Colors uses real-life issues to connects with auds

Indian soaps have traditionally followed the telenovela script. Beautiful people dressed in gorgeous costumes crying over lost loves, overbearing in-laws, unwanted pregnancies, etc.

In the past few years, however, third-ranked Viacom net Colors18 has started chipping away at this formula with shows that would seem at first glance destined to fail: “Balika Vadhu” deals with child marriage, “Uttaran” about class differences and “Na aana is des laado,” which preemed in February, is about infanticide.

“There’s no formula now; it’s a narrative — a story told from the heart, with real characters and real emotions,” Purnendu Shekhar, a writer on “Balika Vadhu,” told the Times of India. “A girl’s fight against the discrimination that she faces because of her dark skin becomes a talking point in the age of fairness creams. A story isn’t good unless it conveys a message. Everyone in India knows about child marriages, so, if the story is presented in an engaging manner, it’ll surely strike a chord.”

Set in a Rajasthan village, “Balika Vadhu” follows the travails of a 10-year-old girl married to a boy just a few years older. In “Uttaran,” a maid and her mistress fall for the wealthy man. “Laado” revolves around an elderly woman in an Indian village in Haryana state, where only boys are allowed to be born.

Rajesh Kamat, CEO of Colors, says the serials carry messages of social relevance in a country where girls are aborted even in cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and Chennai by women who are upwardly mobile.

“Viewers say these things happen — they may not happen in our house, but they certainly happen,” Kamat says. “That pretty much is what has worked for us — that connect.”

“Balika Vadhu,” launched in 2008, ruffled the feathers of feminists, who said the cable channel glamorized child marriage thanks to its cute protags. But, the soap soon ventured into other threads, such as unmarried mothers, still a big deal in conservative India.

“That was the hook; that’s what drew people,” Kamat says. “We’ve moved forward, but(that kind of controversy is) always at the back of your mind.

“And we have a message running at the end of each show discussing the evil effects of child marriage.”

The show now tackles widow remarriage and other threads.

“You pick up the life story of a child bride, her life will progress,” Kamat says. “We have her sister-in-law; what are the problems she got into? We have taken each of these issues and taken it forward.”

The storyline for “Uttaran” also started with two young girls (the maid and mistress) being friendly before becoming rivals as they grew up. There was a spike in viewership as the tale picked up with the central characters as adults.

“There’s only so much you can do when the storyline is about kids,” Kamat says.

Colors, a partnership between Viacom and Network 18, airs other shows, including the Indian version of “Fear Factor” and “Big Brother,” but its soaps are the big draw. The cabler has a 24 share on a weekly basis, according to Kamat.

Among a dozen general entertainment cable channels, Colors18 reached the top three and even managed to overtake Rupert Murdoch’s Star Plus, which had been the ratings leader for nine years.

While Star retook the top spot in the last quarter, “Balika Vadhu” and “Uttaran” were among the nation’s top five shows.

“Uttaran” drew 5.7% of households with cable, while “Balika” drew 5.1%. Of India’s billions, only 120 million have TV and 70 million have cable/satellite, but this is the audience advertisers try to reach.

“There are three of us who are fighting for the top slot,” Kamat says, listing Colors and Star Plus, which battle for the top spot with Zee TV. Considering Colors reached the top in eight months, no one can be counted out.

Since January, Colors has ventured overseas in the U.K. on Sky and the U.S., where it airs via Dish network as Your Colors.

So far, the audience remains a small portion of Dish’s subscribers, but Kamat hopes to be able connect with DirecTV and cable systems as well.

“We are getting a fair amount of positive response,” he says. “We have a decent opening in the U.S.”

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