Recently, at a gathering of friends, during a lull in the conversation, someone asked: “So, what have you been watching lately on Netflix?" And someone else laughed and said: “This is the question that has replaced ‘What have you been reading lately?’"

Everyone present subscribed to Netflix and Amazon Prime. Everyone had one or two shows to recommend that they had watched in the last week or two, and the next evening, when my wife and I sat down for our daily entertainment fix, the conversation was: “What was that French serial X was talking about? About that serial killer?" “No, we’ve seen too many serial killers in the last few weeks. Let’s watch that new science-fiction show that Y was recommending." The conversations would have been similar in the homes of several of my friends.

I cannot remember the last time I turned on an Indian television channel for entertainment. It has been video streaming services—or over-the-top (OTT) media—for the last year-and-a-half, ever since Netflix launched in India.

Netflix is dramatically changing the way we consume entertainment in India. It is giving us enormous choice, the ability to watch at our convenience and, of course, it gives us the pleasure of binge-watching. Who wants to wait for one whole week for the next episode to know what happened next? We want to know it now.

(I am mentioning only Netflix here because, in our English-speaking
demographic, it certainly seems to be the most popular OTT service for entertainment—Prime Video is only a part of the Amazon Prime package, and Hotstar has the Indian Premier League, which gives it an outsized viewership figure.)

Going to the theatre to watch a film is an experience larger than the film itself—family outing, date, stolen kisses, popcorn and soft drinks. If a lot of people in the hall are laughing, you also laugh, though you’ve missed the joke. You are moved to tears against your will, just because people all around you are sniffling. And, of course, there is the whole sensory experience. You need to watch some films on the big screen, especially if you like seeing monsters eating skyscrapers.

Television was different. We did not have to move from the sofa to enjoy a film, and we were happy with that for decades. We could always switch channels. All seemed fine with the world. The theatre for that special film experience and, for the rest, television.

But we failed to notice something. We failed to notice that at theatres, show timings were fixed. If you arrived late, you missed the beginning. Similarly, television works on a fixed schedule. Of course, if you could not be home to watch an episode of a favourite serial, you could record it and view it later, but how many of us, other than the most committed viewers, actually did it? (I have done it only twice, for Sherlock and Homeland.)

Yes, I know that a lot of people make it a point to be there when, say, Kaun Banega Crorepati or Indian Idol is on, but here I am talking about a Mint demographic—an English-educated, urban, possibly millennial population.

In other words, the film in the theatre (or the serial on TV) controls your time. A service like Netflix completely inverts that. You control your time—when and how much. You can spend nine hours on a weekend and finish off the full season of a serial. Or you could watch a few episodes of a thriller, take a break with a romcom for a few evenings, and then go back to the mayhem.

And, please remember, you can always rewind if you missed the joke, or pause the film at any time and go to the toilet. That is freedom.

What Netflix has also exposed us to is some great TV shows that we would never have got the chance to watch otherwise—edgy, complex shows from France, Germany, Spain, Poland. Australian serials are a revelation. Watch The Code, Pine Gap, Secret City—superbly crafted stuff, and the happy surprise is that though most of these serials are co-produced by the state-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation, they talk about corruption and downright criminality at the highest levels of government. That is democracy.

Will Doordarshan ever fund such a serial? In fact, even private Indian film producers would baulk at tackling political corruption at a level more sophisticated than that of a murderous thug becoming a minister—Singham is the maximum we can get.

It can work both ways. Netflix and Amazon Prime are still free from Indian censorship, but one does not know for how long. But as long as these services remain outside the net, Indian filmmakers have a chance to make the films they have dreamed of. There are several Indian shows and films on these channels that would never have got financed—or made the way they were—through the usual processes. Of course, there is nudity and foul language. But that is real life.

Netflix and Amazon Prime will change our concept of TV viewership, and what we should demand as intelligent viewers. The format gives the viewer unmatched freedom, and the content gives more highs than Indian television has ever given.

I am not going back to Indian TV.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of Financial Express, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines

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