- Netflix has the best stand-up and documentaries, but is costly; Prime Video is more affordable
- Hotstar is good value for money but doesn’t have originals
Of all the words and phrases the revolutionary comedy Seinfeld gave the modern lexicon, I’ve always most admired “spongeworthy”. The Sponge (season 9, episode 7) features the uncontainable Elaine Benes lamenting the obsoletion of her favourite contraceptive sponge, following which she hunted down one of the last cartons left on the market, only to then weigh up suitors by that suddenly finite standard: a man may be good enough, sure, but was he truly “spongeworthy”?
It is a magnificent conceit, encouraging us to set a higher standard, to not settle for someone just because they’re around. The limited number ensures every choice matters.
Ever since Amazon launched Prime Video in India in December 2016, my big sell has been Seinfeld. Amazon may not have brought us its deep archives of classic television shows, it may have been self-censoring from the start—something it still does, alas—and it may not have as many original shows as Netflix, but having the collected volumes of Seinfeld on tap instantly made it stream worthy.
This weekend, it vanished without warning. I bellyached on Twitter, and fellow fans were rightfully outraged. By the time you read this column, Seinfeld has returned, and while my tweet may have little to do with it, by George (Costanza) I shall take the credit. Those blessedly brief withdrawal pangs made me think, though. I subscribe to every platform in sight, but if only one could be chosen, which would emerge streamworthy?
Price: ₹500/ ₹650/ ₹800/month
Shows: If you’re into stand-up comedy or documentaries, this is your kinda service, covering these disparate genres bottomlessly. They have some fine shows—this is where BoJack Horseman lives—but Netflix Originals are milder and less adventurous than the envelope-pushing ones backed by networks like HBO. There is something for everyone, though, plus a great selection of children’s television. Lots to applaud, little to blow your mind.
Movies: Netflix’s Roma is a front-runner at the Oscars, and their productions are getting exciting: The Coen Brothers did something undefinably special with The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. There’s also a lot of forgettable fluff, mostly formulaic romcoms and—shudder—Christmas films. There’s some solid 1980s/1990s content, thankfully, with a few terrific films—like the magnificent Groundhog Day—remastered in UltraHD 4K.
Experience: The best, no question. The user interface is intuitive and efficient, and while Netflix mercilessly hypes some shows over others, it remembers what we watched and what we would like to watch again. Shifting across devices and platforms is seamless.
Value: By far the most expensive (and reportedly in line for a price hike), the Netflix fee can be conveniently offset by multiple users—the ₹800/month plan works for four users at once—making it fair for family/flatmates. Then again, you could (theoretically) subscribe to both rival services instead, and occasionally borrow a Netflix password.
Price: ₹199/month, ₹999/year
Shows: The finest selection. Radical, groundbreaking shows from HBO and FX, from current sensations like Atlanta and True Detective to revolutionary classics like The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood. There are no “Hotstar Originals” to speak of, but this is where you catch the latest US shows, weekly. Plus the comfort-food binge of eternally re-watchable shows like Friends, Sex And The City and How I Met Your Mother.
Movies: Here live new movies. Blockbusters abound, from new Disney/Pixar releases to most of the Oscar nominees from recent years. There’s a lot on offer here, from Lars von Trier’s Melancholia to the John Wick films, and scouring through the catalogue is like looking through a promising bagful of DVDs. You might not find specifically what you’re looking for, but you’ll chance upon something cool enough to fill Thursday night.
Experience: This is where it falls apart. The interface is awful, the apps are badly designed, and you frequently lose your place when returning to a half-watched show. It is exasperating to have to manually search for a show you watch every day. Also, there’s no 4K content.
Value: ₹200/month is high considering this experience, but the “heavily discounted” rate of ₹999 a year gives you excellent shows—plus a lot of live sport—at a price you can’t argue with.
AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
Price: ₹129/month, ₹999/year
Shows: The pickings are slimmer. Amazon has some smashing originals, like The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, Transparent and Homecoming, and while there are serious film-makers and showrunners trying out ambitious things, their library is hit or miss. They do have a solid selection of anime, as well as peculiar international shows—Deutschland 86, Tokyo Girl—that lead down intriguing rabbit-holes
Movies: A lot to take in, with perhaps the most exhaustive library of regional-language Indian cinema on offer, but going through this catalogue is a slog. Films as far removed as Mother! and Race 3 are often listed next to one another, and there doesn’t seem to be any algorithm at work. It’s a giant collection, but with no eye on quality.
Experience: Prime Video works okay…till it doesn’t. This is an odd package, a massive global streaming service with a primitive user interface and absolutely no sense of what an individual user might like. The streaming is the smoothest, though, especially when it comes to 4K video.
Value: Less than ₹1,000 a year, every episode of Yes Minister, plus packages delivered to your door quicker. Amazon Prime costs a steep $119/year (around ₹8,500) in the US, and the bundle now includes Amazon Music and lets you try out Audible.
THE VERDICT: Prime Video. It has a rapidly increasing library, will become easier to navigate, and there’s no beating that value. Elaine is back on Amazon, and I applaud her. Today, it is lord of the manor.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.