The Tamil film industry has been on strike, and there have been no new releases for over a month – and yet, with so many other entertainment options, audiences don't seem too concerned. They don't even have to pay to access the services of a streaming platform. They just need to be able to access YouTube. While this is not exactly a new phenomenon, its ubiquity has been underlined by the strike. Those subscribing to Amazon Prime and Netflix complain that there's not enough time to watch all the great shows people say you should be watching (a First World problem, yes), but the world of freshly created YouTube content is even bigger. And snackier. You don't have to invest close to an hour on an episode of The Crown. Have five minutes to spare? There's something on YouTube for you.
Till about 2016, the world of YouTube was populated, almost exclusively, by film-related content. Songs. Comedy clips. Full-length films. Interviews with the cast and crew before a film's release. Reviews after the release. Then, a few years ago, YouTube channels began to produce exclusive content – though even these were, largely, film-related. Sivashankar Natarajan, General Manager, Behindwoods, spoke about how his company began to branch into non-cinema content. "We were putting out 20 items a day, on our channel. We slowly began to use the short-video format for breaking news. This showed us that there was a large audience for news-watchers, and it was a very different audience from the news-reader."
In early 2016, the YouTube channel Put Chutney made a video around the Siddharth-starrer, Jil Jung Juk. Unlike the usual promotional video, the tone was spoofy. And the production values were excellent. That October, the channel produced its riskiest video yet, a satire around Jayalalithaa's mysterious hospitalisation. Still, this cannot be called a "political" show. It was more an "entertainment" show that used a political event as fodder. Temple Monkeys, too, began to come out with cost-effective entertainment content.
A little later, political "shows" began to make their appearance. I am not talking about someone commenting on, say, the Chennai floods, using a phone, and then uploading it on YouTube. I'm talking about a programme being put together in a professional manner, shot the way a TV show or a movie would be shot (though, obviously, with a much smaller budget). If the topic of budget keeps coming up, it's because there's very little revenue from YouTube. A television channel can afford to divert some of its ad revenues into the making of a top-notch YouTube video. But a YouTube channel has to keep costs low.
And now, we're seeing the next stage of evolution. There's more ambition, a desire to branch out – do something more artistic, something that will be remembered. On March 26, Fully Filmy released an animated video titled Dear CSK, which told the "simple story of how a cricket team [Chennai Super Kings] can change the way we look at ourselves, and the world around us. The video was made with over 3000 hand-drawn frames, which took over 50 days. It's got over 1.8 million views. Sivashankar Natarajan is a big fan. He said, "It is the Baahubali of YouTube videos."
On 31st March, Behindwoods launched *Tha, Kovam Varuma Varatha, a video about the sorry state of the Cooum river, narrated by the filmmaker Gautham Vasudev Menon. The view count, as of now, stands at over 4.3 million. Even as the video fulfils the social-media mandate of doing something buzzy, something cause-y, something that will appeal instantly to the heart, there are detours into the realm of documentary, which appeal to the head. Even as Menon rages about the state of the river, historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan drops facts – say, that the Cooum finds a mention in the records of the Vatican.
Sivashankar said that it has always been the company's strategy to cover every aspect of Tamil Nadu, from politics to current affairs to human-interest stories to lifestyle, sports and entertainment. "Though we started with Tamil cinema, we believe we have got the efficiency to diversify beyond entertainment. It's a long-term strategy and the response so far has been overwhelming." Why Gautham Menon? "We wanted the documentary to reach as many people as possible and scripted a powerful voiceover. Gautham Menon was our team's unanimous choice as the documentary's idea and his films existed in contrasting zones. He did a great job."
Here's what Gautham Menon had to say.
What were your thoughts when Behindwoods approached you for this video?
I really thought it was a good initiative. It's something I've wondered about too. I have heard of a few people, including Parthiban sir and others, working towards the idea of making the Cooum a better place. But I've never been more involved with the problem than to just think and read about it. So this video seemed like a good opportunity to begin to contribute. More importantly, I really liked the team and their approach. Nivitha Padmini, who put this together, was very sure of what she wanted. It was her idea and I appreciated the fact that it was non-entertainment and for a cause.
Did you wonder about the acceptance factor? I mean, of course you are a Chennai-ite, and this is your issue too. But did you wonder if someone perceived as more "rooted" would be accepted better as the narrator?
I normally don't let that question affect me. I've heard it before. There's a perception that I'm not from here. Firstly, I'm from here. I was born here. I lived in Anna Nagar for twenty years and I live now in Kanagam, behind the IIT. My mother is Tamil. She is from Madurai and Chennai. She studied here and met my father who, even though is Malayalee, studied in Coimbatore and Madras and lived the rest of his life here. I am Tamil. And that doesn't mean that if I was from Kerala or from Karnataka, it makes me less of a rooted person – because I was born and brought up here, and have lived here, and have contributed to the city here. I'm saying this for so many other people who are from outside but have lived here and contributed to the city and own it as much as somebody who is Tamil and is from here. I'm more rooted than anybody else you might have had in mind and I'm not upset while saying this.
Did you add anything to what they brought to you? Say, a line? A scene?
So they had a script, but I went ahead and did it in my style – linked the words, threw in a word here and there, even a swear word or two. They had only shots of me dubbing in the studio initially, and I suggested they take some other shots if they wanted. I wanted to initiate a contribution to the cause and that's why I agreed to be featured in the video. Of course, the things I did on camera were all directed by Nivitha.
What are your thoughts about "alternative" programming like this? Do you think they could be a threat to movie-watching in theatres?
Nothing can be a threat to movie-watching. A good crowd will come in depending on what the film is and what the audience expects from that film. But there should be more content-based programmes like this, and there is a lot more content to be brought to the notice of the public. This was a lot more important than most of the other things going on in my life, and hence I agreed to be a part of this.
Does your outfit (Ondraga Entertainment) have any plans to produce non-"entertainment" content along these lines?
Yes, we do. If they let us survive. Even if they don't, we will still try and ride above everything, although it will only get tougher. Lots and lots of youngsters and other filmmakers are approaching us to put out their short films, and also with content for us to produce that's informative and educating and exciting. I'm hopeful that there are good times ahead!