Printed across the hallway of a three-storeyed office in Mumbai's Andheri East are the words 'Getting Things Done Any Which Way Is The Only Talent We Need'. Swarms of people are marching to and from every direction with props and costumes in hand. It's the kind of systematic chaos you only find the sets of a shoot.
I'm at the The Viral Fever (TVF) office to witness them in action as they film their new sketch. The video is for Girliyapa – one of 4 YouTube channels under the TVF umbrella. The other three are The Viral Fever, The Screen Patti and The Timeliners. At just over three years and 3 million subs, this is TVF's youngest creation. Their YouTube channel description reads – 'India's leading women-centric channel for entertainment that celebrates relatable, real, funny and interesting stories about women.' Some of their most talked about sketches include 'How I Raped Your Mother', 'Girls Buying Condoms' and 'Unfair And Lovely'. Their highest watched sketch, 'Mom, I'm Not A Virgin! has 11.5 million views. As the title suggests, it centers on a tense mother-daughter conversation when it is discovered the daughter is no longer a virgin.
Today they're shooting a sketch for International Women's Day. It focuses on the stories of three unsung female heroes from Indian history. Women who challenged the status quo and broke down barriers for future generations. The sketch has been funded by the United Nations through Mythos Labs – a company that enables the United Nations to collaborate with comedians and content creators to help spread the word on issues like gender stereotypes and counterterrorism.
I'm told the average Girliyapa sketch takes about 45 days to complete from the initial ideation to online release. "It totally depends on the scale of the sketch and what we are trying to say…I think writing takes most of the time. The fourth draft (of the script) is typically what goes on the floor," says the channel's Creative Head, Nidhi Bisht.
I'm on the first floor of the building where I'm told most TVF videos are filmed. It's your typical office space, part of which has been converted into a makeshift shooting space. On the reception desk, a sewing machine is in full buzz as costumes are being stitched real time. Next door is a room that has been temporarily converted into a dressing room for actor Gul Panag, one of the stars of the sketch. She plays Prem Mathur, India's first female commercial pilot. Fitting, as Panag is herself a trained pilot. In the midst of hair and make-up, she talks to me about her involvement with the sketch. "I've known of Girliyapa for a very long time…I thought they were doing something for gender stereotypes which is really important…so I'm happy to be doing this."
Panag is getting ready to perform a scene in which Prem Mathur has arrived for a job interview to be a pilot. She is sitting across the table from two comically misogynistic men who laugh at her for even applying for the role. The tiny room can just about fit the three actors in the scene and a few key technicians; the monitor for the director has been set up in the hallway outside. As the camera rolls over multiple takes, there are frequent intervals of aggressive shushing from the production team aimed at the various people pacing about, chatting and taking calls. Such are the perils of shooting in an active office space.
This has been a tough script to get right due to the many stakeholders involved. There's the Girliyapa writers who wrote it, Mythos Labs representing the UN, and Panag, who offers her own perspective on certain lines. "But don't let me bulldoze," she's quick to assert to director Abhinav Anand.
They're running behind schedule today. The aim is to pack up soon as they need to shift to their next set – a courtroom that has been erected in Andheri's SJ Studios. Moments before the camera rolls two crew members discuss why Panag's character doesn't have a file with her like most people who go for job interviews tend to. The two quickly verbally calculate whether to flag it or leave it be. They go with the latter.
The entire scene is shot multiple times, one from Panag's perspective and then again from the perspective of the two actors across the table. There's isn't enough space for two cameras to capture both at once. Once the scene is wrapped, within minutes Panag gets changed, a few pictures are taken with the crew, and then she leaves. She's been there for a total of about 3 hours. Not bad for a morning's work.
Girliyapa has 108 videos on their channel and most of these have been put up in the last year. Their team has 13 creators (a mix of writers and directors) of which 9 are women. "I think more women creators came on board only now and we also realised that people are watching us now. Initially, it felt like nobody's watching so the enthusiasm level was also quite mellow. But once we started putting out videos regularly we realised that we do have a fan base that religiously watches us," Bisht says.
While sketches make up the lion's share of their content, they also have one short film and multiple web series. They recently concluded their most ambitious project, a 5-episode series titled Girls Hostel, in partnership with Whisper. The show about friends living in a girls' hostel has garnered over 30 million views across its five episodes. There are three more web shows being planned.
But where does Girliyapa fit within the vast amounts of content being generated by TVF? Each of their channels has a dedicated creative team of writers and directors and the production team is shared across them all. "The decision making happens at a Girliyapa level. The team decides what we want to make and then we figure out production and budgets and all of that. Once the script is in place we go ahead and make it. It's a very democratic process. If there are 8 writers in the room, and someone bounces off an idea and the rest of the team feels we should make it, we go ahead," says Bisht.
What also makes Girliyapa stand out amongst its fellow TVF channels is that it produces the most branded content. "If I see on my channel that there are only a series of branded videos and not enough original sketches, I think all of us huddle up and jam on how to not let it happen again and how to make sure that even if there is a branded sketch, one page belongs to the brand but the 5 other to us," she adds.
The final goal is to keep creating. "If I've written it, I want it to get made. I don't want it to just sit on my laptop." This explains the sign across the wall: Getting things done any which way is the only talent we need.