Netflix had a lot to announce at its virtual See What’s Next India event on Wednesday, as it unveiled 41 titles across original movies (13), series (15), comedy specials (six), documentaries (four), and reality TV (three) for the year of 2021. There are some big names on Netflix India’s slate now (possibly thanks to a boost provided by COVID-19), including the likes of Madhuri Dixit Nene, Karan Johar, Sonakshi Sinha, Anushka Sharma, Dhanush, Raveena Tandon, Mani Ratnam, Taapsee Pannu, and Kartik Aaryan. But the biggest names don’t always translate to the biggest successes, as we’ve seen on Netflix (and Bollywood) in the past. At times, it’s the exact opposite.
With that in mind, here are the nine most exciting announcements from Netflix’s 41 upcoming Indian originals.
Little Things season 4
It may have started out as a cutesy frivolous comedy, but Little Things creator and star Dhruv Sehgal has slowly blossomed the half-hour comedy-drama into a mature and nuanced exploration of a millennial relationship. And its third season went even beyond that, as it looked at the lives of the millennial’s parents (the generation prior, in other words), and portrayed — as I said in my review — how the “changing nature of Indian cities due to a push towards urbanisation is erasing the charm and humanity that’s more present in the relationships built in small cities.” Little Things season 3 was, I’d argue, the best season of an Indian Netflix series yet — and that sets some big expectations for season 4.
Milestone (Meel Patthar)
Not many might know the name Ivan Ayr — whom I like to call the Asgar Farhadi of India — but the writer-director delivered Netflix’s best Indian film to date in early 2019 with Soni, a deliberately understated look at how exhausting misogynism can get for those who have to bear the brunt of it every single day. Milestone, known as Meel Patthar in Hindi, is Ayr’s next feature-length directorial effort. Like Soni, it premiered at the Venice Film Festival where it received largely positive reviews.
On Milestone, Ayr follows a middle-aged truck driver who’s dealing with a personal tragedy and facing the prospect of losing his job to a young recruit. And oh, he’s also about to touch 500,000 kilometres milestone on his truck. That’s a ripe set-up for commenting on the life of India’s underprivileged and poorest sections, which is all the more relevant in the aftermath of a pandemic that has reportedly wiped away over 140 million jobs, chiefly for migrants.
When it was originally unveiled by Voot in 2018 as “X-Ray”, an anthology based on Satyajit Ray’s short stories, with the involvement of multi-National Film Award winner Srijit Mukherji, it seemed like one of the most promising Indian originals on paper. But then like all things Voot, it all but disappeared. Now it’s back, on Netflix’s slate. Perhaps because Voot’s former content chief Monika Shergill is now the content head at Netflix India. Shergill has previously also brought three more series from her Viacom18 days.
Ray, as it’s called now, is even more promising on paper. In addition to Mukherji, Ray also involves directors Abhishek Chaubey and Vasan Bala. Chaubey is one of India’s best directors, I believe, and one of the few who’s dedicated to a parallel cinema scene in Bollywood. He’s best known for Udta Punjab, Sonchiriya, and Ishqiya — that is really good pedigree. Bala, meanwhile, picked up the audience prize at Toronto Film Festival for his pulpy actioner Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota (The Man Who Feels No Pain).
And if all that wasn’t enough, the four-episode Ray also has a terrific cast. We’ve Manoj Bajpayee, Ali Fazal, Kay Kay Menon, and Raghubir Yadav. And there’s Harshvardhan Kapoor, who’s been largely sidelined since Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, and gave us a terrific peek at his capabilities with the cameo in AK vs AK. I really hope this delivers on its potential.
Kota Factory season 2
When it premiered nearly two years ago, Kota Factory was a revelation: a black-and-white slow-burn drama series racking up over 20 million views per episode on YouTube. More importantly, it showed that Indian audiences are willing to engage with a character drama that’s also a sweeping commentary on the state of Indian education. And oh, it further cemented Jitendra Kumar’s place in the hearts of viewers. Kota Factory is finally back for a second season, and hopefully, now that it has the Netflix money, without the annoying in-your-face product placements.
Like Ray, this is once again a marriage of great talents on paper. Manu Joseph, whose award-winning book Serious Men was made into a Netflix film last year, is the brains on this series that’s described as an “uncompromising comedy about the true nature of people, India and marriage.” Joseph is doing this through the lens of a best-selling pulp fiction writer (R. Madhavan) who’s always been second place to his “old foe” Chetan Bhagat. And his personal life is troubled too, where he’s holding onto his estranged wife (Surveen Chawla) for the sake of their daughter.
Decoupled sounds even more exciting when you discover it’s directed by the National Film Award-winner Hardik Mehta — who made his feature-length directorial debut with the Sanjay Mishra-led Kaamyaab, an ode to India’s character actors that also served as a reminder of how cruel Bollywood can be. Kaamyaab was one of my favourite movies from 2020, so naturally, I’m excited to see what he — and Joseph — manage with Decoupled.
And it obviously helps that they have Madhavan (who needs no introduction on what he can bring to a role) and Chawla (notable for her scene-stealing presence on Sacred Games season 2).
This Karan Johar-produced anthology about the third person in a relationship gave me pause for obvious reasons, but my interest piqued after learning that Neeraj Ghaywan is among the four directors tackling the four separate stories. Ghaywan, as I’m sure you’re aware, made his feature debut with Masaan — it won two awards at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, Ghaywan had trouble figuring out what to do with his second movie (a common issue for filmmakers, hence the associated term “sophomore slump”). Ghaywan got roped into Sacred Games season 2 to help with that, but it seems he’s still not ready for a full-length movie. But honestly, I’ll take what I can get.
House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths
The death of 11 family members — one strangled, and the other all hung — in Delhi’s Burari puzzled investigators and terrified the nation. Now nearly three years later, we’re getting a look at the “intricate, complex and sometimes hidden workings of a traditional Indian family,” as House of Secrets attempts to shed light on why an entire family, varying from the age of 77 to 15, killed themselves one fine night. Parched director Leena Yadav might not seem like the obvious choice to helm such a docu-series, but her observant work bodes well for this outing. Here’s hoping it doesn’t end up like the director’s other work.
This isn’t technically a new announcement — it was revealed back in January — but given Netflix included in its slate of 41 titles and how India tends to ignore Chaitanya Tamhane, it’s worth talking about again. Tamhane is another director who made a splash with his directorial debut, with his 2014 Marathi-language courtroom drama Court delivering on three accounts: being true to its world, stinging socio-political commentary, and willing to tell both sides of the story. Now, seven years later, Court also seems ahead of its time.
The international filmmaking community has noticed, because The Disciple, Tamhane’s next movie, has Oscar-winning Alfonso Cuarón as an executive producer. Tamhane is sticking to his roots with The Disciple, which is again in the Marathi language. Though he’s going in a different direction in what he’s tackling, as The Disciple looks at an Indian classical music vocalist (Aditya Modak) who’s spent years studying his craft but begins to wonder if he will ever achieve the excellence he’s striving for. You could almost say that Tamhane is projecting here.
As with The Disciple, we’ve known about this — even longer in fact — since October last year. Mani Ratnam’s top billing as the creative honcho is enough to convince me to give this anthology of nine short films a chance, but there’s also the fact that it involves some fantastic and proven directorial talent. We’ve National Film Award winners in Gautham Menon and K.V. Anand, and prodigies such as Karthick Naren who put out a critically-acclaimed neo-noir thriller at the age of 22. The title comes from the fact that the nine directors will tackle nine rasas (emotions): anger, compassion, courage, disgust, fear, laughter, love, peace, and wonder.