To like, comment and share cinema: The rise of YouTube stars in Tamil films
A good chunk of the young Tamil population is exposed to YouTube channels these days, and this has led to a surge of content makers and actors making their way to the big screen.
There was a time when an aspiring actor had to walk up and down the stairs of production houses distributing photographs of themselves with their contact details written behind. This practice is slowly changing now with filmmakers using different avenues to find new talents, such as radio jockeys and television personalities. The latest to join the list is the barrage of Tamil YouTubers, who are being welcomed by the Tamil film industry with open arms. A good chunk of the young Tamil population is exposed to YouTube channels these days, and this has led to a surge of content makers and actors making their way to the big screen.
Vijay Varadharaj, the content creator behind one of the oldest Tamil YouTube channels, Temple Monkeys, has starred in films such as Enakku Innoru Per Irukku and Irumbu Thirai. He is also awaiting the release of his directorial debut, Pallu Padama Pathuko. Ask him about the rise in the number of his peers getting a shot at the film industry, he says, "The industry is slowly warming up to reach of YouTubers and what they bring to the table. These days, even if the trailer of a big star drops, the fans of one of the YouTubers, who would have a small role in the film, are getting more likes for their comments. Makers are sometimes bewildered by this phenomenon, but that's the actual state of the industry."
Shah Ra, the other founding member of Temple Monkeys, who has many films such as Maanagaram, Meesaya Murukku, Natpe Thunai and Iruttu Araiyil Murattu Kuthu to his name, says their YouTube channel was not created to use it as a launch pad for themselves. "Both Vijay and I wanted to become directors and even tried assisting other directors. But we didn't like their working style. So we made a film, but couldn't release it and we ended up losing a lot of money on it. We wanted a platform for people to view our content and that's how our YouTube channel happened. This was the time when buffering speeds were so slow that it would be a while before viewers would actually see our faces online (laughs). To be honest, when we began, we didn't even know that we could make money out of it." Their only aim, he adds, was to get noticed by the public.
Raj Mohan of Put Chutney, recently seen in Natpe Thunai and Ispade Rajavum Idhaya Raniyum, feels that it's not an easy job to be part of a feature film. "Even actors such as Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff, despite coming from a film background, had to learn martial arts and dance, and have a chiselled body to make their own marks. But for YouTube, good looks are not necessarily a criterion; only talent makes you famous. That's how those who couldn't become filmmakers turned reviewers. There are even some who became famous using just a basic camera phone. When Tamil cinema was still catering to the horror comedy fad, YouTube gave the audience different content made by talented groups. So it's only natural that when a vacuum came about in the film industry, they turned to YouTube for sourcing talents."
Harija, who is known for her videos on the Eruma Saani channel, appeared in consecutive releases recently — 100 and Mr Local. "People have long considered films to be the only platform for a person to showcase their acting talents. But YouTube has taken the world by storm. It provides the audience with good content right on their phones. Tamil industry too finds it easy to scout for talents from it. This has replaced auditions to an extent."
Arguably one of the busiest actors to have made their way from YouTube is RJ Vigneshkanth. He has had three releases — Dev, Natpe Thunai and Mehandi Circus — already this year. "Over the years, one platform or the other has provided talents to the film industry. Right from those on radio and columnists in magazines, there were phases where the industry welcomed people from different walks. And now, the Internet has become a perfect platform for talent sourcing. Many are making viral content every day, and given this, the conversion rate of YouTubers to actors is actually very low at the moment. If I had to put a number to it, I would say only 10 per cent are making their way to films. This, I feel, is because not many understand that different dynamics are required to sustain in the film industry. Getting a chance is hard, but sustaining is harder. The tag of being a well-known YouTuber alone isn't enough to make it big — it's similar to how people used to think doing short films alone was enough to become a feature film director."
Vijay also feels that their peers shouldn’t be choosy when it comes to feature film roles. “YouTubers assume that they can achieve the same fame on the big screen that they have on YouTube. Some even say they are holding out for big roles. That's why we don't see many of them getting a second chance. The team of Temple Monkeys, for example, are open to any roles and it has worked wonders for us." Others from the same channel such as Abdool (Mersal, Irumbu Thirai), Augustine Prasad (Vikram Vedha, Auto Shankar) and Rishikanth Rajendran (Irumbu Thirai, K-13) have attained recognition in Tamil cinema, while another from the team, R Badree has even landed a role in the Ranveer Singh-starrer '83 — he plays the role of cricketer Sunil Valson.
Shah Ra agrees with Vijay. "Even in my first film, a known face was the first choice to do that role, but since there weren't any dialogues, no one came on board. YouTube has the power to make filmmakers turn and take notice of talents, but it's in our hands to make use of it. Even today, Temple Monkeys doesn't own a camera. One day, a friend who didn't even know how to operate a camera bought one and came home. We saved the camera from him and shot our first YouTube video on it and that's how it all began," he smiles.
Karthik Venugopalan, known for starring and directing videos on the Black Sheep channel, is now directing a film titled Nenjamundu Nermaiyundu Odu Raja, which is produced by Sivakarthikeyan. "Assisting directors is often considered the best method to learn the craft. But we learn about 70 per cent of it from doing YouTube videos. Moreover, when a video gets published, it garners a lot of comments and from that, we get to know what works and what doesn't. A 10-minute video, right from editing to problem-solving at the sets, and even figuring out where the video lags, a lot can be learned from it. My three years of experience doing that really came in handy when scripting a feature film."
The filmmaker feels it's easy to figure out what would work for the big screen and for the video platforms. "Just like there's a pattern for YouTube videos, there's one for films as well. A good concept can be made for either medium. But a basic difference is, the theatre audience comes specifically to watch the film, and so we can expect them to sit through the runtime. Our script is made keeping the sensibilities of a feature film in mind, but at the same time, without losing our essence — giving a strong message laced with humour. Sivakarthikeyan liked our script for the same reason. But it all comes down to how we film the script."
On surviving as a film actor, Shah Ra says, "If we know how to adapt ourselves, we can succeed. The film industry has a tendency to stereotype an actor, and it's important to try and steer clear of that." Vijay adds, "If we do the same thing in films that we've been doing on the channels, I don't think we can survive for long. The only way is to showcase our acting skills and get to a stage where we're seen as those who've done a few films and not as YouTubers. If our film or the one by Black Sheep becomes a hit, more people will know about our community. Another film, starring a bunch of YouTubers, has been kept in the cold storage for a long time despite being wrapped up. The makers have released a film they did after that one. They don't realise the potential this film has. That has to change."
Raj Mohan believes that video creators make content to exhibit their talents and not as a means to get a chance in films. “Mimicry artists, for instance, have television shows to showcase their talents. But a video creator will not be able to show the world what they are capable of in a village festival or a wedding. Even in an advertisement, they don't have the liberty to do what they want. YouTube allows such people to do what they want without the fear of censorship. The way I see it, the chance to star in films is just a bonus. But I can assure you that this won't be a fad, but a trend that will survive for at least a decade. Not just actors, but singers, writers, and directors, too, will make their way to the Tamil film industry," he adds.
Echoing the same, Vijay says, “The short-films trend is long gone, so the makers are looking out for new platforms to recruit talent. Another advantage of roping in YouTubers is that they already have a fan base and face recognition. Their posts on social media are viewed by many and that's good promotion for the film as well. Those getting featured in the films are made to compere press meets and audio launches. Their interviews, which often go viral, are also used for promotions.” However, he feels that the new trend will take its own time to make its mark in the industry. “Those who used to do the jobs that we are now employed for, are angry at us for taking work away from them. 'We did a lot over the years to get where we are today, but you guys just took over by just doing a couple of videos online,' is something many like me have heard. Of course, we didn't go from one office to another handing out our profiles, but then again, no one gave us money and told us to start a YouTube channel either (laughs)."
Interestingly, Harija too wasn’t keen on joining films during her early stages. "I didn't have dreams when I started with short films, before becoming a part of the Eruma Saani channel. During the early stages, where I did many short films, not many noticed us. When we hit rock bottom, we thought we should do something we love instead of trying to do what we think everyone wants. We wanted recognition for our talents and that happened because of YouTube."
Weighing in with his views on the trend, Vigneshkanth says, "This comes with its own set of positives and negatives. The good part is the makers get to choose from a wider pool of talent instead of restricting themselves to a handful of actors. That means they don't have to worry about date issues and can make a film with a cheaper budget, given YouTubers will work for a lesser sum when compared to experienced artistes. On the flip side, we have people judging us for not taking the conventional route to becoming actors.” According to him, a small section feels that the YouTubers are making the waters murkier, but these people, he believes do not realise the effort that goes into a YouTube video. “In the case of an online video, there's uncertainty over what will work, whether we will become successful, how long that success will last, whether we will be praised or criticised for a particular video. The treatment that's given to us at the sets is different, and this is not just from my own experiences, but also what I've heard from fellow YouTubers. Instead of waiting for an opportunity, online media gives us the chance to make our own opportunities. More people are sure to come into the film industry, but those who are already here have the pressure to succeed. Otherwise, that avenue ends up being useless. It makes it easier for those who criticise the YouTube community to say that we're only fit for online content. That pressure actually forces us to give our best."