Meme-makers catch Tamil Nadu’s imagination
“Bro, memes are the new Tirukkural for Tamils, bro,” declares 28-year-old R Uday Bharati. The words roll off his lips like a rap song with a startling insouciance.
Tirukkural is a 3,000-year-old classic Tamil text of 1,330 couplets with precisely seven words each, written by saint-poet Tiruvalluvar, packing in vast wisdom in its pithy verse. It’s a veritable symbol of Tamil identity (the Gita, Upanishads, Bible and Quran rolled into one for many) that finance ministers love to quote in their Budget speeches.
The 1,330 verses of Tirukkural are organised as three paals, or books, dealing in aram (dharma or virtue), porul (the matters of material world) and inbam (desire). Uday Bharati’s modern-day Kurals (or memes) are meditations on the workplace woes of young IT code jocks that often have views in excess of five million on Facebook.
In his video memes under the theme “Atrocities” (Chennaism for hazard) Uday Bharati, a software engineer working at a blue-chip global IT services firm, dubs comedy scenes from popular Tamil films with his own lines reflecting the issue at hand (appraisals, exit interviews, late-night shifts, and managerial excesses), mimicking the voice of original actors note by note.
One of Uday Bharati’s superhit memes is based on a 2014 Tamil conman-classic Sathuranga Vettai. In it, a seasoned con artist sells the pointy metal structure found atop the sanctum sanctorum at ancient temples as a changer of personal fortunes to an ambitious politician by claiming it had been consecrated by powerful vedic mantras. The scene reaches its crescendo when the conman, channeling prevalent myths and superstitions, convinces his victim that he could, upon the ownership of the piece of conical metal, live like a Chakravarthy (the unchallenged emperor). In Uday Bharati’s meme, the conman is the manager at an IT firm, desperate to retain his underling who has put in his papers.
The ultimate inducements or the promise of an emperor-like life are onsite projects in the US and the prospect of a Green Card. The meme ends with a child bawling “ellam poi, ellam poi” (everything is a lie, absolute lie). In the world of Indian IT, the attrition of valuable employees has a negative impact on the manager’s own appraisal score.
Meme is a term coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in the 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, to describe a unit of cultural transmission. In 2013, he updated the definition to describe internet memes as a hijacking of an original idea that, instead of mutating by random change and spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, is altered deliberately by human creativity without any attempt at accuracy of copying. In common practice, a meme is an iconic cultural image, usually a screenshot of a movie scene with a caption slapped on to capture the contemporary zeitgeist.
Elsewhere on the worldwide web, where TikTok now rules, memes are a Mesozoic curiosity. But in Tamil Nadu, the best internet-networked and smartphone-penetrated state in India (about 40 million Internet subscribers and 96 million mobile phone connections for a population of 70 million), memes are the most potently viral weapon of social commentary, and even mass mobilisation on issues such as the Supreme Court ban on Jallikattu in 2016 or the campaign against Vedanta’s copper plant in Thoothukudi.
Drawing on Tamil cinema’s matchless tradition and endless corpus of comedy, Tamil youth have created a parallel universe of meme-based social media expression. From the most powerful politicians to the biggest superstars of cricket and Kollywood, no one escapes the irreverent rapier thrusts of the warriors of Meme-Nadu. No one trying to appeal to Tamil Nadu’s public can afford to ignore the reach of memes, from political parties’ IT wings to restaurants and filmmakers.
Film as Folklore
Uday Bharati makes his super-hit memes between 8am and noon before he leaves for work. “My mother is convinced that I have a way with words because she named me after the great Tamil poet Subramania Bharati,” he says, clad in a black t-shirt, an unbuttoned red-and-black full-sleeved checked shirt on top, and black sneakers with fluorescent green laces and trimmings. His managers and potential job interviewers request him not to make memes featuring them when their interactions don’t go well. “Young people are vex [Chennai-ism for being stressed]. I want to make them watch my memes and sleep happily at night. That is why I keep away from politics and focus on what they face at work,” he adds.
“Memes reflect the rebellious spirit and kurumbu [mischief] of the Tamil people. In highly networked Tamil Nadu, the entry barrier to making a potentially viral meme is non-existent. Anyone with a mobile phone can do it. It provides a creative escape route for millions of Tamil youngsters who feel trapped in dead-end IT jobs. Social media grants them the anonymity to express themselves without caring for political correctness,” says CS Amudhan, an advertising executive-turned-filmmaker whose two-part Thamizh Padam movie franchise is a spoof on Tamil films and a film-crazed society.
The prolific Tamil meme-makers worship in the direction of the Tamil film industry and its two greatest comedians, Goundamani and Vadivelu. Uday Bharati’s ambition is to somehow find the ear of a Tamil film music composer or a director who could use his talents. Almost all of Tamil Nadu’s meme-makers are auditioning on social media to be a part of showbiz.
K Subramanian, now 80, popularly known as Goundamani, is one of the most prolific and popular Tamil film comedians from the late 1970s up until the turn of the century. In the 2000s, N Vadivelu became the king of Tamil comedy. If Goundamani gained popularity with his counterpunches, Vadivelu is acknowledged as one of the finest exponents of a self-deprecating brand of comedy and what is commonly known in Tamil Nadu as “body language”— the wide variety of facial expressions and bodily contortions he could pull off to represent varying shades of being bullied on-screen.
For both image-based and video meme-makers, Vadivelu’s body of work is unalloyed gold. “A meme can hit the bull’s eye by simply using the appropriate scene or facial expression of Kaipullai [a classic comedy role played by Vadivelu in the 2003 film Winner]. With material so good, it’s hardly a surprise that Tamils are brilliant with memes,” says Amudhan.
Television shows of the mid-2000s -- such as Lollu Sabha, which parodied popular Tamil movies on the satellite channel Star Vijay – were in some ways precursors to the current irreverent culture of memes. Even today several 24x7 TV channels dedicated to film comedy help etch countless scenes and dialogues in people’s minds. So strong is the hold of film comedy that young Tamils anywhere in the world would start using such dialogues in their conversations within minutes of meeting another. Tamil cinema is their stupendous thinking machine, a unified consciousness that covers their world like a thinking skin.
Tamil memes make up a cant that those not familiar with the regional politics and cinema can find hard to partake in. The whole phenomenon can seem a hyped-up digi-babble. #PrayForNesamani as a trending topic in social media in late May this year is a case in point. Nesamani is the name of a painting contractor played by Vadivelu in a 2001 Tamil film Friends. The hashtags referred to a scene from the film where, through a series of domino-effect accidents, the hammer falls flush on Nesamani’s head, making him collapse. Nesamani went viral when a Pakistani Facebook user posted a picture of a hammer and asked what this tool was called in India.
In response, a Tamil user said that it was a “suthiyal” in Tamil, and added that “contractor Nesamani’s head was broken by it”. Another Tamil user asked, out of mock concern, if Nesamani was fine now. Others began chipping in, and what was essentially an in-joke among Tamils, attained the status of a worldwide trend. It was as if Tamil social media was flexing its muscles.
“Every IIT campus, or a closed society has a cant of its own. Its inhabitants desperately seek to create a lingo that they can call their own. Tamil memes are a reflection of an insular society trying to close a system inwards instead of extending its cultural borrowings,” says N Kalyan Raman, an award-winning writer and translator of contemporary Tamil classics.
Puns and Politics
The world of Tamil memes isn’t always mirthful and merry. The trolling of politicians and film stars can often be vicious. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief K Stalin, Marumalarachi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (MDMK) founder Vaiko, film director-turned-politician and the head of Tamil nationalist outfit Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), Seeman, the entire All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government’s Cabinet and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s state leaders H Raja and Tamilisai Soundararajan are permanently in the crosshairs. Goundamani’s comedy— distinctive Coimbatore accent, dialogues laced with double-entendre and political satire, and the liberal use of cusswords — provides the canon for those making memes trolling politicians.
Fans of the two biggest current filmstars, Vijay and Ajith, are engaged in a constant meme war. Kishore Kumar, 25, who runs a popular meme factory called Video Memes from an airless basement in Villivakkam, a northern suburb of Chennai, says heavily political memes are a part of his firm’s DNA.
A hulk of a man with a sharply trimmed Virat Kohli beard, dressed in a black t-shirt and tight, grey jeans, he refuses to be photographed. Video Memes’s biting satire on Seeman brings with it the prospect of violent retaliation from NTK members against Kumar’s team and the actors he uses. “NTK has a very young support base. The hotheaded 2K kids [a term popular among Chennai’s millennials to describe those born after 2000] don’t know how to handle criticism,” says Kumar.
Their latest hit features AIADMK minister Sellur Raja, who in 2017 embarked on a mission to cover the state reservoirs with sheets of thermocol to prevent evaporation in a bid to solve the state’s water crisis, as a sci-fi hero who prevents a meteor strike using similarly ingenious methods. Kumar started Video Memes when he hadn’t yet finished his engineering course. The editing skills he taught himself while fooling around with a new computer enabled him to create video memes on YouTube that paid his tuition fees.
“Being funny alone doesn’t cut it. I’m very proud of our team’s editing skills. We use the same editing tools as professionals in the film world,” he says. A leading film star who is a constant recipient of Video Memes’s barbs called up to say that Kumar should find something worthwhile to do in life and offered a chance to edit his next film. But independence, not money, is what he’s after. Today Video Memes has 1.8 million followers on Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.
“The secret of a successful meme is to be able to get the viewers to emotionally connect with it,” he says. However, the $3000-4000 a month in YouTube revenue can barely pay for the three offices and 13 editors he employs. In the pipeline is a web series marked by the same attitude Video Memes is known for. The valuable social media skill young meme-makers have picked up opens other avenues such as digital marketing. The smarts to evade copyright strikes, and the ability to game the frequent algorithm changes effected by the likes of Facebook make them hot property among advertisers and marketers. Video Memes is often hired by small-sized film producers and local businesses to create social media buzz for their brands.
Meme and Money
Several other young meme-entrepreneurs in Chennai have managed to scale up and build a proper business. Manish Kishore and Surej Salim Kumar, both 34, are cousins and roommates from their engineering college days in Chennai. As engineers not enthused by the idea of working in an IT firm, Salim went to Mumbai to learn the ropes of TV production and Manish Kishore worked in an advertising firm as a digital marketer. In 2012, they co-founded the creative agency Digitally Inspired Media (DIM). In 2014, the two started a Facebook meme page called Awesome Machi (Tamil slang for brother-in-law).
“Back then, memes had started becoming popular in Tamil Nadu, but we felt the space was unorganised and populated by amateurs. Our branded memes helped enhance their overall quality in Tamil social media,” says Manish. Then, in 2015, came the devastating Chennai flood.
“We used Awesome Machi’s FB page to connect citizens carrying out relief work. We built a team of citizen journalists and allowed them to post accurate information on our page.”
Now DIM runs one of the largest unofficial Facebook fan pages for the city’s Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise Chennai Super Kings (CSK); it has turned Awesome Machi into a full-fledged bilingual entertainment portal on the lines of ScoopWhoop with 1.8 million Facebook followers, 700,000 YouTube subscribers and about 300,000 Instagram followers.
The frequent copyright strikes have forced Awesome Machi to invest in original actors for its video memes and cut down the reliance on movie clips. Its “besties” series of videos based on young urban relationships has nearly 30 million views on Facebook.
However, corporatisation and need to keep large clients happy can blunt the edginess of memes. Awesome Machi avoids the rough and tumble of political memes and takes no sides in Kollywood’s fratricidal fan wars.
On the other hand, Gopi and Sudhakar, both 25, a popular two-man act on Tamil YouTube for nearly two years, are doubling down on their take-no-prisoners brand of videos.
What started off as a standup routine when they were batch-mates at an engineering college in Trichy was soon spotted by one of the many talent-hunt shows on Tamil TV. Their YouTube channel Parithabangal (loosely translates to “woes”), barely a year old, has more than 1.4 million subscribers.
With tonality and treatment similar to Video Memes, Gopi and Sudhakar shred political and social hypocrisy with lightsaber wit. A sketch on DMK as Daddy Munnetra Kazhagam (a direct reference to the party as a dynastic enterprise) has Gopi playing party president MK Stalin. Parithabangal’s Stalin videos have in excess of two million views.
Gopi and Sudhakar have raised ~6.4 crore in crowdfunding to produce a full-length film. “Bro, that’s the thing with Tamil audience. They won’t pay up to watch comedy videos on social media or live standup acts. But if they love you enough, they’ll part with their hard-earned cash, provided you can give them a full-film experience,” says Sudhakar.
Welcome to Meme-Nadu, bro!