Sudhanshu is hard at work in his shop on Patna’s busy Boring Road. The small strip of a shop has two desktop computers, both loaded with music and movies downloaded from the internet.

The songs and films are Sudhanshu’s livelihood. Boring Road, with its government college and several dozen coaching centres, is a beehive of students. Every day, several of them visit the shop to purchase the latest movies and songs for their phones and pen drives.

One sleepy afternoon in March, Sudhanshu, who does not look older than 20, rattled off the names of the hit movies of the moment: Akhil The Power of Jua, Heart Attack, Businessman 2, Shivam, Viraat, The Return of Raju. All South Indian films, mostly Telugu, dubbed into Hindi for audiences in the north.

“We have more people coming here for Tamil and Telugu films than for films in other languages,” Sudhanshu said. Apparently, South Indian films have soared in popularity in the last five years. And not just in Patna. At an autorickshaw stand outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College Hospital in Bhagalpur city on another March afternoon, two young men were watching a movie on a mobile phone.

Which film? “Tamil hai,” one of them replied. It is Tamil.

Welcome to modern Bihar, the land of nonplussing cultural rhythms.

Unlikely plot

So, why do people in the Hindi heartland prefer dubbed South Indian films to Hindi movies from Bollywood? There are only partial explanations, really.

According to Mohammad Parvesh, who runs a shop adjacent to Sudhanshu’s, and has taken a break to browse the Internet on Sudhanshu’s computer, “the action is better”. “People like the style of these movies,” he said. “It is very different from Bollywood.”

Others see their desires and aspirations reflected in these films. As Parvesh spoke, a Class 11 student preparing for the IIT-JEE entrance examination at a coaching centre nearby, walked in. His parents live in the city but he stays in a small rented room near the coaching centre. The centre has helped him get admission to a school in the vicinity. “I do not go there at all,” he said, referring to the school. “I will go only for the exam. But my attendance is being marked.” Apart from attending coaching classes, he studies for about six hours every day. But there are no classes currently, so he spends his time watching movies. He prefers South Indian films, of course.

“I like these stories,” he said. “There is one with junior NTR, where the son wants to fulfil his father’s dreams,” he added, referring to the popular Telugu actor NT Rama Rao Jr.

Go around in Bihar and everywhere you meet people dreaming of breaking free from their circumstances and pursuing their aspirations, people struggling against the broken systems of state and society. Businessman 2 or Shivam could well be their stories. As it is, over the last decade, Tamil cinema in particular has seen the emergence of filmmakers who have gone “back to their roots in the villages and told stories of their land, far away from the culture of studios or sets”. Some of the stories, as the film critic Sadanand Menon noted, are pivoted around vigilante justice. Others talk about aspirations. Naturally, people who come from similar circumstances in Bihar identify with these stories. Bollywood, in contrast, no longer represents their lives, or so it appears.

But in this cultural fabric is woven a thread that is essentially socio-economic in nature: the desire for stardom, and all that comes with it.

Over the past three years or so, people in Bihar have increasingly taken to the smartphone as a handy device for entertainment. To service their needs, there are “downloaders” like Sudhanshu.

The cell phone entertainment business is now integral to Bihar’s informal economy. In almost every market, there are businesses like Sudhanshu’s – shacks with a computer and a mess of cables uploading music and movies to phones. In cities, some of them even operate out of pushcarts with a battery hooked up to a laptop. In village bazaars, a couple of fruit crates are pushed together to support the laptop and the cables and they are open for business.

Their services are affordable, too. At Geetwas village market near Araria, downloaders charge Rs 10 for one gigabyte of music. That is what Sudhanshu charges for a film.

Unsurprisingly then, the downloaders have turned the traditional music and film retail trade on its head. “In the past three years, the market for CDs has ended,” Sudhanshu said. “A CD cost Rs 30. We charge Rs 10 per film.”

Making a career in Bhojpuri music is one way to climb up the socio-economic ladder in Bihar.

Striking a chord

In Gopalganj in north-western Bihar, Deepak Raj, who is in his 40s, runs Laxmi Recording Studio. For many years, it was an uncomplicated business. Raj and his father, who set up the establishment, would record Bhojpuri singers in the studio, send the recording to Delhi and have 10,000 CDs made of the tracks. Then, if the demand from their dealers was good, they would place another order for 50,000 to 100,000 CDs.

Around three years ago, with the advent of the downloaders, their business crumbled. “By the time we sold 5,000 copies, piracy would start,” said Raj. The pirates would copy songs from CDs to computers and upload them to phones for Rs 50 for about 500 songs. “That is about 50 albums,” Raj added. “If a customer gets 500 songs for just Rs 50, why would he buy a CD?”

In response, recording studios like Raj’s created a new business model: recording “professional albums” for aspiring singers, for about Rs 1,500 a song. “We send the recording, on CD or by email, to music composers we know and get them to create a musical score for the song,” he explained. He then records the singer again, this time with the accompanying music.

They give the album for free to Bhojpuri music portals, and spread the word via WhatsApp. More importantly, they visit the downloaders with the album CD – and often, gifts – asking them to pass on the songs to their customers.

“The singers and their friends take three-four bikes and go around meeting the downloaders,” Raj said, explaining how it works. “Naya number aaya hai, utar lijiye.” A new song is out, please copy it, they plead. “Hum jis samaaj mein hain, us me agrah ki ek jagah hai,” he said. “Log maan jaatey hain.” The downloaders usually agree, Raj added, because their society puts much store by the idea of request – when asked for a favour, people usually agree.

Being agreeable is worth the money and effort: if a singer’s career takes off – they are invited to stage shows, or may get noticed by a big music company such as T-Series. A film career may even follow. It is one way to climb up the socio-economic ladder in Bihar. Ask Manoj Tiwari, the singer-actor turned chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi. The first rung of success, to be recognised, is worth the trouble. “All it takes to become a singer is Rs 15,000,” Raj said.

Given the sheer volume of music being churned out, however, it often takes more than just a snazzy song to get noticed. Releasing “topical songs”, such as those on demonetisation, is one way to go about it, said Raj. This strategy, in fact, has been in use for at least a decade now, as the academic Ratnakar Tripathy pointed out in the Economic and Political Weekly in June 2012. “After a major hit around the theme of missed phone calls in 2007, a number of songs took up the theme repetitively,” Tripathy wrote. “All of them seem to dwell on small-town romance in the new context of cell phone technology and the communication revolution.”

No wonder then that recording studios are doing brisk business. Much to the chagrin of Shiv Dayal, publisher of the magazine Vikas Sahyatri in Patna. “It is in the local language but what they sing about are not local issues,” he said. “It is bazaarwaad” – consumerist.

“Bazaar ki value kya hai?” Dayal asked, what does the market value?Body, vulgarity,” Dayal continued. “This is just a way to reach the mofussil market. This music does not address any local issues. At most, it is using our issues, not addressing them. It is all just to make money.”

He may have a point about money-making. But Bhojpuri music has long dabbled in double entendre and innuendo. For a sample, try Guddu Rangeela.

In any case, aspiration and not aesthetic drives this new wave of music. As Raj said, “In the villages, if you are a kid with a good voice, the parents themselves tell you to go get an album made.” As for the content, they do not have many qualms. “Hit ho jaye, buri cheez hi kyun na ho,” Raj said. “Acha bura, kuch bhi karke naam kamao. Naam ke baad paisa ache kaam se bhi kamaya ja sakta hai.” Shorn of the rustic lyricism, it means: “Just make a hit song. Once you make a name for yourself, you can always earn money by doing better work later.”

This article is part of’s ongoing Ear To the Ground series.