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Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and their rivals compete in Modi’s India

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Srishti Behl Arya


The showrunner of Sacred Games, Vikramaditya Motwane, told me that after the furore around that episode, he was told to avoid “anything to do with religion.” Local media outlets reported that the government began seriously considering censoring streaming because of the lynching scene. The news that this might happen ricocheted around the industry.

I traveled to India in late 2019 to see how the country’s nascent streaming industry was faring in its struggles with Hindu nationalism.

Srishti Behl Arya comes from a family of Bollywood filmmakers. Her father, a director and producer, worked with Amitabh Bachchan, a legendary actor. When she was little, she accompanied her parents on location, where she and the other children of the cast and crew pretended to be film stars. “We ran around like psychos,” she told me when I visited her at Netflix’s offices in Bandra-Kurla, a wealthy suburban business district in Mumbai.

In 2018, Netflix hired Arya to commission feature-length content. That year, the company made more than 20 original films and five original series in Hindi. But this did little to alter its public persona. In a country with more than 24 major languages, Netflix was still viewed as an English-language platform for westernized Indians. And this is where Arya, who knew everyone who mattered in Hindi film, fit into the picture. She had worked in advertising, and then as an actor and a writer, before moving on to TV production.

Soon she enlisted many of her childhood friends, who had grown up to become some of the most powerful people in the Hindi film industry, to work for Netflix. She signed on Zoya Akhtar, whose last feature film was India’s official entry to the Academy Awards, to direct a short film. Like Arya, Akhtar comes from a film family, but because Bollywood is a male-dominated industry, it’s still almost impossible for a female filmmaker or female-oriented films to raise capital. By contrast, several women helmed projects at Netflix. The platform’s biggest star is Radhika Apte, a Bollywood actress who has appeared in so many Netflix productions that online wags joke she’s in all of them.

Srishti Behl Arya, who runs Netflix’s division of Indian original films.

NETFLIX

But working with Bollywood meant dealing with its shortcomings. Netflix held several workshops in Mumbai to train Indian content creators. It taught them how to develop a major series, but also helped them brush up on basics such as how to write, schedule, and budget. “That’s how we can add value to the industry,” Arya told me. “By helping it get more organized.”

On my last day in Mumbai, I went to visit Red Chillies Entertainment, a towering production house owned by Shah Rukh Khan, which produces shows for Netflix. Back in 2017, Hastings and Khan had appeared together in a stilted promotional skit announcing a new spy thriller called Bard of Blood.

The foyer was deserted on the day I arrived, except for a beautiful sculpture of Ganesha, a Hindu god who is viewed as the patron of the arts. It was wrapped in plastic to protect it from construction dust. Around it some barefoot workmen were operating power tools without any protective gear. On the fourth floor, an exhausted-looking man with slippers on his feet and salt in his dark hair emerged from an editing studio. Several years ago, newly graduated from the London School of Film, Patrick Graham had been struggling to land projects when a friend suggested he try Bollywood. He floundered at first, stifled by censorship. But then, in 2018, Netflix India gave Graham the budget to produce a fictional series in which Muslims are rounded up in internment camps. They also brought him in to co-write the screenplay for Leila. When we met, he was wrapping up production on Betaal, a four-episode zombie series that would be released the next year. Months earlier, in a conversation on the phone, Graham had seemed pumped at the opportunity. “It’s massive,” he’d said. But in person, in Mumbai, he was downcast. “I have to go through the series and remove anything that might offend,” he told me, gloomily. “The oversensitive people are winning.”

In November 2020, Hindu nationalists went after Netflix again. Mira Nair’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy showed a Muslim boy kissing a Hindu girl. A leader of the BJP’s youth wing filed a police complaint about the series for “shooting kissing scenes under temple premises.” The leader accused the show of promoting “love jihad”—a conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men are seducing Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam.

still from A Suitable Boy
A scene from the film A Suitable Boy. From left: Danesh Razvi, Tanya Maniktala.

MILAN MOUDGILL / ©ACORN TV/BBC ONE / COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION

In January, another group of Hindu nationalists claimed offense, this time over a political drama on Amazon Prime Video called Tandav. They didn’t care for the depiction of an actor dressed as the Hindu god Shiva. The director quickly issued a public apology and deleted some offending scenes. But he was still named in police complaints in six states, along with members of his cast and crew. Prosecutors also charged Aparna Purohit, who heads Indian original programming for Amazon, with forgery, cyber-terrorism, and promoting hatred between classes.

The very next month, the government announced what it called a “soft-touch self-regulatory architecture” for streaming services. This new ethics code, notionally voluntary, comes with ratings and a grievance system that make streaming, in effect, just as tightly regulated as film and TV.

After the new code was announced, Amazon canceled the upcoming season of The Family Man, a planned spy thriller, and the follow-up to Paatal Lok, a crime series. It also announced plans to co-produce its first Indian film—a mythological tale starring Akshay Kumar, an actor who is known for his close ties with Hindu nationalists.

Netflix had entered India just when hundreds of millions of Indians discovered the internet. It helped create a new language for Indian streaming. In 2020, its subscriber base was estimated to have risen to 4.2 million. But whether the company—and streaming services more generally—can ultimately succeed depends in large measure on matters outside of their control.

Kashyap, the director, believes he has a handle on the censorship problem. “We will say what we want to say,” he told me. “We will simply find different ways of saying it.” On March 3, his house and those of several other Bollywood stars were raided by tax authorities in what Nawab Malik, a spokesperson for the opposition Congress Party, described as an intimidation attempt. That same day, Netflix India announced a slate of 40 new films and series.



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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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