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Stereotyping in Storytelling

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INFLUENCER: Nomad India's Amitabh Bhattacharya on the challenges of weaving a global story including a country as diverse as India

Stereotyping in Storytelling

Over the last few years there has been an increasing trend among international clients to make India an important part of their global story. India is no longer another exotic location, a featured cast in a global brand film. It is often the on-screen principle.

How do you weave a global story that includes a country as socially and culturally diverse as a continent?

The challenge is not limited to storytelling alone. Even the production process can sometimes be quite overwhelming for an international crew.

Production in the west tends to be technology intensive, with minimal use of labour. Whereas in India, labour intensive processes and large crews are the norm - for a host of business, political and social reasons.

Such logistical and cultural differences are something that anyone doing business in India has to contend with. Furthermore, in our line of work the cultural differences and nuances that effect creative content and production values are even more important. These can arise from different geographies within India, where north, south, east and west can represent entirely different cultures that can be diametrically opposed, with many more embedded sub-cultures that can change within miles! They actually arise from a single fact - India is too diverse to be projected in a stereotype, there are as many exceptions here as there are generalities.

So as India starts playing a bigger role in global brand stories, it becomes important for international commercial producers and branded content makers to understand, respect, and work with local nuances, changing contexts and its societal realities. Local insights expressed creatively can make so much difference to the stories. 

This requires a departure from how things have been done, where traditionally, top down decisions from America or Europe governed how creative and production would flow. Back in those days, the best and the biggest advertising agencies in the world were based in Europe and the USA. Exchanging creative values between these global creative and production powerhouses was relatively easy and acceptable. That’s how far intercultural interactions went.

Then sometime in the early ‘90s, as the Indian economy opened up and the Indian market became ascendant, the cultural flows became less unilateral. Local creative talent handled global brands, bringing in local stories. Brands began to adapt and reflect the cultures of their adopted country or changed the rules of the game. The process has continued. Japanese and Korean car companies did it first. Today, Chinese phone companies are doing it. The entertainment industry has done it too, remaking shows in the local image. Food brands have brought in local flavours. Chicken McTikka and Rice, anyone? For decades now, companies have been spending billions of marketing dollars to make their brands culturally and socially relevant, mainly by engaging local creative partners. They have already climbed the learning curve.

In production, however, there has been a reverse trend to engage directors and production houses in the west to tell local stories. Particularly if it is a global campaign. But how aware is an English, German or an American director/producer about the cultures and subcultures in the east? How much does a director need to know to do justice to the story? Does she/he get enough time and the budget to research the subject of her/his story or know what it entails to get a job done here?  

I find it quite interesting that more often than not treatment notes by international commercial directors feature Dev Patel as a reference for an Indian male cast and a mansion in Rajasthan for an Indian interior.

But the reality is that food, clothing, music, literature and art, change from city to city. Accents differ, too. Locals in India can often tell the region a person belongs to by the way they speak Hindi or English. Ignore these differences and you can lose a chunk of loyal customers faster than you can say 'chicken curry'!

The question is, does the international branded content production community need to get on the intercultural learning wagon, both in what to do and how to get it done? Should cultural contexts, nuances and local norms of business become a part of an international content maker’s learning curve? 

Not for once am I suggesting you have to see and think like a local. It’s more about knowing how a local sees and thinks. 

For this to happen, it requires both curiosity and empathy. It requires developing a kind of intercultural intelligence quotient.

It requires trust in the local partner's ability to bring all the cultural and social factors to bear on the brand's image, enhance the creative content and tell a story that is compelling both in the local and the global markets.

Amitabh Bhattacharya is Owner and Executive Producer at Nomad India

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Never Ending Story, Fri, 16 Feb 2018 16:04:42 GMT