Screen + Sound + Stage
Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Illustration by Aishwaryashree
I am perched on my swivel chair in front of the desktop in my home office, and Srishti Behl Arya, director of International Original Films at Netflix India, is seated before a warm, wood-finish wall in her own home, a pile of books visible in the corner of the screen. Her current role and ongoing responsibilities have become all the more relevant as home audiences are consuming entertainment almost exclusively on OTT platforms, each jostling with the other to grab viewers’ attention.
Srishti joined Netflix India in 2018 and proclaims to be “the luckiest girl in the world” because her work involves everything that she is passionate about. Currently, she is in a happy place – at home and at work – one that embraces her interests and enables her to express her passion for the movies. She tells me, “I am a creative executive on the films’ team, and I work with an incredible group of bright, driven people who are fans of entertainment. Together, we are building a diverse slate of original Indian films for Netflix subscribers. We read scripts and support creators, wherever they need us, to make their vision come to life in its best possible form.”
It can be said that movies are in the 40-something’s DNA. The daughter of film producer Ramesh Behl and grand-niece of actor Rajendra Kumar, she and her siblings, Goldie, Shradha and Tania, grew up in a home where conversations about cinema were a part of their daily routine. On his sister’s early hobbies, Goldie says, “Didi was somebody who would read a lot. And we used to watch movies, but there was quite a bit of difference in our tastes. She always liked films that had a great moral attached to them; she liked stuff that was sensible. And now that I look back at her choices, they always had great aesthetics. I preferred the more violent, action-oriented kind of stuff.”
Ruchi Narain, the director of Guilty, a 2020-Netflix original movie about a college rape that is set against the backdrop of 2018’s #MeTooIndia movement, feels that Srishti’s attitude and belief system have “propelled her to lead the feature film-making journey on streaming platforms in India.” She recalls, “I have known Srishti for many years. At our very first meeting for Guilty, she started by saying, ‘We are only here to witness your vision for the film and support you to achieve it’. I had never heard these words before, and my heart leapt with joy. Her ability to speak to a creator’s heart and mind separately is what makes Srishti unique and invaluable.”
This comment underlines the huge part Srishti plays in helping talent she believes in, like Ruchi, to follow through with their ideas. The executive initially worked with an advertising agency and soon switched to independently producing films. She also ventured into television series production and was at that time also involved with creative programming for various scripted shows across different digital platforms.
Last year alone, through Netflix, viewers were presented with titles as varied as Class of ’83, Yeh Ballet, Bulbbul, Ghost Stories, Raat Akeli Hai, and Maska. On the rise of OTT platforms, Srishti says, “When I was growing up, satellite television had just about come in, and a few films were made to directly release on that broadcaster. It was the time when everyone did everything. What continues to be consistent today is that I am still looking at alternate ways of films being seen. People come and tell me the stories that they want to share, tales that they cannot keep within themselves anymore. They could be inspired by a book, based on real life, or something that is completely out of the writer’s visceral space. It could be in the form of an anthology like Lust Stories or Ghost Stories or a mini-series. [Srishti’s emphasis is on promoting original film titles in a variety of formats] It is our duty to enable them to tell these stories in their best form, for maximum entertainment.”
Excerpts from the conversation….
How did movies factor into your growing up years?
The advantage of being in a film family was that we watched many trial shows, which most people do not get to see. I also watched many international television series like Dynasty and Dallas on video cassettes. Recently, I loved the movie Article 15.
Like everyone, what I want to feel or am feeling at the moment has always driven my choices of viewing. As a kid, though, I had more conscious exposure to cinema that my parents drove. We saw the English films that they wanted to watch as well as the classic Hindi films that they had grown up on, and we also watched whatever was new in the theatres. We lived close to Chandan Cinema in Juhu, so much of my movie watching happened there as well.
Did being around so many people from the industry from an early age shape your thinking? Who did you look up to?
My father was from Amritsar and did not really have any connections in the business when he came here, so there was always an understanding of an India that was outside, but my mother is from a film family. I have just always enjoyed being around artistes. And it has been a privilege to see people who were passionately driven – whether it was watching people like Mr. [Amitabh] Bachchan, who did a fair amount of work with our family, or Shabana [Azmi] who was bringing in the alternate cinema at that point in time.
I was inspired by women like Sai Paranjpye who was the rage at the time, in terms of being a new woman director who was making a difference. And then later, I actually witnessed that kind of power developing in the industry, with storytellers getting more and more diverse.
Tell us about the major turning points in your career.
I was 17 years old when our father died, and I did not really have a clear career path before me. Along with Goldie, I had to shoulder the responsibilities of his production house [Rose Movies]. That was kind of the moment in which I found the passion of my life, which is to enable people to tell their stories. So, I think that just getting thrust into a situation worked out for me because I discovered something that is so much a part of me. I have enjoyed every piece of content, whether it is a film, a show or even unscripted stuff that I have done earlier. Each has been a turning point, a great learning experience and an opportunity to get into something else. And then, of course, getting the call from Netflix….
Goldie mentioned how different both of your tastes in movies used to be. Did working together change that? Today, what do you look for before green-lighting a project?
As brother and sister, we grew up with similar experiences but saw them from different points of view. Let me say that he was more into Star Wars, and I was more into Star Trek – if that is a difference that you can identify! And he has been more global-oriented while I have always been a lot more about India.
There are essentially two kinds of stories that viewers enjoy. First, it is those where we see ourselves reflected on screen; something so authentic and real that you can either completely identify with or have seen in some form or the other around you – like the inspirational Yeh Ballet or a grandmother’s tale like Bulbbul. And second, those stories where we see something that is so far removed from our lives, like the Korean dramas. Class of ’83 is an ode to growing up in a time when the “Angry Young Man” dominated.
It is about telling the story in its best possible form. Not everything appeals to everyone across the board. The idea is not to think about one type of content or one person or something that is one size fits all. Great content speaks to different people at different levels.
You put your subscriber first, if there is authenticity and passion in the film-maker, then that is the reason to do that title. For instance, when the script for Guilty came to us, I immediately knew that we had to take it on. As a director, Ruchi has a unique voice, and I was excited to find out how she would imagine this story. It was a remarkably engaging and unexpected take on #MeToo and made you question yourself and think about how you look at things.
So, is a lot of it about following your gut?
Green-lighting is a very human process; it has a lot of intuition. We know what is likely to work based on what has come out already. We also try to see if there is something that we are not doing enough of. Is there something missing? But it is a lot of chemistry – all the right ingredients coming together on every single title.
I would like to believe that I am spontaneous; it allows one to be adaptable and see things from other people’s points of view at different moments in time. Part of the ability to be creative is to go a little bit by the flow but have a clear direction that you are swimming in. And I guess this is my personal mantra as well. I do not separate my personal and professional self.
Do you prioritise creators with previous film experience or any sort of formal training?
No, not really. People come from different spaces. Two years ago, Udai Singh Pawar, the associate director for the Akshay Kumar-starrer Airlift, debuted with Netflix as an independent director when he made Upstarts. He had graduated from IIT Kanpur and worked in Microsoft Research in Bengaluru. He eventually assisted Raja Krishna Menon on Airlift and later branched out on his own. On the other hand, Anvita [Dutt] started off as a creative director in advertising; she then became a lyricist, dialogue writer and finally a film-maker. But you also have people who go abroad, study film-making and then come into the business.
We are all receiving perspectives from diverse points of view, so more people get to identify with the content. It is not gender specific. There is a certain democratisation that has happened to content and that is why we like to believe that this is the golden age of entertainment for creators, and for the consumers as well, because there is so much to choose from. And we are really fortunate that a number of female creators have come forward. But obviously, we would like people to know their craft because there are also many others involved, those who invest in a film in terms of time, belief, and creativity.
Last year, Bela Bajaria was appointed Netflix’s Vice President of Global Television. According to you, how does having an Indian-origin woman in that position influence content creation?
Bela has always been a champion of India because she feels hugely connected to us, and it is great to see somebody like her representing us on the global stage at such a powerful moment. In India, we function only out of this region and have our own mandates. We also have Monika [Shergill] here, and we work tightly as a team with other incredible executives as well.
Bela brings new eyes to the whole business. And, of course, we are hoping that her soft spot for India will continue as far as her keeping an eye on what we are doing and telling us how we can do better. I look forward to a lot more representation because we know how strongly she believes in inclusion and diversity. She has been an icon for that within Netflix, before she joined as well. And it is a great sign that someone who hails from a non-traditional Hollywood upbringing is able to commission content for the world.
Thanks to the pandemic, Netflix is now an intrinsic part of urban Indian culture. How has that affected you and your team?
I think we have learnt to be grateful for what we have – jobs, a company that has been super supportive. We are also deeply grateful that we have been able to provide people with some kind of escape in this extremely hard time. And that puts a certain sense of responsibility on us. It was amazing to see how our teams and partners came together during the pandemic and continued to entertain the audience with amazing stories. We launched 17 titles in 2020, across genres from drama to comedy, and we are thrilled by the love and appreciation they received.
Increased viewership would also be accompanied by even more public opinion. How do you deal with criticism or negative feedback that comes your way?
At Netflix, we are encouraged to try new things. Some work and others do not, but as long as you try your best, you will either get it right or learn something new. That is my mantra. So, if something has not resonated, I will try harder next time. What we do is very subjective; one man’s food is another man’s poison. And not taking criticism personally is an art you develop – although you can grow through taking criticism into account.
If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like: The Sum of their Parts: An examination of the specific appearance of truth within four Netflix releases from Verve’s Cinema Issue