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Inside the surprising worldwide success of Netflix’s new hijacking thriller

Why is Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga — a twisty, romantic crime drama — a top 10 Netflix hit around the world?

Ankit (Sunny Kaushal) sits in an airplane bathroom in Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga, gagged and covered with blood from a broken nose Image: Netflix

One of Netflix’s new thrillers is taking off explosively worldwide. The efficient Indian mid-air heist film Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga (the title loosely translates to The Thief Slipped Away) debuted among the top 10 most-watched movies and shows in 45 different countries, according to independent auditor Ernst & Young, making it the company’s third-most-streamed non-English-language property around the world. A light but propulsive film with numerous twists and turns, it’s the kind of mid-budget genre piece that would have made for a fun DVD rental on family movie night 15 or 20 years ago, so its appeal is hardly shocking. But the biggest surprise is just how well the film has fared compared to Netflix’s other Indian offerings, especially those with more bankable or recognizable stars.

Unlike most Indian movies to cross over to international streaming markets, like the Hindi dub of the global Telugu-language breakout RRR or the Bollywood period piece Gangubai Kathiawadi — which reached the top 10 in 64 and 47 territories respectively, the highest numbers for Indian productions since Netflix began publicizing this statistic in 2021 — Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga is a Netflix original. It began its life on the streaming platform, rather than coming off a successful theatrical run with preexisting fanfare.

Flight attendant Neha (Yami Gautam) crouches in the aisle of a plane looking frightened, as a hijacker with a black balaclava covering his face stands next to her and points his gun at something off screen in Netflix’s Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga Image: Netflix

The film stars Sunny Kaushal as suave, flirty insurance agent Ankit Sethi and Yami Gautam as Neha, the sweet but headstrong flight attendant Ankit falls in love with. This romantic duo is roped into a desperate diamond heist at 30,000 feet — which also happens to coincide with a hijacking. Both actors have appeared in Bollywood productions before (notably, Gautam featured in the blockbuster 2019 war movie Uri: The Surgical Strike), though neither are considered needle-moving stars. And yet Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga has hit the kind of streaming numbers usually reserved for Indian A-listers.

On one hand, the movie has found success both in South Asia and in territories with large South Asian diasporas, like the Middle East. That isn’t entirely out of left field: The Hindi-language production, which takes place in India and a fictitious Middle Eastern country, hit No. 1 in India, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, and made the top 10 in several other Gulf and South East Asian nations. In those countries, Indian movies tend to be popular among South Asians and non-South Asians alike. The film’s title is also likely to evoke tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for Hindi speakers, since it quotes a children’s nursery rhyme.

On the other hand, the film also hit No. 1 in Ecuador and Venezuela, and broke through the top 10 in a number of other South American countries, where Indian movies aren’t such a sought-after commodity. The film didn’t receive anything close to the marketing blitz of major English-language Netflix properties (like Red Notice or The Gray Man), and even Netflix’s Latin American region Twitter account has only mentioned the movie once — by its Spanish-language title El Vuelo de los Ladrones (or The Flight of the Thieves) — well after its success. So what gives?

The streamer’s relatively opaque policies and metrics make it difficult to pinpoint exactly how the film initially found its global audience, but it isn’t hard to see how a movie pushed to the front page by the company’s mysterious algorithm might’ve attracted curious eyeballs. Unless you’ve mercifully disabled autoplay on Netflix, spending a few idle seconds hovering over a movie or show prompts a preview to start playing. And Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga’s trailer immediately sells its most attractive and most broadly digestible elements: terrorism, romance, and a heist gone wrong.

The film’s dueling heist and hijacking sagas make for an engrossing watch, as if two different, equally intriguing movies have collided headfirst. Meanwhile, its central romance is performed with withheld smiles and nervous excitement — and eventually, with a straitlaced sincerity that verges on devastating, once it’s time for the leading couple to make difficult decisions. The leads are a major reason the movie works: They deliver fiery, dramatic performances on the same wavelength as the movie’s intense but grounded tone. It also helps that Indian movies, both musicals and non-musicals alike, tend to feature original songs for marketing purposes, and the one commissioned for Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga (“Janiye,” which plays over a lengthy montage of couple’s blossoming romance) is an earworm.

The conclusion also hints at a potential sequel even though the story feels self-contained, which is practically a prerequisite in the age of IP. However, whether or not there’s a Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga: Part II on the horizon, it seems that India’s streaming revolution may have finally yielded a film whose global popularity is on par with the country’s blockbuster theatrical output. The recent crossover success of box-office hits like Tollywood’s RRR and Bollywood’s Pathaan bodes well for films that fit the storytelling mold non-Indians tend to expect from Indian movies — lavish musicals with over-the-top action — but Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga likely opens the door for more viewers to discover the relatively realistic world of Indian streaming originals, which have found domestic popularity over the last few years.

A slick, competent romp with enough rug-pulls to make you dizzy, Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga is a film that values fooling its audience much more than having them along for the ride in terms of emotional investment. But that’s par for the course when it comes to junk-food thrillers. The genre’s guiding credo might as well be a gif of Pietro from Avengers: Age of Ultron quipping “You didn’t see that coming?” Director Ajay Singh packs the story into a tight 110 minutes, but disguises its bursting seams using breakneck momentum. Whether or not you’re still invested once the movie shows its hand, chances are you’ll be at least curious to figure out how every puzzle piece fits together as the characters navigate two intersecting thrillers at once. All things considered, that’s a bargain.

Chor Nikal Ke Bhaga is streaming on Netflix now.

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