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STARS OF A PARALLEL UNIVERSE

Updated July 09, 2017

No more Khans, Kapoors or Kumars. And no more Radcliffs, Watsons or Lawrences. They are passé. They have 30-plus people in their fan club. But for millennial or Gen Z, whose numbers are multiplying every day, you have to be a Liza Koshy, Ryan Higa, Tyler Oakley, David Dobrik, AIBs, EICs, Abish  Mathew, Zakir Khan, Karan Talwar, Anisha Rickshwalli, Kenneth Sebastian, Kunal Kamra, Kenneth Sebastian, Arslan Naseer of CBA, Sham Idrees, Zaid Tahir etc.

If you still read newspapers and ask “Who the heck are these people?” the kid sitting next to you with his/her iPhone will probably scoff at you and say with a disdainful look, “How can you not know them? They are superstars!” 

Three years ago the Badshah of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan had conceded, “These are that new breed of artists who aren’t on television, they are not on films, they don’t need any media except their houses, rooms, their own television sets, their own cameras and they do some amazing stuff.” He was talking to motley gathering of millennials and Gen Z, at the 2014 YouTube Fanfest about a bunch of young men standing along with him on stage.

They are the new entertainment sensation or stars. They don’t belong to either Bollywood or Hollywood. They are more popular than either the Khan triumvirates of Bollywood or for that matter even pop music sensations such as Justin Bieber, Zayn Malik, Selena Gomez and their ilk. Many of them are top earners and are listed in the Forbes international list of who’s who in popularity and their total net worth. And the best thing is that no boundary of any country can restrict them.

And they aren’t trained to be entertainers. They are very ordinary folks — students, homemakers, musicians, tech professionals, teachers, beauticians, chefs, medical professionals or any others one can think of. They have succeeded in enthralling millions of young across the world. The medium they use to reach people is the internet and video sharing websites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and others which are collectively called social media. They are known as YouTubers, Vloggers etc.

What is their popularity mantra? “Most pop culture is consumed by young people,” explains Mumbai-based Sorabh Pant one of the top standup comedians with over 1,500 shows in more than 75 cities worldwide, and a very popular YouTuber with nearly 0.45 million likes. “In my time we were so damn excited by cable TV and satellite TV coming to India. Today YouTube, Amazon Prime, Netflix, Facebook Videos are all the cable TV of this generation. And now, it’s our videos, shows which make children run to watch!” Pant is also the founder of EIC (East India Comedy) one of the busiest comedy companies in India which has other popular YouTubers and stand up comedians such as Azeem Banatwala, Atul Khatri, Sapan Verma etc in its roster. He also has his own YouTube channel.

What sets them apart from other stars is that they aren’t hampered by any dictates from anyone. They can and do take on any subject under the sun that actually touches the youth of today.

In fact, social media can be easily labeled as the parallel universe of entertainment. Within a span of a decade, it has become the baap of all entertainment or the Goliath of all amusement. Every millennial swears by it and each one of them from Jumhri Telaiya to Delhi or from Timbkutu to LA are on to it and talking about it.

Anubhav Pal, another of this ilk, also a novelist and screenwriter from India explains the phenomenal sensation of new entertainers as: “I think young people have a good sense of humour and don’t necessarily respect unnecessary melodrama that is found in films and TV serials.”

And to think that none of these ‘parallel universe’ stars knew that their one innocuous video on YouTube or tweet would catapult them into a whorl of popularity.

Karan Talwar who is popular on social media, started tweeting with irritation by the nadir the Bollywood films had reached. He was wondering as to why there was such a stoic silence from the audience. “Today everyone has become a critic,” says Talwar. “Seven years ago when I first tweeted about the film I Hate Luv Storys, there was no one and I got about 120 tweets within a couple of hours. I was pleasantly surprised and that started my saga on Twitter.” Today he has more than 1.83 million followers on Twitter. On Instagram, the number is over 61,000 and he has about 1.15 million likes on Facebook as well.

Anisha Dixit, a YouTuber who is better known as Rickshawali since her life on social media started in an auto-rickshaw in Mumbai. Anisha, born and brought up in Germany, after studying acting in Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in LA, had come to Mumbai to get a foothold in the Hindi film industry. “After one of those fruitless innumerable meetings in 2013, while travelling in an auto rickshaw to meet a friend, I had a brainwave of making that rickshaw with colourful pink interiors as my backdrop, my iPhone as my video camera and started talking about the film Goliyon ki Rasleela Ram-Leela and uploaded it on YouTube. The kind of response baffled me and so here I am a YouTuber,” says the chirpy Anisha who within three years has nearly 0.2 million subscribers on YouTube, 17,400,000 likes on Facebook and nearly 7,000 Twitter followers.

The popularity of the group based in the West is greater. Lilly Singh, a Canadian, has 11 million YouTube subscribers with 1.7 billion viewers and her channel iiSuperwomanii, is in the top 100 most subscribed. The 28-years-old was ranked 3rd on the Forbes list of world’s highest-paid YouTube stars in 2016 reportedly earning $7.5 million in that year. And to think that she is a mere six years old on YouTube! In India, there is the sensational Tanmay Bhat. He has more than 490,000 likes on Facebook and his gang of AIB has 3.4 million likes and 3.6 million followers. In fact, in 2016, the gang was ranked 82 by Forbes among India’s top earning celebrities and 73rd in the fame rank. And they are just three years into the business. In fact most of Indian YouTubers and vloggers are about three years old in the ‘art.’

What sets them apart from other stars is that they aren’t hampered by any dictates from anyone. They can and do take on any subject under the sun — sex, parent troubles, films, politics, education, society, gender, law, food, fashion and any other subject that actually touches the youth of today. They make candid statements with tongue-in-cheek humour and use the jargon of the youth or Gen Z. So in a video, the usage of cuss words is considered quite normal. They sport the casual attire of teenagers — jeans, tees, loosely hanging sleeves, rolled shirts, sneakers etc. Even if they wear jackets, it’s very casual — they wear them over a tee rather than on a shirt, with pushed up sleeves. The youth relates with this. And they talk straight to the camera making the viewer feel as though they are personally talking to every individual. And they get paid for their ranting. 

Vijay Nair, the CEO of OML (Only Much Louder) Entertainment, which manages the maximum number of stand-up comedians, musicians, storytellers and their social media accounts in India, feels that just getting traffic, increased tweets and likes isn’t enough. “Anybody can have their YouTube channel, post a video and tweet and become one-time sensation,” says the man who heads a multi-crore business organisation. “But to sustain the popularity there has to be substance. It has to be relevant, should touch a chord.”

The question is how do they earn?

According to Aditya Gupta, co-founder of iGenero an interaction social media agency which helps brands find their feet on the web, on mobile, and on digital media, “Consumers of television, films, print media etc. are getting tired of advertisements. This is forcing brands to be more creative. So they have started latching on to social media stars. A clever Twitter handler will use a name of the brand without being blatant about it and he or she gets paid depending on their popularity on social media.”

He says people get paid anything between 50 Indian rupees to 2,000,000 Indian rupees per tweet depending on the popularity of the social media star. A YouTuber might get paid more for the use of brands in their video.

People in advertisements have realised that social media stars can be ‘accessed’ anywhere as long as the end user has a smart phone. This is the future of entertainment.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 9th, 2017