or indie titles that evoked critical response in the recent past. Perhaps I was wrong with my idea of a never-ending repertoire. In fact, I thought the list was too limited. My cable channels provide much more - that too in HD - at Rs.300 a month.
This will be the biggest challenge for Netflix because India feasts on countless cable channels and Torrents and their list is virtually endless. On torrents, one could source movies from any part of the world, including those silly home-videos from Nigeria, on standard broadband connections. In a country where illegal downloads are strictly prohibited, Netflix’s library might look attractive, albeit partially; but in India, it doesn’t, that too at this cost. Their Indian collection is very poor except for an occasional Piku or Fandry. There were no regional language films at all.
In fact, as a streaming service, Netflix was late to arrive in India. In the last few months, I have tried at least two-three services - MUBI, Google Movies and Reelmonk, of which MUBI follows a monthly subscription model (Rs 300) and the other two, a per-movie pricing. Google Movies is brilliant because it features a lot of new Indian movies that may not get a wide release. Recently I watched Titli in HD on Google Play. The prices are high if you watch it alone, but if you are with a family, it works out cheaper than a multiplex. Reelmonk is for south Indian films, mostly Malayalam, at the moment and the prices are similar to Google Movies. Here again, it offers movies that are hard to find in theatres. I recently watched “Ottal”, which won the top honours at the International Film Festival of Kerala and many other awards in international festivals. I feel good paying for these movies, because bulk of it goes to the producers, who hardly recover their costs. Reelmonk also delivers in HD.
MUBI is similar to Netflix, but their library is unique. They stock mostly Indie films and classics, and they deliver it as a curated bouquet of 30 films every month. Their USP is indie and films that are rare to find. That somebody is curating them for you makes a lot of difference. I do find rare gems in their collection.
It will be very interesting to see how Netflix fares in India. In the past, most of the international entertainment companies didn't want to touch India because of piracy, which is not going to disappear. If Netflix has to survive, it has to do it in a market infested with piracy. To win the support of movie-buffs in India, they have to deliver on a menu that is as compelling as or better than what’s available on Torrents.
By the way, on my 50 mbps connection, the streaming of Netflix was good. I tried Narcos in 4K, which appeared brilliant and tried a few other films in HD, which were also equally good. The sound was true 5.1. But how many in India have download speeds greater than 4 mbps and liberal data-packages?
The writer is a former journalist and UN official who writes on social and political issues. He has worked for PTI and THE HINDU for a decade and for United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Asia Pacific countries for 11 years. Most recently, he was a senior editor with Firstpost.