For most of the year, 19-year-old R. Abinaya spends her days bundling and labelling yarn used for making undershirts at a garment factory in Erode, a rural town on the banks of river Cauvery in central Tamil Nadu. Abinaya, who makes ₹8000 a month, has worked here for three years. At nights, she stays in a company provided hostel not far from the factory and returns to the grind.
But between December and January every year, Abinaya takes 10 days off from work to return to her village and be the star that she is.
Palamaarneri, where Abinaya is from, is a small village near Thanjavur, about 200 kilometres downstream from Erode. For a few days each year since 2015, Abinaya has gone back here to star in covers of popular Tamil film songs made by ‘Palamaarneri Panjayathu’, a popular YouTube channel with nearly half a million subscribers. Pattu Onna Ilukkutha Kumbakarai Thangaiya Ilaiyaraja cover song video from Palamarneri Panjayathu
During Pongal, the 3-day long harvest festival celebrated in January in Tamil Nadu, Abinaya and her fellow villagers gather in the main square where a makeshift projector and screen. Although the evening begins with a short talent exposition show from the youth of the village, the main event takes place late in the night.
Close to 200 families residing in the village come together to watch themselves on this makeshift screen, decked in costume and make up, dancing to popular Tamil folk songs by the YouTube channel ‘Palamaarneri Panjayathu’.
The videos which are made to be screened during the annual Tamil festival at the village, star local villagers dancing to rural Tamil film songs. They are invariably well-made with camerawork that showcases shots of local sights like paddy and coconut fields, and have amassed a large subscriber base online for the director and the creator of the channel, Kalaiarasan.
Palamaarneri Panjayathu began as an experiment for Pongal 2014, but it now earns Kalaiarasan a a steady income every month through YouTube advertisements and has set a precedent for several others in Tamil Nadu to begin making similar content. “We had no idea that we would become popular on YouTube. This was purely to have fun together as a village,” Kalaiarasan, says.
Besides making his friends, relatives and fellow villagers shake a leg every year, Kalaiarasan also directs covers of popular folk songs. Most recently, he has begun to diversify, and has started to direct music videos for songs composed by local music directors.
Kalaiarasan’s Palamaarneri Panjayathu has been a success among locals and YouTube viewers alike and has inspired several others from villages in interior Tamil Nadu to show the world their own talent.
Some think of this initiative as a route to cinema while others say that they are satisfied by the revenue they generate through YouTube. All of them, however, say that they want to showcase their ‘oor’ (village), their ‘nelam’ (land), ‘kalacharam’ (culture) and most importantly, their ‘makkal’ (people) to the world.
Kalaiarasan is, in his own words, an allrounder. He can edit, handle the camera, direct, act and dance but he doesn’t feature in his videos absolutely necessary. “I actually did my bachelor’s degree in business administration. A year after that, I did not have much to do. Since I had a DSLR camera at home, I began toying with it and ended up making short videos of songs mostly by composers like (Ilaya)Raja with children in the village who acted as characters in the song. It was something I was doing back then to pass time,” he says.
When the parents of these children began seeing the quality of the videos, they asked him to make more. “People from the next village started contacting me and asking if I could make some for them too. This was a pleasant surprise. Around the same time, I also began taking a course in editing. Armed with that knowledge, I began taking on bigger projects. In 2014, I made a number of people act in a dance in videos that I made in the run up to Pongal. I released it on YouTube and It became extremely popular. People began sharing it widely on mediums like Facebook and WhatsApp because none of the dancers were trained and were rough around the edges. This made it look natural and funny,” he says.
As his popularity rose, Kalaiarasan says that he began getting requests from music directors in the district to collaborate. “There are a large number of music directors who usually come up with songs but do not have a proper video. This hinders their shareability. That is where my team and I decided to step in. We struck a deal with these composers asking for half the share of ad revenues through YouTube. This was beneficial to us since our cover songs end up having copyright issues, thus preventing us from earning money,” he says.
When demand went up, Kalaiarasan needed more people with skill to help out with video production. He began scouting for technically sound talent in nearby districts who had already had small-scale YouTube channels and began partnerships with them.
M. S. Sakthivel, the founder of YouTube channel Mudukkuppatti Boys, was one such collaborator.
Sakthivel, a resident of Mudukkuppatti in Tiruchi district dropped out of school in Class 8 because his father died that year. He began working at a welding unit because it paid him just enough but movies, he says, were his true passion.
“I do not understand English too well but I began making short videos starring my friends. They needed to be edited but I did not know how and all the tutorials online were in English. I just began toying with the buttons by myself on a video editing app and ended up learning the tricks of the trade. Over time, I have learnt to edit well and ended up working the camera and directing as well,” he said.
Sakthivel too works with a group of 15 boys from his village and says that they work day jobs in garment factories nearby to ensure that they can feed their families. With 68,000 subscribers, 25-year-old Sakthivel says that they get paid between Rs. 20,000 and 40,000 through ad revenues each month on his four-year-old YouTube channel. However, the income is not necessarily steady.
“This is now our passion project but I want to make this my full-time profession. Someday, I hope to make it big in the world of cinema. It is my group’s collective dream to come to Chennai someday,” he says.
Another young YouTuber who hopes to trot down the cinema path is 23-year-old B. Robert from Kallakurichi. Albert has a total of 2,800 subscribers but says that he is sure of building a profile over time and act in films. “I have always been teased for being fat all my life and could not find many ways to express myself. I would cry a lot. This is when I randomly began to pick up dancing. Ever since I realised this talent, I began to make the effort to record videos. This ended up getting some traction in my village. In some ways, I feel like it has restored my dignity,” he says.
Robert’s Dark Creations YouTube Channel has a mix of short films, rendition of famous movie dialogues and a bunch of music videos. Although Robert eventually wants to make films, he says that he would like to work with bigger YouTube channels like Palamaarneri Panjayathu to learn the ropes.
Kalaiarasan says that though there is an abundance of talent in Tamil Nadu, many of them cannot afford good equipment or a sizable production budget. In order to ease the situation, he and several other YouTubers he has collaborated with have created a WhatsApp group to ensure they can lend each other a helping hand.
Usually, it takes around three days to shoot a song, he says. Since most of the songs are shot in daylight near fields during the time of harvest, the team usually works for around four hours a day with artists to get their shots. “We plan our days in advance just like any other movie’s shooting schedule. Although we are not rigid, we run on tight budgets and like to ensure the shots are clean and that the dance or action is in sync with the song,” he says.
Sakthivel says that most YouTubers are helpful and responsive and have helped his crew extensively. “Only if we get to a point where we can afford good cameras and costumes will our viewership rise. We are conscious of how we market our original songs to ensure better clicks. If a video does not do well on its own on the first day, we change the poster, market the song on platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp. These end up assuring us of clicks,” he says.
He adds that the group also helps them connect with junior artists, particularly women who want to be part of shoots. “Although all the boys in my team are featured as leads in videos, we cannot approach the women to be part of song shoots unless it involves the entire village. It is not well accepted here. The group helps us collaborate with junior artists who end up using these videos as part of their portfolios,” he says.
Villagers themselves help these groups by sharing extensively on social media, they say. “I have featured at least 200 of the 300 families in my village. Since they are excited about their presence in a video, they share it with all their relatives in different parts of the State. This ends up becoming a great boost. We also get overwhelmingly positive comments on each video which increases the number of likes on the video. It is so wholesome for us,” Kalaiarasan says.
Although both Sakthivel and Albert say that they want to do cinema, they are unsure about where they will be. “I am the youngest son and I am taking care of my mother. It would be nice to think that I can do this forever. I wish I can,” says Sakthivel.
Kalaiarasan however says that he is content making videos for YouTube consumption alone. “Pongal in 2021 saw something similar to a theatrical release in my village. We beat drums and invited the whole village to a watch party of sorts. We danced to the projector screen, gave speeches, watched both old and new videos. This is exactly like the premier of a movie for me,” he says.
The actors of his films like 19-year-old Abinaya are stars in their own right, he says. “People sometimes ask me in the comments section as to why I have not cast her. That is some sort of victory for me. As long as we get positive comments and more views, I am more than happy,” he says.