Bengaluru In a Kannada stand-up comedy show, uploaded on 24 May last year, Niroop Mohan, a young performer stands before a live audience.
Known for his middle-class observational comedy references, Mohan recites a joke that features him and a friend.
Mohan: I called a friend and told him to come for my stand-up comedy show.
Friend: Can I get my girlfriend as well?
Mohan: I said, of course bring her along, it is an extra ticket for me.
Friend (slyly): Please get me two corner seat tickets.
Mohan sighs: Is my show an old unsuccessful Kannada cinema?
The audience, no more than 50 people, bursts into laughter at the joke, which he built up with a generous mix of the slangs and a colloquial version of Bengaluru Kannada, an anglicized version of the native language of Karnataka.
The 9.25 min clip has 2.2 million views on YouTube and is one of the highest viewed for the company that handles Mohan, Multibox entertainment, which took flight months before the lockdown.
New-age Kannada comedy has been taking wings for sometime now. With the booming smartphone market and cheap data costs, online video consumption was already seeing a sharp surge, which was further fueled by the Covid-19 pandemic that forced people to remain indoors and spend more time on their electronic devices.
A report by E&Y, ‘Playing by new rules: India’s Media & Entertainment sector reboots in 2020’, published in March this year, shows that Indians spent 26.4 hrs on an average per month on YouTube in 2020 from 21.4 hours in 2019, the first time the entire planet went into pandemic-induced lockdown.
Kannada comedy content, though not still in competition with English and Hindi content in the same genre, did still account for a sizable chunk of the traffic, people aware of the developments said.
TharleBox, Namdu K and several other YouTube channels now operate in the online space, in which every artiste tries to bring in their own unique flavour to capture the diversity of Karnataka, where each of the 30 districts have distinct cultural features which these performers use to entertain a live audience.
TharleBox has 315,000 subscribers while Namdu K has 160,000 subscribers.
Charan and Lohit, the two people who founded Multibox entertainment, started with open mic’s a few years ago to identify new artistes and test the waters for new ventures.
“We have 20 million views, 300,000 subscribers, 60,000 followers on and 10 million views on Instagram,” Geeth Jason Vaz, one of the directors of the company, told Hindustan Times, rattling off statistics which now acts as a stand-in for success of any online content. The company hosted a 12-hour marathon live show in which it got 60 artistes from various fields to be part of the event which was aimed at raising funds for Covid-19 relief. The show has raised around ₹1.3 lakhs and the donation link remains open for those who missed out.
But like most other stand-up, Kannada content too depends on live audiences, tours to other cities and other forms of physical presence to perform and familiarise themselves with the masses. Covid-19 has rendered this option almost redundant for the time being, forcing the uploading of online content or re-plugging old ones.
Demand has fueled the market and content in India. India’s online video market is estimated to grow to around $4.5 billion in the five years between 2020 and 2025, according to a report by India Online Video and Broadband Distribution by Media Partners Asia.
But does online pay?
People in the business say that there is a big market but money is hard to come by since views and ads among other parameters determine payouts unlike a live show which goes by just ticket sales, priced anywhere between ₹200 to ₹350.
“Covid crisis has definitely taken the live shows away from our hands which has directly affected our livelihood, but we are positively taking this time to ideate and write content that will be produced once the opportunities come back,” Charan said.
These companies also maintain strict vigil on uploading of content from these shows, as there is money to be made online as well. Having no control over uploading of content can seriously hamper income prospects, Gangavathi Pranesh, one of Karnataka’s most well-known comics said.
“Most of my videos on YouTube have millions of views but I get nothing since it is uploaded by someone who recorded my live performance without my knowledge or consent,” Pranesh said.
He said that when he questions this, there are times when people hit back saying that it was a public programme and that the comedian has no right on that content. Pranesh, who craftily blends his north-Karnataka dialect and uses it in almost everyday life references, is a huge crowd puller in most events, religious festivals and other shows across the southern state and has so far toured 415 regions and nine countries.
Pranesh has now started to slowly take control over online content featuring his shows and has given only one Kannada TV channel permission to air his shows when they have a low news cycle for which he gets paid.
His children have now set up an official YouTube channel, Pranesh Paryatne, which has over 80,000 subscribers.