At quarter-past nine one recent evening, Maithili Thakur stepped out of her apartment in a southwest Delhi complex to direct a cab that was coming to her place. As she was talking to the taxi driver over her mobile phone, a mother, with her daughter in tow, from the colony walked up to her and said: “My daughter Simi keeps saying she wants to see your house from inside.” For Maithili, it was a moment of validation — an act of acceptance she has been hoping to get for a decade.
A few years ago, Maithili’s classmates in school would often disparagingly call her a “Bihari” — she grew up in Madhubani district. Her father Ramesh Thakur moved his family to Delhi’s Najafgarh area almost a decade ago in the hope of better fortunes. Ramesh used to make ends meet by giving music tuition to children. He taught music to his three kids, too. “I made Rs 4,000 a month from tuitions. When Maithili turned 10, she started singing at jagrans and other music programmes. Together, we would earn Rs 10,000 a month,” says 50-yearold Ramesh, recalling their days of struggle.
Things changed for the better after April 2017. Maithili got through to the finals of a singing reality show on national television. Though she did not win, her father observed that some contestants had created their own YouTube channels to gain popularity. “I saw that even amateur singers were raking in lakhs of rupees by uploading videos on social media platforms.” He pushed Maithili and his sons to record short singing videos and upload them; Rishav, 16, would play the tabla, and Ayachi, 12, would be a co-singer. Sitting cross-legged on a bed in their one-room house, the trio started creating enchanting renditions of Sufi, Hindi classical and Bhojpuri songs using a mobile phone.
Eight months on, the videos get between 70,000 and 7 million views across Facebook and YouTube. The online fame has inflated their monthly income from shows to Rs 10 lakh, from Rs 10,000. “We now get queries for shows every five minutes,” says Ramesh. His phone doesn’t stop ringing. And his voice doesn’t show any sign of fatigue when he repeatedly informs interested parties what the Thakurs charge per show: “Rs 2 lakh plus travel and stay for four people.” The Thakurs today own an apartment in an urban residential locality near Delhi airport. “I took a home loan and bought this flat for Rs 1.20 crore,” says Ramesh, sitting in the 3 bedroom apartment. Maithili is no longer a “Bihari”. Her friends call her “Nightingale of their school”.
Thanks to internet and social media, the Thakurs were able to earn fame and fortune from practically their living room. This is by no means a one-off case. There are several people who have become celebrities in their own right after posting worthwhile videos on the internet. They may not be nation-wide sensations but are popular among vast sections of people. Abroad, Forbes even has a ranking for web celebs. It defines a web celebrity as a person famous primarily for creating or appearing in internet-based content, and who is highly recognisable to a webbased audience.
In India, the ubiquity of mobile phones and the internet has made it easier for talented people to find fame on web platforms. But how does an artiste achieve fortune on the web? One way to make money on, say, YouTube is to create a channel and upload videos. Having a wide audience base is a must before turning on the monetisation switch. Advertisement and brand associations bring in money if subscription numbers are high enough. Sometimes companies pay to get a mention of their product or services on a channel that has high viewership. These deals can range from Rs 5-25 lakh depending on the number and duration of videos. Such videos also help artistes reach a wider audience without paying a lot for promotions. It is now common for film stars to collaborate with these folks to promote their movies to a web celeb’s subscribers.
Canadian YouTuber Lilly Singh, for example, has built a net worth of $16 million on the back of several of these strategies for her channel IISuperwomanII. Bhuvan Bam, India’s answer to Lilly Singh, has an estimated net worth of $1 million purely on the back of revenues from YouTube advertising and brand collaborations. For 23 years, his family of five had lived in a 1BHK flat in Delhi’s Malviya Nagar. “There was no place to walk in the house,” says the 24-year-old. Today he owns a 3BHK flat in a posh Delhi locality.
“I’d make Rs 3,000 a month and tips extra,” recalls Bam of his days singing in a restaurant as a 16-year-old. Once, a big Punjabi family came to eat and they asked him to sing quaint classic songs. “They tipped me Rs 17,000 that night.” But Bam doesn’t categorise those days as his struggling period. He says he enjoyed that work as much as he does creating BB Ki Vines — his YouTube channel on everyday funny incidents that happen in a family.
BB Ki Vines is India’s biggest YouTube channel by an individual. While that has made Bam conscious of delivering good content consistently, it hasn’t changed his lifestyle all that much. “I still shop once in six months. You’ll see me wearing the same jacket at every other public forum. Often it’s my fans who point out I have been repeating my outfits way too much.” Bam admits he is hungry for fame, not money. “I prepare my Filmfare speech every day. I do want to appear on Koffee With Karan as a guest once.”
Not all web celebrities have rags-to-riches stories. Aksh Baghla, 23, for instance, hails from a middle-class family in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. He moved to Chandigarh seven years ago to pursue graduation. His penchant for singing and his ability to sing in 40 voices of popular Indian as well as foreign artistes led him to form a band in college. He wanted to be a web celebrity. Last week, his YouTube channel crossed a million subscribers.
Web celeb status has given him many first experiences. “I travelled by air for the first time last year, that too in business class.” His first overseas trip happened after he became a web star. “While going to South Korea for a YouTube Fan Fest, I tasted champagne for the first time. I didn’t know you could call home from a plane if you’re travelling business. So I posted about it on social media and got laughed at. In Seoul, I had to ask people to show me how to eat certain dishes.” Even staying at a five-star hotel was a first for Baghla.
Three years ago, Baghla’s cash flow was Rs 10,000, the pocket money he got from his father. Now his bi-monthly average income is Rs 5 lakh, thanks to YouTube ad revenue, brand collaborations and live shows. Baghla spends most of his money on upgrading equipment for his studio. “I’m focused on making original music now and want to get rid of the tag of an impressionist,” he says. His biggest dream is to own a smart home.
With fame, web celebrities are also learning to deal with public intrusion. Unlike other richer celebrities, these guys can’t afford fenced bungalows and topnotch security guards. Mumbai-based YouTuber Prajakta Koli has an overenthusiastic fan who likes to write messages on her car with sharp objects. Hyderabad-based Veena Srivani, who became an overnight web sensation after her veena rendition of Shankar Mahadevan’s Breathless went viral last fortnight, says: “I have been getting messages from people asking for my address as they want to send gifts. You have to be a bit careful.” Nineteen-year-old Ajey Nagar, known for his online roast and commentary channel CarryMinati and live-streaming gaming channel CarryisLive, has experienced borderline creepy behaviour. “At one meet-&-greet session, a fan kissed me and the security staff got involved. I couldn’t even go to the loo because of the chaos.”
These incidents also serve as an eye-opener. Nagar says, “I have followed a lot of international celebrities but only on YouTube. I don’t know what their life is like outside of the web.” In real life, he soon realised, fans have access to you 24/7 and that can take a toll on your family sometimes, especially when the doorbell keeps ringing at odd hours. “It’s scary. But what is even scarier is the prospect that one day nobody will recognise you when you step out of your house,” says the Faridabad-based tech freak, who has over 4 million subscribers and followers across several web platforms.
This is a work hazard people like him face. Staying relevant is a universal challenge in this community. It can have a direct impact on your earnings. And if the content quality takes a hit, the artiste’s standing too will slide.
Bam hasn’t been able to upload a proper sketch on his channel in over a month because his father has been unwell and has to undergo a surgery soon. “It’ll reflect in November’s pay cheque from YouTube Ads,” he quips.
Web celebrities may not be raking in crores from brand deals and live shows, but the cash flow has certainly made life easier. For Prajakta Koli, it has made shopping in malls less aspirational. “I don’t look at the price tag that often while at a showroom,” says the 25-year-old Mumbaikar, who video blogs everyday observations with her signature comic spin on MostlySane. “I still lie to mom about the price of some items lest I get reprimanded for buying expensive things.” Four years ago, Koli was making Rs 3,500 a month as a radio intern. Around the same time, she was spotted by content and artist management company One Digital Entertainment. “They told me they’ll help me become a YouTuber. That concept didn’t even exist in India then. In late 2015, I got my first cheque from YouTube for Rs 18,000 and opened my own bank account. Until then, I had a joint account with my mom.” She now does brand collaborations in the range of Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. “Last year, I finally got into the tax bracket.”
The celebrity status has also helped some realise their dreams, like meeting Shah Rukh Khan.
That is all Rahul Sharma, 27, and Prince Thareja, 26, wanted to do. They were finally able to meet the actor during a YouTube event in 2014. Sharma and Thareja were the first Indian pranksters to go online with their channel TroubleSeekerTeam. It has over 1 million subscribers at the moment. “Our audience is so diverse, Delhi University graduates know us and so do the rickshawallahs outside my house,” says Thareja. “I haven’t bought a Scooty fearing it’ll break their heart if I don’t use their service anymore,” he adds.
Sharma mocks him but acknowledges Thareja has a point. Being a web celeb isn’t all that different from being a boy or girl next door, he reasons. Sharma has bought a new Pixel 2 and a two-wheeler on instalments. It’s not like he can’t afford to shell out Rs 70,000 for a phone at once, it’s just his conditioning that stops him. For years, he used to get Rs 200 as pocket money from his grandfather till he started earning.
Being a YouTuber does have its perks, though. They get plenty of gifts ¡X from Google, brands they collaborate with or individuals who appreciate their content. ¡§The security guys at multiplexes allow us to take wafers and chocolates inside the hall saying they are our fans,¡¨ Sharma adds. It¡¦s always these little things that overwhelm you but keep you rooted, he adds.