Jitu, a 20-year-old, 10th class pass, parking lot attendant in Udaipur, is an active social media creator. He makes mostly Bollywood style reels that mimic the filmi action scenes or song and dance routines. He is the epitome of aspiration.

Poulomi, a 24-year-old music teacher from Lakhipur, showcases her musical acumen in her videos, reels and vlogs. Always seen in a saree, Poulomi’s social media content often shows her doing the morning puja ritual, helping her mother with household chores and doing community seva. She symbolises rootedness.

Aniket, a 29-year-old CSR executive from Mainpur, uses parody and contrast in his Instagram content, which is a blend of small-town identity and big-city experience. His content, which often uses satire and scenes from old Bollywood movies, is a reflection of his evolved social consciousness. He merges aspiration with rootedness.

A land of contrasts

In the heartlands of India, thousands like Jitu, Poulomi and Aniket have become big digital creators with huge following. Many of them use local dialects, play to their cultural strengths, and subconsciously give clues to what consumers in these regions like and seek. The IIM Udaipur’s Consumer Culture Lab set out to study this distinctive desi space of content creation in partnership with Stripe Partners, experts in ethnographic research.

After months of study, the Lab has put out a fascinating report, classifying the heartland creator economy space into three ideological lands – Karmabhoomi, the elusive land of social mobility; Janmabhoomi, the grounded land of birth; and Rangbhoomi, the creative canvas between Karmabhoomi and Janmabhoomi where creators manage to merge their aspirations even as they stay rooted.

While there are creators of every kind in the small towns of India, including those putting out serious educational content, Tanvi Gupta, Associate Professor Marketing and Co-chair, Consumer Culture Lab at IIMU, says they only focused on “playful” genres in this project including entertainment, beauty and lifestyle topics. But these itself show up the state of flux that exists in the heartland today, which toggles between huge dreams and aspirations and wanting to stay rooted to the local culture.

Different identities
Social media creators from the Rangabhoomi

Social media creators from the Rangabhoomi

Escapist: According to the report, creators who are ideologically closer to the Karmabhoomi — people like Jitu, the parking attendant — tend to prioritise mobility over rootedness and their content is categorised as escapist mimicry. There is a lack of originality in the content, which is mostly copying Bollywood fantasy as the creators impersonate aspirational heroes from bigger cities. There is an element of cringe to this content.

Conservative: On the other hand, creators who are closer to the Janmabhoomi prioritise rootedness and their content is categorised as conservative pastiche. “The creators in this space tend to be constrained by gendered notions of honour (izzat) and their content centres around authentic depictions of their local traditions and rituals,” finds the study.

Rooted Heterotopia: The third, and the most powerful category of content, the study finds, is the Rangbhoomi, which is rooted heterotopia where creators have aspirations but are very grounded. “This category of content pushes the boundaries of local narratives with progressive values. The creators are unapologetically vernacular, relatable and rooted in their regional histories — re-creating the social fabric of the small town in the digital world,” says the report.

Brand connect

The report, which delves in great detail into the fascinating contradictions that exist in the desi creator space, concludes with a set of recommendations for brands seeking to connect with the small town consumer. The old polished brand narratives conceived in city offices that just get translated to vernacular languages will no longer cut ice. As Gupta says, “We observed a sense of regional sub-nationalism in small towns where consumers identified with their State more than the entire nation.”

She says that national brands will need to spend time and energy in developing a rich and diverse regional appeal. “One idea could be that national brands bring up “open challenges” to regional content creators across the country to develop their own local version of the advertising for the brand. In this process, they can promote the talent of regional content creators and also gain creative regional insights.”

To be fair, we are beginning to see more regional dialects creeping into advertising. But just speaking the language will not do — it’s time for a heart-to-heart connect with the heartland.