No chaaya kada in lockdown? No problem, Malayalis are moving to Clubhouse

Malayalis are moving their interactions online to ‘rooms’ on the Clubhouse app, to discuss a range of topics from parotta and fascism, fictional filmmakers to current political developments.
Man in a tea shop pouring team from glass to vessel
Man in a tea shop pouring team from glass to vessel

Can a Parotta be a Parotta if it looks like a Chapathi? Some fierce Parotta loyalists believe that migrant cooks from West Bengal and other states are turning Kerala’s famous Malabar Parottas into flat breads. “There seems to be a hesitation to toss and slap the parotta dough enough to make these layers. This is giving the parotta an identity crisis,” they allege.

The above is a rough excerpt from a Malayali chat-room discussion on the new Clubhouse app. My fellow Malayalis, it seems, have moved their chaaya kada (tea shop) conversations to the audio-only drop-in chat app that has become all the rage this lockdown. Clubhouse has rooms that can be created by anyone signed in on the app, and in these rooms, users can discuss anything under the sun.

Within a week of the app’s Android release on May 21, it became clear that the Malayali community on the app has taken this invitation – to discuss anything under the sun – quite seriously. It is unclear what has prompted the most bizarre discussions on the platform. Is it the Malayali’s inherent love for satire? Do they have way too much time to kill? Or are users desperate to not discuss their everyday realities? Whatever it is, Clubhouse is currently witnessing some of the most hilarious conversations in what is termed ‘spoof rooms’ on several topics in Malayalam.

If you’re wondering how quirky it gets, the conversation on Parotta sees a plot twist when a speaker accuses the above mentioned layered parotta loyalists of being fascist.

“To insist that the parotta can only have a layered existence is quite a fascist way of thinking. A Bengali can make a parotta like a chapati and a Malayali can beat it into layers. We must be prepared to explore the different identities of the parotta,” he says, managing to bring in academic rigour to his parotta argument!

Another spoof room run by a Malayali saw close to 500 participants. Here the conversation moved to  cinema where speakers discussed the post modern impact of a 90s Turkish filmmaker who only exists in their imagination. The man is called Decronio Malkoos and for four hours, Clubhouse speakers analysed Malkoos’s movies including Autumn Days, Postman, I am here etc. They also dissected the cinematic significance of Malkoos leaving the first five minutes of his movie blank, and the glorious shot divisions in his scripts. The room also discussed 5D cinema introduced by Malkoos in the 90s, while the world is still enjoying 3D cinema in 2021.

However, what listeners who dropped in later did not get is that Decronio Malkoos is purely fictional and that all the discussion in the room was spun from thin air.

“People Googled Decronio Malkoos and couldn’t find anything on him. The speakers made it harder for them by saying that Malkoos was never a mainstream name. Finally, when many people came to realise this, they had a good laugh. Some of them even messaged me saying that they felt betrayed,” says Hrishikesh Bhaskaran, who was part of the Malkoos room.

Hrishikesh who heads the Engineering department of an EdTech start up, and is active on meme groups on Facebook says that the Decronio room did very well because speakers made it sound convincing “with an ample sprinkling of technical jargon and use of an academic tone”.

“People could speak about whatever they wanted as long as it matched the larger narrative about Malkoos. You can also elaborate on his life story,” he says, adding that the room’s success lay in it being well-moderated. “We had given Malkoos’ date of birth and death. So if a user discussed a movie that didn’t fall within these dates, then the moderator would ask them to check previous conversations and come back,” he says.

Politics, feminsim and more

Fun aside, discussions on the current political developments in the country too are being discussed on Clubhouse. Several rooms have had discussions on Lakshadweep’s arbitrary administrative reforms, with Kerala MP Elamaram Kareem among the speakers.

“DYFI (CPI(M) youth wing) members along with the Congress leader VT Balram, Ajay Maken, Mani Shankar Aiyar, etc participated in debates on Lakshadweep. BJP spokespersons in the group defended the reforms in the UT,” says Hrishikesh.

There are multiple rooms dedicated to feminist discourse with topics such as ‘Do women experience sufficient freedom of choice in food?’ Some rooms are also discussing the drawbacks of Clubhouse itself. For example, ‘Toxic masculinity and mansplaining on Clubhouse’ is a subject being discussed in one room as this story is being written. Another very popular room which currently has 2,300 participants is discussing the reservation system with some well-known speakers such as Dalit activist Dinu Veyil, and journalists Shahina KK and Arun Janardhanan.

Journalist and film critic Maneesh adds that one big advantage of Clubhouse is that it offers so many new voices with different perspectives. “Prime time discussions on TV generally have the same panellists whose views are familiar to the audience. So Clubhouse is a good way to get fresh perspectives on the same issues. I spend my time on the app to understand what the platform can offer to media persons,” he explains.

With open rooms (rooms that do not have closed or restricted entry), anyone on Clubhouse can drop into any room. This freedom created a bit of an embarrassment during one of the discussions earlier this week when Malayalam director Jis Joy dropped into a room where speakers were ridiculing his movies.

“The topic of the room was – Is the goodness in Jis Joy films a burden to the world? It was a troll room to discuss his films. But when the director himself dropped in to hear what the speakers had to say about him, the entire conversation changed and it sort of became a Q&A session with Jis Joy,” Maneesh adds.

With Kerala, among other states, going through weeks-long lockdowns to curtail the spread of COVID-19, Clubhouse has arrived at the perfect time, allowing Keralites and non-resident Keralites to take their conversations forward at a time when social interactions are non-existent. Twitter Spaces, a similar platform, on the other hand seems to be dominated by Tamil groups.

According to app analysis platform reports, on May 25 Clubhouse had over 1.03 lakh downloads on Google Playstore in India, since its launch on May 21. For IOS, the total downloads for Clubhouse stood at over 2 lakh. Apart from Malayalees in India, NRI Malayalis also host rooms regularly. This means that any time you log in to Clubhouse, even if it is 3 am, there is no dearth of rooms to join.

While we don’t know if Clubhouse will survive beyond the initial buzz, several users believe that the drop-in-audio social network model might stay on longer. “When you look at the evolution of social networking portals, it went straight from text-based messaging to a visual medium very soon. But now we’re seeing the emergence of audio as an important medium of social networking. And I think it is here to stay,” Hrishikesh says.

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