Why are food channels on YouTube switching from pretty to gritty? V. Kumara Swamy has the story
For Karre Laxman, a Hyderabad-based graphic designer, fun on weekends meant cookouts with his bachelor friends in fields and orchards outside the city. They shot videos and posted them on a YouTube channel called Country Foods.
From the tools to the stove to the way the ingredients were chopped, just about everything was very basic. The recipe wasn't cast in stone either. A lot many times, the friends could be heard arguing in Telugu over the ingredients. "We were having a great time and we thought why not capture the whole process. The videos did okay and within months we had subscribers in thousands," says Laxman.
Sometime around then, Laxman re-established connect with a long-lost great-grandmother. Mastanamma lived in a village near Tenali town of Andhra Pradesh. Says Laxman, "When my friends and I visited her and tasted her food, we were thrilled."
Laxman's friend, Srinath Reddy, suggested they shoot a couple of videos of Mastanamma cooking in her wrinkled splendour, complete with beatific gummy smile.
One of the first videos, of a prawn dish, drew lakhs of eyeballs. And a YouTube star was born. From chicken cooked in watermelon rind to river crab roasts and everything in between, the viewers wanted more and more of Mastanamma's cooking lessons. Today, Country Foods has nearly a million subscribers and Mastanamma's dishes have been viewed more than 140 million times.
Some 850 kilometres southwest of Tenali, in Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu, Arumugam, a scraggy 62-year-old with a handlebar moustache, had perfected the template of YouTube stardom by the time Mastanamma burst on the scene. His channel, Village Food Factory, has 1.3 million subscribers.
Arumugam used to work at a restaurant and specialised in biryani. But he has quite a few dishes in his repertoire now. Some of the more popular ones on his channel are full goat gravy and stingray fish cooked in banana leaves. Even his omelette made with 50 eggs and bhel puri garnered decent views.
Arumugam's son Gopinath A. doubles as his cameraman and editor. Arumugam says over phone from Tiruppur, "It was all my son's idea. He told me not to worry about the camera or how the utensils in which I cook looked, or even how I look. He asked me to keep cooking."
In all likelihood, Mastanamma and Arumugam would have been failures as cookbook writers - they don't follow the same recipe every time - but as YouTube chefs, they dazzle.
Beyond views, these channels yield a steady stream of income. This could be through the efforts of content creators who get advertisements for their channels or through the YouTube Partner Programme, in which an uploader asks YouTube to handle the ad revenues and the proceeds are split between the two. Pragathi, Arumugam's daughter-in-law, says, "It is now a full-time job for us. We are very happy with what we do and the money we earn."
Another You-Tube cook who has made a name for himself is the 65-year-old Narayana Reddy from Andhra Pradesh. A reclusive Indian, he refuses to open up. What we do gather, however, is that his channel, Grandpa Kitchen, has 1.5 million followers.
The success of Arumugam, Mastanamma and Reddy has inspired others, but it is neither fame nor money that they are attracted to. Ravi V., a Chennai-based transcription company owner, started visiting his village, 90 kilometres from Chennai, more often than ever before. He explored the local dishes and started shooting videos of these and uploading them. His channel, My Money My Food, has 3 lakh subscribers.
People are used to seeing chefs cook in studios under bright lights, mouthing recipes full of exotic ingredients. Not doing just that could be the secret behind the success of these home cooks, says Ravi. "There is an audience that likes to see the verdant countryside and the way people live and cook," he adds.
That indeed might be it, going by the stiff competition they are posing to channels of more established counterparts - Nisha Madhulika, Kabita Singh and Sanjeev Kapoor have 3.8 million, 2.7 million and 2.2 million subscribers, each.
Mastanamma seems to be enjoying her fame. In the latest video, Laxman has made her sport a pair of aviators and flash a victory sign. She has obliged but told Laxman to slow down as she finds cooking rather tiring in summer.
Even if Mastanamma gives up cooking, she will still be a star, says Khaja Moinuddin, a producer with a Hyderabad-based media channel and owner of Nawab's Kitchen channel on YouTube. Moinuddin, who recently visited Mastanamma with some fresh produce and a lamb as gift, says, "Some of the recipes of Mastanamma are unique to her. These will be around for many generations now because of the videos."