'Mirzapur' Season 3: Set in a remote village in the Purvanchal region of Uttar Pradesh, it has captured the fascination of Indian viewers
'Mirzapur' Season 3: Set in a remote village in the Purvanchal region of Uttar Pradesh, it has captured the fascination of Indian viewers

Small is the new big with Indian cinema this year

Small-town and rural settings are taking centre stage in Indian entertainment as the audience increasingly leans towards emotional connect and relatability

The Tripathis and Pandits are back. Guns loaded and fists clenched, last week the rival gangs of Mirzapur finally had a go at each other as the third season of the popular show dropped on Amazon Prime Video.

The four-year-long wait was as excruciating for the arch rivals as it was for the audience. But why does a thriller set in a remote village in the Purvanchal region of Uttar Pradesh capture the fascination of Indian viewers so much? Perhaps because it is raw, rustic and real. Now think of Kiran Rao’s Laapataa Ladies.

Starkly different in tone from Mirzapur, it is a comedy of errors where two new brides get swapped. It is again set in a village, albeit fictitious, yet it managed to get 13.8 million views within a month of its release, surpassing Ranbir Kapoor’s blockbuster Animal.

There are more. Vikrant Massey’s 12th Fail set in Chambal in Madhya Pradesh, and Kunal Kemmu’s directorial venture Madgaon Express have also grabbed eyeballs for their engaging storylines and performances. In Malayalam cinema, survival thriller Manjummel Boys, which was made on a budget of Rs 20 crore raked in more than Rs 200 core at the box office. From Angamaly Diaries to Sudani from Nigeria and Kumbalangi Nights, smaller films have had a significant impact on the way Malayalam cinema has captured the imagination of cinema buffs.

Amid the glitzy and larger-than-life worlds of Made in Heaven and Four More Shots Please, who would have imagined that Panchayat, a simple tale of a city boy moving to a nondescript village in the middle of nowhere would garner such a loyal fan following. After two successful seasons, The Viral Fever (TVF) production released its third season on May 28.

The middle-class Mishra parivaar with its everyday stories returned in the fourth season of Gullak on SonyLIV, another TVF production. Patna Shukla, Kathal, Aranyak, Paatal Lok, Kohrra, Jamtara, Taj Mahal 1989 and Tabbar are just a few of the shows and films that have defied the formulaic assumption that only projects mounted on a large scale with popular names work with the audience.

Manjummel Boys: Made at a budget of `20 crore, it raked in more than `200 core at the box office
Manjummel Boys: Made at a budget of `20 crore, it raked in more than `200 core at the box office

What is creating this fascination that the audience has for such content? For one, it is the relatability factor. According to a 2023 study by a health platform, over 70 per cent of India resides in rural and semi-rural regions—what is termed as Tier-II and -III cities. There is suddenly a rise in disposable incomes in these regions. From real estate to politics and health, it is this demography that is the driving force. Why should entertainment be any different?

The populace from Tier-II and -III cities wants to see their stories on the big screen. They don’t identify with the glitzy world of the Johars and the Chopras. The lens in all these movies and shows is trained on India’s small towns and villages, thanks to storytellers and even actors coming from these small towns. Away from the cacophony of cities and urban dwellings, the narratives are unhurried and give a peek into the lives, cultural nuances and traditions of this vast country and its people.

For those who have moved from such back-of-beyond towns to the metros, it is recall value and nostalgia for a world that once was theirs. In a sense, they are revisiting their past. Says Mumbai-based sociologist Dr Omkar Bhatkar, “There is a market in the Tier-II and -III cities for these films. Secondly, a number of people, who have entered the industry in the last few years, come from these cities. This is the cultural milieu that they understand.”

As Real as It Gets

The OTT boom during and post Covid meant that there was a plethora of content from all corners of the world available on the click of a button in the comfort of our homes. That has changed something intrinsically for the average cinegoer. Actor Pratik Gandhi has noticed as well. “With the world’s content in front of us via digital platforms, the audience’s taste has undergone a change.

Laapataa Ladies: Managed to get 13.8 million views within a month of its release, surpassing Ranbir Kapoor’s blockbuster 'Animal'
Laapataa Ladies: Managed to get 13.8 million views within a month of its release, surpassing Ranbir Kapoor’s blockbuster 'Animal'

Now, they want more believable and relatable stories,’’ says The Madgaon Express actor, citing the instance of Panchayat and Paatal Lok. “In the latter, Hathiram’s character is what a real-life hero is like,” he adds. As for Madgaon Express finding an audience for its quirky plot of three guys’ misadventures in Goa, Gandhi believes that the credit goes to the writing as well as to the creative call they took of not playing to the gallery. “The characters’ reactions are what people are relating to,” he says.

Writer and director Varun Grover made his directorial debut with the semi-autobiographical All India Rank, a story set in Kota about a young boy preparing for the highly competitive IIT entrance exams, which received positive reviews for the familiar plot. Grover says that his simple assumption is that there are many in this country who have had a similar life, upbringing and nostalgia about the India of the ’90s in which he was growing up. “My takeaway is that the story and emotions will work with the people because they worked with me,” he says.

The relatability factor is definitely one of the aspects driving the narrative. Manish Menghani, Director and Head Content Licensing, Amazon Prime Video, is of the opinion that Panchayat’s success isn’t limited by geography or demographics alone. “While it authentically portrays rural life, it also delves into universal themes such as friendship, relationships, loyalty, community-living and more,” he says. Neena Gupta, who plays Manju Devi, the Pradhan in the series, seconds his thoughts. “How many shows do you see where the story, characters, outfits and locations seem authentic? There is a simplicity and honesty here that comes through,” she says.

The television world of the ’80s and early ’90s was dominated by serials such as Buniyaad, Hum Log, Malgudi Days and Mungerilaal Ke Haseen Sapne among others. These took us into lower- and middle-class homes with middle-class dreams and aspirations. It is perhaps that nostalgia that TVF is trying to recreate with their shows Panchayat and Gullak. President TVF, Vijay Koshy, says, “While all genres of content find their own audiences and niches, we’re just playing to our strengths with stories that represent the real India. Viewers find comfort and connection in seeing their own struggles, joys and quirks mirrored on screen.”

12th Fail: Set in Chambal in Madhya Pradesh, this story of resilience focuses on an aspiring IPS officer, who fights against odds to realise his dream
12th Fail: Set in Chambal in Madhya Pradesh, this story of resilience focuses on an aspiring IPS officer, who fights against odds to realise his dream

Post liberalisation in the ’90s and the advent of saas-bahu soaps, the joy of watching those authentic worlds, too, underwent a change. Veteran actor Raghubir Yadav, who plays Pradhan-pati in Panchayat, and who made his television debut with the iconic Mungerilaal Ke Haseen Sapne in 1988, believes that the audience still remembers those cult shows because of their relatability. “In the later years, it seemed that the soaps were coming out of a factory. The only thing that mattered was the rising count of the episodes and not the plot,” he says. Vaibhav Raj Gupta, who plays the older son Annu Mishra in Gullak, sums it up, “Watching these soaps, I wanted to ask, ‘where are my people and where are my stories?’”

As far as the budgets of these projects are concerned, industry experts feel they have no bearing on the way the audience perceives a show or a film. “The audience doesn’t care if the budget is Rs 15 crore or Rs 50 crore. They only know two things: maza aaya aur maza nahi aaya (entertained or not entertained),” Gandhi states.

Grover, too, believes that while some movies made on smaller budgets did appeal to the audience, it is not entirely a new phenomenon. “Movies such as Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye, Omkara and Dev D were also medium-budget films. Every decade there is this theory that small films are coming back, but they have always been there and they always will be,” he adds.

Heart of India

Film critic Tushar Joshi believes that there is definitely a vast unexplored terrain when it comes to filmmakers making films set in rural India or small towns. “It has become a space where projects are being commissioned and writers are being asked to explore ideas. Stories of smaller towns, folk tales and rural characters will always resonate with us emotionally. Everything does not need to have a skyscraper-laden canvas,” he says.

In Laapataa Ladies, two brides get exchanged in a train leading to chaos, revelations and lessons. The story has received appreciation for its authentic portrayal of rural life and characters. Screenplay writer Sneha Desai believes that it was the subject that demanded a smaller scale. “Something as simple as a person getting lost can become a problem of a huge magnitude only when the scale of the film becomes smaller,” she reasons.

Gullak season 4: Based on the trials and tribulations of the middle-class Mishra family with their everyday stories, it draws on emotional and nostalgic elements
Gullak season 4: Based on the trials and tribulations of the middle-class Mishra family with their everyday stories, it draws on emotional and nostalgic elements

The stories, whether they deal with urban anxieties or rural concerns, are not created in a vacuum. They are the worlds inhabited by writers and filmmakers and from what they have seen, observed and experienced. Filmmakers such as Karan Johar or Zoya Akhtar are often accused of making urban films that depict rich characters going on cruises. It would be impractical, although not impossible, to expect a story set in the heartland of India from them. Jayant Digambar Somalkar, who directed the award-winning Marathi feature Sthal, admits that compared to regional cinema, Hindi films have not explored rural India as much.

“There’s a city gaze or an outsider’s gaze to those films,” he says. His film, set in Dongargaon of Vidarbha region in Maharashtra, examines the concept of arranged marriages, something which Somalkar has seen at close quarters, having grown up in that village. It is a world he is familiar with. His next is also set in a village with water crisis as its subject.

Malayalam filmmaker and actor Basil Joseph, who delivered the critically-acclaimed Minnal Murali starring Tovino Thomas as a village tailor who gains superpowers after being struck by lightning, agrees with Somalkar. “A filmmaker is always influenced by his upbringing and the lives he sees around him. I’m a small-town boy and that’s the primary reason why I’m drawn towards small-town narratives,” he says.

Joseph adds that Malayalis are fond of saying ‘‘local is international’’, in the sense that local stories find instant resonance because of the freshness in the setting. All praises for Laapataa Ladies, he states that while Malayalis are not used to seeing such a setting or veiled brides or their conflicts, the film communicates relatable human emotions and universal themes like feminism. “It was the same with Minnal Murali. Superhero is a universal genre, but someone outside Kerala will be fascinated on seeing a lungi-clad superhero. Even foreigners found the film interesting because of its rural setting,” he shares.

Although Syam Pushkaran does not interact regularly with people from higher-income groups, the writer of Malayalam films such as Kumbalangi Nights and Joji, says that his movies are mostly an urban take on lives. “Also, I don’t think Kerala has many big cities; we’re made of several small towns,” he says. Turning the lens on Malayalam cinema, Krishand RK, the director of National Award-winning film Aavasavyuham, shares that Malayalam cinema has always dealt with locally brewed stories of small villages and townships.

Sthal: Set in 
drought-prone Dongargaon village of Vidarbha region in Maharashtra, it examines the concept of arranged marriages
Sthal: Set in drought-prone Dongargaon village of Vidarbha region in Maharashtra, it examines the concept of arranged marriages

“It is very rare to see Malayalam cinema from 1980 to 2000 set in cities. I think it has almost always been rural settings, except for mass masala action films,” he says. Noted film critic Baradwaj Ranjan agrees. “Malayalam cinema has always been the more naturalistic of the Indian cinemas with small-town settings. It was the Tamil, Telugu and Hindi film industries where the larger-than-life cinema was a big thing,” he says.

Suchin Mehrotra, a film critic who reviews series for a prominent platform, has always maintained that over the last few years, the finest Hindi language storytelling is on streaming. “It all started around 2019-2020, so it’s definitely not a recent phenomenon. A lot of streaming space is dominated by such content and many of these shows are on their third and fourth seasons, which shows that there is a large dedicated audience for these stories,” he says.

Talent Scores

In an industry dominated by the Khans and Kapoors, it has always been a bit of a struggle for new talent to get the kind of recognition and appreciation they deserve. Slowly though, the landscape seems to be shifting. Newcomers Pratibha Ranta, Nitanshi Goel and Sparsh Shrivastava in Laapataa Ladies imbued their characters with naivety and innocence. Starting from television, Vikrant Massey worked his way up and delivered a stellar performance in 12th Fail as an aspiring IPS officer. Around the same time, bigger projects with more established names were struggling to find a foothold.

Joshi believes that there is a fatigue that has set in the audience when it comes to big-ticket stars, simply because when filmmakers make these films, they pander to a certain image that the stars have. “Take for instance Bade Miyan Chote Miyan, a classic case where the film has a superstar like Akshay Kumar, mounted with action scenes and special effects, but little focus on storyline and narrative,” he states. On the other side of the spectrum, he says are movies that do not boast a superstar cast, but have an excellent script. “There was empathy for the characters and the audience invested their time and money into these stories,” he says.

Somalkar, who cast non-professional actors from the local community for his film, shares that Marathi cinema has for most part relied on content and not star power. “There is an advantage to having a known name, but it is not insisted upon,” says the filmmaker. In the OTT space too, the variety and sheer volume of content has led to a need for newer faces. Says casting director Anmol Ahuja, “In series and mini-series, characters are kings. All you need are good actors to fit those roles,” he says, adding that having a major name headlining a show does not guarantee its success. “It is a space for actors because the characters are well-defined,” he avers.

Moolah Matters

While there may be a case to be made for stories set in rural India or small towns being celebrated on streaming, the fact remains that they still have a long way to go when it comes to box-office acclaim. According to an analysis by media consulting firm Ormax Media, of the Rs 12,226 crore gross box office in 2023, 40 per cent (i.e., Rs 4,869 crore) came from the top 10 films of the year. “This clearly establishes that the trend of big films contributing a significant portion to the box office, compared to pre-pandemic, is a phenomenon that is here to stay,” it states. Joseph recalls watching Laapataa Ladies in a theatre in Kochi with hardly 10 people in the audience. “The sensational reception post OTT-release proves that these films have commercial potential. Maybe if it was made in a regional industry, the response would have been better,” he opines.

Film exhibitor Akkshay Rathie is not so gung-ho about the success of these films either. “While we are citing Laapataa Ladies and 12th Fail as successes, there are more small films that have been released in recent times that did nothing at all,” he states. The commercial success of such projects, he believes, are stray cases. “The question to ask is, are people willing to go and watch movies in theatres that don’t have stars? If I see one Manjummel Boys then it is an exception; if there are five in a year then I can say it’s genuinely happening,” he says.

What Lies Ahead

It’s evident that big-budget extravaganzas headlined by popular stars are not going anywhere. Movies such as Pathaan, Jawan, Fighter, Teri Baaton Mein Uljha Jiya and of course, Animal, raked in the moolah at the box office and continue to draw eyeballs on OTT platforms. Amid all that noise, it is certainly heartening to notice the long-lasting impact left behind by smaller or mid-budget productions with their emphasis on storytelling and performances.

Desai is of the belief that eventually it is only a well-made film that succeeds, regardless of magnitude, location or stars.

“A number of studios are backing smaller stories that have something to say, and which have a higher chance for a great return-on-investment,” she states. Koshy seems to agree. “As the industry grows and diversifies, we will undoubtedly see new genres and styles emerge, but the core principle of authenticity in storytelling will remain vital. For both makers and audiences, this evolution signifies a more inclusive and dynamic landscape, where a variety of stories can thrive and resonate,” he says.

But not everyone foresees a rosy future for these stories. Says Krishand: “Since OTT platforms are not ready to buy these films and people are not willing to go and watch films that are more reflective of real life, the making of such cinema will stop. It will only be restricted to film festivals and any new OTT platform that comes up with a business model for such films.” Grover, on his part, refuses to form theories about the impact such stories would have on storytelling and performances, stating that every film is a new experiment.

Does size matter then?

Guess one will just have to wait and watch.

Upcoming films and shows to watch out for

Paatal Lok Season 2 (Hindi)

Jaideep Ahlawat and Ishwak Singh will return as Inspector Hathiram Choudhary and cop Ansari respectively. Set in both urban and rural spaces, the crime thriller was one of the biggest successes when the first season came out in 2020

Suzhal: The Vortex Season 2 (Tamil)

A 10-day village festival in Tamil Nadu is where a double murder took place in season one of the show created by Pushkar-Gayathri. Kathir as Detective Sakkarai has another mystery to solve in the second season which, according to the grapevine, will also be set in a village

Stolen (Hindi)

This Abhishek Banerjee-thriller received

a standing ovation at Venice Film Festival 2023 where it premiered in September. The story is set against a village in India where a five-month-old baby gets kidnapped leading to some challenging situations for two brothers

Vicky Vidya Ka Woh Wala Video (Hindi)

The quirky family drama starring Rajkummar Rao and Triptii Dimri is set in a small town of India in the 1990s and is about the chaos that ensues after an intimate video of the couple is leaked

With inputs from Vignesh Madhu and Vivek Santhosh

The New Indian Express