Even though Prajakta Koli has been on everyone’s radar for over three years now, November 2020 marked the first time that the YouTuber was promoting something. Usually, Koli’s legions of fans know when to expect her next video, and on the rare occasion they forget, she can always put out an insta story. Dressed in a frilly white top, Koli arrives at our Zoom interview about 15 minutes late, and apologises profusely.
COVID-19 may have changed the globe irrevocably, but it hasn’t managed to put a dent in Mumbai’s traffic situation. When Koli launched her YouTube channel in February 2015, influencer culture was in its nascent stage. YouTube, Instagram, and Bollywood were three separate platforms. “When I started making YouTube videos, I did not think that this (shifting to films) was a way to go. Five years ago, if you asked me “kya karna hai life mein”, I would say “bas mujhe 30,000 subscribers mil jayenge, mai khush ho jaoongi”. Nobody had predicted that the internet would suddenly blow up, and that industries would start merging, and the lines would get blurry,” she says.
Much like her character in the Netflix original series, Mismatched, Koli had it all figured out from a young age. She wanted to be an RJ, and began her career at Fever 104 FM as an intern. It was a nightmare. Not only was Koli not allowed to eat lunch at the same table with the employees, her 14-hour shifts felt oppressive, and she shed around 11 kilos due to the excessive workload. In short, Koli was sinking, and who should turn up as a lifeguard other than Sudeep Lahiri from One Digital Entertainment, and Bollywood’s gift to the world, Hrithik Roshan? Roshan had come to the studio and despite warnings from her seniors, Koli went ahead and shot a video with him for her Instagram page. Lahiri happened to notice the entire exchange, and realised that she had “fun energy”. There’s no “and that’s when her life suddenly changed” moment here. While Lahiri had recommended that Koli try making YouTube videos, she was hesitant. However, he finally convinced her to meet him, and discuss the various possibilities of YouTube.
“I remember coming out of the old One Digital office and calling my mom, saying ‘I think it was an interview and I think I made it’. She asked ‘what are you now?’ and I said ‘now I’m a YouTuber’,” Koli says, giggling. A huge part of Koli’s success goes to her parents who’ve been extremely supportive of her career. They have an entire wall in their home dedicated to fan art. “Speaking from experience, honesty goes a long way in discussing your career choices with your parents. If, at that time, I had told my parents that I would become famous and have thousands of subscribers and that my videos would go viral, they’d probably think the whole scene was flaky. I went up to them and told them ki dekho, mujhe nahi pata hai, but I’m going to trust this guy that I met,” she says. She also asked them for a year where she would work for herself and if she makes it, great. However, she was also cognisant of the fact that there was a possibility of her not “making it”, and she would take life as it came.
“My father said ‘why only one year, take two years if you want’. Hence, I think honesty goes a long way while having these conversations. If you’re nervous about something, let them know. It also softens the blow for any failures that might happen in the future,” the 26-year-old content creator says. In 2017, two years after she started her YouTube channel, Koli underwent a low phase. She’d hit a block, and felt like a failure. She was also considering shutting down her channel. However, because of the trust and honesty between the Kolis, her parents didn’t interfere and soon, MostlySane was back in business.
Koli is very candid when she says that she feels even more thrilled now than she did in 2015 when her videos went viral because she has a lot more at stake now than she did then. It’s been six years since Koli has been creating content and yet, every Thursday, right before she uploads a new video on YouTube on Friday, her hands shake, and her armpits get sweaty. She says that this is because every Friday is a reset button for her. The internet churns out gigabytes of content every second, and there’s no dearth of YouTube videos or IGTVs or Reels for people to watch, share, and comment on. Naturally, this leads to content blocks and palpitation, but her brain has adapted, and she has reached a place where “the apps don’t control” her. She controls the apps, she says. “My job is to be on the internet and create content, but any time I feel that it’s getting to me, I can take a step back. When it comes to social media overload, a lot of viewers come up to me and say “Prajakta, we can’t deal” and I always say “but that’s in your hand, no? Cut it off”. I’m not generalising but sometimes, I feel it’s convenient to blame the apps. But one must feel equally responsible and learn to censor themselves,” she says.
It’s an answer that is expected of Koli. After all, she has built a career and a life on the internet, but “the social dilemma” doesn’t affect her because the Koli you see on your screens is who you get in real life. Unlike many of her peers, Koli’s career choices have been based on her real-life personality. Take Khayali Pulao and Mismatched, for example. While they may seem worlds apart, they are typical Prajakta Koli projects. Koli is now doing a Dharma Productions film, Jug Jugg Jeeyo opposite Anil Kapoor, Neetu Kapoor, Varun Dhawan, and Kiara Advani. Perhaps, Jug Jugg Jeeyo will determine her versatility as an actress (if that is the career she chooses to pursue). We’ll have to wait and watch.
While social media influencers have finally begun to speak about social issues, one can’t help but wonder if they’re doing it to score “woke points” on the Internet. With Koli, that’s not the case, because she has been an active campaigner for socially relevant youth centric issues from the start of her career. She’s tackled body image issues, online bullying, female subjugation, homophobia, climate change, and the swiftly spreading evil of fake news. Without knowing it herself, Prajakta Koli is the perfect brand because she is intensely marketable. And it is all because she probably has one of the least toxic and most informed fanbases around, who inspire her as much as she inspires them. It is this nature of the Prajakta Koli brand that allows her to be the first Indian digital creator to partake in the UN General Assembly, and represent India in Barack and Michelle Obama’s “Dear Class Of 2020” alongside BTS, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga. After all, what is a content creator without their followers? And Koli’s followers understand the value of the aforementioned projects.
As a content creator, there is also the issue of overfamiliarity. Because her followers have grown up with her, do they think she’s gotten too big for her boots if she doesn’t respond to their DMs? “I can handle the DMs. The only annoyance is when strangers whom I’ve gone to college or school with who probably didn’t even care about me then, call me up and go “hi Praju” and I’m like “Praju? Who is this?” she says. “I also get a little uncomfortable when my viewers come home. I love meeting them outside at coffee shops or on the highway. My parents love it when they come home and make tea for them but for me, my house is the only place where I can switch off,” she adds. And, then of course, in the quest for virality, content creators often seek notoriety. There are abuses hurled, ill-informed statements made and fan wars initiated. After all, any publicity is good publicity, right? Then, how has Koli managed to cut through the clutter and emerge as the person we’d like to see represent our country on the global stage?
“I don’t think I would have pulled this off for six years if I was trying to be someone I’m not. Even in real life, I’m not someone jo bahut gaaliyaan deke baat karti hai. I have always enjoyed watching content with my parents and this is the idea I want to promote — if I’m making a piece of content, I want it to be your dinner-time conversation. I honestly believe you don’t need to be notorious to cut through the clutter,” she says, ending the interview with a smile, and her trademark disarming honesty.