Breaking Barriers: Game On

Radharani Mitra is Global Creative Advisor at BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international NGO that uses media and communication for development.With three decades of experience, Radharani mines insights, formulates strategies and tells stories using new and legacy media to bring about social and behaviour change. Her work has won several Indian and international awards including at Cannes, a GSMA Global Award, a Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Award, a Global Health Award, and a Vodafone Mobile for Good Award, among others.

Illustration by/ Ridhika Jain & Vanshika Gupta
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Ridhika & Vanshika: What do you do? What is your role at BBC Media Action?

Radharani: I am a storyteller. I believe stories have the power to change things and I work for an organisation which helps me do just that. I have been with BBC Media Action for 12 years now. We are the BBC’s independent international charity that uses the power of media and communications to help people transform their lives.

My work gives me the opportunity to tell stories through every possible medium – television ads and drama, radio shows, mobile services, games and apps, social media, inter-personal communication and outreach tools and activities. You name it and we have done it!

A couple of years ago, we did a project on gender and adolescence funded by UNICEF. Through this transmedia initiative, we created ‘collective intelligence’ on gender inequality by amplifying several issues.

R&V: How would you define transmedia?

Radharani: Let me start with an academic definition given by two scholars, whose work I greatly admire – Drs Arvind Singhal and Helen Hua Wang - “an innovative media programming trend. Instead of telling the story in a single medium, narrative elements are creatively coordinated across different media platforms (hence “transmedia”) to build a story world, engage a broader spectrum of audience, and provide them an enriching experience beyond pure entertainment.”

BBC’s own definition of transmedia is “a technique used to tell stories across multiple platforms: TV, radio, games, novels, social media, online or anywhere a story can unfold”. I love this definition because of its simplicity and because as a storyteller I like to think there all these canvases I can paint on, using different techniques and tools!

R&V: Gender and adolescence? So, were you addressing gender discrimination and stereotyping? How can media make it easier for people to break gender norms and create new ones in this 21st century?

Radharani: Do you know what I find particularly challenging about living in India today? That India exists in many centuries at the same time. From missions to Mars, to increasing rates of crimes against women, India is many things to many people. Therefore, growing up in India is quite a complex business, made much more so by our deeply entrenched gender norms.

40% of India’s population – its adolescents – lives and breathes this paradox every day. It is this paradox that creates a force-field – or a Lakshmanrekha – that circumscribes their lives and defines their choices. The conflicts in adolescence are many: anxieties may get the better of aspirations; tradition may win over modernity; parental authority may clash with autonomy. For a vast majority of girls, education is just a passport to a ‘match made in heaven’! Your own body can become a stranger; your own parents can feel alien; and your friends may be the only people who really understand you.

Can coming of age be less stereotypical, less suffocating and more – much more – empowering? Can this change happen amongst adolescents, their parents and the folks around them, who do not really recognise the force-field because they have long been conditioned to accept it as normal!

Our challenge as programme makers is to shift the paradigm. So, if girls are seen as ‘paraya dhan’ or wealth that belongs to another, how can we shift focus to girls as financially empowered? And if boys are seen as protectors and providers, and are therefore entitled to special privileges, how do we acknowledge and accommodate their vulnerabilities and self-doubt? Within the moral universe of our audiences, what will make this shift believable? 

Fortunately, media has the power to craft parallel new realities, in which audiences become co-creators of new norms. And in endorsing these new norms, audiences are then able to redefine their own realities, and begin to create social change.

Our job is to bring these issues alive, and model solutions that have the power to be transformative, but without being preachy, pedantic or pompous. In AdhaFULL, the coming-of-age TV drama series, which is at the heart of this transmedia initiative, Kitty, Tara and Adrak – our teen detectives – demonstrate the many ways young people can think, feel, and act differently, in an effort to negotiate the force-field. 

R&V: So how did you use transmedia storytelling to talk about this force-field?

Radharani: Let’s begin with AdhaFULL. It is a thriller, a whodunit series, set in the fictional town of Badlipur. Our AdhaFULL trio, Kitty, Tara and Adrak, solves cases, encountering issues such as underage marriage, dropping out of school, body image, sexual harassment, peer and parental pressure, limited choices, to name a few. As they go about setting things right in Badlipur, they face the challenges presented by the force-field and negotiate for greater freedom of movement, breaking gender stereotypes, for the right to continue studying or doing whatever they want to, for greater agency and autonomy. In unravelling the mysteries they come across, the AdhaFULL gang are assisted by several others – Tara’s older brother, Prince; Kitty’s uncle, Dr Arjun; the town’s salon owner and Adrak’s guardian, Beauty Aunty; and the new high school teacher, Roshni.

And it is through Roshni that the first of our narrative transmedia connections comes alive, because Roshni has a secret life. In addition to her day job as a high school teacher, she’s also RJ Nikki – an iconic radio jockey with a popular show called Full On Nikki. Full On Nikki is our radio magazine program that uses a mix of formats – interviews, dramatized stories, vox pops, humour, music. There’s something for everyone in the show.

For instance, the AdhaFULL trio busts a gang of drug runners who make it seem as though the forest around Badlipur is haunted, in order to scare away girls walking through the forest to school. Full On Nikki presents a dramatized version of a real life story of a girl whose parents stopped her going to school to keep her safe from eve-teasers, but relented when her brother stepped in to accompany her to school.

Just as Roshni has a life beyond AdhaFULL as the star of Full On Nikki, the teen detectives, Kitty, Tara and Adrak show up outside of the TV series, in a set of ten comic books, designed as a part of an interpersonal communication toolkit. This toolkit is intended to be used with both in school and out of school adolescents, but in media dark areas with more disenfranchised communities, who are unlikely to have watched AdhaFULL or heard Full On Nikki.

The toolkit also has an omnibus version of AdhaFULL along with a discussion guide and an interactive activity book. In the comic books, Kitty, Tara and Adrak use the ten different life skills such as interpersonal skills, creative thinking, critical thinking, problem solving, self-awareness, coping with stress, coping with emotion, and so on to solve challenges.

In one story, the three heroes go on a school picnic to a deserted island. On the island, Kitty, Tara and Adrak go exploring, and the boat leaves without them. Because it is a Robinson Crusoe island, the boat only comes once a week. With no food, water or phone network, the story focuses on how our heroes manage to get off the island. It is a solution Enid Blyton never thought of!

R&V: There is also a mobile gaming app called Nugget that you have developed as part of this initiative. What is it meant to do? Tell us a bit more about it.

Radharani: The one thing Enid Blyton would tell you, though, is that every protagonist needs an antagonist. Or in the case of our next output, our protagonist, Nugget, needs six antagonists. In taking the force-field to a mobile phone game, we have used gamified avataars of both fictional characters from AdhaFULL as well as real characters from Full On Nikki, to recreate the pressures that our protagonist Nugget experiences. The characters include Ungly Aunty, Tank-jhank Padosi, Fainku Uncle, Kalesh Bua, Show Off Dost and Chugalkhor Chacha – characters that users – adolescents themselves - helped us identify and crystallize through a human centred design process. Each character is presented as a stylised arm – one that could crush Nugget unless the player can help Nugget escape the pressure. It is a simple and familiar arcade game that we have all played at some stage in our lives.

What makes it unique is Nugget’s narrative about the pressures and the force-field created by these real and recognizable characters that surround every adolescent. The game is designed to help young players (older adolescents and young adults in metros and mini-metros) identify and recognise the force-field that constrains them, as a first step towards breaking free and operating with autonomy and agency.

But it’s not as though all adolescents in India live lives constrained by the force-field. There are those who have been able to negotiate their way out! Unfortunately, the story that society constructs about them is usually that they are Bigdi Hui Ladki or Bigda Hua Ladka - Girls or Boys Gone Bad. Our final output is a social media campaign - #BHL – that celebrates stepping out of the force-field, and models attitudes and behaviour that encourage agency and autonomy. We wanted #BHL to be a badge adolescents are proud to wear.

R&V: Is today’s youth in India ready to let go the archaic labels associated with gender? How is it different in tier 1 and tier 2 cities from the rest of India?

Radharani: This is a great question! India is getting very rapidly urbanised and young people living in smaller towns need to see the new normal. In AdhaFULL, we have created a universe, populated with the familiar and recognizable: small town India with all its quirks, idiosyncrasies and intrigues; familiar tussles between the parents and their children; but also, young people with the determination and steel to craft their own pathways.

We start a narrative track that is totally identifiable, and then disrupt it, to bring in the new normal. When you are telling a story, you have the license to step beyond the mundane. For example, you see a very young married couple staging their own disappearance, because they are under tremendous pressure to have a baby! Or something more real, like a pehelwan who wants to become a dancer; a teenage boy whose deep dark secret is his culinary skills!

Last year, when the #MeToo movement was at its peak in this country, most Google searches on #MeToo happened from tier 1 and 2 towns. The AdhaFULL trio popularises an acronym in Badlipur “LLDB - Ladka Ladki Dono Barabar”!

I was with some BBC bureau colleagues yesterday, talking about women and girls in Indian sport and the most frequently used words and phrases in the discussion were smashing patriarchy, empowered, resilience, breaking stereotypes, gender and small town.

R&V: How does a gender balance perspective help in making better life decisions?

Radharani: Look, gender boils down to inequitable power dynamics. It involves both women and men, girls and boys. A better understanding of gender, a deeper empathy for humanity and a wider acceptance of changing norms will make for wiser, more nuanced decisions at every level. Within the family, at the workplace, everywhere. Remember, every fourth Indian is an adolescent! Think of the demographic dividend! For them, it means the freedom to make choices that reflect their dreams and aspirations; a world in which the expectations of family and society are not a limiting force; a world in which gender is not destiny.

Radharani Mitra is Global Creative Advisor at BBC Media Action, BBC’s international NGO that uses media and communication for development.

Untie Roshini R