In movies, you are either the leading lady or the best friend. Bela Bajaria is neither. In fact, she takes the call on both parts and greenlights the script.
Just a few days before the much-awaited TV series “Stranger Things” Season 4 was released on Netflix, we spoke to Bela Bajaria, the head of Global TV Content at Netflix. It was probably the same week that TIME Magazine honored Bajaria as one of the 100 most influential people of 2021.
The inclusion on the list, perhaps no surprise to many who have followed Bajaria’s trajectory within the entertainment space. In less than two years since taking over as head of all TV content at the streaming giant, she has employed all her years of experience of television programming and content creation which she acquired first at CBS and then at Universal Studios.
Much like the popular series, stranger things have occurred in Bajaria’s life and in her journey which started in Uganda.
Her family was expelled from the country, along with thousands of South Asians, mostly Indians, by General Idi Amin the military dictator who seized power in 1971. The journey that started with the deportation by the dictator has seen her become the content head of the streaming platform that has a documentary on tyrants in history, with one episode dedicated to Idi Amin and focusing on the forced migration of an ethnic group that she herself was a part of.
Like many families that were expelled from East Africa, Bajaria and her family moved to England where they tried to integrate with the large South Asian community there. Destiny brought them to America when Bajaria was nine years old. She recalls yet another move, to a new country where the initial days were tough.
“It was a very difficult period, when we moved to Los Angeles,” she said. “Being Indian felt like such a weird thing. People didn’t know anything about Indian people. At least when I was in London, there was a big Indian community. There was definitely racism there, but people knew that you belonged to this larger group. In Los Angeles, I was a brown Indian girl with a British accent. So I had multiple weird things happening at the same time when I was young. I knew that at the end of the day, I had to lose one of those things. The brown Indian wasn’t going anywhere. So I needed to lose the accent.”
The best way to do that for the young Bajaria was to watch American television. What started as a way of fitting in and learning about American culture soon set her on course to her future career.
The American hustle that most South Asian immigrants get to know firsthand was something that wasn’t new to Bajaria and her family. The experience of setting up business in Africa and in the UK led the family to set up a car wash center in the U.S. That became a training ground for the young Bajaria.
“There was so much that I learned from being part of this family business,” she said. “The responsibility as owners about how you do everything right, every piece of it. There’s no job too small for one to do when you know when it’s your own family business. Even when I got my first job at CBS all the way through to now. I feel … as if I am running each of my divisions or departments as my own car wash. It’s my business. I’m responsible for it. I’m responsible for the people in it and their businesses.”
Apart from the lessons at the car wash, she learned many lessons at home. They provided her with knowledge that Bajaria still taps into for inspiration and for business operations. Being witness to her parents’ struggle and sacrifice, and being the eldest child, Bajaria felt the responsibility to succeed. She mentions some qualities that she absorbed while growing up within a family that kept the Indian culture alive.
“A characteristic for me would be the idea of group versus individual,” she said. “This idea of community or village versus individual, to me, is a very strong component of it. I care deeply about the group and how people interact with each other. I think I also manage in a lot of ways, my teams sort of with that in mind.”
As the global head of content at Netflix she is responsible for hit shows like “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Squid Games” and various other scripted and unscripted shows. The road to the top is paved with hard work and sound ethics. Bajaria attributes that to her family, deeming it a requisite feature in an all Indian upbringing in America.
Watching television, which began as a need to embrace American culture, Bajaria soon began watching content from different places. Bollywood was an essential ingredient in the Indian household. Besides Hollywood and Hindi cinema, there were also certain accessible British programs she continued to follow.
“I really grew up watching a lot of different stories,” she said, adding that she used to watch some shows with her grandparents who lived with the family, and some with my friends her age. She was intrigued how many people were watching the same story at the same time.
Watching television alone does not get you a career in the entertainment industry. While a wide-ranging and eclectic viewing tally did help, Bajaria said, “I always admired storytelling and I was intrigued by entertainment. So many different people are experiencing the same show and may be getting different things and the connection they make to it. I was always interested in how something is put together from behind the scenes or behind the camera. And so for me, it really started with the admiration of storytelling and writers.”
Bajaria could have been successful before the camera, too. For, she took part in beauty pageants and won the Miss India USA and Miss India Worldwide contests in 1991. But that was not the life for her.
“I never did it to have a career in front of the camera,” she said, speaking from her office in LA, “The idea was connecting with my culture and community, and connecting with Indian women around the world. It ended up being an extraordinary time with so much growth, because I did meet really interesting women from all over the world, and realized how much we had in common, even when we were from different countries. But an interesting thing happened..: I kind of became Indian on my own terms…, not through my parents or my family, I kind of forged my own kind of relationship with the culture and the community.”
Though she didn’t pursue a professional career in the glamour world, the experience provided her a platform in entertainment. She acknowledges the part those contest played.
“The pageant was a great joy. I learned so many things during that time. I do believe by the time I had my first job as an assistant at CBS, I had done so many different things in different countries that it had given me a lot of skill set when I went into the workplace.”
She got a foot in the door when she became an assistant at CBS. To learn more and absorb everything she spent hours in the CBS videotape library, updating herself on all the shows and films, reading scripts and more to gain skills for the job.
“It was early days and obviously, very important,” Bajaria said of her time at CBS. “I realized that I had access to all of this information, access to scripts, and the videotape library and being able to see early cuts of a show. I had all this access to learn. So I made a promise to myself that I would absorb and be a sponge, I would learn and read and watch and really use that time there as an education. I think it’s really important to be proactive.”
Those hard initial days helped her break out and become one of the first South Asian women to head a major Hollywood studio at NBC Universal. She has been instrumental in getting the shows you love to the screen before you, and would gladly take the blame for the hours you spend binge-watching one of these shows.
If you have binge watched some show on Netflix this past weekend, chances are it is because of Bajaria. Among others, she made Mindy Kaling a household name.
Kaling acknowledged Bajaria as the one who changed her life. Bajaria, perhaps identifying her own personal story and cultural identity, that was showcased in “The Mindy Project.” Bajaria talks about Mindy and how the show was greenlit, “The truth is, she’s just incredibly talented. And I was just merely there to support her great talent. It’s funny, it was titled “It’s Messy” maybe only for a day or two. When I was at Universal Television, I was really determined to sell it to our sister network, to which NBC had passed on the pilot. [Kaling] had such a unique voice and it was such a great script. We ended up selling it to Fox Network the same year, and it launched as “The Mindy Project.” Ultimately, we sold it another time to Hulu, and “The Mindy Project” went on to run for 117 episodes. I was so proud of that show and of her. When you run a studio, you need to advocate and champion writers. That was my job and she was talented, and I was gonna fight for it.”
The position at Netflix is not all bed of roses and comes with recent thorns in the form of loss of subscribers for the streaming giant, for the first time ever. For the first time in a decade, the company is losing subscribers in the face of intense competition from other streaming platforms. But Bajaria appears to be up to the task.
“I think competition in so many ways is great for consumers,” she said. “At the end of the day, I want to make sure we have the best shows. I want to make sure we have your favorite show. Someone’s daughter’s favorite show, my husband’s favorite show, his friend’s favorite show. That is what we’re looking to do – offer a wide range of quality and variety. Making sure that we have the best series and films, whether that is unscripted or documentary, film or TV series. It could be in English, it could be in Korean, it could be an indie, it could be in French, it could be in many different niches, but to really serve our members to keep subscribers is to make sure that we’re always surprising people, always having the best next show.” Ensuring and providing that to the subscribers is what she believes is her role as the person who decides what we watch on Netflix.
Bajaria plans to invest in better and original content and concentrate and rely on regional teams to come up with hard hitting and innovative programming. Bajaria believes in not letting personal choices come in the way of determining of what the audience wants.
She explains her selection method: “We can’t make shows for me, right? That’s not the lens or the filter. People have such a wide range of tastes, so I think it’s always very important to embrace and honor the audience who enjoys a certain show. The way that we do it is that we have local teams in all these different countries, which have green-light authority. They know the writers, know the culture, know the community and there are different teams who make different shows, because we want to make sure that we have a wide breadth of case and background and what gets made because we don’t want to have one filter. And so it’s always important to have the audience first, and understanding, appreciating and respecting that the audiences have a wide range of tastes.”
The rapid reduction in cable TV subscribers, with an estimated 7 million expected this year, and armed with a spending budget of $18 billion this year, Netflix seems on course to steady the ship. It is competing for eye balls with media giants, such as Warner Bros, Discovery, Disney, Amazon and Apple, which can outspend Netflix for content creation. But spending is not a guarantee of success, the key is to spend on what people want to watch. Bajaria explains what sets Netflix apart and gives the company the edge over the competition,
“There are several things that set us apart,” Bajaria said. “It’s first important to remember that our core business, all that we do is make TV series and films. We are an entertainment company and that is our all day long business and that is what we focus on. I think the other thing is accessibility, right? You can go on Netflix, and you can click play and watch a TV series, you can click and watch “Ozark” in the U.S., and you can scroll right over and play and watch “Squid Game” as well. There is accessibility of so much storytelling around the world. Our platform and our product is amazing and so user friendly, and such an easy thing to navigate into. I do think our access, with the wide range of shows and movies we have, definitely sets us apart.”
Another reason Netflix lost subscribers lies in the recent increase in subscription rates, may have been the leading anti-consumer decisions taken by Netflix. However, Bajaria validated the reports that there might be a more economical pricing tier that may be launched soon to counter the increase in subscription. She said, “We spoke about this in our earnings call, maybe doing an ads-price tier. I think the good thing about that is that it giver access to more people. What is affordable or accessible to them would be an ads-price tier. If somebody can’t afford it, making sure there’s different tiers that could make it more accessible. So we have discussed offering that and we’re just working on that.”
Recent roadblocks notwithstanding, Bajaria has her ducks in a row with a comprehensive three-point plan for expansion.
“We started the unscripted group and now have big shows like ‘Queer Eye,’ ‘Is It Cake,’ ‘Indian Matchmaking,’ ‘Selling Sunset,’ ‘Love Is Blind,’ which have really broken through. In the last few years, we have expanded more and more into a local language series and are really growing our local language originals around the world. More recently, we have expanded into gaming, which seems such a natural extension of storytelling of movies and TV series. I still think, at the end of the day, it has to be that we have great series and movies. And that’s why people are going to come and continue to come on Netflix.”
For most people the way to de-stress and unwind is to watch a film or a TV series. What does the person who helps others de-stress do to unwind herself? Bajaria tells us about her downtime routine.
“I have three children, so I unwind by spending time with them,” she said. “They have their own individual interests or hobbies, so I do different things with them. I really love to watch soccer or other sports. I really do enjoy my yoga time, which really gets me in the right headspace. But I also do enjoy a great Netflix series binge, too.”
An inspirational top executive in the entertainment industry, Bajaria has brought incredible shows like “The Witcher,” “The Sacred Games” and “Blood and Water,” from around the world.
A journey that started as a weird brown girl trying to lose her British accent to fit in and assisting at the family owned car wash center, Bajaria has come a long way.
She has been “trending” like Netflix categories within the entertainment industry and as a popular South Asian woman role model. Bajaria says her biggest achievement has been to show to these young women that a brown girl can run a major Hollywood studio.
“When I ran Universal Television, I thought that was the greatest personal achievement,” Bajaria said. “It’s very meaningful to me because if there’s a first there can be a second, a 20th and a 30th. To me, what that represents is bigger than a personal achievement. It is being in a job to oversee global television and [give] a voice to storytellers from around the world; showing different cultures and different stories on a global platform is a very rewarding thing to be a part of considering where I started when I first came to the U.S.”
Entertainment is an unconventional career choice, especially for a South Asian woman. However, she canceled out the voices of naysayers and, instead, focused on the handful of people that supported her.
She talked about the strong bonds of sisterhood among South Asian women
“You’re doing it in a way through SEEMA to highlight that, right? That is the first thing of sisterhood and sharing and hopefully people feeling inspired,” Bajaria said.
“I think in the last two or three years there has been a very strong community of South Asian women, especially in these different fields – coming together and making sure we are there to support and advocate for each other. I have definitely felt that in the last couple of years. I also feel now there is not just room for one person at the table.”Bajaria said
Bajaria has experienced the essential elements of movie-making in her own personal life and through her job ensures that the shows she commissions do not lack these elements – including suspense, laughter, violence, romance, reality but most of all to guarantee happy endings.
Favorite actor: Female actor: I’m going to say Shabana Azmi, Meryl Streep and Alia Bhatt.
Male actor: Morgan Freeman.
Favorite Hollywood movie: I don’t know if I have a favorite Hollywood movie.
Favorite Bollywood movie: “Gangubai Kahthiawadi.” Very, very powerful story.
Favorite Netflix series: I love so many of them. I’m very excited about :Stranger Things.” I love “The Crown.” “The Crown” is exquisitely produced and crafted in every way. I love “Indian Matchmaker.” I really love when those episodes come in. There are so many things I love; it’s hard for me to pick a Netflix series. There’s too many.
On other non Netflix platforms: Soccer. No cricket. Sorry to all my Indian family.
A movie that you can watch number of times: I am going to cheat by naming multiple movies. I would say “Breakfast Club,” “Elf,” “Devil Wears Prada,” and “Good Will Hunting.”
Unreleased series that you’re looking forward to watching: We have a series called “The Lying Life of Adults,” based on Elena Ferrante’s novel in Italy. I’m really excited – and that hasn’t come out yet. It’s still very early days but I’m excited about that.
Favorite food: I love every traditional good Gujarati food – roti, dal and bhindi.
Favorite place to vacation: Oh, I love to travel. It’s such a hard one to pick a favorite. It’s India or Mexico. Those are the two places I love, every time I go to either.
Advice for young professionals
“Be ready to be proactive, because they’re much harder to learn and there are mentors all around us. I think sometimes people wait for a more formal mentor relationship. I think it’s very important to be proactive, and put yourself out there. You don’t need somebody to say, Oh, you’re doing great work, because they may already be seeing you and you just don’t know it. I’ve had that experience in my career that I was just proactive and really put myself out there. But I’m also putting myself out there because I want to learn. So none of that time is wasted. You are learning and reading and watching. It’s very important to make sure to understand that you have people all around you to learn, and it doesn’t have to be a formalized relationship.”
On how to get into the entertainment business
“There are a lot of places that are making entertainment right now, apply and just get to be an assistant just get in the door, because it’s important to get on the track of where you want to be. The second is, you have to be aware and careful not to listen to a lot of noise around you. There can be a lot of people around you who would be negative about it, or putting doubts or all the reasons why it’s difficult. You definitely can do it. You just have to know that and believe that you can do it. I think it’s very important to drown out the noise. When I went into the entertainment business 25 years ago, there were a lot of naysayers. I heard a lot of that but I just don’t listen to people. What is amazing is that then there’ll be a few people even in your corner and even in your extended Indian family, who will be supportive. So focus on those one or two voices and drown out the rest.”