(Bloomberg file)
(Bloomberg file)

Video streaming apps turn to the heartland for stories

  • Upcoming Netflix originals such as 'Yeh Ballet' and 'Kaali Khuhi' will be based in small towns
  • With most OTT services needing relevant content to fuel their subscription-based models, heartland stories are forming a core content strategy, according to industry experts

New Delhi: American streaming service Netflix recently announced its decision to look at stories based outside of India’s big metros and across diverse demographics in order to reach out to a wider audience in the country. Upcoming Netflix originals such as 'Yeh Ballet' and 'Kaali Khuhi', the company said, will be based in small towns.

The latest season of 'Lakhon Mein Ek', a medical drama on Amazon Prime Video, deals with the fight for proper healthcare in Sitlapur, a small village in Maharashtra. The show created by Biswa Kalyan Rath comes close on the heels of Amazon’s other recent offering, crime thriller 'Mirzapur' set in the Uttar Pradesh. Meanwhile, ZEE5 original 'Rangbaaz' is set in crime-infested Gorakhpur of the 1990s, while its procedural drama 'Abhay' is based in Lucknow. Eros Now’s crime thriller 'Smoke' is set in Goa.

Unlike the earliest fictional takes in India’s web world such as 'Permanent Roommates', 'Pitchers' and 'Little Things' and even more recent shows like 'Made In Heaven' and 'Delhi Crime' that were centered in big cities and metros, some online content creators are increasingly seeing value in exploring the heartland.

“All these narratives are rooted in the fact that diverse stories are essential to satisfy the varied tastes of our customers and they have to come from the length and breadth of the country," according to Vijay Subramaniam, director, content, Amazon Prime Video India. “Within the universe of storytelling in India, there are so many beautiful stories waiting to be told. To that if you superimpose the fact that we can take what our consumers are telling us they want to watch, I think we have a very rich melting pot of stories."

Subramaniam said some things were central to Amazon’s strategy at the moment — diverse content, different milieu and social strata, an interesting fresh take on society, focus on diverse communities as well as gender. Engagement with varied social strata generated universal appeal for stories across a cross-section of audiences, instead of boxing them into geography, he added.

Srishti Arya, director of international original film for India at Netflix agreed. She said they were trying to make sure they had something for all taste clusters. For instance, its latest two-season original 'Selection Day' is the story of two young boys from a small town who come to Mumbai with their cricket-obsessed father.

To be sure, the trend also has to do with small towns throwing up a lot more viewers for streaming services lately. Over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms claim anything between 40-50% of their consumption comes from beyond the metros today.

“With the rise in smartphone penetration and low data costs, the streaming business is no more dependent on metros. Because more and more audiences are even coming out of non-metros, creators like us need to be relevant to those audiences. That is also the reason small town films have come into the limelight," according to Manish Aggarwal, business head at ZEE5. referring to Bollywood’s exploration of the heartland since 2015 with popular films like 'Masaan', 'Dum Laga Ke Haisha', 'Toilet: Ek Prem Katha' and others. He added that the ‘me and mine’ nature of streaming services necessitates local languages, different nuances and sensibilities. Apart from 'Rangbaaz' and 'Abhay', ZEE5 has 'Parchhayee', a collection of Ruskin Bond tales set in small towns and is readying 'Kaafir', a story in set in Kashmir, with Dia Mirza in the lead.

Tier-two and three cities are definitely growth markets and with most over-the-top (OTT) services needing relevant content to fuel their subscription-based models, heartland stories are forming a core content strategy, said Rajiv Bakshi, chief executive officer at Reliance Entertainment’s Big Synergy that is producing Paan Parda Zarda, a fictional tale based on opium trade in central India.

“Plus, today we have a very mobile population. Metros comprise people from all states. There is no such thing as a unique metro person. Everyone from the cast and creators to the audience itself is from across markets, which is why we see this dramatic shift," Bakshi said.

Ridhima Lulla, chief content officer, Eros Digital emphasized that it’s not just about more number of viewers coming in but also the fact that there is a lot more awareness of what is going on in these smaller towns, thanks to social media and the instant availability of news, information and opinion.

“There is a lot more curiosity in audiences to explore that and that curiosity is implemented in some way or another," Lulla said. It also works the other way around, she pointed out, where people in tier-two and three cities are aspirational and would want to consume something that is centered in a metro.

“The basic idea is that the traditionally formulaic content and entertainment industry needs to look at more interesting and diverse stories because people are receptive towards them," Lulla said.