Their office is nothing quirky or even colourful. It is a newly-built house, with light-coloured paint adorning the walls. However, what catches one’s eye upon stepping inside, is a big ‘L’ shaped bookshelf, occupying a good share of two walls of the drawing room. On it are lined books in English and Tamil, subjects ranging from novels to philosophy, history and poetry.
The Nakkalites’ office in Coimbatore bustles with energy, just like the content they create. The channel, which was founded in 2016, has come a long way, transforming itself from a political commentary channel to a place that offers its loyal subscribers more than just politics. The story on how the channel came about, however, has to do with sheer destiny.
“Since school itself I had an interest towards cinema. Then after schooling, I studied Visual Communication. I got introduced to Prasanna Balachandran when I was in college. He had a printing unit and a bookshop, so people told me that we can read books for free there. Our friendship started there,” says Rajeshwar, who co-founded the channel along with Prasanna.
The duo’s first collaboration, even before the channel was born, was a telefilm called Aandaparamabarai. How did the idea come about?
“We were coming back after a protest against the threat calls made by fringe elements to writers Puliyur Murugesan and Perumal Murugan sometime in early 2015. We were casually discussing how caste plays a major role in such situations, and thus Aandaparambarai was conceived,” Rajeshwar says. It was around that time that the core team that would go on to become ‘Nakkalites’ with Dhanalakshmi (commonly known as Dhanam amma), Arun, Sassi Kumar, Chella, Pon Chandran and so on, also solidified.
Aandaparambarai and after
Aandaparambarai is a comedy short film which speaks about caste supremacy in Tamil Nadu, a jibe at those from dominant caste groups who claim to belong to ‘aandaparambarai’, which in Tamil means ‘The lineage of the rulers’.
“We, in fact, crowdfunded that movie and made it with a budget of around Rs 3 lakh. It was a big sum back then. Somehow we finished filming it and it was received very well,” says Rajeshwar.
Prasanna and Rajeshwar started meeting more often after this to discuss stories and scripts for movies.
“I was running an advertising agency in Chennai and Prasanna’s bookshop kept us occupied otherwise. So these meetings helped create a wavelength between the two of us,” he adds. However, after Aandaparambarai, the team split up briefly and all of them got busy with their respective jobs for around a year.
Meanwhile, Prasanna and Rajeshwar also got involved in a movie project. But, as the movie got shelved, both of them came back to Coimbatore.
“It was around June 2016. We were lost as to what to do next. We both liked to shoot sample videos of whatever we wrote. I had a small camera and knew the bare minimum of editing, thanks to my college degree. YouTube online video content creators were sprouting everywhere. So, we were deliberating whether to write content for those channels,” Rajeshwar says.
Demonetisation and the launch of ‘Chummanachiki’
Demonetisation proved to be a blessing for the duo as it provided them enough content to capitalise on.
“The day after the demonetisation, we discussed the script in the morning and shot the video that day itself. Our first video, Selladhu Selladhu (meaning ‘not accepted’ in Tamil) was uploaded in our Facebook page on November 10, 2016.Then based on demonetisation itself, we put out another video called Don’t panic. It garnered around 3 lakh views on Facebook, which was a big deal for us at that point,” explains Rajeshwar, adding that the next two videos uploaded on their page also received excellent viewership.
Then the transition to YouTube happened. The idea was to take the Facebook following over to YouTube and expand the base there, says Rajeshwar. Panam Brahmasmi was the first official video of the YouTube channel ‘Chummanachiki’. The name, in colloquial Tamil, means ‘Simply for fun’.
“We made six videos in around 45 days. The team worked in such a way that Prasanna wrote the scripts and all of us acted. I used to handle the camera, editing and direction of the videos. It was a small team,” he reminisces.
Political videos and metamorphosis
“That was a climate when whatever we put on political topics used to be received well. We didn’t do a video during the jallikkattu protests, but we uploaded a video on the police atrocities towards the end of the protests,” he says, adding that the channel was blocked at that time for reasons unknown.
The team badly wanted to streamline the channel and the content since the videos were produced at irregular intervals, as per their whims and fancies. As a first step towards making things professional, the team decided to change the name of the channel to something more quirky.
“Chummanachiki sounded blah and hence we zeroed in on the term Nakkalites,” Rajeshwar reveals. Nakkalites was hence born in May 2017, when suitably the central government introduced beef ban. “We did seven videos immediately after that launch, since the beef ban and GST were introduced at that point,” says Rajeshwar.
The team again took a short break as a few of them went to Chennai looking for opportunities in Kollywood.
“We had to come back home since it was not economically feasible for us to sustain ourselves in Chennai for a long time. So, one of the options in front of us was to strengthen our own channel,” he explains, and adds that they also realised that Nakkalites had a loyal following, and the channel was even watched by movie directors and politicians. Hence the team dusted up the channel and revived it.
“If a YouTube channel has to sustain, it is important to have a mix of content. For Nakkalites to sustain, we felt that it was important to put up lifestyle content along with our socio-political satire. That was how Amma alapparaigal series was born,” Rajeshwar, noting that it became a runaway hit.
The Alapparaigal series also resulted in a sudden jump in the number of subscribers that Nakkalites had.
“In October 2017 we had around 7,000 subscribers, by the end of 2017 we had hit the 90,000 mark, which was roughly our plan since we were regular in putting up content,” he says. This growth helped them win an award from the Vikatan group.
Nakkalites has a good set of actors and technicians who work out of Coimbatore, which made the team stand out from among the many content-creators who are based out of Chennai. But the team wanted to have more technicians in their ranks and hence went on a recruitment drive sometime in February 2018.
“We had auditions for all these fields and recruited people for all these roles so that Nakkalites can work even without any of us from the core team. It was essential because we realised we cannot do all videos, especially when we need more videos,” says Rajeshwar, explaining the logic behind the decision to expand the team.
Noticing a clear distinction between the audience of both genres that the Nakkalites team was handling -- lifestyle content and socio-political satire -- it became imperative to create a separate channel focusing on satire.
“Last October, we decided that we would start a new channel named ‘Urban Nakkalites’ since the term ‘urban naxals’ was famous on social media back then,” Rajeshwar says, adding that it was always evident that variety cannot be given with one channel alone. The Nakkalites team is one of the biggest YouTube content teams in Tamil now, with around 45 people in the team, including 27 full-time employees.
‘Storytelling is our biggest strength’
Given all that is being done by the team, Rajeshwar says that storytelling is their biggest strength.
“Even in our videos, instead of showing event after event, I feel we are better in narrating stories,” he says. To capitalise on this talent, Nakkalites launched a mini web series, based on school days, named Back To School. It was aimed at triggering the nostalgia of the '90s kids, while staying relevant to those who are students currently.
“In each set of our videos, one group of actors become popular stars. For example, our Amma alapparaigal established Dhanam amma and Arun as stars. After that, Cricket and friends alapparaigal brought Arun and Sasi to the fore. Then Purattasi alapparaigal and Kalyana vayasu alapparaigal came, bringing Dhanam amma back. So each phase of the channel has brought one set of actors to the limelight. We have got good feedback from across the spectrum since our content is family-friendly,” Rajeshwar says.
‘Nakkalites will represent the voice of the people’
Speaking about the political leaning showcased by the channel, Rajeshwar says that it was never stationary or personal.
“Content-wise, Nakkalites will target ideologies instead of targeting a specific politician. We want Nakkalites to be a platform to initiate debates over ideologies,” Rajeshwar clarifies. He adds that the channel’s ideology is to stand with the people.
“If you ask me which ideology we stand by, I would say that whatever scheme is announced, we would look at it from the point of a common man. Looking at a scheme from the top to bottom is different, and analysing it bottom to up is totally different. Both perspectives are different. Nakkalites will always stand by the perspective that a common man gets on any scheme,” he explains.
Apart from giving kickass content, Nakkalites is also looking forward to help sustain those who work for the channel.
“The channel must now develop into something that the team can use to showcase and hone their talent and also support themselves economically,” he says.