Poulami Nag to Dhruv Rathee: The YouTubers India subscribes to

A young brigade of YouTubers shapes the opinions of its legions of followers, with satirical videos, solid fact-checks, and the frothy toolkit of the internet.

What do young Indians want? Gully Boy and its protagonist offers an answer. Roaming the streets of Mumbai by night, Ranveer Singh’s Muraad, up-and-coming hip-hop star from Dharavi, picks up a can of red graffiti paint and writes on the wall: roti, kapda aur makaan + internet.

The internet in India is a playground of the young, a part of their self-definition. And it’s throwing up young influencers, who speak to their legions of followers in a hyper-kinetic lingo of memes and mash-ups, viral videos and goofy satire. This burst of self-expression blurs the boundaries of journalism and entertainment, television socials and comedy shows. For an audience that chooses TikTok videos over lofty editorials any day, this mash-up is the message. “This is a reaction to what’s been happening in mainstream media, where outside voices, or those that have satirical tones, are pushed out. The atmosphere is grim, earnest and it’s polarised. Second, more individuals are finding their voice and airing them on their chosen platforms. One day, you decide you want to start something, and it catches on. As an individual participating in democracy, there’s no greater right than this,” says writer and columnist Santosh Desai.

The reach and popularity of these young YouTubers have made them household names, with their numbers rivalling the TRPs of many mainstream news channels. Which is why Shah Rukh Khan turned to Bhuvan Bam to promote his last film Zero (2018). Khan became the first guest of Bam’s talk show, Titu Talks. The 13-minute video got more than 2 million hits. The BBC roped in Dhruv Rathee for a detailed ground report on Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency. Rathee was also on Ravish Kumar’s show on NDTV India to dissect the current state of mainstream media. “They are talented, but they are also free of the shackles an organisation would impose on them. The internet is giving these youngsters a chance to be as big as a mainstream news channel in terms of reach,” says Saurabh Parmar, digital and social media consultant.

They are hardly pioneers, though. The charge of the laugh brigade began during the run-up to the 2014 general elections, which threw up acts such as All India Bakchod and The Viral Factory. Not everybody is impressed by what can, at times, appear to be humour that skims the surface. “This is an underground movement at best. I don’t think they have the critical grounding, or gravitas needed for political or social satire. When I was doing Movers and Shakers (a late-night talk show in the late 1990s), we would not spare anyone, but we would do it with respect and civility,” says television actor and host Shekhar Suman.

With a new government in place, will the edge of criticism or satire be blunted? “I just hope that when they become bigger, they don’t adapt to the mainstream ecosystem,” says Parmar.

Bhuvan Bam | 23
BB Ki Vines
13 million subscribers

Bhuvan Bam might be India’s biggest YouTuber, with 13 million subscribers, but he had not been invited to the biggest, fattest Indian wedding earlier this year (Akash Ambani with Shloka Mehta.) How did he then make his presence felt?

By dubbing footage of the star-cast of wedding guests with sarcastic commentary. The video showed parents (and Reliance owners) Nita and Mukesh Ambani welcoming guests with “Jai Jio”, the Ambanis cribbing about poor network, and a too-garrulous Big B being side-eyed by Jaya Bachchan. As humour went, this was neither too sharp, nor innovative but Bam took a #trending mega-spectacle and found a way to make it as familiar as the chaos and bickering of a wedding in a Delhi mohalla.

That’s not surprising, since Bam’s channel, BB Ki Vines, is really the story of a Delhi teenager, his parents and foul-mouthed friends. “I have not created these characters out of my imagination, they exist all around us,” says Bam. In videos shot in a barsati at his parents’ house in south Delhi, he speaks of slut-shaming and consent, the pressure of exams and dating, and the Indian obsession with fairness. All the characters are played by Bam. “Many students were sharing their anxiety on Instagram before the results. So I had to come up with an episode to let them know that results were not the end of the world,” says Bam, who recently headlined the YouTube India fan fest with director Karan Johar.

Bam is an accidental content creator. He was an aspiring singer in college, performing for free at small restaurants, belting out Bollywood covers and an occasional original song. “My first satire video was in response to a reporter’s coverage of the Kashmir floods in 2014. One thing led to another, and the first video where I introduced my character, BB, got huge traction in Pakistan, and then it became known in India,” says Bam, a graduate of Bhagat Singh College, Delhi University.

Right now, Bam is still riding the wave, though there is the pressure to deliver with every video. Since most of his audience is young, some barely in their teens, he is wary of didacticism. “There’s an inherent message in all my videos. I want them to think, but not bore them in the process,” he says.

Dhruv Rathee | 24
1.9 million subscribers

Dhruv Rathee’s “explanatory” videos are the logical culmination of the idea of a citizen as a journalist. Like many fact-checking websites, his channel began as a response to the spread of misinformation through social media, and seeks to counter what he sees as the mainstream media’s errors of omission. “I take whatever is trending, do a fact-check of sorts, and break it down. Because the mainstream TV media is not doing that. I don’t proclaim that I am an expert, but an informed presenter,” says Rathee, who is currently pursuing higher studies in Europe.

Many of his videos have been critical of the Modi government, from the controversy over employment data to the shady troll army, from questioning the intelligence failure that led to the attack in Pulwama, the several exposes around the Rafale deal, to the cost-benefit analysis of the new Statue of Unity in Gujarat. The videos are a mix of reportage, analysis and opinion. “I take my time with the research and fact-checking. Compared to TV channels, my response might be a bit delayed, but it will be comprehensive,” says Rathee, who is from Haryana and moved out of the country in 2012. Not surprisingly, he has been called a Congress supporter, an AAP cheerleader and an anti-national.

Rathee says he relies on websites like Factly.in, IndiaSpend.com, Factchecker.in, SMHoaxslayer.com and AltNews.in. He says his distance from India is not a hindrance. “Just like other news channels, I consult experts and ground reporters before doing a story. Of course, some videos have to be done on ground, so then I travel to India,” he adds.

In spite of his diligence, mistakes have crept in. “I have made five-six significant errors in the past year. People from the right wing have exaggerated these to put me down. Over time, I have made a few simple rules for myself: ‘Check any news for logical errors, check multiple sources before posting, always publish with source, mention when you speak an opinion. And if you do make a mistake, post a correction as soon as you realise it,” says Rathee.

He says he was always politically aware, but it was the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement in 2012 that pushed him to inform himself. In the last five years, he says he has been driven by the unquestioning attitude of the television media. “The mainstream TV media still only attacks the Opposition. Why is the ruling party not being subjected to questioning and scrutiny?” Rathee asks. “It’s not about the BJP alone. It angers me ki hum sawal nahin poochh sakte,” he adds.

For a social-media personality, Rathee is tight-lipped about his personal life. He says he fears for the safety of his family and himself. His location and whereabouts have never been revealed. “It’s a genuine concern for me. The polarisation in our country is so extreme that you don’t really know what an outraged mob can do,” says Rathee.

Ramit Verma | 27
Official PeeingHuman
2,42, 143 subscribers

Can a Dil to Pagal Hai song explain the sudden rise in profile of Yogi Adityanath? The answer is yes, if you are Ramit Verma. Other liberals might have foamed at their mouth, but the 27-year-old chose to see the change in attitude to the Hindu Yuva Vahini chief after the BJP’s massive victory in the 2017 UP elections through a melodious Bollywood song. A split screen illustrated Then and Now: news anchor Arnab Goswami in a full-bodied rant against the Gorakhpur leader, juxtaposed with him warmly extolling the new Uttar Pradesh chief minister’s virtues. In the backdrop, Lata Mangeshkar sings Arre re are ye kya hua in a cleverly put-together video for Verma’s Official PeeingHuman. It was shared 1.6 lakh times on Facebook, he says.

The channel has developed a fan base for its music-filled take on contemporary politics and its gentle satire that does not say too much. Verma instead brings his sharp video-editing skills to the game, supplemented by news clips, Bollywood tracks, memes and GIFs. To him goes the credit of making “Wah Modiji Wah” a pop culture code to puncture the bombast of political claims. “I always wanted to get into the creative field, but I was an introvert. I tried my hand at theatre, but I got rejected twice. I then started fiddling with my sister’s DSLR camera during my stint at Hansraj College. It became clear that the audiovisual format was the one for me,” he says. Born in Delhi, he got a Bachelor’s degree in commerce, dabbled in photography, picked up basic editing skills and even did a stint with Google in Delhi.

Over time, Verma felt the need to educate himself in politics. “I was interested but had zero knowledge. I wanted to bring about some change. I had my Rang De Basanti moment with the India Against Corruption movement. It was the first people’s movement I saw. But everyone got disillusioned, especially when the main beneficiaries turned out to be the RSS and the BJP,” he says.

But Verma’s involvement and fascination with politics continued with the 2014 Lok Sabha election. In 2015, he started watching news religiously. PM Narendra Modi’s speech in Toronto, Canada is what pushed Verma into making his first GIF, which he thought would go viral. “He was talking about renewable sources. After nuclear energy, solar energy, he said weed energy instead of ‘wind energy’. I had Tata Sky Plus, and I rewound the thing, and I heard it again — it was weed. I made a 16-second meme, which I was convinced would go viral. It didn’t,” Verma says.

The channel’s name was inspired by the famous lifestyle brand owned by a Bollywood superstar. “The name came to me when Salman Khan was acquitted in the hit-and-run case. As for the music, I have not seen any new Bollywood films, so I only remember songs from the films of the 1990s,” says Verma.

His initial work were mash-ups of Hollywood/Bollywood videos, Ramdev dancing, or Beyonce grooving to Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. “I created Official PeeingHuman in May 2015. Two years into it, I started making purely political and media-related content. I thought this format might resonate with people. Also, political satire and criticism was absent in the mainstream. I had the information to question those in power, so I thought why not make fun of them? If, while laughing at some simple, obvious things, one can make someone think, then why not?” says Verma.

He says he is gratified by the response of young people, many of whom engage with politics not through mainstream media but as entertainment. “Some tell me they used my videos in an argument with their parents and friends. I think the biggest impact my work has is that it keeps young people interested in political discourse,” says Verma. He says he is not aligned to any politically party, but believes in the right to criticise and question whoever is in power. He was threatened with legal action “by some leading TV channels”, he says. It led to some content being removed by YouTube from his channel. He shrugs it off. “News had become satire, so why not satirise it?”

Poulami Nag | 26
Hothat Jodi Uthlo Kotha
90,301 subscribers

“The idea is linked to the Bengali concept of an adda. Where people come, sit and discuss a matter in a very civilised manner,” says Poulami Nag, the face of Hothat Jodi Uthlo Kotha, a Bengali YouTube channel which picks up trending social and political topics, and breaks them down in a simple, factual way.

Most of the videos are set in the yellow balcony of an old Kolkata house, with Nag holding forth. In a year since the channel (which loosely means “Now that this has come up”) started, she has done videos on Bengal’s obsession with Boroline, mathematician Shakuntala Devi and Bengali writers. The run-up to the elections has seen Nag run segments on celebrities in political parties, the chances of the CPI(M) and the Congress; the battle in Begusarai and the confrontation between Modi and Mamata Banerjee. Very few videos are dedicated to the West Bengal chief minister.

“I wanted to do something of my own, when I moved back to Kolkata from Delhi. My friends and I thought we should do what we did every day, sit and talk about things—but on YouTube. We started with issues that people had heard of, but didn’t know enough about. We started doing this as a fact-finding, explanatory video format, but in a colloquial fashion,” says Nag, 26.

Born and brought up in Kolkata, Nag studied at Jaipuria College and subsequently embarked on a career in journalism. She has worked with publications like the Deccan Chronicle and Cobrapost in Delhi. “I was always very interested and aware of the political scene. I was an avid consumer of news,” says Nag. Although fluent in English and Hindi, the decision to have content in Bengali — there is a liberal sprinkling of English phrases and words — stemmed from a need to fill a void. “I couldn’t find any channel in the language, dispensing this kind of information. Which I found surprising, as Bengal is seen as an intellectual space,” says Nag.

Most of the feedback has been positive, and people have lauded the effort. There are the token trolls who attack the channel and Nag. “I get abused more because I am a woman. There are many abusive words used only for women, and I get them a lot. My physical attributes, my dark skin have been called out. I have been called ugly. But, I wonder, why do they watch the channel? They can stay away,” she says.

This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Fun, Facts and You’

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