Madras Central unplugged: In conversation with Gopi, Sudhakar and Muthu

They are the latest internet sensation. Taking the YouTube world by storm, Madras Central has clearly emerged a leader by recently hitting the one million subscriber mark. For Tamilian youngsters, this channel’s content has become the new Friends; not because of similarity in content but due to their revisit value. The main USP of the channel is not just their inimitable humour but the way they infuse current affairs in their comedy tracks. With their first web series Half-Boil coming to an end on Saturday, we sit down with three of the most popular faces of the channel Gopi, Sudhakar and Muthu for an exclusive and candid chat.

While Gopi and Sudhakar studied in the same college, you (Muthu) studied in Chennai. When did this collabaration start?

Sudhakar: We were trying to get a job and we came to know that there was an opening at Madras Central for a writer. Even though the vacancy was for one, but they took both our resumes. I just struck my name off and wrote his name on my resume and gave it. We have been together since the start, how will our resumes be different? We were called for an interview and I had no idea how it was generally done. They took us to a restaurant and bought us food, questioning us as were eating.

Muthu: There was a historic answer that Sudhakar gave during the interview!

Gopi: The question was who wrote ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ and he said Kalaignar Karunanidhi. I was honest enough to say I don’t know. I was happy that he didn’t say Chetan Bhagat!

Sudhakar: They asked us how will write if don’t read books. So they had our applications on hold.

Muthu: One should learn perseverance from them. Generally, after every interview we ask the interviewees to be in touch. But these guys followed it to the letter.

Gopi: Lover ku phone panra madhri, daily call panuvom (We called them every day as if they are our girlfriends).

Muthu: Every time they call, I ask the management to give the same response ‘Yeah we’ll think about and muthu what happened to that video?’ And, they take turns as well. If it is Sudhakar one day, the next day it will be Gopi. One day, the management agreed and they were officially on board.

The name ‘Parithabangal’ (woes) is so catchy that it has seeped into our daily language. How did you fix the name?

Gopi: It was me!

Sudhakar: We decided to do a video about the things we see at bus stands.

Gopi: I randomly suggested Bus Stand Parithabangal we found it to be rhyming.

Muthu: How does Bus Stand rhyme with parithabangal!

Sudhakar: It had a nice ring to it. We were saying that our state was pathetic (Parithabam) and thus we got parithabangal.

Gopi: In fact, Sudhakar wanted to change the name for the next video. But nothing else fit equally well. So we decided to go with our next videos.

Paridhabangal’s format is unique. It has two tracks that sometimes have a link and sometimes doesn’t. How did you decide on this?

Sudhakar: We had completed the bus stand parithabangal track. At that time, we weren’t sure if the concept came through properly. We felt it would be better with an anchor, someone who can give an earful. We thought we could go with a parody of Blue Sattai (Reviewer Blue Sattai Maran). Then, we did ‘Bank paridhabangal’ and at that time Muthu suggested we go with Seeman as the anchor. We debated as to using political figures but finally decided to go with him. For the first few videos we were able to find links, but we couldn’t find any for the latter ones. We didn’t want to lose the two-track concept as each had their followers. So we just continued.

Your parodies of political leaders are insanely popular and rumour is that you received death threats for the same!

Gopi: That’s too much! A few of them taunted us through calls or messages but nothing substantial. Later, they started enjoying our humour as well. I was drinking tea near by. A person associated with a politician came up to me when I was at a tea stall and said that they watch our videos and really enjoy it as well.

Muthu: We haven’t received much negative criticism as we have set a few boundaries for ourselves. We don’t talk about their personal lives. We only take what they do in their public life. Also, the anger the common man has get expressed through us. So people who criticise us negatively are people who commit those mistakes. If they criticise us it is okay, our questions are meant to be heard by them.

What happened to serial spoofs and explanatory vlogs on Madras Central? The one explaining Gutkha scam was the last one.

Muthu: I was a full-timer here before. But now I am a freelancer. The research it requires takes time, and I just couldn’t get the time. We thought of doing it with someone else from the team but that didn’t work. But I will definitely do it whenever time permits and there is good content.

As for spoofs, we are bringing it back. With our channel, the most two prominent faces on screen are that of Gopi and Sudhakar. Their show is our signature. Apart from them, you will see me and Varun. You would have also seen people like Dravid contribute. We want the next set to come to the forefront and start owning a few videos. Unlike Television, we don’t call ourselves directors or actors etc. All of us are ‘creators’. We think Dravid has the potential to become a star and thus, now we want him to handle the spoof wing.

Your web series Half-Boil created a lot of excitement when the teaser and the sneak peek was unveiled. But there was a delay with the episodes. What happened?

Gopi: Solliru (Say it!)

Sudhakar: The reason was our heroine got busy with other projects and backed out of the project.

Gopi: We had completed the entire first schedule. We had to re-shoot it.

Muthu: There were some patchworks left and anyway we needed her to shoot the forthcoming episodes. This isn’t like TV where we have rock-solid agreements. It works predominantly on goodwill. It was a very stressful time.

Sudhakar: She felt that cinema was a bigger opportunity than digital media.

Gopi: We can’t really blame her, but it would have been nice if she had kept her word.

Sudhakar: Since we had focused on this, we couldn’t do our usual Parithabangal videos as well.

Gopi: We had to re-shoot with a different heroine. If you observe closely, there would be a lot of minute missteps. We will have a lot of hair in one scene and the next it will be different. But people didn’t mind it.

Sudhakar: If you see Parithabangal, there would be no logic. We would play multiple characters without even changing our costumes. Since people are used to this, maybe they didn’t mind.

Half-Boil was met with mixed reactions. How do you perceive this?

Sudhakar: It is all about experimentation. We have tried a new genre to see if it works out well and we will improve based on the feedback we receive. If it comes out well, we will continue. If not, we have no shame in stopping the project and trying a different one.

Muthu: The thought process is that we realised our mimicry content was being enjoyed well by the audience from the comments we receive. But we have discussions among ourselves whether our content-driven portions are being received with equal joy. Only if we can establish ourselves with the content, it will give us more space to explore ourselves. Half-Boil is completely fiction, compared to the Paridhabangal which is semi-fiction. Despite the mixed reviews, I would say it has worked as Half-Boil has been watched by around three million people in two days. Our budgets are not even one-tenth of what some other creators are using.

Madras Central is one of the most successful Tamil channels on YouTube. With a growing number of youngsters shifting to the medium, is this a viable career option? How about monetisation?

Muthu: It is very viable considering how consistent and regular you are with your videos. There are overnight wonders, but not everyone can become that. You have to be persistent. When it comes to Madras Central, we are funded by a parent corporate company named KPV Media. With their funds, we can say we have crossed our struggling phase.

Most favourite video?

Gopi: Vaiko and Deepa. For Deepa, they had literally painted my face with powder. I couldn’t stop laughing myself.

Sudhakar: The links for Vaiko are long while Deepa’s were shorter and crisper. We are all laughing our hearts out!

Tell us how you write your scripts, the kind of discussions that happen

Gopi: We don’t have one! Most of what we do is impromptu in front of the camera.

Muthu: Sudhakar will have the flow written on a minuscule bit of paper, smaller than bus tickets. Only he can understand what he has written! But, I think that is why their comedy is fresh. I have worked with several people; I myself wouldn’t do a video without a proper script. The first link is their rehearsal. Sometimes, the shot is canned in one take and sometimes it takes 20 times. They keep improvising until then.

Gopi: If it takes us twenty takes, that means there is a river of blood on the sets. Sometimes, the cinematographer sets the camera and starts filming, but can’t stop laughing. He goes out and starts laughing, still in our line of vision. I will be seeing this but I shouldn’t laugh when performing!

You guys do laugh in your videos but it doesn’t seem awkward at all…

Sudhakar: That is because our videos are unplanned. I don’t know what counter Gopi is going to use or vice-versa. When it happens as a surprise, both of us can’t control our laughter. We have tried re-shooting, but the same flow doesn’t happen. The surprise was our x-factor, so we kept things the same way even if we laugh.

Gopi: If I go up to Sudhakar and say ‘shall I do this’, he just says ‘do it when camera rolls’.

Sudhakar: If you take Hollywood sitcoms, there is a laugh track that runs throughout. It is supposed to be a cue where the audience is supposed to laugh. In our cases, our own laughs act as a substitution.

Projects that you experimented and turned out to be massive flops?

Muthu: Onna renda! (Not just one or two)

Sudhakar: We started a horror-series called Tok tok. We wanted it to be horrifying.

Gopi: But it turned out to be funny. Then we started with another series called Suruk Naruk and that was horrifying. There was absolutely no humour and everyone was just staring at each other. We had tried mime as well. That was a time where similar to the 100 day job scheme, we had a 45 videos in 60 day plan.

Have you ever had doubts about a particular video or a concept, worrying how it might be perceived?

Gopi: Definitely. We decided that we will not do a show that will criticise or talk about cinema.

Sudhakar: And also, there was a lot of discussion before we did the ‘Diwali Parithabangal’ video that trolled fake pastors. We spoke to several people before deciding on doing that sketch.

Gopi: We have two Christians in our own team. When we asked them, they said that these are people who do take people for granted so ‘vechu seinga’ (go ahead). So we did that concept with confidence.

Sudhakar: Whenever we choose a sensitive issue, we make sure we talk to people on the other side and hear their story. See if their reasons are valid before we go ahead with it.

Muthu: And we are always open about criticism. It is a free world. The viewer has every right to criticise and we will accept that as well. But we will not stop asking questions about things that don’t seem right to us. That is how we have grown. And that will always continue.

There was a parody video about a popular TV comedy show that was taken down by YouTube and later uploaded again. What exactly was the issue?

Sudhakar: We had used the original music and graphics from the show and thus, they had used copyright claims to block the video. At that point, that was one of our most watched videos as a lot of people could relate to it. That has always been why Paridhabangal worked as well. So we decided that we would change those things and upload again.

Muthu: The problem wasn’t about the content. They have equal rights to spoof us in their channel. In fact, there is a video doing the rounds on social media now that has been edited in a way to show us in poor light.

Sudhakar: We had held auditions in Madurai. What we had said to a few who sort of refused to get off the stage was taken out of context and has been interspersed with people who had performed well. If you look at the edited version, it looks like we have insulted them while if you see the original video there is nothing of that sort.

Muthu: We had rented the hall only until 5 pm that day. When performers started taking around half hour each, it wasn’t possible for us to wrap things in time. In fact, I was constantly announcing about the time crunch. We had begged a few contestants to cut short their performance so that others would also get a chance. We can use our copyright claims and block the video, but we have decided not to.

Sudhakar: People who were there know what happened and others also know who we are. We chose to focus on other things we have to do.

What can we expect next from Madras Central?

Sudhakar: We are planning a project where we will try to flesh the Paridhabangal format into a web series. It is again an experiment.

Muthu: The story would definitely have an end. If the experiment works, we will run say ten episodes. If it doesn’t, we will stop with three.

Sudhakar: The concept is episodic in nature. Each epsiode will address a different issue. So we can stop whenever we want to.

Also tell us about the app that you have been working on?

Muthu: The biggest update from Madras Central is that we are updating our own platform called ‘Yuv’. We have the highest number of subscribers on YouTube when it comes to Tamil entertainment. But the revenue share we get from YouTube is meagre. There are a lot of people who plagarise our videos.

With spelling mistakes…

Muthu: Yes, and they rip off blatantly. It is tough to get a content id if you are not a channel with a big network backing you. We want our 8-member team to grow more. So in order to get more funds, we are creating ‘Yuv’. Any creator who thinks he can do wonders in the digital sphere can approach us to be a part of this. We promise to be more transparent. Along with the creator the viewer will also have equal importance. This would be curated good quality entertainment content for them and not user generated content.

This was first originally published on https://indianexpress.com/. You can find it here.

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