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Home / Analysis / Why we need to acknowledge Netflix’s take on diversity

Why we need to acknowledge Netflix’s take on diversity

Sacred Games portrays Mumbai in all its paradoxical glory, and the need for social, cross-cultural acceptance

analysis Updated: Jul 30, 2018 17:44 IST
Marika Gabriel
Marika Gabriel
Hindustan Times
Netflix's first original Indian series released on July 6 as the US streaming giant battles with Amazon Prime for a slice of India's fast growing on-demand video market.
Netflix's first original Indian series released on July 6 as the US streaming giant battles with Amazon Prime for a slice of India's fast growing on-demand video market. (AFP)

If Frances McDormand’s Oscars speech earlier this year was a clear call to action for ‘Inclusion Riders’ to promote diversity, video streaming giant Netflix decided to go about this differently against answering that call.

For the uninitiated: an Inclusion Rider is a provision added to an actor’s contract ensuring equity of race, sex and authenticity “to match or reflect the demography of where the story is taking place”, according to Dr Stacey Smith, professor, University of Southern California, who coined the term with Kalpana Kotagal, civil rights and employment practice attorney. Put simply, it’s about diversity of content and cast. Netflix, though, isn’t keen on box-ticking, having said that it is “not so big on doing everything through agreements” and is “trying to do things creatively”.

There’s a strong business case for Netflix to do this: With 125 million subscribers of which only 56.71million are in the US (according to Statista/CNN Money), Netflix is catering to viewers all over. At a time when minorities and vulnerable communities are demanding their space in the mainstream, it is the responsibility of the media to represent them in true light and right spirit. Provisions and clauses are not the only means to necessitate diversity and plurality of expression.

If its adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s book Sacred Games, Netflix’s first Indian original, is any indication, the company has got it right. The series shows the viewer (who could be anywhere in the world) an authentic representation of Mumbai in all its paradoxical glory. Poverty, violence, corruption, caste prejudices, are all portrayed, along with the other standard elements that make Mumbai the city of dreams.

American TV too, is seeing a rise in more realistic shows : Orange Is The New Black, Queer Eye, Dear White People, and a number of docu-series on a wide range of social issues portray things as they are (well, almost) . Dear White People tries not to limit itself to the most common stereotype of black, thuggish men most often seen on screen, with a pivotal character being a scrawny, gay, black student coming to terms with, accepting and owning his identity, all while pursuing journalism. Similarly, sci-fi drama Sense 8, ensures that characters across the world are indigenous to the ethnic group that they play, including the lead Indian characters. Most Indian TV remains years behind, though, continuing to be shadowed by the drama and glamour of Bollywood.

In an interview where Daniel Kaluuya, who plays W’kabi in Black Panther, excitedly talks about one of the scenes: “If I saw this as a kid, I wouldn’t have felt like such a weirdo. You (the black community) feel weird growing up because there’s nothing that looks like you on TV.”

This may slowly wane across mainstream media, although it will take some time to address all the nuances.

For instance, news that Scarlett Johansson would play a trans man, stirred up emotive conversation about the need for the industry to open its doors to the LGBTQ+ community to represent their community on screen, for talent lies on both sides of Hollywood’s blinkers. Johansson eventually decided against this. And Paralympian actress Katy Sullivan criticised Dwayne Johnson for playing an amputee in Skyscraper because she felt Hollywood’s disabled actors should have the “agency to tell our own stories”.