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Netflix and Amazon look to India for gripping content

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Netflix's Delhi Crime threw the spotlight on the horrific gang rape and death of a young woman in a New Delhi bus.

New York

WITH companies like Netflix and Amazon seeking ever larger international customer bases, one thing that distinguishes the streaming wars from previous TV conflicts is the global scale. And in 2019, India became one of the most hotly contested fronts.

American streamers began dipping their toes in the Indian market in 2017, when Amazon Prime Video released the cricket drama Inside Edge, its first original series from India.

Netflix followed in 2018 with the crime-thriller Sacred Games. But both companies dramatically increased their investment in Indian shows in 2019. They also struck partnerships with some of Bollywood's most beloved actors, writers and producers.

This year Netflix released five original series and eight original films produced in India. Among the most high-profile was the series Bard of Blood, produced by Red Chillies Entertainment, the production house owned by Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan and his wife, Gauri Khan.

In September, the platform also announced a multi-year collaboration deal with Indian producer and director Karan Johar's streaming production house, Dharmatic Entertainment. Johar's first production with Netflix, Drive, was released in November. New projects slated for 2020 include debuts for Bollywood actress Kajol as well as fashion designer Masaba Gupta.

Amazon released 10 original Indian shows in 2019, including the spy series Family Man, starring veteran Bollywood actor Manoj Bajpayee, which was the company's first original series from India to be dubbed in English. (Previous original offerings, such as Inside Edge and Made in Heaven, used a mix of Hindi and English and have been dubbed in other regional languages.) Amazon, too, is pulling in star power: In addition to Bajpayee, his fellow Bollywood leads Akshay Kumar and Anushka Sharma have Amazon projects in the works.

It's easy to see why Netflix and Amazon would want to expand their presence in India, and not just because it is home to 1.3 billion people. As in much of the viewing world, streaming has exploded in the country - at least 30 companies now offer video streaming services there, up from nine in 2012.

What sets the American streamers apart is a focus on original programming and an ability to market series for a global audience. Hotstar, which controls an estimated 75 per cent of India's streaming market, carries critically acclaimed HBO shows such as Succession and a Hindi version of The Office alongside plenty of existing programming from its parent company, Star India. (Like much of the entertainment world, Star is a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Co.) Indian streamers that do carry originals, like Zee5 and Eros Now, have had trouble cracking international markets.

"We look for stories that not only resonate with our Indian members but can also travel globally," a Netflix spokeswoman said. For example, two out of three Sacred Games viewers were from outside India.

The upshot is that a global audience has more access than ever to an array of great South Asian series. Some of the top productions include Delhi Crime, a true-crime anthology series that will follow a different crime investigation each season. In its first season, it retold the horrors of the gang rape and death of a young woman in New Delhi in 2012 in a bus.

Other talked-about shows include Leila, set in a dystopian future and based on a book of the same name; Selection Day, based on the 2016 novel, which follows two brothers with a father who is hyperfocused on training them to be the best cricketers in the country; and Made in Heaven, a series about two friends who run a wedding planning company. NYTIMES