Indian dramas are about more than singing and dancing, a stereotype big Bollywood blockbusters have become synonymous with across the world. As streaming platforms seek content to represent their growing global audience, Indian productions have benefited, too. Often backed by big budgets, captivating storytelling and outstanding acting, there are plenty that have come to the fore.
Here, The National recommends seven series from the Indian subcontinent available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. While there is lots of worthy content across genres, the titles on this list offer an authentic representation of the second-most populous country in the world, and will best appeal to an international audience.
'Sacred Games' (Netflix)
This gritty crime drama was the first big-budget Netflix Original series from India. It scored 92 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes after the first season was released in 2018. The story is based on Vikram Chandra’s 2006 novel of the same name, and is set in Mumbai in the 1980s and 1990s. It all starts when the city’s most-wanted gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, calls police officer Sartaj Singh, portrayed by Saif Ali Khan, telling him he must save the city from being destroyed in 25 days.
What ensues is a manhunt for the notorious criminal and the uncovering of a nuclear attack. Season one mainly focuses on Gaitonde's rise in the underworld, and tells of a time when Mumbai was overrun by gangsters. Season two unravels how and why the attack was planned, as Sartaj steps up to undo his past failings. Plot twists and Siddiqui's extraordinary acting make Sacred Games an engaging watch.
'Made in Heaven' (Amazon Prime Video)
This show is an entertaining, shrewd and emotional depiction of what goes into organising a "big fat Indian wedding". The team behind Made in Heaven are known to produce sophisticated Indian cinema, having made films such as Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do (both available on Prime). With this series, they succeed in accurately capturing the complexities of a modern Indian society where the rich and poor co-exist with not much social distance, and how a desire to be accepted by society can sometimes make people blindly immoral.
The leads, Tara Khanna (Sobhita Dhulipala) and Karan Mehra (Arjun Mathur), run a high-profile wedding-planning company in the capital, New Delhi. Apart from fulfilling whimsical demands, they also offer private investigation services. In each episode, they manage a different wedding and encounter the many prevalent social issues of dowry, dogmatic traditions and loveless unions. The grand scale of the weddings make for good aesthetics and the stories offer a cultural insight into the Indian way of life. Season two is reportedly in the works.
'Delhi Crime' (Netflix)
India was shaken by a heinous gang rape in Delhi in December 2012, which also made headlines around the world. Delhi Crime is based on the police files from that case. It is a gripping drama that also scores 92 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. The story is told from the perspective of the police, led by a female commissioner, Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah), who works around the clock to track down the suspects within five short days.
While the incident was gruesome, Canadian director Richie Mehta skilfully uses dialogue and emotions to portray the brutality without relying on graphic representations or gore. The case received intense media coverage, but Mehta has said the commendable investigation and the circumstances that led to the crime were the stories that needed to be told. Delhi Crime offers a peek into the struggles of the poor and the challenges of implementing law and order in one of the densest cities in the world. It's worth a binge-watch.
'Mirzapur' (Amazon Prime)
This is the Indian equivalent of gang-war entertainment show Narcos. After its 2018 release, the new season has been eagerly awaited. Politics in India perplexes many and Mirzapur acts as a thrilling crash course on how small-town leaders can hold so much influence. Of course, it is a tad dramatised.
After a chance encounter with the powerful Akhanand Tripathi (Pankaj Tripathi), two brothers, Guddu (Ali Fazal) and Bablu (Vikrant Massey), sons of an upright lawyer, start managing Tripathi's illegal arms business. Bablu's sharp mind and Guddu's muscle power achieve for Tripathi what his incompetent heir cannot, but this sparks deceit and violence. While heavy on the gore and foul language, the acting makes Mirzapur noteworthy.
'Little Things' (Netflix)
The first season of romantic drama Little Things was a successful web series that was released on YouTube. It went on to be picked up by Netflix for its second season. The everyday love story between an urban Indian couple, with its relatable tender moments, is what won the hearts of viewers.
In season one, Dhruv (Dhruv Sehgal, star and writer of the show) and Kavya (Mithila Palkar) are a young couple in a relationship, and at the start of their careers. They don’t experience any life-changing drama as they soak in the simple pleasures of being young and in love. However, season two brings the challenges of adult responsibilities, as well as an understanding of how love fits in with trying to make sense of life.
The name of this horror fantasy comes from the Arabic folkloric word used to describe an evil demon, and it’s a surprising mini-series from India, where the genre can be unimaginative and almost funny. Actress Radhika Apte, who is a favourite of Netflix in India, leads this story set in a military detention centre.
When a new prisoner arrives, eerie events start to spook the officers and the others detained. People's dark pasts are unravelled and the culmination of events is explosive. Directed by British filmmaker Patrick Graham, Ghoul has ample jumpy moments to satisfy those who enjoy scary stories.
'Paatal Lok' (Amazon Prime)
Another crime drama with a police officer as the lead character, this show was released last month and has won rave reviews and also invited controversy.
Paatal Lok is loosely based on 2009 book The Story of My Assassins by Indian journalist Tarun Tejpal, and is named after what is described as the "world of inferior beings" in old Indian scriptures. The layered plot deals with the issues of law and order, corruption, fake news and bigotry.
A botched murder contract with unexpected media attention lands Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat) his first high-profile case. But all his good field work seems to fail him and gets him suspended. Convinced that all is not as it seems, Chaudhary and his partner Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh) take risks to solve a puzzle that gets murkier with every piece of information that's uncovered.
Paatal Lok's ability to keep storylines tight and characters as close to real life as possible makes it exceptional TV. With no lines, the sinister, silent murderer, Hathora (which translates to hammer) Tyagi, is one of TV's finest villains.