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December 05, 2019

How MUBI Can Change The Way We Stream Films

Text by Anandita Bhalerao

Despite little fanfare outside a niche circle of film buffs, MUBI’s India launch makes a compelling case for switching over from mainstream streaming platforms

The streaming platform MUBI’s most characteristic feature is also one that came to be by pure accident. Every day a new film is added to the platform, and another is taken down. Each one is available to watch for a limited period of 30 days, which means that at a time, there are no more than 30 films to choose from. Efe Cakarel, founder and CEO of the London-based company, described how, without them realising it, the 30-day ultimatum tapped into human psychology and gave rise to a scarcity mind-set: the 30th day of a film on MUBI is always its most popular.

Its India-specific channel launched during the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival earlier this year. It spotlights Indian cinema with 30 films from across the country in addition to the ‘World’ channel, and is the first country-specific MUBI channel. Last week, in a tie-up with PVR Cinemas, the company also brought MUBI Go to India. The service provides subscribers with one free ticket for a selected movie every week, and kicked off with the Agatha Christie-inspired murder mystery ‘Knives Out’.

MUBI has a reputation for being the preferred platform for ‘serious’ film buffs, the connoisseur’s alternative to streaming giants like Netflix and Prime Video. If, according to Cakarel, “everybody is shifting towards the mainstream, trying to please as many people as possible with as much content as possible,” Mubi swims against the tide. The appeal of platforms like Netflix lies in them being so ingrained into our pop culture vocabulary as to become appropriate conversation starters in any room. The enormous marketing machinery that accompanies each new release ensures your screens are flooded with enough Sacred Games memes and baby Yoda GIFs to make you want to be part of The Discourse. By contrast, MUBI still relies largely on word-of-mouth for publicity. Telling a friend about MUBI has the furtive air of sharing a well-kept secret.

But despite its reputation, I’d argue that MUBI is as much for the discerning film critic as it is for people like me, who if given a choice, would watch the same formulaic romantic comedies in rotation. The thing about MUBI is, it doesn’t afford me that choice – it’s more than an algorithm that’s calculated the exact probability of my liking a film. Instead, films are chosen with purpose and reason going beyond individual tastes and preferences. In her book How to Do Nothing, the artist and writer Jenny Odell describes listening to the radio in her car, in the dark quiet of inter-state highways. Her Spotify playlist knows her taste to the last variable, but occasionally a song on the radio, different from her ‘archetypal’ song, sneaks up on her. She writes, “To acknowledge that there’s something I didn’t know I liked is to be surprised not only by the song but by myself.”

Guneet Monga, producer and content advisor at MUBI India, talked to me about the childlike excitement of waking up to a new Film of the Day on MUBI every morning. Her work involves curating films, organising events, and collaborating with the National Film Development Corporation to gain access to their libraries. Along with Svetalana Naudiyal, Director of Content for India, and two members of a close-knit team in London, they develop MUBI specials. Ongoing specials include ‘Guru Dutt Restored’ and ‘Mumbai: Cinema and the City’, featuring classics like Salaam Bombay! and Pyaasa (Monga’s favourite from the lineup). She describes the team as ‘small but efficient’.

Despite the excitement surrounding its India launch, MUBI was not without criticism. Twitter users noted that the India channel featured predominantly North Indian and Hindi-language films. To this, Monga says that plans to diversify are in the pipeline. Naudiyal, conceding to the lack of equitable representation, says she hopes to discover new cinema from the South, perhaps by making the rounds of music festivals. Asked how Indian filmmakers could snag one of the 30 coveted spots on the streaming platform, she advises, “I’d recommend making the rounds of festivals first, and then getting in touch with us over social media. We’re always looking for new talent.”

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