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Vision India 2020: Bioscope

Posted on Sunday, Jun 29th 2008

Professor Raj Reddy at Carnegie Mellon University first urged me to look at micro-franchise as a vehicle for economic development. Today, micro-finance has become a world-renowned phenomenon, especially with Dr. Yunus’ Nobel Prize two years back. [You can read my interview with Raj here.]

Micro-franchise is a relatively lesser known, but equally powerful model. In simple terms, it is a “franchise” business that has a centralized “strategy” arm that masterminds, trains and supports the building of a large number of small businesses that are replicas of the same concept.

I wanted to start a set of ventures in India using micro-franchise as a tool. The first of these was Bioscope.

There are approximately 600,000 villages in India. About 600 million people live in these villages. Needless to say, a large portion of this population is poor. The villages do not have many amenities.

I have been to some of these villages. In December 2005, we spent a vacation traveling in North Bengal. One Himalayan village that we spent a night in was Lava. At sundown, the village goes to sleep. There is nothing to do. Consequently, alcohol is often a friendly companion to pass time.

As I started thinking about Bioscope, alcohol versus entertainment was on my mind. What if we created an alternative entertainment vehicle, one that was more appealing than alcohol?

Thus began our journey of building a chain of “community screens” throughout the heartland of India in 2009.

At the heart of Bioscope was a media server that contained about 5,000 Bollywood movies with appropriate licensing rights, a projector and a screen. This was not a full-fledged movie theater, but more an elaborate home theater kind of set-up.

Our franchisees would rent a large room in the village that could seat about 35 people, and effectively run a small movie theater business. Three films were shown every day, and villagers were charged a small fee to watch them.

We made arrangements with several banks to finance these franchises with micro-loans. Bioscope was the guarantor for all loans.

In five years, we had presence in 100,000 villages.

Our business plan, however, was not to build a non-profit. We wanted to build a network that would give us a media channel to reach the few hundred million people of rural India who cannot afford television sets, and are therefore off the regular media grid.

Gradually, we hooked our franchisees up with a central server, such that we could transmit advertisements and other kinds of video clips to be shown before films and during intermissions. We were not streaming video, so the network connection did not need to be super high bandwidth.

We sold advertising to our network of rural viewers at a premium. As our penetration numbers climbed, the advertising rates we could command also improved.

Meanwhile, an interesting social dynamic was developing in the villages around Bioscope. Villagers started treating the screenings as their primary place to see and be seen. They would dress up, socialize, conduct match-makings.

We facilitated the process by introducing food and drinks at the screenings. We even encouraged potlucks.

As the community bonded, Bioscope’s power to influence word-of-mouth increased exponentially. Not only were our advertisers aware of this power, the politicians were too. We became one of the primary channels of political advertising. We were also an excellent channel for spreading educational messages about topics such as birth control, reproductive health, women’s empowerment, micro-finance, and micro-franchise.

In fact, we started collaborating with banks with significant micro-finance programs and other micro-franchise ventures, and made it infinitely easier for them to market and scale each of their businesses.

Of course, we had programs that tied into these ancillary ventures. For example, we started our own “citizen journalism” effort, where each village had a reporter who was trained to take a video camera and capture success stories about micro-entrepreneurs. Success stories from one village were played not only in that village, but in other villages, making celebrities of our micro-heroes. The entire program was financed by Citibank’s micro-lending arm as an advertising campaign.

We also created independent programming about the socio-political issues that citizens of a successful democracy should understand.

In 2020, having achieved penetration into 300,000 villages, we stepped back to take stock.

Bioscope looks a lot like the early days of the movie theater, except we had fused the format with modern concepts like the video library, digital storage, media server, portable projectors, user-generated content, citizen-journalism and a lot of other innovations.

In the last decade, we have helped groom almost 3 million new micro-entrepreneurs, and we have helped develop a socio-political consciousness in rural India.

Not bad!

Note: Vision India 2020 was subsequently published as a book. You can order it from, etc.

A call to Indian entrepreneurs everywhere, Vision India 2020 challenges and inspires readers to build the future now. In this “futuristic retrospective,” author Sramana Mitra shows how over the next decade, start-up companies in India could be turned into billion-dollar enterprises. Vision India 2020, which encompasses a wide range of sectors from technology to infrastructure, healthcare to education, environmental issues to entertainment, proves how even the most sizeable problems can be solved by exercising bold, ambitious measures. Renowned in the business world, author Sramana Mitra conceived Vision India 2020 from her years of experience as a Silicon Valley strategy consultant and entrepreneur. Well aware of the challenges facing today’s aspiring entrepreneurs, Mitra provides strategies, business models, references, and comparables as a guide to help entrepreneurs manifest their own world-changing ideas. 

This segment is a part in the series : Vision India 2020

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I am worried this venture wont be able to compete against cable TV — which is almost everywhere in India now.

Dataman Monday, June 30, 2008 at 7:07 PM PT

Am I mistaken in my core assumption that there is still a segment in rural India that is poor enough, and cannot afford television sets? If yes, then your worry is valid.

Sramana Mitra Monday, June 30, 2008 at 8:49 PM PT


Fortunately yes. Most landholders in Indian villages now have TV sets.

Besides, you might not know, but micro-screens are prevalent everywhere in Indian hinterland – from Bhayander in Mumbai to Jaura in Morena (MP). They are typically a VCR or VCD player hooked on to a 21″ TV set. And they show the kind of movies a city guy would call “C-grade” and these are considered to be classics there running for more than 10 years.

Perhaps, creating organized micro-screens may be a large business, but these will have to tremendously localized as what audiences like in one village is often distasteful to the next village.

Since there are TV sets all over the country (60%+ households have TVs in India today) you are directly competing against it for being the medium of choice. And I strongly doubt whether rural audiences would pay for being served social messages.

In fact, strong rural demand is one big reason why DTH has taken off so well in India.

Arpit Agarwal Monday, June 30, 2008 at 10:31 PM PT

The rural area where there is electric power there is television is my assumption.

Even then this is a great idea but very very hard to implement because the kind of mass management and localized management required from those 100,000 to 300,000 villages!

If we can recruit so many people from those area with some leadership quality and make them understand that the quality of service is extremely important to make it different than some of the other shops in their area and whole proposition and branding and business and manage them well with all the support system needed to run it well this can probably be a viable option. Otherwise, I wonder how quickly it can become a place where we will be showing the educational materials like women’s empowerment but no women will dare to be there.

As the implementation of this needs a LOTs of human force with right knowledge and leadership quality with the support from the local govt bodies including municipality and police it will be very hard to implement.

I believe we would need to use some setup or society which already exists in all such places like schools or post offices which usually a place where there are a trace of disciplines and leadership already available we can surely create a mass communication infrastructure supported by advertisement as well as viewership fees for entertainment programs.

Just a thought….

Santanu Monday, June 30, 2008 at 10:46 PM PT


Landholders are not necessarily the segment we’re after, here. We’re after the poor. I have a very hard time believing that India has reached a level of affluence where its entire mass of population can afford television, cable, VCR/DVD player, etc.

Also, the assumption is that we will have a “film library” of a large number of Bollywood/regional films, so localization is perfectly viable. Doesn’t have to be C-grade films. It could just as well be classics in Hindi or Tamil or Bengali. It doesn’t really matter. It’s basically a localized Netflix concept.

As for people “paying” for social messages, I don’t think I’ve said anywhere that we would want to charge to show people social messages.

I don’t know how old you are, but when I was a child, you did have to sit through news clips and advertisements, as well as “social clips” at movie theaters. That’s a very typical media model of content+advertising. I don’t believe there is any assumption error on my part on that topic. Original content, packaged well, is always welcome.

What I am proposing as far showcasing micro-entrepreneurs could very well be a Reality-show kind of model. Who knows? That’s all up for takers and their imagination.

Also, btw, wiring up cable TV with micro-screens in a community setting is also a viable model, that can fit the micro-franchise structure rather well.

Santanu – your point about leadership training is well-taken. I believe micro-franchise, at its heart, assumes training as an essential component.

Where I am going with all this is to use a scalable “capitalistic” framework, instead of (a) non-profit (b) cottage-industry. Brand and Franchises are excellent vehicles to scale a successful concept across a large geography.

Sramana Mitra Monday, June 30, 2008 at 11:10 PM PT


I remember seeing such social messages on Doordarshan when I was in primary school (“Mile Sur mera tumhara..” and “Ek-Anek”). So this point is valid.

It is a fact that more than 60% of Indian Households now have a TV set. About 30% of rural HHs have a TV and about 50% of them have Cable/DTH. All may not have a VCD player but most small screen ‘cinema-hall’ owners have it (it just costs Rs.1000 these days!)

I never said they don’t get to watch the best of Bollywood (or dubbed Hollywood) content. It is just that they “like” those movies what city guys say “C-grade”. Mithun and Dharmendra (And, a Bhojpuri actor, Krishna Kumar), I am told, are the biggest stars of North Indian hinterland. Not the city favs King Khan, Big B or Hrithik. So, the content has to be very cutomized, and very relevant for the rural audience. This, according to me, is a big problem as tastes changes every few kms.

Arpit Agarwal Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 2:00 PM PT

Dear Sramana,

I fully agree with you and today we need people like you who are not only Visionary but also have practical solutions.
This type of Micro financing projects can not only bring the villages in the main stream, but also create market for many employment opportunities.
The fear of Power availability is misplaced. today there are off grid micro windmills from 500 watts to 2000 watts ,which are suitable for such projects.even the wind speed required is so low that in almost all villages one can find that speed.

Good luck and give some more such projects .

valmik soni

valmik soni Friday, July 4, 2008 at 7:21 AM PT

The Bioscope project is of great interest to the Zee group, which besides being India’s biggest media house, has taken up a massive project to educate over 7 lakh children. Could you please let us know how you can be reached. With regards.

Gautham Machaiah Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 1:00 AM PT

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