Lagaweli jab lipistic
Hilela Arrah district
Zilla top lalelu
Komariya, komariya kare lopa loap
Lallipop lagelu

(When you put on lipstick, you rock the entire Arrah district [of Bihar]. You’re on top of this district, and when your hips sway, you look like a lollipop.)

Lallipop Lagelu, a Bhojpuri number about a man admiring a woman putting on lipstick and dancing seductively, was one of the most popular songs played during the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations in Mumbai two years ago. Overt sexual imagery and lyrics, a staple of Bhojpuri music and movies, has been the foundation for the content of Bhojpuri channels such as Mahuaa TV. It was the winning formula, till rival Big Ganga turned the model on its head and in the process cleaned up the perception of Bhojpuri entertainment.

Movies and music were the mainstay when Bhojpuri entertainment found its way to the small screen. Even then, the content almost invariably relied on loud songs and titillation to draw in crowds. But Tarun Katial, CEO of Reliance Broadcast Network (RBNL), which owns Big Ganga, had another script in mind. In 2012, he carved out Big Ganga (then called Big Magic Ganga) from the general entertainment channel, Big Magic, to air only Bhojpuri content. Instead of syndicating and dubbing shows, Big Ganga was launched with a handful of shows conceptualised in-house. More important, the shows focussed on genres that were piling up the views—devotion, comedy, satire and regional pride. This mix had worked for other regional channels, and there was a good chance they would for a community that thrived on bold moves.

Katial’s bet paid off. Within a year, Big Ganga had captured 51% share of the viewership, toppling leader, Mahuaa TV (source: Broadcast Audience Research Council of India). Since then Big Ganga has stayed put in the top two among the 12 Bhojpuri channels. For the week ended July 22, Big Ganga was the second most watched in the category behind Bhojpuri Cinema with nearly 17 million unique views.

One of shows that hit home was Big Memsaab, a reality contest for housewives. For the first time married women from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, not the most liberal communities on gender equality, would be seen singing and dancing on TV along with showcasing their cooking and grooming skills. Partha Dey, creative head of Big Ganga*, says that Big Memsaab was built on the success of a similar programme on Reliance’s radio channel, Big FM. “In the Patna auditions, we were expecting 200-300 people. But we got more than 580. We didn’t have place for the participants to wait.”

This was one of the first attempts at the reality genre in Bhojpuri television. The success of Big Ganga’s content and programming strategy is both a result and an indicator of the cultural shift in the region. D. Parthasarathy, professor of sociology and head of the humanities and social sciences department at Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, says the rise in education levels among the middle-class is a key reason. “Earlier Bhojpuri films and TV channels catered to the urban poor and rural migrants. Now the educated middle-class also wants to watch Bhojpuri TV programmes, and this has created demand for a different kind of content.” A rising migration of the middle-class from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to urban cities such as Mumbai, and overseas, has resulted in the community getting a taste of a variety of new content concepts.

Big Ganga has also successfully experimented with the non-fiction genre with Ganga Gaurav, a show designed to evoke regional pride by celebrating famous personalities born in the region. “The emphasis is on local insight and local content. With Ganga Gaurav, it is all about taking pride in your region,” says Katial. One of the episodes had Shyam Benegal talking about the works of Premchand. “Which Bhojpuri entertainment channel would have content like this?” asks Dey. The channel also introduced a show based on political satire—often a difficult concept to pull off—around the time of the Bihar elections last November.

Parthasarathy says that the migrants’ rising income, combined with a growing sense of regional identity in urban areas, has also triggered the shift in Bhojpuri entertainment to content similar to mainstream Hindi TV.

The channel has started to bring in steady revenue, though RBNL didn’t respond with details. But here’s the big question: Can Big Ganga sustain momentum merely on original content? Can it continue to downplay the importance of flashy movies and loud music? Dey’s insistence on making the channel “family friendly” cannot possibly convince Bhojpuri viewers to let go of their favourite music and movie stars. According to data from the Film Federation of India, 87 Bhojpuri feature films were made in 2012 and 99 in 2013, which account for 5.6% of all feature films made in India during this period. If it wants to grab viewership, Big Ganga cannot stay away from feature films. This week, it lost the top spot to Bhojpuri Cinema that airs Bhojpuri movies.

Dey’s solution: censor the unsavoury. “Mahuaa TV will often show adult-rated movies with a U/A certification. But we do an in-house censoring of the songs and movies before putting them on the channel,” he says. Sometimes, a three-hour blockbuster can get shortened to just two-thirds its original runtime. “We can play the numbers game with just music and movies but we want wholesome programming with rooted content,” Dey says, as if to reinforce his point. Behind me, his TV plays a Bhojpuri translation of the show Akbar Birbal, on the Mughal emperor and his witty court aide. You won’t see any pelvic thrusts and earthy love songs here anytime soon.