If, in the last 10 years, you’ve been able to casually strew words from regional languages in your conversations, learned about the specialties of regional cuisines, become familiar enough with regional festivities to feel you could actually participate in them, and generally become a living example of India’s famous unity in diversity, it could be because of one thing. You’ve been watching a lot of TV.
We’re not joking. Ever since soap queen Ekta Kapoor introduced us to the Gujaratijoint family with her saas-bahu serials some 10 years ago, TV programmes have taken us deeper and deeper into the country, locating their shows in settings ranging from the villages of Rajasthan to the small towns of UP, from the culture of Bengal to the bastis of Bihar. Never mind if it’s not always the authentic thing, never mind if it’s all a bit stereotypical – and never mind that everything is caked with pancake.
West to East
And this isn’t happening out of kindness on the TV channels’ part, or from any burning desire to unite the nation. Or at least, that’s never been the primary reason. This is happening because it’s necessary to propitiate the great god of TRPs by drawing in viewers. Ekta Kapoor set her first few serials against Gujarati backdrops because research indicated that TV viewing was high among Gujaratis. That led to a rush of serials featuring Gujarati families, including Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka on Sony, the comedy Khichdi, and Baa, Bahoo Aur Baby – till Kapoor took a chance and made Kasauti Zindagi Ki, a soap set in Bengal.
“At that time it seemed like a big gamble, but the serial proved our apprehensions wrong by becoming a super hit,” recalls Anil Nagpal, Kyunki Saas Bhi Bahu Thi’s scriptwriter. “The TRPs showed that viewers appreciated the change from a Gujarati backdrop.”
Viewers enjoyed it
“Even though I was quite fond of Kyunki Saas Bhi Bahu Thi, Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki and other serials with a Gujaratibackdrop, it was quite an overdose,” says Seema Sharma, homemaker and a serial addict. “So I was intrigued by the Bengali household of Kasauti... It was very refreshing.”
And so the pan-Indian trend began. Producers of TV serials consulted their atlases (and viewership research) and have, since then, been taking us into what is, for many, uncharted territory.
Today, while most channels still have at least one serial set against a Gujarati backdrop, you can watch soaps set in Bengal, Punjab, Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra, UP… you name it.
“In the last few years, the dynamics of TV viewership have changed completely,” explains Nagpal. “As channels moved into newer territories they realised they needed better connectivity with these new viewers. They tried new formats, and some of them did very well. Colors, for instance, came from nowhere and suddenly became a 300 TRP channel on the basis of just one show – Balika Vadhu.”
With Balika Vadhu, set in Rajasthan, Colors broke all the rules. Soon, every channel was trying to think of new locations for their soaps, and going rural became the trend.
This isn’t a shift in thinking, says Vivek Bahl, executive creative director, STAR India. “It’s just a widening of the platter of stories that general entertainment channels serve. India is so diverse that by basing shows across different cultures, we get variety in not just locations, but dialects, characters and situations as well. Also, we don’t believe that stories based in any particular region cannot appeal to another… in that case, sci-fi movies would never stand a chance! So whether a show is based in a rural or urban / Gurajatior Bihari setting, we aim for it to connect with all our viewers across the country.”
That’s a fine aim, but it’s a big challenge for scriptwriters who suddenly have to cater to an audience that defies definition. “We did a lot of research on viewers and their likes and dislikes. And it showed that while rural folk do not relate to urban stories, city audiences relate very nicely to stories in rural settings. It is exotic,” reveals Anil Nagpal.
This means small town and village settings make sense to channel heads. “When Bidaai, which talks about the simplicity and aspirations of two girls from the small town of Agra, was aired on prime time three years ago, I was surprised to see no hoardings for it in Mumbai,” says producer-director Rajan Shahi of the production house Director’s Kut, maker of Bidaai and Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai. “But things became clear when I saw the TRPs for the show. It got excellent ratings from smaller towns.”
That apart, no serial can focus only on a single topic, says Ashvini Yardi, programming head at Colors. “Our focus has been on telling stories through differentiated content, something that is possible only if we look at a diverse set of ideas,” she says. “For instance, Balika Vadhu which deals with child marriage had to be set in a village in Rajasthan where child marriage is prevalent and Bhagyavidhaata had to be set in Bihar where pakraua vivaah is predominant.”
Something similar can be said about the serial Pavitra Rishta that is about a middle-class Marathifamily and their struggles, one of Zee TV’s highest rated shows. “Although Zee Marathi is getting good reviews, we decided to give the Hindi Zee a new offering from Ekta Kapoor with a Marathi background,” says Akash Chawla, senior VP, marketing, Zee TV. “And we realised the story of Pavitra Rishta lent itself very nicely to the ethos of a Marathi set-up. So after Kkusum, which aired on Sony almost eight years ago, Pavitra Rishta was the first serial to experiment with a Marathi backdrop and now you have quite a few of these happening on other channels too.”
Indeed, Colors’ newest offering, Thoda Hai Thode Bas Hode Ki Zaroorat Hai, is again about a middle-class Marathi family, inspired by the life of the serial’s producer-director Goldie Behl’s in-laws. “The idea came from my own experiences with people living in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. The TV audience is constantly evolving and looking for more realistic events to relate to. This story will appeal to middle-class sentiments across the country.”
There’s more to the setting of a serial than the storyline, however. When you set a soap in a particular region, you have to try and present that region the way it is. The way the characters interact with each other, their style of dressing, their eating habits and the rituals they follow all need to be in sync with the region the serial is set in.
“We do a lot of research to make the show look as authentic as possible,” claims Yardi. “We make sure that the language used by our actors reflects the language of the region. We also include dialogues entirely in the regional language at intervals in every episode of the show.”
Adds Anil Nagpal, “When I started writing for Bairi Piya, I went to some villages and spoke to a few girls who have been through these experiences. (In Bairi Piya, a powerful Thakur is obsessed with and terrorises a young village girl). Similarly, for Pavitra Rishta, I got Shirish Latkar to do the dialogues. Since he is from Thane, he got the language right,” says Anil Nagpal.
Language is obviously an important element in a show with a regional setting, so programme makers like to recruit the dialogue writer, scriptwriter and even members of the cast from the area that the show is set in.
“For Pratigya I chose the backdrop of Allahabad since I grew up there and I know that girls there face eve teasing much more than they do in the metros,” says Pearl Grey, co-producer and script writer for Pratigya. “However, the other conflicts I have tried to show between Pratigya and her husband are universal. Shanti Bhushan, with whom I developed the story, is also from Allahabad so that helped us get the correct dialect.”
But there’s always a chance of getting something wrong. Says software professional Nandini Barve-Chury, a Maharashtrian settled in Delhi, “I watch Pavitra Rishta quite regularly and though it’s quite authentic, some things aren’t quite correct. For instance, wearing sindoor is not part of the Maharashtrian culture but that is shown in the serial.”
Neither are many elements that are common to all the serials – such as women wearing heavy saris and jewellery round the clock, whether they’re making theplas in the kitchen or sitting around in a Rajasthani haveli. That’s just our TV industry!
Food: Theplas & dhoklas.
Clothes: Heavy saris, jewellery, bindi, sindoor.
Likely to hear: Aa ra ra like Daksha in Kyunki…
Food: Sarson ka saag, makki ki roti.
Clothes: Salwar kameez.
Likely to hear: Oye puttar, Lae kar lo gal, Wahe guru.
Food: Thekua, litti chokha.
Clothes: Saris, toe rings and orange sindoor.
Likely to hear: Aye babua, Kahe.
Food: Poran poli, modak.
Clothes: Saris with borders.
Likely to hear: Ago bai, Arre deva, Kasa kay, Nako.
Food: Mishti doi, macher jhol, roshogolla.
Clothes: Men in dhoti-kurtas, women in red-bordered saris, sindoor.
Likely to hear: Issssh, esho, bosho.
Food: Daal baati, gatte ki sabzi.
Clothes: Bandhej or leheriya saris for women, dhotis and pagris for men.
Likely to hear: Ae chora, khamagini.
Food: Gujiya, kachoris.
Likely to hear: Purabiya terms.