UP goes pop: Small town is big in popular culture, and Uttar Pradesh is where it’s all happening

August 02, 2020 4:00 AM

The small town is big in popular culture, be it films, series or music. And Uttar Pradesh is where it is all happening. What appeal does the state have that it connects with audiences across the country?

The capital of Uttar Pradesh, however, isn't the first or only city in the state to have found itself on the silver screen.The capital of Uttar Pradesh, however, isn’t the first or only city in the state to have found itself on the silver screen.

By Reya Mehrotra

The recent comedy-drama film Gulabo Sitabo made headlines for being the first big Bollywood movie to premiere online. Starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana in leading roles, the movie was released on Amazon Prime due to the Covid-19 pandemic. That, however, was not the only reason it made waves. Apart from the stellar performances, the movie also garnered praise for the intricate cinematography by Abhik Mukhopadhyay, who brought alive for the viewers the various nooks and corners of Lucknow, the city it is set in. The film, which was predominantly filmed in the streets of Hazratganj and Chowk, allows viewers to experience at close quarters the architecture and essence of the city of nawabs.

The capital of Uttar Pradesh, however, isn’t the first or only city in the state to have found itself on the silver screen. Bollywood’s love affair with the north Indian state is old and well-documented. From Sadhana crooning about her lost earring in Bareilly (Jhumka gira re Bareilly ke bazaar mein) in the 1966 film Mera Saaya to Amitabh Bachchan (coincidentally born in Allahabad) making the Banarasi paan part of the common lingo in Khaike paan Banaraswala in the 1978 movie Don, Uttar Pradesh has long enchanted filmmakers. Then, of course, who can deny the timeless appeal of Taj Mahal? The Unesco world heritage site in Agra has found itself at the heart of many a Bollywood film, sometimes even in the title—the 1963 film, Taj Mahal, had a blockbuster opening and had some memorable songs, shot in the backdrop of the majestic monument.

Over the years, Bollywood’s Uttar Pradesh addiction has continued to grow, with writers and directors increasingly setting their films and even shows in the alleys and bylanes of the colourful state. What has changed, however, is the cinematic portrayal of the state. From a time when writers and directors shone the spotlight only on its beauty and tehzeeb, today, they are increasingly training their lens on various other aspects of it, including its rich culture, universality and even its crime milieu.

Rough & real
The most recent and perhaps most successful example of a crime thriller based in Uttar Pradesh is Mirzapur. The 2018 Amazon Prime web series was primarily shot in UP’s Mirzapur along with Jaunpur, Azamgarh, Ghazipur, Lucknow, Gorakhpur and Varanasi. The show depicts the rule of mafia dons and the rivalry of gangs in Uttar Pradesh. In 2012, Ishaqzaade captured the story of an inter-faith love affair in the backdrop of crime and politics in Lucknow. The 2013 movie Bullet Raja, too, focused on Uttar Pradesh-based mafia. And who can forget the 2006 film Omkara, which portrayed Ajay Devgn as a gangster from Meerut? The film was even showcased at the Cannes Film Festival.

In the last decade or so, Uttar Pradesh has seen more and more crime thrillers being born out of its rusticity.

This shift in portrayal, from its beauty and tehzeeb to its rawness and goondaism, has been a gradual one and should be credited to the emergence of writers from small towns, says Sukhpreet Singh, corporate head, marketing, DishTV and Watcho, DishTV India. “What we have been seeing in the past few years is the shift away from fantasy and emergence of stories based on real people in realistic settings. Filmmakers and writers are also emerging from smaller towns in the Hindi heartland,” says Singh, adding, “The rough and realistic texture of the crime scene in UP is very exciting just like the Wild West theme. Till recent times, content had to conform to certain boundaries as far as violence and language was concerned, but now, those boundaries have been stretched (sometimes too far) with the emergence of online media. Hence, it lends itself more to portrayal of crime.”

Talking about the popularity of UP-based crime thrillers, Delhi-based film scholar and critic Mihir Pandya, who teaches Hindi literature at Delhi University’s Indraprastha College for Women, says, “There is an attraction towards crime and violence in a visual medium like cinema and especially in popular Hindi cinema because crime has a larger than life and melodramatic quality. But the shift is not limited to crime and violence in my opinion, as films like Tanu Weds Manu, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, set in north Indian cities, have proved to be major box-office successes too. This phenomena goes back to 2005-06 when Bunty Aur Babli released.”

There was a brief period, however, especially through the 90s, when northern states like UP and Bihar got overshadowed as shooting locales by the shine and splendour of big cities like Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai, and even overseas locations like Switzerland, London and Paris. Their re-emergence, say experts, can be attributed to two factors. “There are two factors that played a major role in the comeback of UP-Bihar in Bollywood films—a large migrated middle- and lower-middle-class audience from these states which is now shaping megacities like Delhi and Mumbai, and the process of digitalisation of single-screen cinema halls, which made the release of films in tier-two and tier-three cities financially viable. In 2010, Dabangg made this phenomenon concrete,” says Pandya.
The shift can also be credited to the birth of streaming platforms, says Aneesh Dev, founder-director, Dollywood Digitainment, a recently launched video streaming platform. “The shift has become increasingly notable in recent times due to the vast reach of TV and the digital medium,” he says.

Melting pot
Besides crime, filmmakers are also increasingly capturing the rich cultural fabric of the state through their cameras. The historic monuments combined with rural, urban and semi-urban settlements along the river Ganga add to its charm and have made Uttar Pradesh a magnet for Bollywood, believes Dev. “UP has a culturally rich landscape. The attractiveness of the destination is enhanced by its beautiful historical monuments along with the semi-urban and rural settlements scattered all across. The holy river Ganga, that flows along the entire length of UP, adds to the charm of this land, as it takes one back to the unforgettable invasions by the Mughals and British,” he says.

It is this rich cultural heritage of the state that draws filmmakers to its shores. “For Hindi cinema, UP has always been a rich source of content and cultural influence. The state has produced innumerable writers, poets and musicians such as Javed Akhtar, Naushad, Shahryar, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Majaz Lakhnavi, Ismat Chughtai, Gopal Das Neeraj, Rahi Masoom Raza… the list is endless,” says Pushpendra Nath Misra, the director of the recent Netflix series Taj Mahal 1989, which is set in Lucknow. “These writers brought with them their world, their stories, their culture, their language and characters. UP thus became a strong reference point for Hindi films. It is also known for its ‘Ganga-Jamuna-tehzeeb’. This composite culture has a lot of stories to tell,” he says.

Another web series, Virgin Bhasskar, which released on ALTBalaji in 2019, was shot extensively in Varanasi. “The small towns of UP have a local flavour, which makes for a fascinating canvas. Our show was shot against the backdrop of Varanasi as the town resonated well with the story. The script demanded a city that showed simplicity, people not talking openly about taboos and where everyone knows everyone. The location of the story plays a crucial role in making the audience feel connected to the character or script. While the show is a lighthearted comedy-drama, the lead character has distinctive traits and dialogues… portraying him as a well-groomed guy in a big city would not have suited well. We wanted a backdrop that would complement the character of Bhasskar who is shy and unexposed to the outer world. We successfully captured the essence of the town with its ghats, streets, local flavour… and it was well received by the audience,” says Nachiket Pantvaidya, CEO, ALTBalaji, and group COO, Balaji Telefilms.

Additionally, Misra says, the uniquely spoken Hindi dialect in UP, which extends to several neighbouring states, connects with a major chunk of the Hindi-speaking populace, including farmers, migrant workers and the middle class, sections that form a large audience base.

Agrees director Aniruddha Sen (also known as Oni Sen), who shot a major part of his recent crime thriller web series Asur in Varanasi: “Hindi as a language is understood by the maximum number of people in India. You can have UP’s local dialects, but they will still be understandable to the viewer, but any other language like Bengali or Assamese is a little complicated for non-speakers if they don’t belong to that region… Plus, in India, people prefer to avoid the usage of subtitles too much. Hence, Hindi movies are more common,” he explains.

A good frame
Uttar Pradesh’s popularity as a shooting destination also stems from its originality and beauty that shine through in every frame. Ganga Ghat in Varanasi, in fact, remains one of the most popular locations in the state for shooting. One of the films shot there was Masaan (2015), the story of a poor small-town boy who burns funeral pyres by the Ganga Ghat for a living. A few other popular films shot there include Raanjhanaa, Yamla Pagla Deewana, Chokher Bali, Piku, Water, etc. Elaborating on the reasons why they chose Varanasi to shoot Asur in, director Sen says, “In our, the key character was from Benaras and we had to show two eras: the current day and 20 years back. We are used to shooting in Mumbai, but here, our locations were set up in houses. It was a cakewalk for us, as the people were really helpful. We could just walk into some places and request people, and they allowed us to shoot there. The local teams there are quite active and aware. Due to the presence of local theatre groups, we get a lot of experienced local actors with ease. The beauty of Benaras is such that you can place a camera anywhere and you will find a good frame. All this made our work very simple. I would like to go back and shoot more of Benaras,” says Sen, a National Institute of Design graduate, who is also a photographer and illustrator.

Talking about the appeal of Uttar Pradesh, Sen says, “UP is a very interesting and exciting place. Its history and culture are very colourful. That is the reason why a love story, as well as a confrontation can be easily set up here, as the colours of the space and its people add to it. Plus, it isn’t a difficult place to shoot in… it has the comfort factor logistically too.”

Besides Varanasi, the other popular cities for shooting include Lucknow and Agra, according to the official portal of the Department of Tourism, Government of Uttar Pradesh. “Umrao Jaan, which was made in 1981, was shot in Lucknow, which provided the perfect atmosphere of a lifestyle, which showcases the style, poise and elegance with the perfect depiction of the culture and heritage of the 18th century,” says the website. Among the popular shoot destinations, the website mentions Imambara and Rumi Darwaza in Lucknow, Ramnagar Fort, ghats, lanes and temples in Varanasi, and Taj Mahal, Mehtab Bagh, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri in Agra.

Memorable characters
Not just UP’s monuments, sites or its goons, certain characters with their unique ‘UP-ness’ have also enchanted audiences. Take, for instance, Pritam Vidrohi from Bareilly Ki Barfi. The versatile Rajkummar Rao shines bright in the role and can be seen wearing leather jackets and sunglasses, chewing paan and speaking in a distinctive UP accent. Another one is Kangana Ranaut’s critically acclaimed portrayal of Tanu in Tanu Weds Manu. Kanpur-based Tanu is a small-town girl who is adventurous and doesn’t conform to traditions. And who can forget Kaleen Bhaiya from Mirzapur, immortalised in an exceptional performance by Pankaj Tripathi.

With the dawn of the new decade, there has been a tangible shift in the type of stories, as well as characters coming from UP. Take, for instance, the recent movie Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. Set in Varanasi and starring Ayushmann Khurrana, the movie explores the trials and tribulations faced by same-sex couples in small-town India.
Clearly, from being the backdrop in a scene to a silent character that takes the story forward, UP has come a long way in its cinematic journey.

State of art


  •  Ganga Jumna (1961)
  • Pakeezah (1972)
  • Bunty Aur Babli (2005)
  • Banaras (2006)
  • Omkara (2006)
  • Tanu Weds Manu (2011)
  • Ishaqzaade (2012)
  • Raanjhanaa (2013)
  • Dedh Ishqiya (2014)
  • Aligarh (2015)
  • Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017)
  • Bala (2019)
  • Article 15 (2019)
  • Bamfaad (2020)
  • Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020)


  • Mirzapur (2018)
  • Rangbaaz (2018)
  • Virgin Bhasskar (2019)
  • Asur (2020)
  • Panchayat (2020)
  • Taj Mahal 1989 (2020)

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