As night falls in Mumbai’s central suburbs, it is time for “Netflix hour” in the Gilotra household.
“When our daughter has gone to bed, my wife and I have an hour to ourselves and that’s when we want to spend some time with each other, watch some video and relax. It is usually around 10.30 p.m.,” says Amandeep Gilotra, a 35-year-old who works in IT. He and his wife, a content writer, are fans of the streaming service, which became available in India in 2016.
The couple are two among millions of Netflix users in India. But the American streaming giant faces some serious competition here. According to a December 2017 survey, Hotstar, the local Indian streaming platform had 75 million monthly subscribers, compared to just 5 million for Netflix.
But that hasn’t discouraged the company, which is betting big on India. In February, Netflix announced its plans to make new original content for an Indian audience. “These three series, from the scary to the supernatural, represent the tremendous diversity that Indian storytelling holds for a global audience,” Erik Barmack, Netflix’s vice president of international original series, said at the time. Separately, Netflix has announced four other shows to come. Two other productions—a romantic comedy and an anthology film set in India—are already available on the platform.
The company is perhaps hoping to capitalize on the sheer number of Indian users logging on to the internet. In 2017, India replaced the U.S. to become the second-largest smartphone market, just behind China. A study by Cisco predicts that there could be 780 million connected smartphones in India by 2021, up from 359 million in 2016. According to the same report, internet traffic is set to quadruple over the same period. That explosion makes the road ahead look profitable for any video company that streams content to smartphones.
But the launch of Sacred Games, an eight-episode journey through Mumbai’s seedy underworld, on July 6 has already caused a stir. The series—made for India, by Indians—has violence, abusive language, and a cast of well-known Bollywood stars like you’ve never seen them before. Unlike most Bollywood movies, they don’t break into spontaneous song and dance with a cast of random people synchronizing steps behind them. Based on a 2006 best-selling novel by Vikram Chandra, the series follows a Mumbai police officer, played by Saif Ali Khan, who is investigating a criminal ganglord, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
For Indian viewers, that grittiness can come too close to blurring the line between fiction and reality. Just four days after its high-profile release, Netflix found itself embroiled in a political controversy that has drawn in in loyalists from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and a prime ministerial hopeful from the opposition party. Now, it finds itself facing a court case that could threaten the company’s ambitions to find its next 100 million subscribers in India.
A Legal Battle Begins
In a country where films and television shows must follow the specific guidelines of India’s Censor Board, Netflix’s dark crime drama stands out. Because India does not currently censor internet content, the show can include more violence, sex scenes, obscene language, and even characters smoking on screen—scenes that would normally be cut or displayed alongside health warnings.
“The wow factor for me is that parts of it refer to real life,” Gilotra says of Sacred Games. “This might have happened or something like this is probably happening. I find that gripping.”
On July 10, Rajeev Kumar Sinha—an opposition Congress party politician from the city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in eastern India—lodged a police complaint against Netflix and actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui over two particularly contentious scenes in Sacred Games that allegedly insult former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. (In one scene in the fourth episode, Nawazzudin Siddiqui’s character calls Gandhi fattu, translated in the subtitles as “pussy.”) Netflix has declined TIME’s requests for comment; Siddiqui has not responded.
The scenes have sparked a war of words between India’s two main political parties—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party leading a coalition government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the Congress party, which was in power for close to five decades. Often called India’s grand old party, Congress has suffered electoral defeats since Modi came to power with a landslide majority in the last general election in 2014. Many Congress party supporters hope that Rahul Gandhi, son of Rajiv, can lead the party to victory in India’s general elections next year. (Rajiv became India’s Prime Minister in 1984 after his mother, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated; Rajiv was assassinated in 1991.)
At the heart of the current debate is the question of whether a fictional character in a streaming show should be allowed to abuse a former Indian Prime Minister. Lawyers representing Netflix have said in a statement that an important issue is whether or not one has to be more tolerant about comments or opinions expressed about public figures.
In a police complaint letter that has since gone viral on social media, Sinha, 37, wrote “Nawazuddin Siddiqui is seen abusing our late Prime Minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi and calling him Fattu (Pussy as translated in the subtitle of the show) and misrepresenting facts during his period.”
Speaking to TIME from Kolkata, Sinha expressed his displeasure with the series. “The use of abusive language is not justified. I don’t think we can go back into history and abuse people this way.”
It’s not unusual for political battles in India to be fought on Twitter. Modi, an early adopter, has 43.2 million Twitter followers; Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition, trails behind at 7.2 million. When Sinha’s letter was shared widely on social media, a response came swiftly from Amit Malviya, the man in charge of BJP’s information and technology. He tweeted “[The] Congress [party] remains steadfast in its commitment to muzzling freedom of expression.” He later tweeted a scene from the series with the reference to Rajiv Gandhi.
The controversy snowballed when Rahul Gandhi waded into the discussion. “BJP/RSS believe the freedom of expression must be policed & controlled. I believe this freedom is a fundamental democratic right. My father lived and died in the service of India. The views of a character on a fictional web series can never change that.” This tweet was liked 32,000 times within 24 hours.
Separately, Nikhil Bhalla, a member of the Congress party’s legal team, has also filed a petition against Netflix in the Delhi High Court asking the company to delete scenes that make a reference to the former Prime Minister. The court has already had two hearings. In a statement, the legal team representing Netflix said it had “unilaterally and owing to an internal decision” replaced the word “pussy” in the subtitle with the more appropriate translation of “wimp.” It said the change is in the process of being implemented. There is still no final judgment in the case and the court will reconvene in August.
The Road Ahead for Netflix
Some analysts think that movie stars and producers in India are “easy targets.”Aavishkar Gawande a film critic and trade analyst based in Mumbai says, “Everyone seems to use filmmakers for their political ends. Netflix shouldn’t really bother about this—they are releasing the series world over.”
It isn’t unusual for religious groups and politicians to criticize how characters or historical incidents are portrayed in films. Earlier this year, a film called Padmavat based on the life of a 14th century Hindu queen and a Muslim ruler, sparked fierce protests across India. Angered by how the Hindu Queen was portrayed, a caste group vandalized the film set and slapped the film director. More recently, a Bollywood movie Veeri Di Wedding, described by some as India’s answer to Sex and the City, was slammed for, among other things, depicting a woman masturbating on screen. “[Critics said] this isn’t Indian culture,” says Gawande, dismissing the idea that watching the movie would harm Indian traditions.
Despite the obstacles, Netflix hopes to launch its next series, Ghoul, in August. Co-produced by Blumhouse Productions, which has also produced Paranormal Activity and HBO’s Sharp Objects, Ghould has been billed by Netflix as “its first Indian original horror series.” The Hindi-language series follows a military interrogator, played by Bollywood star Radhika Apte, who arrives at a remote detention center and uncovers otherworldly terrorists detained there.
Earlier this week, Netflix released less-than-stellar subscriber numbers for its second quarter, and acknowledged the company had “over-forecasted” both domestic and global net subscriber additions.
But Akshaye Rathi, a film exhibitor and distributor based in the Indian city of Nagpur, thinks it’s not too late for Netflix to enter the market in India. “I think after Amazon Prime, Hotstar, Voot, Alt Balaji and all the others occupying this space there is still more space for 20 more,” he says. “We are a country of 1.2 billion people and we love entertainment.”
At the same time, he thinks Netflix isn’t for everyone. “Netflix is trying to cater to a urban youth audience. It is a niche audience. The kind of content [available] wouldn’t appeal to an audience in a small town that will go and watch the latest Bollywood movie.” Other platforms do that, and that’s where the difference lies.
A hint about the kind of Indian customers Netflix is targeting is in the pricing. It is one of the most expensive streaming services available in India, starting at 500 rupees a month (roughly $7.34)—a price far higher than competitors like Amazon Prime, which charge about 999 rupees (roughly $14.58) for annual subscriptions.
In a country with an average annual per capita income of $1,670, Netflix is out of reach for many—especially when so much content is already available on cheaper platforms, including traditional cable TV channels.
But the big advantage Netflix has had—at least for now—over cable TV and Bollywood is the freedom to make content free from censorship.
“One thing we’ve been doing in the entertainment industry in India is underestimating the intelligence of the audience,” Rathi says, speaking about the Censor Board in India. Others argue that for a country as diverse as India, a statutory board is necessary to regulate and standardize content.
In a statement regarding his petition to the court, Bhalla said he wanted the court to “consider the void in the regulatory framework that governs what Netflix can and cannot show in India.” He insisted they were not “asking for any censorship but there has to be some basic mechanism to ensure that the content shown is neither defamatory nor scandalous or against the interest of the country.”
Although the legal team representing Netflix says the subtitle change in Sacred Games was an internal decision, it’s not yet clear what future rulings might mean for the kind of content the company creates for Indian audiences. With the next hearing scheduled for August 6, the Delhi Court holds the fate of Netflix’s success in India in its hands. Whatever happens next, executives at Netflix’s headquarters in California will no doubt be watching.