At the age of 24, Bhuvan Bam is already one of the most important Indians on the internet. In September, he became the first Indian YouTuber to hit the 10 million subscriber mark, with his immensely popular comedy channel, BB Ki Vines; each video he puts out, in which he plays a variety of characters, gets between 20 to 30 million views. This year, he also starred in a popular short film, Plus Minus, and is gearing up to write and star in a BB Ki Vines feature film in 2019. Over the course of 2018, he’s managed to live a lifetime, and is at the forefront of the new pop culture movement in India.
Even if you’re not a fan of his brand of comedy, Bhuvan Bam is not a man you can ignore. With 11 million subscribers to his YouTube comedy channel BB Ki Vines (he hit 10 million in September and is up by a million already), he’s in the unique position of being both a laughing matter – and not being one. It’s a clear sign that the content he is producing is extremely relatable and engaging, because the numbers don’t lie. To give you some kind of perspective, Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment has a subscriber base of 4.1 million on YouTube. Salman Khan Films has 1.4 million and Dharma Productions is at 3.6 million. The most popular comedy channels, like AIB (3.1m), Filter Copy (3.6m) and TVF (4.7m) are not even close to him. Even digital behemoths like Netflix have only 6.2 million subscribers, and Bam is also winning the numbers game when it comes to views per video, with an average of 20 to 25 million.
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What do these figures tell us? For starters, Bam’s content is the story of the common Indian. It talks about everyday realities, and the various characters he plays can be found in every neighbourhood in India. His content is rich with the colour and vibrancy of small town and suburban India, where most of this country resides. It is important to understand that Indian metros are bubbles that are quite detached from the dynamics of the rest of India, and due to intra-metro movement, there is a sort of homogeneity that affects these cities.
Secondly, his comedy is as ‘street’ as it gets. It depends heavily on comebacks and punchlines that I am sure are often repeated by his fans. Is there innuendo and double entendres? Yes. Is it crass? Often, but not any more than what can be found in various stand- up comedy competitions on TV, which families lap up. Barring the use of expletives, Bam’s comedy is in no way different from what the country has already been exposed to. He wins with his engaging narratives, often inspired by current affairs and social trends that millennials connect with. Thus, a cheeky comeback is more important than production values. His videos are still shot entirely by him, the phone/camera held in one hand, with him building a sketch and various characters with tight close ups and a variety of voices and idiosyncrasies, backed by free-to-download audio effects.
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With a loyal fan following, Bam is now in a position where he can become an opinion leader. Brands have lapped up the opportunities of paid partnerships and digital endorsements – he has replaced Shahid Kapoor as the face of the men’s cosmetics brand Beardo – and it will be interesting to see if he remains India’s most popular YouTuber, with additional forays into feature films and web series’ as an actor, and if he becomes one of India’s most popular forces of social change. To riff on what Voltaire and Uncle Ben said, with great numbers comes great responsibility.
Let’s start at the very beginning. How did BB Ki Vines happen?
BB Ki Vines happened very randomly. There were floods in Srinagar in 2015, and there was a TV reporter who asked a survivor “How do you feel now that you’ve lost your son in the floods?” That’s the time I realised that this is what the media is doing right now, and Indian media will continue doing this till eternity. So, I thought I’ll make a satirical video of it and post it on my Facebook profile. Now, my Facebook profile was that of a musician. I was never good at academics, but my teachers loved me because I was into music and they supported me from the very beginning. So, I pursued music. But, after I started posting comedy videos, the people who came to watch my music videos found them instead, and hence, I lost a lot of gigs. A friend suggested that I should make a separate page for funny stuff, and that’s when I made BB Ki Vines – after two or three episodes, one video went viral in Pakistan. That’s the story.
How have you seen content consumption change over the years?
I think the audience will change with you. I’ve realised that the jokes which I used to crack two years ago won’t work now. It’s because the audience is maturing along with me. The overall consumption in India has drastically changed. Earlier, we only had English content rolling out in the digital space, and we saw Hindi sitcoms only on television. Now, after BB Ki Vines and so many other Youtube creators, digitally a lot has changed, and there’s a variety of content for people to watch. It’s a win-win situation for everyone: the creators as well as the audience.
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Has there been a shift in your target audience over the years? How do you plan on attracting people that don’t consume your content at the moment?
I never made my videos for people who aren’t on social media, or who don’t YouTube as a habit. I want to target the youth, as we relate to each other. As I get older, maybe I’ll cater to an audience that doesn’t watch YouTube, or those who are busy with their lives. Once upon a time, I churned out content for kids from Class 11 and 12, then I made it for college-going students. Now, I’m making content for those who’ve just started working. Before Titu Mama was introduced, my TG was 13- 14 year olds. After he came into the picture, the TG has come to include 45-year olds.
You debuted in films this year. How different was that experience?
It’s completely different. Shooting videos in a room for three years… it’s quiet, personal, no one is there to interrupt or interfere. When I did Plus Minus, it was an altogether different experience. First of all, you’re performing with a veteran actress (Divya Dutta) and naturally, you’re worried. There was an entire crew around me and both my hands were free. Now, it was all about my body and expressions. When I make videos, I only have one hand which is free and visible. From that to being completely free – physically – onscreen, with proper movie cameras and a director and crew, it’s a different feeling. I’ve done this in the past also; I was in a web-series with TVF and that’s some other level of art.
Your followers connect with you because you’re genuine and have this candid attitude all the time. Do you think that’ll change if you move into Bollywood?
First of all, I don’t think I’ll make a move to Bollywood, or at least not for another year or so. The transparency with the audience will be based on how I evolve as a person. If I start acting like a star, then I might lose out on the people who used to follow me. They’ll naturally see the change and notice how I talk in interviews, and how I react to their comments, or whether I even reply to them any more. I hope I don’t get to that point. I meet so many people who tell me that “Humne toh isko dekha tha aur tab woh kya tha or ab kya ho gaya hai, itna drastic change aa gaya hai”. As long as you maintain a level of transparency with the audience, they’ll love you. And you should make sure that if you’re in this business, you connect with the people who are actually going to pay to watch you. You can’t take them for granted. And about Bollywood – even if it happens, it all comes down to replying to comments. That’s what people want. You reply to them – all’s good.
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What is the one thing you don’t compromise on?
The script. I am a pain in the ass for all the people around me and managing me. They give me deadlines, but I take my time. I don’t feel like writing all the time. Art is not something that can be done according to your needs. It will come naturally to you. Music comes to me when I’m in a completely different zone. When I’m walking on the street or talking to someone or, say, I’m giving this interview, and suddenly a joke comes to my mind, I’ll write it down. If a melody comes to me, I record it on my phone. These things don’t come forcefully. I don’t force myself to write.
Now that people are demanding better content – Thugs Of Hindostan bombed, Badhaai Ho rocked — will we see a shift in the way the film industry functions?
Stree. Badhaai Ho. Andhadhun. These three movies have made 2018 a much better and a much more positive place as far as Bollywood is concerned. It’s the same in Hollywood – there will be three good movies and the rest will be trash. Not that masala is bad, but there will be three content-driven movies that do well. If these good movies are making around 100 crores, then why will someone put 100 crores on a movie unless it’s content driven? And people are also fed up of all the illogical shit. I think they’ll invest more in the content and the writers now. Writers are the most neglected people in the industry. I feel exhilarated when such movies do well.
You have this image of being a fun chap. Do you feel the pressure to be that all the time, especially because you’re a public figure?
People who know me know that I’m not a funny guy. I’m just funny in front of the camera and on stage, but if I talk to someone in person, it won’t be about comedy. It’ll be about life and various serious issues. When I make videos, I am under duress because on video, you need to deliver all the time.
Do you struggle to maintain your privacy?
Yes. It depends on where I go. When I’m in Delhi, it’s quite difficult for me to step out of the house, because people know where I live. That sliver of time between getting out of my house and entering a cab is crucial. People know that BB is here and that BB usually comes out at this time. This is a part of the business and I’m not fed up of it. I know it’ll continue to grow.
This year was also quite challenging for you personally. How have you coped with that?
I went with the flow. I don’t even remember the Dating Hutiyapa episode which came on the day my father had a stroke. When he was being operated on, my mom asked me to go back home and edit the video. I came back home, edited the entire video and gave all my social media passwords to Rohit [his manager] and asked him to take over Instagram and everything, as I would be unavailable for two weeks. I haven’t watched that episode, and I don’t even have any memory of it because there was so much going on in my head. A lot has changed. We don’t live the way we used to. My father was the most active family member, and he used to initiate conversations. Now, we initiate conversations just to bring his memory back. He has no memory of anything now. If I’m out of Delhi for a week, when I reach home, he doesn’t react. Before, he’d be like, “Mera beta aa gaya” and now he doesn’t. He just looks at me and there’s nothing, and then I have to confirm if he recognises me.
The transparency with the audience will be based on how I evolve as a person. If I start acting like a star, then I might lose out on the people who follow me. If you’re in this business, you should connect with the people who are actually going to pay to watch you.
What do you love and hate about social media?
I hate this race to show that your life is better than someone else’s. It’s a cobweb, and we’re all trapped inside it. What I love about social media is that it gives you a voice and opinion.
10 years from now, where do you see the Indian internet space?
I see a couple of things becoming mad – I see a few restrictions being imposed. As far as creation and consumption is concerned, Indian YouTube and social media will surpass every country, due to our population. The next 10 years are going to be the most glorious.
Looking back at your career graph, is there something you would do differently?
No. I really have no regrets. I learn with every episode and every post on Instagram. That’s the beauty of it – if you don’t make any mistakes, how will you know what’s right?
As we come to the end of 2018, how do you look back on this year?
This year has been a rollercoaster ride for me. I’ve achieved a lot. I lost out on a lot of things. The year passed by so quickly. I’ve ticked off a lot of things from my bucket list, and there’s a lot of things I’ve yet to accomplish and I probably will, next year. On the professional front, touching the 10 million mark had always been a dream. When I began, I couldn’t dream of 1,000 subscribers. When I touched one million, I thought that this is the end – what is there to achieve after this? When I hit 10 million, I felt the same way I had felt when I hit one million. Again, I wondered what remains to be achieved and maybe I don’t know it yet, but there’s so much more to do. With each passing day, I’ll realise that these things were just milestones, and I have even more to achieve.
What’s your relationship status, currently?
I’m committed. It’s been nine years.
What is a perfect date, according to you?
No movies, no dinner, because these are distractions. Just go on a random drive, listen to songs. Don’t meet for one or two hours — meet for an entire day. That’s my ideal date. If you meet for an hour or two, it’ll be rushed. Spend an entire day together, and do things that don’t require much effort or offer many distractions.
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What is the one thing that really attracts you in women?
The eyes. Uff! I fall for the eyes.
Looking back at your previous relationships, are there any regrets? Any lessons you’d like to share?
This is my first relationship and, hopefully, the last.
What’s new for Bhuvan Bam in 2019?
I have so many expectations from 2019, because I’ve started writing for a movie which is going to release in December next year. It’s with YouTube, and the movie is going to be on that platform. It’s a BB Ki Vines movie, and it’s a two-hour feature film and has all the BB Ki Vines characters. It’s going to be a proper masala movie, with songs and everything, all composed by me. The work has begun, and people are going to think “Yeh phir gayab ho gaya YouTube se”, because I need to take a break. I’ll need to give my fans a hint in one or two months. We sit to talk about the concept every single day, and once we get the green signal, we’ll go ahead with it and form a team. We’ve already done two songs for the movie. I’m a person who can’t wait, I might put out those songs as a music video next year, I don’t know. But I want to save it for the movie. Let’s see.
RULES OF VIRALITY ACCORDING TO BHUVAN BAM
- You go viral because your content is unique. It is either very good, or very bad.
- Be consistent.
- Don’t think too much. Figure out what your audience wants and give them that. Virality of content is in the hands of the hottest trend, and the people who are watching it.
- If you don’t have an audience yet, make sure you create content and ask all your Facebook friends to share it. Logon ki naak mein dum karna zaroori hai.
- People will appreciate you, but won’t share your stuff. So, it’s imperative to ask people to share, because if that content works, they’ll be the first ones to call you.
PHOTOGRAPHER: ROHIT GUPTA | ART DIRECTOR: AMIT NAIK | STYLIST: NEELANGANA VASUDEVA | HAIR AND MAKE UP: JEAN-CLAUDE BIGUINE | WARDROBE COURTESY: NUMERO UNO | LOCATION COURTESY: RAASTA BOMBAY
By Arnesh Ghose | Interviewed by Mayukh Majumdar