If one is in the entertainment business in India, one localises in order to sell. And that inevitably translates to large scale doses of Bollywood…
There is an inevitability about what sells in the Indian entertainment market. So here we go with three new big shows that are helping to confirm some truisms. If you are in business in India with international formats for shows, you localise. International production companies such as Fremantlemedia and Endemol recognised that long ago and have done good business here over the last decade. And you spend. The channels recognise that. The returns are not necessarily the biggest among markets in Asia, but presumably big enough to make it worth everybody's while. Including advertisers who will be coughing up Rs. three lakh-plus per 10 seconds on all these shows to ruin your happiness with endless ads and product placements. The entire Bachchan family's endorsements are on board “Kaun Banega Crorepati 4”, so when it isn't Idea ads that you are watching, it is L'Oreal.
Localising is perhaps best illustrated by what you get on “Masterchef India” which opened last weekend. This is the only country in the world where this format, which is about chefs and cooking, is hosted by a Bollywood action hero. Akshay Kumar descends from a helicopter in the opening montage, and proceeds to mouth lines like: Do what a soldier does with his gun! Cook for your honour! Or, “Jang maidan mein ho ya kitchen mein...chahiye himmat!” (Whether the battle is on the field or in the kitchen, you need courage.)
Bring it on
Indianising also means that everything is thrown in — religion for instance. Lots of “wahe guru”ing the first weekend, and one aspirant put a napkin over her head and prayed when she arrived before the jury. And the fan gush is mandatory. The aspiring cooks on “Masterchef” are there because they love Akshay Kumar, the aspiring crorepatis on “KBC” have competed to be there because they love Amitabh Bachchan. Yawn. “Big Boss” is refreshing because people are there for other reasons. Mostly to revive a flagging career. And starlets and jobless TV actors are a change from housewives and school teachers. Even if the goings on in the Big Boss's house are pretty puerile.
Bachchan and Kumar are both into populism on their shows because they are paid to be. It's a question of who pulls it off better. Bachchan looks reverential every time he is confronted with an aspirant who is from a village. “Bahut hi nek insan hai”, he turns to tell the audience. And if it's a village schoolteacher, he murmurs with moist eyes, “education is very necessary”.
Kumar jumps around kissing a woman's hands when he likes what she has cooked, and throws a knife at what passes for a dart board. His lines are not patronising like Mr. B's, they are corny: “Is kadhi ke liye aapko kadhi se kadhi saza milni chahiye.” (For this kadhi you deserve a severe punishment.) Presumably the target audience loves it.
The episodes on the audition rounds served up sundry overcooked messes, but the channel promises that it will eventually be about serious cooking. And emotions, whatever that means. “In the Western context, cooking is about ingredients without emotions. While in Indian context, cooking is a very emotional experience involving the heart and soul,” says Star India's Executive Vice President Anupam Vasudev. Hankies are needed on the sets, everybody wept, the first weekend, including Akshay Kumar.
There will be exotic Indian cuisine, and the challenges have been suitably Indianised: outdoor tasks will be specific to the Indian setting and will include tasks like cooking for a royal maharaja family, or dhaba cooking for truckers. And of course, cooking for Bollywood stars. Participants can also opt to cook only vegetarian food. If you want to know just how different an Indianised show can be from the original format watch “Masterchef Australia” Sundays on Star World. It is uncluttered, and you can come away actually learning something. Like cooking a crisp pizza on a terracotta tile, or using tea leaves to flavour a squid broth.
“Kaun Banega Crorepati”, meanwhile, opened on the first day with an incredible sequence of programmes on Bachchan. It was his birthday, he was returning to KBC after 10 years, his birth and childhood were celebrated, while he cavorted in the next sequence with dancers in white among candles in white on white sets. He also pandered furiously to the masses presumed to be watching: I need your support, he said as he offered a “Vinamrata purvak namaskar” .
Localising in India means getting all of this into a game show. And more Bollywood appearances in side roles: Sanjay Dutt and John Abraham as experts, there to gladden the Indian heart in general. It's one big tamasha, enjoy it.
The take away from the newest line up of prime time shows is that Indian entertainment is getting more expensive, while the ratings for these shows are not necessarily going through the roof. Where you might have spent Rs. 10 lakh per episode on a prime time serial you now spend up to Rs. one crore per episode for a prime time reality show. Perhaps more. And it's a choice you make. Because other channels are still betting on serials in this slot, and making their money.