Traditional tales with a twist: Check out what’s streaming in non-metro India
It’s crime thrillers in Bengal, theatre in Maharashtra, immigration and drug addiction in Punjab — themes you’d expect, but always with a twist.
Across the country, OTT (or Over the Top) platforms such as Hotstar, ZEE5, AltBalaji, Sony Liv, Viu and Hungama Play are creating regional content or collaborating with local TV production houses to offer hyper-local content. Much of it, however, has more in common with Netflix and Amazon Prime programming than with existing shows on TV networks in those areas.
In West Bengal, for instance, HoiChoi’s most popular show, Hello, is the story of a love triangle, but one where it’s the two women with the chemistry and back story. The wife seems to have a sexual identity she would rather not acknowledge; and the sensuality comes in subtle dabs like the exchange of sindoor during Durga Puja.
“I have never seen this subject touched upon in an Indian TV show before. The mistress imagines getting intimate with the wife but cannot do that in reality because the wife has to stay loyal to the husband. It’s interesting,” says Diya Bose, 32, a dancer from Kolkata and a HoiChoi subscriber.
A popular Marathi show on ZEE5 is called Sex, Drugs and Theatre and is about, essentially, the drug and hook-up antics of a bunch of college kids as they discover a love for theatre. “The show portrays Marathi youth as cool, vibrant, yet rooted,” says director and writer Sujay Dahake.
In Punjab, the most popular OTT shows are talk shows that offer counselling and take callers’ questions on immigration, addiction and family values. Also popular is a documentary series called Umeed (Hope) on JioTV that features people like Renu Sharma and her husband Laxminarayan. They lost first their son and then their house to his drug addiction. Now in their 60s, they live in a home for the aged.
Research shows that viewers are seeking content in regional languages, with regionally relevant themes, says Uday Sodhi, head of digital business at Sony Pictures, which owns SonyLiv. “Last year, our non-metro viewership grew fourfold and we believe that was partly because we added over 100 shows in Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil and Telugu.”
Since these platforms are subscription-based, the target audience is working professionals who are aware of the platforms and willing to pay. This places the average viewer age between 20 and 35. With no certification or censorship norms enforced, there is scope for sensual or sexual scenes and risqué language.
“We make sure the content has some mass appeal but has modern-day themes and approaches incorporated. The visuals have to be exciting; the storyline has to have a USP,” says Soumya Mukherjee, head of revenue and strategy at HoiChoi (Bengali for ‘Fun and frolic’).
India is potentially at an inflexion point for OTT growth, states a study released by the Boston Consulting Group in November, titled ‘Entertainment goes online’. Revenues from OTT content saw a compound annual growth rate of over 40% between 2005 and 2017 and is expected to grow by 20% between 2017 and 2023, the report goes on to say.
According to a Broadcast Audience Research Council report for 2018, a lot of the growth is being driven by regional-language audiences. Viewership for Bhojpuri content (TV and OTT) has risen by 134% over two years, while Assamese and Odia viewership has grown by 125% and 89% respectively. A FICCI-EY Media and Entertainment Report released in March found that the highest growth rates were from the Punjabi, Odia, Assamese and Gujarati business. It also revealed that the number of private TV/OTT channels has gone from 650 in 2015 to 877 this year.
Companies that jump on this bandwagon are seeing growth zoom too. ZEE5, for instance, recently launched subscription packs for Tamil, Telugu and Kannada content, with expanded regional offerings. “We believe that is partly why we grew to 56.3 million active monthly users by December, a jump of 36% in three months,” says Manish Aggarwal, business head at ZEE5 India.
THRILLERS & CHAT SHOWS
Some of the PTC TV shows being aired on the JioTV app have been so popular that the TV production house was prompted to launch its own OTT platform last month, called PTC Play.
One of the most popular series is the chat show on immigration advice, where the host invites spokespersons from embassies and consulates to discuss new visa policies and education and job opportunities in the US, UK and Canada.
“Last month, they had the MD of an immigration services company on the PTC chat show,” says Lovepreet Singh, 18, a college student from Jalandhar. “When I asked him my question, he started out by greeting me with ‘Sat Sri Akaal, bachche,’ and went on to tell me that I should apply for a student visa instead of a dependent visa, since it is easier to get, and said that getting a degree in Canada is always a good idea if I want to live there.”
Another popular feature on PTC TV has been the live-streaming of Baisakhi processions in Canada, to mark the Sikh new year.
The self-help/chat show model has also worked well for TV production house Garv Punjab, which supplies content to JioTV. “On Mithi Matini, we discuss Punjabi family values, the importance of having grandparents at home, and how social media has affected relationships,” says Vikas Vora, co-founder of the channel. “We also have a series on parenting called Parvarish, with counsellor Vandana Dhingra.”
The Bengali audience, it would seem, retains its taste for thrillers, horror and crime. “The themes can be the same, but there has to be a twist,” says Mukherjee of HoiChoi. “We try to reflect current Bengali society, but in ways that are subtle, because our audience stretches from Kolkata to rural West Bengal.”
Similarly, ZEE5’s Kaali follows the trope of a strong woman, a complex character, in this case a mother who won’t give up. She has one night to find a way to pay for an operation to save her son’s life. She sells drugs to raise the money. “Part of the appeal is also the rich cinematography and visual aesthetic,” says Manish Aggarwal, business head at ZEE5 India.
BHOJPURI RAP SHEET
Music, dance and crime continue to draw eyeballs in Bhojpuri markets. TV network Big Ganga’s most popular Bhojpuri show, beamed on ZEE5, is Entertainment Ke Mela. “It is a mixed reality show that features everything — dance, stand-up comedy, singing. It’s all local talent, catering to the aspirations of the youth,” says Amarpreet Saini, business head for Big Ganga.
Earlier this year, AltBalaji launched the Bhojpuri web series Hero Vardiwala. “It features the popular actor Dinesh Lal Yadav, has a grand item number and follows this cop who’s not all good,” says Mahesh Pandey, writer, director and producer of the show. “Our ‘hero’ has an extra-marital affair, fakes cases against his enemies and sometimes shoots innocent people dead in a fit of anger. It’s very popular.”
Yadav, the actor, points out that the show also finds ways to reflect changes in UP society. “Our actress is a divorcee who sues her ex-husband for domestic violence. And we don’t have any of the sexually explicit scenes that the Bhojpuri industry is known for. The characters are interesting, the plot has some twists and turns. We haven’t dumbed down everything like one usually has to do in Bhojpuri cinema.”
DRAMA ON STAGE & OFF
The most popular Marathi shows on Hotstar and ZEE5 are Vithu Mauli, and Sex, Drugs and Theatre (SDT) respectively. One tells the tale of the Hindu deity Vitthal, set in modern times; the other describes the journey of six college students competing in a prestigious drama competition.
“Experimental theatre and theatre competitions have always been popular with the Marathi audience,” says Sujay Dahake, director and writer of SDT. “The show follows college kids as they get into theatre. They hook up backstage, get involved in drugs, yet manage to put on a good performance.”
OTT platforms are a chance to experiment with storytelling, adds Varun Narang, chief product officer at Hotstar. So Vithu Mauli has all the deities played by people under 30. “They are young, speak like the Marathi youth. The visual effects are sophisticated,” says Ajinkya Raut, 26, a theatre-turned-TV actor who plays Vitthal.
“The fact that the deities are played by a young cast instead of old men makes the vibe of the show young and rooted,” says Sanjay Mhatre, 20, a college student from Pune who follows Vithu Mauli. “That makes it appealing. There are even fan pages for the lead characters on Facebook. You wouldn’t see that happening with a typical mythological show.”