Why Bollywood’s biggest star approached a small YouTube channel for help

Viral star.
Viral star.
Image: AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Why is Bollywood suddenly taking a shine to YouTube?

By partnering with boutique studios such as All India Bakchod and The Viral Fever, actors like Alia Bhatt and Shahrukh Khan are making early inroads into the rapidly growing audiences on YouTube and other online video networks.

A Google India spokesperson told Quartz that YouTube’s web originals partners (as distinct from partners that push television or film content online) in India have witnessed a 300% growth in traffic in just one year.

The video that Shahrukh Khan—the world’s second richest actor—shot with The Viral Fever got 1.4 million views within six days. The ability to create buzz and reach significant audiences very quickly is attracting brands and celebrities to the medium.

Less than three years ago, viable online video networks were unfathomable. But as internet penetration and mobile device usage rise rapidly in India, prospects for such networks are looking up. YouTube doesn’t disclose the revenue of its partners, and channels also mostly shy away from discussing numbers.

“I had no money and someone told me a YouTube channel could be created for free,” said 31-year-old Arunabh Kumar, founder of The Viral Fever Media Labs. He started his own YouTube channel because his concepts for TV shows were rejected by mainstream channels including MTV.

Now, his YouTube channels, The Viral Fever Videos and TVF Recycle Bin, have more than 800,000 subscribers with four to five million hits a month. He started the channel as a one-man brand and built it up into a medium-sized production company, employing 25 people. Revenues from YouTube range from $5,000-6,000 a month.

“They approached us for a video,” said Amit Golani, executive creative director of TVF, talking about how Red Chillies Entertainment, Shahrukh Khan’s production label, came to TVF for promoting his Diwali release Happy New Year. Director Anurag Kashyap had also partnered with TVF in 2013 to make a video promoting his film Shorts.

Khan’s movies can make Rs100 crore ($16 million) in days, while it is as yet unclear if studios such as TVF can be viable. And yet, the dynamics are beginning to tilt.

“YouTube has really helped us a lot,” said Kumar, who holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. “Now celebrities are more forthcoming,” he added. The company is already in talks with other stars for similar promotional videos.

YouTube gets 60 million unique visitors a month from India—more than any other video platform. “The first set of partners in India were brought on board in 2008, but YouTube Partner Program opened in a big way for individual creators in India in 2011, which allowed anyone with a video to monetize their content,” a Google India spokesperson said. “This has been an extremely successful program as thousands of our creators now do this as a full-time profession and make over six-figure sum every month.”

And the so-called multi-channel networks, such as Nirvana, Yoboho, Culture Machine and Ping Network, aggregate popular channels and create content bouquets.

The star next door

Bollywood is trying to explore the potential of YouTube because a slew of seemingly regular individuals have demonstrated that it was possible to build audiences and make a living off the video platform.

Ankita Chaturvedi, 25, is an engineering graduate from IIT Bombay. With a sought-after degree from the elite college, she would have easily landed a cushy job. Instead, she began a beauty blog, Corallista, in January 2011, her penultimate year at college. She started her Youtube channel on fashion in 2013, where she shoots, edits and uploads the videos all by herself.

“My readers tell me that it is easier for them to follow my makeup tutorials on YouTube,” she said, adding that many fashion bloggers are taking to the platform. It is her full-time career now, and she has no plans to go back to engineering.

Kanan Gill, a 25-year old engineer, quit his job at a software development company to pursue stand-up comedy. He started a YouTube channel, reviewing and making fun of Bollywood movies from the 90s.

YouTube, he says, has given him immense visibility and helped attract people in large numbers to his stand-up comedy shows.

It’s not just the young, though.

Nisha Madhulika, a 56-year-old from Noida, signed up for YouTube’s partner program in 2011—the same year it was launched in India. ”That has changed my life completely,” she told Quartz.

Madhulika runs a cooking show that gets almost 100,000 views every day. She works seven hours a day churning out 15-16 videos a month. Initially, she was shooting with a Sony handy cam, but now has professional camera persons and editors. “I have converted a room [in my house] into a small studio,” she said.

And the YouTube celebrity has such a large fan following that she recently signed a deal with Samachar Plus, a Hindi language news channel, to do a special cooking show for Diwali.

A coming revolution in online video consumption. That’s what’s cooking.