The Telegraph
| Sunday, January 26, 2014 |


Big stars, small screens

Salman Khan and Kapil Sharma had better watch out — there's a new star on a new block. YouTube is spawning its own celeb list in India, says Hemchhaya De

The good doctor has a mission — he wants to eradicate blackheads and whiteheads. He answers eager viewers' questions on the subject, and also shows them how to pop zits in various parts of the human body.

Don't scoff — his warts-and-all videos have made him a celebrity doctor on YouTube with 12 crore views so far. Dr Vikram Yadav from the Sambhal district in Uttar Pradesh has 1,06,784 subscribers.

If you have an act, take it to YouTube. Following in the footsteps of Korean singer Psy who became a household name across the world with "Gangnam style", talented Indians are doing their bit to capture eyeballs on the popular video-sharing site. And quite a few — from cooks and dancers to technology gurus — have found fame and fortune.

Take Nisha Madhulika. She may be no Nigella Lawson, but the 50-something affable homemaker from Noida is a star in her own right. She cooks "strictly vegetarian" food for her fans — 1,07,477 subscribers and counting — on her YouTube channel.

"It's a full-time job for me now," Madhulika says in her soft, dulcet voice.

According to Google, which owns YouTube, when it comes to earnings from YouTube videos in India, Madhulika tops the list, closely followed by Hyderabad-based Geekyranjit, aka Ranjit Kumar, with 62,726 subscribers, and Dr Yadav.

In the world of cinema, you have your Salman Khans and Deepika Padukones. Television has its Kapil Sharmas. And now YouTube has its own list of stars.

Former Indian Idol star Neha Kakkar is among them. Her pop single Hanju with Meiyang Chang, another popular singer from Indian Idol, has just been uploaded on the site. "A leading record company loved the song so much that it now wants to work with us further and they are already distributing it on Indian TV channels," says Kakkar, whose Bollywood songs include Second-hand jawani from Cocktail and the current rage Sunny, sunny from Yaariyan.

Ever since YouTube started a system of allowing people to start their own channels, there has been an upsurge of stars. Once you log into YouTube as a member, you can opt for a personal channel. You can upload your own videos (thumbnails of the videos will be shown on the page), subscribe to others' videos and see lists of members who are your friends and subscribers.

Gadget guru Ranjit, one the highest earners, launched his channel in 2011 to answer queries and advise people on how to use smartphones and other devices. The freelance IT consultant in his mid 30s posts some six videos a week, spends 8-12 hours online a day and boasts of 2.1 crore views over the years ("views" also come from people who haven't subscribed to the channel).

Yadav has his own channel, too, dedicated to skin eruptions. "I edit videos myself by using Windows movie maker software," says the 30-something doctor, adding that he uses a Canon Ixus camera for his clinically precise videos.

Experts stress that Indian YouTube stars are indeed a growing breed, even though exact figures regarding how many of them are creating a buzz on the web are hard to come by.

"The YouTuber tribe is certainly growing in India," agrees Amit Agarwal, a celebrated tech blogger who has extensively written on the Indian YouTube star phenomenon in several foreign publications. "Now that all phones include video recording functionality, it is easier than ever to put your content on YouTube," he says.

Indeed, amidst the vast multitude of raw, untethered talents across India, many — singers, beauticians, fitness experts, comedians and other performing artistes — are creating their own celeb space on the site, giving stiff competition to stars in traditional media channels.

Guitar-strumming Dehradun teenager Shraddha Sharma, for instance, has 1,39,062 subscribers on her channel, shraddharockin. A song sung and uploaded on YouTube via mobile by P. Chandralekha, 34, of Vadasserikkara in Kerala's Pathanamthitta district has gone viral, with over two lakh people viewing it so far. Beauty expert Shruti Anand's instructive videos have drawn 57,446 subscribers. Delhi-based fitness expert Raghav Pande has 14,911 subscribers on his Xcellfitness YouTube channel.

It is nothing short of a revolution, some hold. "Earlier, when YouTube was not around, if one lakh CDs were sold, an album would be called a 'hit'," says singer Kailash Kher, who uploads his songs on YouTube and other digital platforms. "But now you can get that kind of response online within a week and that too without a marketing campaign!"

India is one of the fastest growing content partner countries for YouTube, David Macdonald, head of YouTube content operations, Asia-Pacific, stresses. He adds that the site has over a million creators from 30 countries who make money through the YouTube Partner Programme (an initiative to help creators monetise their videos).

Wilbur Sargunaraj, a performing artiste now based in Canada, is widely regarded as India's first true-blue YouTube star. In his 2010 YouTube video called Eastern Latrine, the insanely witty Wilbur showed viewers, with a deadpan expression on his face, how to use an Indian toilet. He gained superstardom on the Net with several other YouTube videos.

"From music videos to how-tos, field trips and a full-length feature film — it has been a wonderful journey," says Sargunaraj, who made a feature film called Simple Superstar last year choosing actors from social networking sites. The film was screened at the Calgary International Film Festival in Canada.

Neither Google nor any content creator is willing to share figures on earnings from YouTube, but according to some estimates, the uploaders get $3-5 per 1,000 views. Sandeep Sengupta, an ethical hacker and search engine optimisation specialist, however, believes that figures quoted as subscriber numbers may not always be true. "Content creators can buy 'views' or 'clicks' from third parties (not YouTube) such as online forums. So one can 'manufacture' a humongous subscriber base," he says.

Agarwal believes that money earned may not be "substantial" since revenue is directly proportional to eyeballs. "Unless you have a very popular channel, the revenue from YouTube may just be enough to pay the utility bills," he says."

But because a successful upload can lead to mega bucks (Psy's Gangnam Style earned $8 million on YouTube), there are "enablers" who help amateurs. Several Indian and international companies now help content generators produce videos by supplying them with the required infrastructure.

Nirvana Digital, a US-based digital audio and video content distributor, for instance, also produces web-based content. "Let's suppose a homemaker wants to launch a channel on YouTube catering to a niche Bengali food audience and approaches us," says Pinakin Thakkar, director, Nirvana Digital India. "We will send a crew to her house, shoot her cooking and help her reach out to a wide audience online through blogs, social network sites and other digital platforms — that is, we will do everything to digitise one's idea and the bulk of the revenue earned through ads goes to the creator."

The company is also helping cross-over Indian artistes such as Punjabi rapper Bohemia monetise their audios and videos on YouTube and other digital platforms. "Revenue on YouTube mainly comes from ads," says Thakkar. A part of the earnings goes to the enablers.

So does YouTube offer a sustainable revenue model for content creators? Creators say the YouTube Partner Programme is a big help. An uploader with an interesting idea doesn't have to have direct links with advertisers — YouTube handles it for them. Ad revenues are shared by the site and its partners.

But in a country where only religion, Bollywood, cricket and sex sell, are companies willing to invest their ad money in amateur YouTube videos? YouTube says that its strong reach, multimedia capabilities along with precision targeting and new models like Trueview (where advertisers pay only when consumers see an ad) are attracting advertisers online.

"Study has proven that the return on investment on YouTube in comparison to campaigns on TV are much better," says Macdonald.

Television, however, is not greatly worried. "Although YouTube and other digital platforms are somewhat eating into the TV space, television has not become history. And YouTube stars haven't quite killed TV stars," exclaims Neville Bastawala, vice-president, marketing, Sony Pix, India. He points out that advertisers still prefer television because of its wider reach.

"But, yes, TV channels have to work in a synergy with digital platforms — we need to be part of the same ecosystem," he says.

Young singers such as Kakkar believe in straddling both worlds. YouTube is watched mostly by the young, but TV has other constituents, says Kakkar, who hit the jackpot online with her Shahrukh Khan Anthem — exclusively uploaded on YouTube in 2012 — which got her 2 lakh views within a week.

  • MY SPACE: (From top) Nisha Madhulika, Wilbur Sargunaraj, Ranjit Kumar, Neha Kakkar and Dr Vikram Yadav are just some of the thousands who have found fame on YouTube

Clearly, the new stars on the new block are raring to go. "One should keep doing what one does for the love of art and not just to get clicks, views and likes," advises Sargunaraj. "Stay original!"

Leading lights

Shraddha Sharma 1,39,062 subscribers

Nisha Madhulika 1,07,477 subscribers

Dr Vikram Yadav 1,06,784 subscribers

Ranjit Kumar 62,726 subscribers

Shruti Anand 57,446 subscribers