HT Brunch Cover Story: Chitty Chitty Bam Bam
Presenting one of India’s first self-created social media stars, Bhuvan Bam, 27, and his refreshing new take on stardom
In April 2019, YouTube sensation Bhuvan Bam shared an interesting insight with HT Brunch: “Give us three years,” he alleged back then. “YouTube will give Bollywood tough competition!”
Little did we know just how on the money (and then some!) Bam’s claim would be. Last month, GQ India, who added him to their list of India’s Five Richest YouTubers, pegged his annual earnings at over Rs10 crore, while DNA India estimated his net with at Rs22 crore. So, it was no surprise when over a recent chinwag, the 27-year-old comedian, actor, singer, and songwriter talked about how the stars birthed by social media today have not just transcended Bollywood, but killed the concept of stardom itself.
“Social media has shown that everyone these days has the capacity to become a star. In fact, the word ‘star’ itself has become common. When I was growing up, this word had a different meaning; a star was someone who people could die for… SRK didn’t post stories every day or even give frequent interviews. Yet he was a ‘star’,” Bhuvan points out.
They like you, they like you not
Bhuvan himself is a star and has been one almost since he first started his YouTube channel BB Ki Vines in 2015. That was when he first realised what many young wannabe content creators today still have to come to grips with: that content creation is not just fun and games. If you want to earn a living from it, you have to work. And you will never reach the Bollywood superstar’s power of having the choice to do only one film a year and still remaining revered.
Rather, the star status of social media celebrities, Bam points out, is proportional to the amount of content they produce, which creates something of an ironic and pretty exhausting spiral.
“If you are absent for a few days, you will be quickly replaced because there is no shortage of content or creators,” says Bam. “Log do din baat karenge, and then they will follow someone else. Even algorithms work this way. YouTube, for instance, will stop recommending you if you are inactive for a while. If I have subscribed to someone’s channel and they haven’t posted something for six months, then I will mostly likely not get a notification when they do post something new… In our attempt to salvage creativity over a 9-5 job, we forget that we have to churn content 24/7.”
On social media, validation may be the name of the game at this time, but is it really more important than talent? In a world where cringe content gains the same amount of validation in the form of viewer engagement as good content does, the proportion of validation to talent may be 50:50, perhaps even higher.
“We have set up a base which dictates that if you have so many ‘likes’, you are worth something,” says Bam, sharing instances of colleagues who are not even granted an audition to showcase their acting talent because they don’t fulfil a certain quota of social media followers.
“Banda toh aadha hi toot gaya wahin pe. Half their battle is lost when they realise that their Instagram numbers rather than their talent are their merit to make it in life. A few casting companies make decisions based purely on the talent shown during auditions, but the majority of them take advantage of social media ‘fandom’. If someone has one million followers, then the movie is likely to be watched by all of that person’s followers,” Bhuvan reveals.
According to Bam, Hrithik Roshan was the last of the good ‘old stars’, the ones who didn’t need to validate their presence online every day to be a star. “Exclusivity is dead because everyone has access to everyone,” he says. “In retrospect, this may be a good thing because now people will start valuing good, passionate work over baseless viral content and likes.”
He cites the example of a few stalwarts who don’t rely on social media, but are true artists: “Johnny Lever, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Tripathi… everyone knows them for their excellent contributions to our world, but they’re not rampant on social media.”
Keep calm and carry on
Bound as he and his colleagues are at times to meet sponsored timelines, Bam is undeterred in polishing the art that he had dreamed about introducing to the world for so long.
“I am flooded with ideas. I don’t allow myself to feel settled with what I have done. If someone tells me I have 20 million followers, I will say I want to cover the whole population of India. I don’t want the validation of a hundred crore people though. I simply want to create content that reaches them. That’s the difference and I feel it’s the right way to work in this medium. I cannot stop creating,” he says.
His words are weighted with sorrow. Bam faced a devastating loss earlier this year when his parents succumbed to Covid, but he doggedly continued to launch a fresh YouTube series called Dhindora that released in the first week of October. This project that was four years in the making has Bam play nine characters, something he had envisaged since he started his career as a performance artist.
“I have chosen a profession where I can entertain people regardless of what happens to me or what happens in my life. This is the beauty and the harshness of the kind of work I do. Ek artist ki yahi khoobiyat hai, ki voh mask pehen sakta hai. I also work with 200 people. If I stop working, they will suffer. Why would I add to the problem, when while I work there is a benefit for everyone? I am able to distract myself and they are able to work,” he says.
Even so, his grief is palpable, and mirrors the horrific losses the country has so recently faced and is still struggling to recover from.
“I don’t think I will ever be able to digest the fact that my parents are no more. I left my home immediately when this happened and moved to Mumbai because I couldn’t stay in that house,” he shares.
From this calamity that befell his family, Bhuvan has learned a very strong lesson: “Don’t hesitate to tell the people you love how much you love them every day. That’s it.”
From HT Brunch, October 24, 2021
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