But behind ‘Palamaarneri Panjayathu’, the YouTube channel operated out of a small community on the southern banks of the Cauvery, is an entire village of agricultural workers.
A Kalaiyarasan shoots a day in the life of villagers
‘Chinna Thuyil’ (a small time for sleep), a video song about an inter-caste couple star-crossed by the circumstances of their birth, has been viewed more than 6,27,000 times. More than half of its 470-plus comments come from those from a similar demographic, who talk about their own memories of countless loves and lives lost over caste and religion.
Started by the village’s only visual communication student, A Kalaiyarasan in 2015, it is now being run by more than 200 families, who dance, act and compose songs on unrequited love, longing and harvest for their 4,93,000 subscribers.
Keeping aside their everyday struggles with poverty, unemployment, landlessness and illiteracy, the villagers come together transcending caste and religious differences, to keep the channel — the pride of their village — running and growing. Today they make anywhere between 15,000 to 20,000 through it every month, which is used to create more videos, and at times, run the temple festival, feed the public, get mobile phones for children and organise drawing competitions for them. “I started my career editing short films and as a wedding photographer.
To kill time, I began shooting our villagers singing folk songs and our kids dancing and singing to them. Their excitement of watching themselves on screen rubbed off on me and I decided to develop this further. I then began uploading these videos on YouTube,” says Kalaiyarasan.
Way before TikTok and Dubsmashes happened, Palamaneri residents used their mornings and evenings after working on the farm, to re-enact their favourite Senthil-Goundamani scenes, and dance to popular SPB and P Susheela songs. It became comic relief on long, weary days and a chance for families to engage with each other creatively. As their community initiative began getting noticed online and attracted small media outlets, the women who were initially shy, opened up to perform, and sportive grandparents gave Kalaiyarasan schedules to shoot.
Fifty-six-year-old S Malliga can’t stop gushing after she became a kind of celebrity in the neighbourhood. Her claim to fame was a popular Monarama comedy from the 1991 film ‘Chinna Gounder’ that she re-enacted for Kalaiyarasan, along with two village boys playing Senthil and Goundamani. “People recognised me at the market and once on the train. I feel happy and tell them I am an actor,” says Malliga, who would love to act in movies if given a chance.
Every child, parent and grandparent of Palamaneri, has learned that it is resonance and familiarity, seasoned with some authentic, countryside cheer, not grandiose budgeting and production, that gives their YouTube channel competitive advantage. “Previously, we used to shoot two songs a day. Now, I take two to three days to shoot one song. A bigger following demands better work, so I take our children for voice recording 37km away to a studio in Trichy or Thanjavur to make our content more professional,” he says.
Kalaiyarasan is cautious about respecting the sentiments of this largely traditional agrarian community, especially when it comes to engaging their young daughters in shooting videos. “I keep themes around young love and celebration, which involves them dressing up, dancing and having a lot of fun,” he says.
R Abhinaya, 19, started working for the channel when she was a student of Class IX. Her two sisters are married and she had to drop out of school after Class XI to work in a thread manufacturing unit in Perundurai to support her family. Her best times of the week are those spent shooting. “I love acting and singing. I also love how beautiful Kalai Anna makes me look on screen,” she says.
As a ritual, Kalaiyarasan periodically gathers the villagers and plays their videos on a projector.
Evenings like those draw the kind of fanfare and cheer a local theatre playing a superhero movie would. Here, though, the villagers of Palamaneri are their own heroes and biggest fans. “Neighbouring villagers come to us and ask to star in our videos. We seem to have gotten on to something good. I believe it will put us on the national map,” says Kalaiyarasan.