Beginners Guides is a new series on Chime that aims to introduce readers to content in other parts of the world that they may not explore otherwise.
Although I wish it wasn’t so, the two global streaming giants, Netflix and Amazon (i.e. US companies with an international footprint), account for the top five shows in this list. Perhaps it’s the bigger budgets, Western story-telling or high level of Indian talent – writers, directors and actors – that have been sucked into the global streamers’ vortex, but these are the top five series that I’m recommending to friends who don’t usually watch Indian content.
5. GHOUL (NETFLIX)
Directed by: Patrick Graham
Written by: Patrick Graham, Kartik Krishnan, Sarang Sathaye
Starring: Radhika Apte, Manav Kaul, Mahesh Balraj
Radhika Apte stars in this three-part horror miniseries, inspired by Arab folklore, which like Leila is set in a dystopian future India, although this story has more emphasis on how the threat of terrorism is used to justify draconian controls. Apte plays a military officer, who turns in her own father, but is thanked for her loyalty by being assigned to a remote detention centre where havoc reigns when a suspected terrorist turns up. Although described as horror, it’s more psychological drama with supernatural elements, which is probably a better idea than the many over-worked horror tropes out there. Born of a pact between US production houses Blumhouse and Ivanhoe Pictures and India’s Phantom Films, Ghoul started life as a film that was later extended into a three-parter when Netflix came on board, a decision that was only partly successful as it feels stretched in parts and character development could be sharper. But it’s an original concept and strong in the technical aspects, particularly cinematography and sound design.
4. LITTLE THINGS (NETFLIX)
Written by: Dhruv Sehgal
Directed by: Ruchir Arun
Starring: Dhruv Sehgal, Mithila Palkar
This is basically a two-hander, revolving around the conversations of a young couple living together in Mumbai, which I was fully expecting to quickly become tedious, but soon had me hooked due to the honesty and simplicity of the writing. It doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that they’re not married, she earns more money than him and never steps into the kitchen, and that he wants to be cool with all that, but can’t help feeling a bit insecure. They grapple with issues like work-life balance and their different attitudes towards ambition, lifestyle and money in conversations that have been happening all over the planet for the past few decades. Sehgal, who wrote the show for Pocket Aces, with Netflix coming in for the second season, has achieved that rare feat of creating a world that is unmistakably India but also universal. Of course, this is not the experience of every young Indian, but Sehgal knows how to talk to his specific (20-something, urban professional) audience. Other characters appear but this is all about two people trying to figure out how to be a couple in a world that is changing faster than their parents could ever have imagined.
3. SACRED GAMES (NETFLIX)
Written by: Varun Grover, Vasant Nath, Smita Singh, Nihit Bhave, Dhruv Narang, Pooja Tolani
Directed by: Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Neeraj Ghaywan
Starring: Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Neeraj Kabi, Radhika Apte, Kalki Koechlin, Aamir Bashir, Pankaj Tripathi, Ranvir Shorey
Probably the best-known Hindi web series outside of India, Sacred Games is based on Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel of the same name and has already moved past the source material with a second season, while a third has been teased by a cliff-hanger but is unconfirmed. Saif Ali Khan plays a principled but troubled cop, who receives a phone call from a notorious gangster (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) telling him he has only 25 days to save the city of Mumbai from total destruction. The gangster then blows his own brains out before the end of the first episode, leaving us to wonder if Siddiqui was only playing a cameo. But as the clock starts ticking, we get a second timeline stretching back to the 1980s, tracing the gangster’s rise to power from village hick to slum lord.
As the series progresses and the two timelines start to converge in the present day, we get a sense of cause and effect, action and consequence, which ties nicely into the Indian mythology that underpins the story and is used to title each episode. If that sounds too esoteric, there’s also sex, violence, social history and political corruption, a weird religious cult and an impressive ensemble cast (although Radhika Apte doesn’t make it very far through the series unfortunately). The story starts to lose its way in the second season, as it packs in too many superfluous subplots, but it keeps you engaged enough to hope for a third outing.
2. DELHI CRIME (NETFLIX)
Written and directed by: Richie Mehta
Starring: Shefali Shah, Rajesh Tailang, Rasika Dugal, Adil Hussain
Indo-Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta conducted six years of research before shooting this tense dramatisation of the days following the horrific 2012 Delhi gang rape, during which local police tracked down and captured all six of the men involved. Although partly fictionalised, this attention to detail shines through in the story, as does the performance of Shefali Shah, playing the DCP who has investigated countless rapes, but is shocked by the brutality of this one. By focusing so tightly on the manhunt, Mehta does not give us the victim’s back story – and only glosses over the legal and social structures that enable crimes of this nature to happen in the first place – but perhaps this was a necessary compromise to avoid censorship. Delhi police are depicted as a motley bunch of old-fashioned cops, sometimes lazy and inefficient, but ultimately victims themselves of a system that is over-burdened and under-funded. Local viewers may find this cliched, but for outsiders who have only experienced depictions of India via Bollywood or exoticised Western films, this is about as real a Delhi as we’ve ever seen.
1. MADE IN HEAVEN (AMAZON PRIME)
Written by: Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti, Vasundhara Koshy, Anil Lakhwani, Alankrita Shrivastava
Directed by: Nitya Mehra, Zoya Akhtar, Prashant Nair, Alankrita Shrivastava
Starring: Arjun Mathur, Sobhita Dhulipala, Jim Sarbh, Kalki Koechlin, Shashank Arora, Shivani Raghuvanshi
The initial premise – two wedding planners in Delhi – did not sound promising, but we soon learn that one of them is a gay guy, in debt to his parents and shadier characters after a failed nightclub venture, and the other a girl from a modest background who has married into a wealthy industrialist family. They plan weddings for crazy rich Indians, and while on the surface this is light and frothy and not totally devoid of Bollywood melodrama, it delves into issues like patriarchy, class, dowry extortion and India’s criminalisation of homosexuality without the usual clichés we see in either Bollywood or well-intentioned indie cinema. Each episode is set against the backdrop of a different wedding, and while it occasionally celebrates the excess that it aims to question, it also goes places with relatable characters that we have never seen before in Indian film or television. For me, the best thing about this series is that it doesn’t preach – it has a lot to say but also entertains – and that is likely the best approach in this new OTT universe for creating content that works with both local and international audiences.