What you have to do to be a star video blogger in India? You have to make sure you have the pre-teen and teen girls on your side. And Prajakta Koli knows this.
“I wanted to be a radio jockey. From the time I was in 6th grade, I knew that’s pretty much all I wanted to do,” says Prajakta to the computer screen, from the other end of which I am watching her as we talk on Skype. She is in Mumbai and I am in Bangalore. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, wearing a pair of hipster glasses and zero makeup, Prajakta looks younger than her 22 years.
She’s a YouTube star with a considerable fan following (there are approximately 85,500 subscribers to her YouTube channel MostlySane), and she is sharp, chirpy, energetic, and freakishly expressive. Watching one of her videos, most of which feature a close up of her bright, mobile face, is like watching Sridevi in that glorious Hawa Hawaii song. On loop.
Not only is Prajakta great at physical comedy and mimicking Indian tics and mannerisms, she is a sharp observer, almost Seinfeldian in her ability to pick out absurd behaviour and stereotypes. Well, yes, some detractors say she is too closely influenced by Canadian-Indian comic and big-league YouTube star Lilly ‘Superwoman’ Singh, but while her style does remind one of Singh, the writing is fresh and original and her charm quite her own. I am a fan, and so are several pre-teens and teens I know.
Prajakta belongs to a bunch of young female video bloggers – vloggers, if you want to be hip – who have taken to YouTube like they were born clicking ‘subscribe’ and ‘thumbs up’. They are like that one funny friend at a party who is always hilarious (though you may not be able to recreate her jokes later), whom you always egg on to ‘just get on YouTube’. Well, young women like Prajakta, ‘Rickshawali’ Anisha Dixit, beauty and fashion blogger Scherezade Shroff and teenage musician Antara Nandy actually went and did it.
There are many others, but this is a fairly representative bunch if you want to understand the phenomenon of female Indian vloggers.
They have one important thing in common: their on-screen personas are exactly suited to appeal to the young, female YouTube fanatics of India who have been growing up idolising teenage vloggers from around the world such as Rosanna Pansino (a stupendously popular teenage baker from the US), SevenSuperGirls (girls from US and UK do funny and silly things together), Michelle Phan (Vietnamese-American makeup and beauty queen), PewDiePie (Swedish YouTube star, does funny gaming commentaries), EvanTube HD (US pre-teen, unboxes all kinds of stuff from toys to Kinder Eggs chocolates), and Niki and Gabi (identical twins, American teenage fashionistas).
YouTube has over 60 million unique users in India with users spending more than 48 hours a month viewing content, and more than 70% of YouTube viewers in India are below the age of 35, according to Subrat Kar of Vidooly. Everyone knows that millennial Indians are watching a LOT of videos, and it’s natural that they would want to watch stuff that is relevant to their lives. Older urban millennials are voracious consumers of sketch comedy content from collectives like AIB and TVF, along with terabytes of music, but the younger ones — whose video-viewing habits are closely monitored by parents — naturally gravitate towards the ‘cleaner’ content. Funny, smart, energetic, very, very bubbly, with no bad words; the word ‘wholesome’ comes to mind.
Our young Indian vloggers know it, and they also know how to make super-slick videos (on fleek). They follow shooting and upload schedules religiously while juggling classes and shoots and edits, they know all the tricks to creating great videos, they have managers, they understand and engage with their audience. They are professional and focused and serious as all hell about their careers as content creators.
‘I wanted likes, comments and shares in Ks’
I spend more than a week trying to get on a video chat with Kolkata-based Antara Nandy, the 17-year-old singer whose claptastic video performance of the Bajirao Mastani song Pinga went viral recently (2.5 million views on Facebook, 34,000 shares, 3.7k comments and countless WhatsApp shares; it even got global attention). Antara’s mother Jui Nandy and I exchange at least a 100 texts before we are able to fix a time to talk. “We just returned from a shooting schedule in Bombay and Antara has to catch up with her studies,” Jui tells me.
In true Desi kid fashion, Antara is an overachiever. She was one of the top three contestants of the music talent hunt show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Little Champs in 2009, she learns music at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata and has been recording ever since she was nine, but she still took up science at the plus-two level at her school DPS Ruby Park, knowing full well that it would mean an insane amount of hard work.
After Sa Re Ga Ma Pa got over, Antara tells me that she and her parents thought it would be a good idea for her to cut albums with original music. “But after some time we realised that it was not working. Those days when Shaan bhaiya and Sagarika didi made waves with their music albums were gone. Nowadays no one wants to buy albums, they want to download music for free,” she says when we finally manage to talk via FaceTime because one of her tuition teachers couldn’t make it that evening.
Antara proceeds to give me a succinct synopsis of her career in her clear, musical and confident voice. Clearly, she’s done this before. “In 2012, when I was in class 7, I released my first music video for YouTube. The uncle who had shot my portfolio gave me the idea, and helped us arrange it. It was a cover of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. It was possibly the cheapest video ever made,” says Antara. She and her entourage — her family and the photographer friend — hired two cars and went to a scenic spot just outside Kolkata to shoot it. “I didn’t know how to act in the video, and it’s obvious. My expressions were too loud,” she says matter of factly, knowing that she has overcome this.
What works for Antara is not just her lovely voice, but also the wholesome persona she projects. Young girls love watching her and her sister Ankita perform their a-cappella songs with “home-made percussion” — using cups, chopsticks and claps. The impromptu quality of the videos and, in contrast, her undoubted talent and professionally modulated voice create a piquant combination. That’s quite possibly why her videos work so well.
“More than the songs I have recorded in a studio, the videos made by me and my sister, like the cup songs and Pinga which were recorded live by my mother on her iPhone, have done really well. I have always been able to turn my weaknesses into strengths, so when I realised that it was tough to arrange musicians, camerapersons, HD quality cameras etc to record music videos in a studio, we started doing a capella at home,” says Antara.
She started seeing her views and likes climb up steadily — from a few thousand views of her first video of the Adele song to the cup song version of AR Rahman’s Humma Humma (again performed with her sister), which got millions of views worldwide and was written about by Daily Mail, UK and Buzzfeed. It was also was telecast on TV channels in Russia, Malaysia and Pakistan.
“I wanted likes, shares and comments in Ks and this was a dream come true,” says Antara.
Antara’s schedule is crazy. She gets up at five in the morning, does riyaz for half an hour, goes to school, goes for music classes, and then has back-to-back tuition classes for math and science till 10 pm. On weekends, she does “self study” and plans her videos. Around six months ago, she was picked up as a talent by the multi-channel network Qyuki, founded by AR Rahman, Shekhar Kapur and Samir Bangara to promote, manage and distribute the work of talented vloggers and video content creators. “The people at Qyuki have told me I must upload at least two videos a month, and I have to find time to do it,” Antara tells me before we sign off. Her tuition classes have started, and she has to run.
‘TV and print are about reach. Digital is about engagement’
Samir Bangara, co-founder and MD of Qyuki Digital Media, says in the new age of content creation, good content is not stuff at which you throw a lot of money. It can be videos made at home, shot on phone cameras. As long as you have a unique voice, and connect with your audience (and there is no formula for that), you are good to go.
Once Qyuki, which has more than 200 content creators on board (100-plus in music alone) has identified creators it wants to partner with using viewership and engagement metrics, it hand-holds them through the process of making a living out of creating video content for YouTube and Facebook. The company provides technology support, PR and marketing support, distribution support, and help in monetization. ‘Talent’ that shows exceptional promise and potential is taken to the next level, where Qyuki helps the performer produce content, create new formats and IPs, and manage live shows. It gets a considerable share of the revenues made by the artiste.
“TV and print are about reach. Digital is about engagement. The viewership is dominated by young people who want to see other people like them. A US study that asked millennials who their dominant influencers were found that the top names were YouTubers. That’s going to happen in India too,” says Bangara. He believes advertising dollars will follow these stars — like musician Shraddha Sharma, who has 200,000 adoring fans on Instagram alone — because their appeal is far more organic and real than that of Bollywood stars. They are real people, and when they say they use a product, their audience actually believes they do.
Bangara says the good news is brands are beginning to spend more on digital content, and some even allocate 10% of their ad budgets to digital (the percentage was much smaller even a couple of a years ago). However, YouTube revenues are not huge — unless you have millions of views on each of your videos. It works like this: the number of views (and not subscribers) determines the size of the cheque Google sends home every month, and it pays between 6-10 paise per view. As Bangara explains, if you get a million views a month and are paid 10 paise per view, you make Rs 1 lakh a month. A million views a month seems huge, but keep in mind that this is not views per video, but cumulative views of all the creator’s content.
“Plus, it’s in dollars,” says Prajakta Koli, who is reluctant to discuss actual numbers but says that she earns enough to not have to ask her parents for money (she lives with them) and is also able to pay two close friends who help her do her shoots.
Most experienced vloggers know that the real money comes not from views but from brand associations. Scherazade Shroff, a hugely successful independent makeup, beauty and fashion vlogger (she is celebrity fashion stylist Anaita Shroff Adjania’s sister), has over a lakh subscribers, and is among the biggest earners among beauty and fashion vloggers in India. A former model, she has worked with a huge number of brands like fashion houses, Lakme India Fashion Week, makeup and beauty brands like Sunsilk, Maybelline and Sephora, and even tech companies like Motorola. Shroff gets asked the ‘how to make money from YouTube’ question so often that she decided to make a video on it. She has also been invited by Google to give talks to other bloggers about how to monetize content.
Bangara says successful more experienced bloggers like Shroff (she’s been online for more than three years now and has a huge, sometimes delirious fan following among pre-teen and teenage girls) can make anywhere upwards of Rs 3-4 lakh a month from views and brand associations.
But Shroff has clear rules on brands she works with. “You must be honest with your audience, they are very sensitive and will immediately know if you are faking it by endorsing a brand that you don’t actually care for. That’s why I choose the brands very carefully, because your audience may actually get turned off and stop watching you if it senses that you are selling out,” she tells me over the phone from Mumbai. She uploads new videos every Monday and Friday — being consistent is key, she says — and shoots and edits her own videos every single time, keeping overheads low.
“I know that my audience is getting younger and younger — at the last YouTube Fanfest, girls as young as nine and 10 were coming up to me and saying they loved my videos,” Shroff says, and this is another reason she can’t work with any and every brand, or mention stuff like smoking or drinking on the channel, or use “bad words”. Shroff has also refused to endorse brands such as fairness creams, and one of her most popular videos is her going on a rant against fairness products.
‘I can get stuff done when I talk’
When Prajakta Koli finally got her dream job of being a radio jockey right after college, at 20, she found that she hated it. She hated the fact that her show, which went on air at midnight, was recorded at 2 pm inside a dark studio. She hated that it was mostly scripted, not spontaneous. She hated that she didn’t know immediately if her listeners had liked her segment or not. She hated that she was “talking to nobody.”
Then one day, Hrithik Roshan came to the offices of the FM channel where she was working to promote his movie Bang Bang, and she shot a funny, “stupid” video with him for her Instagram account. She loved the idea of being herself, of really owning her persona. That video with Roshan caught the eye of an executive at the multi-channel network (MCN) One Digital Entertainment, and he encouraged her to create more independent content. Her first video went live on YouTube on Feb 12, 2015 — just a couple of days before Valentine’s Day — and was titled ‘Types of Singles on V-Day’. “The idea of just being myself — I loved it,” says Prajakta. “I have always been a great talker, I love talking. I can get stuff done when I talk.”
Many of her videos belong to the ‘type of people at xyz place’ category — types of people in college, in airplanes, at single-screen theatres and amusement parks. They are usually self-deprecatory, earthy and astutely observed. Koli’s lack of self-consciousness is staggering.
While her videos look slickly produced (in a little over a year, they have been watched over 600,000 times), most are actually shot in her room, in the backdrop of a vividly papered wall. She follows an upload schedule of a video every Tuesday and Thursday, and two of her friends, Siddhali Ghatge and Sampada, form part of her ‘team’, assisting her in writing her scripts and shooting and editing them.
I ask Prajakta, who clearly has great acting talent, if she wants to be in the movies. She says it’s not something she wants at this point; she finds movies a bit “fake”. Everyone is perfectly dressed and poised, while she likes the spontaneity and imperfections of vlogging. “People connect with YouTubers when they are their shabby, messy selves. They love it when you take them into your rooms, into your lives. Right now I want to see how far I can take this,” she says.
Prajakta is very clear that her content is family viewing: “I tell my viewers that if you are watching one of my videos, and someone comes into your room suddenly, you don’t have to minimise the screen or put on earphones.” She recalls how, at the Hyderabad Comic Con last year, where she was a speaker, a 50-year-old lady came up to her and told her she was a fan, and had attended the event just to meet her. Being part of the YouTube FanFest in 2016 was a huge deal for her.
Incidentally, Lilly Superwoman Singh participated in the event too, and someday, perhaps, Prajakta will be right up there, sharing the stage with her. Her fans can’t wait for that to happen.
Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.