Colors' flagship daily fiction show Balika Vadhu has taken social dramas on television to dizzying heights. The show, primarily centred around child marriage, has planted itself firmly in the 'phenomenal success' club with 2025 episodes in seven years. afaqs! Reporter analyses the all-conquering serial.
Yes, there are other shows that will possibly join the 2000-club soon. Among the long-running shows on Hindi GECs, 'Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai' has 1,864 episodes, while SAB TV's 'Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah' is at 1,886 episodes. Another enduring fiction show is Sony Entertainment Television's investigative drama 'CID', which has been running for 18 years but airs thrice a week and is at 1,289 (at the time of going into print) episodes. But 'Balika Vadhu' is milestones ahead.
Almost from the start of Colors' journey it became that one big show that would steer the success of the channel. On the scheduling front too this one was different, airing on the hitherto untried 8 pm slot, at a time when most marquee shows came on between 9 and 11 pm.
As per TAM Media Research data, the launch on July 21, 2008 got a TVR of 0.7, and towards the end of the launch week, it had managed to get enough sampling to hit a TVR of 1.3. In September 2008, its TVR shot up from 2.9 to 6.8. Three months after its launch, Balika Vadhu hit the No.1 spot with a TVR of 6.8, pipping the then blockbuster, 'Bidayi' on Star Plus. Balika Vadhu's GRP contribution was at an average of 14 per cent in the latter half of 2008, and it has continued to be in the top 5 or top 10.
The genesis of 'Balika Vadhu' can be traced to the show's writer Purnendu Shekhar's experience while growing up in Rajasthan. The sight of a '16-year-old girl feeding her child' during his college years triggered a wave of thoughts leading to the concept. Years later, he and producer Sunjoy Wadhwa, founder of SphereOrigins, a film production company, presented it to the then Colors team. Both Shekhar and Wadhwa had some successful shows under their belt on other GECs, and were handpicked by Ashvini Yardi, the then programming head of Colors.
The current management recalls that its predecessors (including then CEO Rajesh Kamat) had actually greenlighted the show based on a picture of a father taking 'pheras' with his toddler daughter in his arms.
Raj Nayak, CEO of Colors, talks about the channel's disruptive mantra coming into play right from the start. Says he, "We did not want to follow the bandwagon of the saas-bahu dramas. A show like Balika Vadhu comes once in a lifetime. It communicated a pertinent message to society without being preachy, which we feel is its biggest strength."
In a twitter-defined era, seven years defines one social generation. How has the show tackled changing audience tastes? Nayak replies, "The show has also shed light on stigmas like adult education, divorce, marital rape and remarriage, faced by people in rural and urban areas alike. As the audiences evolve, the issues that the show has brought to the forefront have also evolved, maintaining a continuous audience connect."
Manisha Sharma, programming head, Colors, says, "We wanted viewers to be able to visualise their own friends and family members through the reactions that the characters portrayed in circumstances and stand by them as the show progressed.Anandi's (the child bride) character was our biggest sketching board since she was the protagonist of the show."
Experts feel that when 'Balika Vadhu' was launched, viewers and consumers saw it as a sharply differentiated show vis-a-visfamily soaps such as 'Kyunkii Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi', 'Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki' or 'Kasautii Zindagi Kay' that dominated the GEC landscape that time.
Says Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of Ormax Media, a 'consumer knowledge' firm,"Within 3-4 months of its launch, Anandi's character had become the pivot on which the show built a fan following. The young Anandi was seen as innocent yet resilient, mischievous yet 'samajhdaar', and she gained so much affection that she became a member of every viewer's family."
Balika Vadhu revolved around the eight-year-old Anandi, a character played by Avika Gor, whom the audience absolutely loved. Says Wadhwa, "We were doing a show called 'Rajkumar Aryan', where Avika had done a few episodes. We spotted the spark in her. She was a bright kid and good actor, and we wanted to take someone mature enough to understand the character she was playing. It's difficult to make a child understand what childmarriage is and explain the gravity of certain situations, but Avika sailed through with her emoting, performance and body language."
The other popular character was the tough but endearing Dadisa, played by veteran actress Surekha Sikhri. Wadhwa adds that, "she was a real character, a strict yet loving grandmother, and also the head of the house. For us there is no black and white character, we prefer to be in the dark grey to light grey range. The main protagonist will, of course, be white because a child can be portrayed as pure."
Wadhwa says that the crew is exactly the same, including the spot boy from seven years ago. There were a lot of outdoorshoots in Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, and apart from the rural setting and the dialect, it also had unique production design aesthetics, which called for a 'rich rural family, where there was opulence but not in the urban way.' But what made it last so long?
Explains Kapoor, "GEC fiction has longevity if the characters have longevity. Also, as a housewife mentioned in a research a couple of years ago, Balika Vadhu is 'like a novel'. It can keep going on and you still want to follow the story, because you are deeply engaged with its characters and premises."
Despite not spending much on promotions, Colors hit the jackpot with Balika Vadhu. Vikas Khanchandani, director,Aidem Ventures, a media consultancy firm, says, "Balika Vadu has mass appeal and it has been in the top 10 since its launch in 2008. The delivery has been very high within CS F 25+ and also in CS 4+. The TVTs have shown a healthy trend across years (TAM data: TG CS 4+ & Market HSM, 41.47 lakh TVTs in 2008 & 41.28 lakh TVTs in 2015). The stability in performance coupled with large reach makes the show a must-have on media plans."
Ormax's Kapoor says, "Over time, the show has been liked more by women in the 25-44 age group than in the 15-44. In its early period (2008 -11), males were also actively engaged with the show because they felt it was a lot more family-inclusive than the 'K-serials'."
Being a new channel, was it difficult to sell the first show? Simran Hoon, sales head, Colors, says, "It was extremely challenging because everybody thought we were another flash in the pan, but we believed in what we were doing. We valued the show and never compromised on that - whether it was going in with 50 per cent inventory fill levels. Till we got our desired rates, we were fine with the channel just running some key advertiser campaigns." What were the things they got right then?
She adds, "One thing we focused on doing right has been pricing. Ratings do matter, but how we get a premium on that rating is something that we have been working on. The other big cornerstone of our strategy is that we've gone beyond the 30-second spot." The show had also explored embedded content for Max New York Life Insurance. Says Hoon, "Now, the challenge was that Balika Vadhu has a rural setting. We had to wait for the scriptwriters to send an uncle into the city who would come back to tell someone who was pregnant in the family about the policy."
The initial advertisers were from diverse categories with a predictably FMCG focus. Those included ITC, Nestle, Dabur, Nirma and brands like Idea, Airtel and Nokia. Over the years, newer categories like e-commerce such as Snapdeal and Amazon have been big advertisers too, but FMCGs still remain the top advertiser category.
Rajiv Dubey, head - Adbur (Dabur's in-house media buying agency) says, "Initially, the name of the show sounded a bit regressive but the storyline was very progressive and the issues it has addressed has made us stick to it since 2008." The biggest thing going for Balika Vadhu was that the story remained relevant for all these years. For Dubey, whose core TG is 15-44 years SEC C, the show delivered the audience he wanted.
Chandrasekar Radhakrishnan, head of communications - South Asia region, Nestle India, says, "Our assessment was that BalikaVadhu had the content, and style to engage viewers on a sustained basis, and we are happy that we went along with our assessment." After a six-year 'time leap' in 2010 and a 11-year leap in March this year, the show now has the grown-upAnandi's daughter 'Nimboli' caught in a child marriage. So, how much steam does the story have going further?
"In 2014," recalls writer Shekhar, "I felt that the story had ended, but when we brought in the next time leap with 'Nimboli' I had ample stories to narrate - a triangle between two mothers and a daughter is the fresh track. Anandi has evolved with time, and is a crusader against child marriage. I couldn't just bring in another child marriage, as that would be Anandi's defeat, so we had her infant daughter kidnapped at three months, and then getting married young, enabling us to stay true to the concept of the show."
Wasn't there the danger that the show would reiterate regressive behaviour instead of fighting it? Not really, say the creators. During the 1000-episode celebrations of Balika Vadhu, the makers highlighted the story of Lakshmi, who was from a small village in Rajasthan, and was married as a child. When she came of age, her in-laws showed up to stake their claim on her, but she stood against this. She eventually got her marriage annulled to gain her freedom. Says Shekhar, "A serial by itself can't overturn social evils, but I believe we can seed a thought process on what is right and wrong."
With 50 per cent or more of its audience within rural markets and with BARC deploying 30 per cent of its barometers to capture the additional viewership data, there could be a boost to monetisation. The expectations are that 'Balika Vadhu' will have a good following among the rural audiences.
Says Khanchandani, "The show's current telecast time at 8 pm will be beneficial keeping in mind the early primetime for rural viewing, thereby delivering good reach. The show's impact on audiences in rural markets where C&S penetration has been poor will see a strong delivery of repeat telecast on Colors' FTA channel Rishtey too." Not everyone is so sure though.
Vanita Keswani, COO, Madison Media Sigma says, "Going by past TAM data and recent BARC data, Balika Vadhu's viewership is not far higher in 0.1-1 million towns and low class towns vis-a-vis the 1 million+ towns. Assuming rural viewership to follow smaller town viewership trends, one does not expect Balika Vadhu to be hugely popular in rural markets, but we can only wait and watch."
Nayak says that the show has taught them one big lesson: "If we believe in a concept regardless of how different it might be, it has the potential to change the television landscape. Whenever we do decide to pull curtains on the show, we believe that it will be the end of an era on Indian television."
A Note From the Editor
Two years back, when Sony's investigative drama CID completed 1,000 episodes, we interviewed Shivaji Satam, the actor who plays ACP Pradyuman, star of the show.
Recently, Colors' flagship fiction show Balika Vadhu hit the 2,000-episode milestone. In fact, the daily has completed 2,025 episodes over a span of seven years. That, we felt, warranted a Cover Story.
One of the most important ingredients of success is timing. When Rajshri Productions released Hum Aapke Hain Koun in 1994, the film became an instant blockbuster; the saccharine-drenched story of a large, happy family, offered a welcome respite from the hero-versus-villain routine, a reigning cliché at the time.
Similarly, when Colors launched Balika Vadhu in 2008, the saas-bahu theme was at a mind-numbing high. The show broke the monotony on Indian television and gave the audience something different to watch - and discuss. Suddenly, everyone had an opinion on Avika Gor's Anandi. So loved was this character, that the show lost viewership each time the track moved away from her.
During the course of researching this story, we were treated to several fascinating anecdotes. For instance, did you know that the genesis of Balika Vadhu can be traced back to the writer's childhood? Purnendu Shekhar, who grew up in Rajasthan, saw a 16-year-old girl feeding her child, one day. It was this disturbing visual that sparked the idea that, years down the line, led to the show.
Here's another behind-the-scenes snippet - Over seven years, the on-set crew of Balika Vadhu has stayed the same, including the spot boy. Sample this trivia too - During its early years, the show, counter-intuitively enough, caught the attention of many a male viewer. They felt it was a lot more 'inclusive' than the K-serials.
At present, the protagonist's daughter Nimboli is, in turn, a victim of child marriage. While discussing the future of this track and the show's inevitable end, Raj Nayak, CEO, Colors, said, "Whenever we decide to pull the curtains on the show, it will be the end of an era on Indian television."