Tamil web content is venturing forth boldly where cinema and TV fear to tread

Ranjani Krishnakumar

Dec 30, 2017 18:36:09 IST

As a friend and I sat together watching Stephen Colbert on YouTube, I couldn’t resist sulking over what seemed like a gaping hole in our film and television landscape that holds authority to account. “We can’t do this in Tamil, no channel will buy it, no writer will be spared,” my friend said by way of consolation, which rang true. We do live in a world where artists and filmmakers screen their content to various fringe groups for approval before release. We live in the era of controversy, where everything from a woman being a queen to a woman swearing on screen causes an outcry among upholders of culture.

Immediately after the Colbert video, YouTube suggested that I watch a video titled, ‘otha sollaala’ (which can be read as ‘in a word’ or ‘in the word f*ck’) by Temple Monkeys, one of the many independent YouTube channels that have a no-holds-barred approach towards authority of any kind in Tamil Nadu.

The video ‘otha sollaala’ is a scathing satire about the double standards of policing one’s language. In it, a young man is narrating the story of a film he watched: “You won’t believe what the woman in the film said,” he exclaims. His friends — all of them male — insist he tell them. “Andha paiyyana paathu loosu-ndra da ava” (She called the boy loose). The entire group of men breaks into a fit of swear words, one worse than the other.

 Tamil web content is venturing forth boldly where cinema and TV fear to tread

Tamil web content is going boldly where neither TV or cinema have before

It seems almost clairvoyant when seen against the backdrop of Jyothika coming under attack for swearing in the trailer of her upcoming film Naachiyaar. This kind of clairvoyance seems common among satirists. “When demonetisation happened, as politically conscious people, we could reasonably guess how this would go. And it almost happened that way,” says Rajesh of Nakkalites, a YouTube channel for political and social satire. Demonetisation videos were an important milestone in the career graph of Nakkalites, who created a series of videos mocking the establishment for its apathy, while also nearly predicting a dystopian future for digital currency.

“If we’re talking about digital content in the Tamil sphere, one of the biggest high points of 2017 is that we’ve become more socially conscious and socially aware than anywhere else in the country,” says Rajiv Rajaram, creative director — South at Culture Machine, the company best known among Tamil audiences for its YouTube property, Put Chutney. “We started by talking about issues that people were afraid to talk about. We’d been talking about Kaveri even before this year. We talked about Jallikattu in early January. When the issues around NEET rose, it shook us up.”

From the conversations I’d had, a feeling that ‘we could no longer be silent’ is what seemed to be their driving factor  — both those commissioned by large players like Amazon and Hotstar, and the indigenous ones on YouTube. Within Put Chutney, which was long known for its localised pop-culture-based humour, Rajmohan brought with him anger and activism that has made them a significant voice in the online public sphere when it comes to issues that matter to Tamil Nadu, which get little or no coverage in national media.

In that sense, in 2017, commentary on the web can be seen as an uncensored expression of the anger towards the establishment that seems bubbling among the Tamil public.  The Tamil political milieu since the hospitalisation of the then chief minister J Jayalalithaa and her death last year, the confusion around the state’s power centre, issues revolving around Jallikattu, GST, demonetisation, NEET, Ennore creek etc. have given birth to a generation of web content creators who ask questions and mock authority without fear.

“When we came back from a small protest against the attack on Perumal Murugan many years ago, we were filled with a need to react to what is going on around us. An expression of our righteous anger," says Rajesh of Nakkalites. Since then, Nakkalites have steadily built a passionate following for themselves as political and social satirists. They’ve not shied away from making sharp observations or naming names. In a spoof video discussing GST, two actors — playing Krishna and Arjuna of the Mahabharata — call each other 'Namo’ and ‘Jet Lee’.

A large pie of Tamil video content can be called ‘troll videos’ —  a comedic form that combines satire, parody and insult humour with pop-culture references, for good measure. “Contrary to how it’s understood elsewhere, we’ve made 'troll' a good word in Tamil. "‘Epic-a troll pannunga ji’ (please do epic trolls) is a request I hear very often”, says Rajiv. There are several players thriving in this space — Temple Monkeys, Madras Central and IBC Tamil to name a few, most of whom even use the word troll in their video titles.

“Humour is a form of violence, they say. At Nakkalites we are clear that we will only use that violence against power,” clarified Rajesh. It is an unbroken rule within the team that they don’t troll marginalised communities, women, the disabled etc. In fact, Rajesh insisted as much as possible — even though they do parodies of people — they stay away from mocking individuals and focus on mocking their ideas.

While Rajesh and his team at Nakkalites have spent their year performing political and social satire rooted in Tamilness, for the Tamil audience, Aravind SA, a standup comic, spent his time trying to make his Tamilness — and Tamil experiences — pan-Indian. “The south is alwaaaays ignored,” he sighed talking about being a “South Indian comic”, whose hour-long stand up special Madrasi Da was picked up by Amazon Prime, along with thirteen other performers, whom he casually calls, “north Indian comics”.

In the middle of 2017, Aravind had his own moment of rebellion when the debate around Hindi being India’s national language had raised its head again. Aravind wasn’t amused. He posted online a small portion from his show Madrasi Da where he explains why Tamils Don’t Speak Hindi. It captured the imagination of the audience group that was by now tired of explaining that they were as much Indian as anybody else north of the Vindhyas. True to the times, Aravind got much flak for it online.

For someone who was called ‘anti-national’, Aravind is keener than most to go pan-Indian. As a south Indian comic, he believes that one of his bigger problems is that he gets shoehorned into being a performer for the “Southies” or the “Madrasis”. The title of his show doesn’t help. “People in Mumbai won’t have the problem of making their content pan-Indian, because they already feel they represent India. But for me, I have to take Chennai and make it a part of India.” In Aravind’s little rebellion is also a hidden need to be accepted for who he is.

Not all rebellion is external, often, it is not even political. For Prabhuram Vyas, writer-director of Livin’, a coming-of-age story about a couple living together and their stoner friend, the conflict was internal. “When I was writing Livin’, I imagined both Harish and Haritha (the show’s lead characters) to be in a state of identity crises. They are figuring out, both their lives and their careers”, he said. Livin’ is a story of three urban millennials with fancy jobs and unresolved value systems. Even as he writes the story of an average every-person, Prabhuram roots them in Chennai, filled with nosy landlords and engineering college jokes.

My favourite scene in Livin’ is when Harish, who is a wedding photographer, massages the ego of his client, a short man, who appears insecure about his height. Haritha intervenes and confuses the man’s fiancé Thaen, who walks away undecided about the marriage. Angered by the loss of business, Harish asks, “Indha feminism nonnanaattiyam ellam thevaiya?” (Do you need this feminism rubbish?). They argue a little about misogyny in Tamil cinema, but the scene ends with Harish declaring that this month’s dinner is on Haritha. She, in turn, brings Maggi to him the entire week; she cooks it for him a couple days, and by the 10th day, she flings a packet of Maggi at him!

For me, this exchange is incredibly subversive, yet uncannily real. The fact that feminism is ruining his business angers Harish, but he reacts to it by making Haritha pay for dinner — he says, “dinner is on you” not “you cook dinner” as I’d have expected — a possibility created by said feminism. In that sense, Livin’ is sensitively feminist, in a way that we can live the feminism, not just dream of it.

This is also what Dhanya Balakrishna says was her intention for As I’m Suffering From Kadhal, a rom-com available on Hotstar, in which she is the associate writer and lead actor. “We both wrote from our experiences, to make it real, and not something that’s contrived to be feminist or anything. That the women have an equal standing and equal say,” she said, talking of her role in writing the series. It was after having written about six episodes that Balaji Mohan, the creator and director of the series, brought Dhanya in. “I wanted to get the female characters right. It needed a female perspective,” he said.

From the way the show is conceived written, it appears that for Balaji Mohan, As I’m Suffering From Kadhal is a rebellion using themes, forms and words that don’t have a place in cinema or television. “Even as I imagined the series, it was episodic and meant for the web. This wouldn’t have been appropriate for any other place,” he said, discussing the uncensored nature of the platform. Well, of course. Where else would you be left alone for making a show about a man who cheats on his wife at his bachelor party, and his wife sleeps with his cousin to avenge his betrayal!

But the show is most certainly more than that. Whatever one’s disagreement with the content, As I’m Suffering From Kadhal is the messy, awkward, convoluted kind of love that seems to have no place in our cinema.

For most of these writers, the web offers them the space and the opportunity that cinema or even television could not. It is perhaps from the web that we will find our own Stephen Colbert. But, as the possibilities are being widely recognised, and big names enter this space — Madhavan has a series on Amazon, Gautham Menon launched one on his YouTube channel last week — web-based video content looks at 2018 with equal parts hope and caution.

Here’s wishing 2018 tickles our hope more than caution. We’ll see.

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Updated Date: Dec 30, 2017 19:41:31 IST