The Viral Fever’s reputation as a pioneer of original web content precedes them, and when it comes to the millennial generation, they hardly need an introduction, having been the company that has managed to tap into the audience’s fields of interest with intuitive precision.

In the first of a two-part series, we speak to the man himself, Arunabh Kumar, to get an in-depth look at the journey, the roadblocks and the overwhelming response at their breakthrough.

Arunabh Kumar

Arunabh Kumar

Tell us a little about the early days of TVF, and the concept that you started out with.

We started The Viral Fever Media Labs in 2010, after I realised that I could make branded content, the budgets for which are very less. I was writing them and directing them at the time, and we decided to go ahead and produce them as well. We decided upon the name since it was every company’s dream to create viral content, but I was sure about one thing — I wasn’t going to conform to any one way of doing it. The idea was to experiment, and that’s how the whole idea came about.

The motto was ‘Lights. Camera. Experiment.’ and we started making shorts — only five of them got made (laughs). Some of the work really got appreciated though… In that one and a half year, I think I was able to build a reputation as a kid who creates quality branded content and does it for pretty cheap. The Viral Fever Media Labs started gaining some credibility as a studio and this is when I started making some money — when the idea that the younger generation was now no longer dependent on the television screen began to be accepted.

It was a very simple insight that we got from our own lives — that even though our generation doesn’t watch too much television, they do watch television shows from abroad through downloads. It begged asking — why didn’t we have our own Indian shows?

I approached a few channels — MTV, Channel V and Bindass — with an idea called ‘Engineer’s Diary’, but when it came down to executing it — some of the ideas were just foolish. DSLR’s had just come in, and I’d devised some ways to save money and time, ideas which were completely rejected by the production house I was working with at the time. They ended up making an atrocious pilot out of my show, and that’s where I first got a glimpse into the archaic stupidity of Indian television. They realised that it hadn’t turned out how it was envisioned, and they asked me to conceive another small show. So ‘College Qtiyapa’ was the second tiny show I’d come up with, and this time I made the pilot, I had some resources and I presented it to them.

This was followed by a research group saying that it was too evolved for Indian audiences, and that the Indian youth wasn’t ready for that kind of content.

This was around 2011, and I really believed that the youth would like it. I wanted to prove myself right before I could prove anyone else wrong. That’s what propelled me and I realised that with my background in IT, I had some understanding of technology and the internet — I decided to put it together, and that’s how we conceived of TVF-ONE, the TVF Online Entertainment Network, to create a destination that could be a platform for television for the youth, using internet as a medium. In the second half of 2011, I worked on a few big branded projects and used the funds to set up the website and get things going. The video experiences weren’t great back then, and to really get the viewers to watch the stuff, getting your own player wasn’t really feasible. That’s when I found out about YouTube; I was told it was the best, and that you could embed links on any website.

We went on to make a show called ‘Rowdies’, and we decided to go with a spoof since we didn’t have any money to market it. On 21st Feb, 2012, we released the website and launched our first video, and it hit 1 million views in five days flat.

We used to talk about how we’d celebrate when we hit 1 lakh views, but we were really excited to receive such overwhelming response — it showed us that Indian audiences were interested in the content we were making. I really think this marked a shift in the Indian ecosystem online, the YouTube generation is divided into a pre-Rowdies era and a post-Rowdies era. TVF-ONE pretty much started creating the first original online content. Then we made ‘Gana Wala Song’ and ‘Gangs of Social Media’ and every three to four months, we’d put out a viral video. TVF-ONE soon started doing better than branded content, and that’s when it struck me that I was building a viewership, based on the sheer number of views I was getting. I realised that instead of putting the branded content on the client’s websites — where they would get fewer views — we could put it on our own channel, and be able to reach out to more people. I proposed this to a few clients, and Recharge took the plunge for the first time; ‘Emotional Atya-charge’ became the first longform advertisement in the country. A 17-minute video content for the brand, it went viral and became a sort of case study.

TVF-ONE started becoming bigger. TVF Media Labs, which remains the mothership, became choosier with the projects we did. In the summer of 2012, I put together a team of two people and eventually things began falling into place. After giving 40 viral videos and various kinds of sketches, we thought of doing series last year.

We’ve done various forms of content online besides sketches. We’ve worked on ‘Chai-Sutta Chronicles’, ‘In the Making Of’ etc. The intention for me was always to build the biggest and coolest youth destination. That’s when we started with the series, and the second generation of shows started. We’d already started a channel for non-fiction, we’d done comedy — we knew it was time to venture into new territory with drama. That’s how ‘Permanent Roommates’ was launched last year. We ended up getting 10 million views from 5 episodes, and it went on to become the second-most watched Youtube longform series in the world. It completely hit the ball out of the park, and that’s how another revolution started. Now, every Tom, Dick and Harry’s making a web series, so that’s good for the ecosystem.

That’s quite the journey. You also released a film on TVFPlay in between.

That’s right.. so we started this new platform for movie-watching, called TVF Inbox Office. The intention of Inbox Office is not just to become a movie-streaming website. In India, we are being referred to as the HBO of the nation. HBO does this thing called ‘Movie of the Month’, which help fill the viewers in on great films that you might have missed. That’s where we released Sulemani Keeda and it actually ended up being seen by four times more people on the website than in theatres. Now, we’re getting more and more movies, but we have to be very selective about the kind of films we put out there.

Tell us a little bit about how the conversation between Amit Masurkar and you evolved.

I always believed that if we made a spoof on ‘Roadies’, it would definitely make a mark. I really got quite impatient and by December, 2011, finished the script and I was also supposed to shoot some branded content around the same time. Naveen, who actually played Rannvijay, was also in Amit’s film, and coincidentally, that shoot started around the same time I began shooting Rowdies. It was all very organic and unplanned.

Coming back to your spoof ‘Rowdies’, did you start with that because you knew it would be a success, like you mentioned, or did it capture your emotions?

I’d always hear people talking about it, and it was a rage amongst a lot of stupid youngsters. I definitely felt like it had become a part of popular culture. The problem with India is that there are very few things that people talk about… there are very few things that you can spoof, in particular.

In order to really make a mark, I remember thinking that we’d have to start with the comedy vertical of programming. There would be no point making a ‘TVF Pitchers’ back then. Comedy is a popular genre in India, and it has performed well in various formats.

You’ve also used your video content to give out social messages at times with ‘Qtiyapa’. Do you think that’ll be something you’re exploring in the future?

Oh yes, of course. ‘Qtiyapa’ remains more popular than TVF. The Qtiyapa guys – our comedy team – has some younger additions and they keep making content on important and topical issues. They recently made a sketch on censorship… like we always say, the idea is not that it’s a spoof, it’s a Qtiyapa. We try to say something that is very straightforward, but bitter in the sweetest fashion. This is family-friendly content, you know.

We’re actually missing it a lot ourselves, and we’re going to start working on it again soon.

You guys are YouTube heavyweights now, but before you, Jai Hind was trying to do something along the same lines, if I’m not wrong.

Yeah, Jai Hind is amongst the oldest in the community – they used to do their weekly Jai Hind show and they started way back in 2008.

How do you think you broke that barrier and sort of superseded them with YouTube?

To be fair, when they actually started it, people weren’t even watching YouTube, let alone making Youtube videos. They were ahead of their times you know, so the only video that had gone viral in the country that was made for the web before Rowdies, was the ‘Kolaveri D’ video. And that wasn’t really original content, it was a song from a movie.

We managed to create that first viral video. Look at sketches even, All India Bakchod and Kanan Gill.. These guys got into video after that, although besides AIB, I don’t think anyone did prolific work. I think it’s time we again evolved into something completely different; ours has been a generation of evolution of mediums and content landscapes and looking forward to the next change, in a way. The lesson would be that there is no method to it, you always need to be figuring out what’s coming next. It’s nothing but quintessential love for the content making process.

I think it’s also a lot of youthfulness in teams like yours and AIB’s that also sort of connected, where Jai Hind maybe fell short.

That’s probably true. To be able to see yourself on screen, so to speak, was something we pivoted on. After that point, everyone pretty much got on the bandwagon. If you take Kanan Gill’s ‘Pretentious Movie Reviews’ for example, it’s just one property but it’s incredibly popular amongst teenagers. It’s pretty much about tapping into the right audience.

Do you think that big production houses like YRF or Y-Films can reproduce what you guys have done?

The obvious truth is that most comedy groups today like AIB, Kanan Gill or East Indian Comedy didn’t really begin with the studio storytelling approach. So I think comparing them with a series is unfair to them, because they have always done jokes. All their videos are a montage of jokes, not stories or fiction.

They’re stand up comedians who decided to take their comedy performance to video, and it grew from there. We were never comedians, we were always a production house. If you look at our repertoire, we have always done stories. There is acting, direction, different acts – we are a content company. We’re making a film also, next year, and hopefully it should be at least as big as 3 Idiots. Fingers crossed.

YRF, Balaji, Eros Now – they’ve always been in the business of telling stories and movies, and now they’re also doing shows. YRF has always done TV shows, and they are consistent in what they do.

So I don’t think it’s fair to look at at all three categories with the same lens, as the work they do is so inherently different. TVF-Play is sticking to all youthful, progressive stories that we believe in.

The response to your work has been overwhelming. Tell us about some of the funny/interesting responses you’ve received.

(Laughs) Just because my name is Arunabh, people have come to me and told me that I play such a fascinating Arnab. It’s quite ridiculous sometimes, people’s stupidity. They assume that because my name is Arunabh, I must be the Arnub in ‘Barely Speaking’. We have a huge fan following from the metros, to the smaller cities. We also have a live division that does shows in colleges in all corners of the country, and everyone knows and loves us. Our stars have become bigger than even the Bollywood stars, I’d say. Jeetu has a rockstar image, even Naveen or Sumeet’s popularity — it’s like a new order rising, that we’ve been able to pull off.

Keep reading this space for the Second part of our Exclusive series with Arunabh Kumar.

– Transcription and Inputs from Aditi Dharmadhikari