It takes the Netflix India publicity team and me about a month of to-and-fro emails outlining interview briefs and tentative questions to get Netflix India’s creative boss, Monika Shergill, to sit over a herbal tea and talk about what tier 1 and 2 India will be watching for the next couple of years. Netflix is known globally not only for its stringent hiring and firing protocols, but also how it will talk to the media. Belying the precisely formal expectations that seemed to foreground the interview, though, our meeting at the Renaissance Hotel & Convention Centre in Powai, Mumbai, is a breezy chat.
Shergill, 47, dressed in a casual black Tee, denim pants and a long, diaphanous, white mulmul shrug, isn’t as practised in setting the agenda as I had expected. Barely half an hour into the conversation, as topics veer from her criteria for choosing Indian originals to Bollywood dominance on OTTs, she says: “I promise you, in the next few months to a year you will see what I mean when I say we are serious about diversity—be it in original writing voices or acting talent or genres. I will be answering very different questions after a few months when our next slate drops.”
These are some of the titles she is excited about: Dhamaka, based on the Korean film The Terror Live (2013), directed by Ram Madhvani and with Kartik Aaryan in the lead role as a journalist who receives a threat after he interviews a terrorist; Decoupled, a show created by author-journalist Manu Joseph and directed by Hardik Mehta, a comedy about the conscious uncoupling of a modern couple; and Aranyak, directed by Vinay Waikul, an intense thriller about small-town crime in which Raveena Tandon plays the lead role of a police officer heading the investigation. “These are stories that reflect characters you may not have seen on the Indian screen. In Aranyak, for example, interpersonal relationships play such an important role in how the character of Raveena Tandon investigates,” says Shergill.
For obvious reasons, the pandemic has accelerated the shift to streaming. Shergill says the demand for novelty is much more pronounced than it was even three years ago: “As we have experienced on Netflix, Indian audiences are a lot more open to experimenting with stories from different cultures than before. From K-dramas to Spanish soaps and anime, the tastes have moved beyond Hollywood titles. Even format experimentation has gone up significantly, with audiences watching a lot more documentaries and reality shows and hybrid formats.” Two Indian shows she says still stand out the world over are Sacred Games and Delhi Crime. Films such as Haseen Dillruba and AK Vs AK have been viewed substantially across the world, and Shergill is set to add non-fiction titles to the mix.
Three years ago, around the time Netflix set up a team in India, I had met Ted Sarandos, its US-based co-CEO and chief content officer, at the Mumbai International Film Festival. Sarandos had said the stories that worked best for Netflix were those in which the country- or culture-specific elements were strong, and the best productions transcended the local and became a universal story.
Shergill emphasises that as vice-president, content, this is a mandate she and her team have followed while green-lighting projects. She works closely with Netflix India’s Tanya Bami, head-series, and Pratiksha Rao, director, films and licensing. The all-women team at the top (50% of the workforce in Netflix globally comprises women) is responsible for all the titles and properties Netflix green-lights and develops in India.
Shergill, who joined Netflix India in 2019 as head-series, international originals, took over as the creative head earlier this year after the much publicised exit of a number of executives, including Srishti Behl, the director, international original film, who reported to her. Media reports hinted that Behl’s Bollywood-heavy strategy did not align with the company’s mandate for diversity in storytelling.
Netflix is, in fact, noted for a firing practice that sees managers and executives constantly asking themselves if they would fight to keep an employee—if not, they are let go. Shergill spells out their textbook rule for decision-makers: Hire for attitude and train for skill. “Beyond the fundamental requirement for a role,” she adds, “I believe in leaning into people who bring the right mindset to a job in terms of being team players, using their passion and courage to try the new, and have a constant learning approach.”
She says it is easy to forget one’s gender at work: “Who wants to be called a female executive or a female director? But gender informs the way we think. Men and women come at solving a problem in different ways, and in Netflix we are aware of that. Even in the post-MeToo world, there’s a lot to be done; all of us have the responsibility to set the right example.”
Post-pandemic, the Netflix India growth story is brighter than it has ever been. This month, it reported 66% growth in gross revenue, at ₹1,529.36 crore, for the fiscal year that ended on 31 March, against ₹923.33 crore in the previous fiscal cycle. The growth, according to a company statement, has come largely from sustained membership increase. Netflix, which offers subscription plans ranging from ₹199-799 a month, has over five million paid subscribers in India, according to Media Partners Asia (MPA).
In August, Disney+Hotstar had 46.4 million, well ahead by numbers. Yet Netflix is to 21st century entertainment what Xerox was to photocopying—the name that has a generic connotation by virtue of making the viewing experience solitary rather than familial or communal, as is the case with movies or television.
In India, subscription-driven services are more popular in tier 1 and 2 towns. The free services go deeper. India is an unusual market, with a lot of premium content in front of the paywall. And as the world’s second largest mobile phone market, it’s uniquely positioned to cater to individual, rather than family or community, tastes.
Shergill says their numbers are a result of consciously choosing a diverse set of stories. “Sometimes our volume can confound people—how are we programming so much? We cater to every member out there. As you keep watching, you will discover more. Which is why we experiment more, program different stories, because we know that audiences’ tastes differ and audiences’ moods differ.”
Shergill, who has been in the field of linear television programming since the 1990s, says you can’t stick to a formula in this era. “The one thing at the heart of how we program is that we operate like fans of entertainment. All the teams, whether it’s my Spanish counterpart or my Korean counterpart, are looking for stories that are novel, stories that are very meaningful and potentially very entertaining. We look at the creator’s vision. It’s very important to understand why a creator wants to tell a story—who do they want to reach through it and how do they see the stories impacting those people,” she says.
Her role is the culmination of a journey that began in the early 1990s, when she finished college in Delhi and landed a job as a journalist covering the environment in the iconic show Living On The Edge.
“As a young environment journalist, I was part of a very risky sting operation shoot in an acid factory where I got caught and was gravely threatened and locked up for several hours. It required a lot of courage and common sense to get myself and my crew out of a very tough situation without losing the evidence we had taped. It made me realise that some things in life are worth fighting for and it requires multiple skills in tandem to navigate a difficult situation.”
In 2015, when she was offered the position of programming head for a streaming service (Voot, Viacom 18’s OTT platform), she was anxious about the change but took the plunge nonetheless. “The best opportunities come with some uncertainty and you have to stay teachable in life to grow.”
Shergill grew up in the sugar belt in Uttar Pradesh, an “army cantonment” kind of a gated community called Daurala Sugar Works, where her father was an engineer and mother, a homemaker. She would travel to Meerut’s Sophia Convent by school bus and spend hours in the school’s library. “My memory of the one thing that shaped my choice of career was The World This Week, Prannoy Roy’s news show that used to air on Doordarshan every Friday night. I wanted to travel and report,” Shergill recalls.
After graduating in English honours from Miranda House, Delhi, she completed a master’s in journalism from Symbiosis College in Pune, Maharashtra. She moved to Mumbai and to fiction a few years later, and, over the next decade, worked across networks (Star, Sony, Zee) and formats, from soaps and reality shows to long-format fiction as well as non-fiction programmes.
Her introduction to streaming was through Voot. “I was part of the core team that set up Voot. It was a steep learning experience initially, not so much from the content point of view but just the difference between broadcast and streaming. From a storytelling perspective, linear gave me a lot of rigour in terms of meeting timelines. In cinema, you can keep pushing the date, in streaming you don’t have a fixed date of release but you have a responsibility of putting it out there. That’s a lot of learning and unlearning.”
Five years ago, while she was at Voot, Shergill was diagnosed with breast cancer. She continued to work from office through her treatment. “It was a tough period,” she says, “but it really made me meet my tenacious and most winning self. I worked, laughed and lived it up with scarf looks. It was also a period of deep reflection and it has made me value every relationship and opportunity in my life so much more.”
“Streaming is almost like a forcing function for innovation,” Shergill says. Some of the best compliments about her professional life now come from friends of her 17-year-old daughter, she adds. “Boys in her class think I am the coolest mom!”
Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based journalist and screenwriter.