Aram Nagar in Mumbai’s Andheri suburb contains the offices of fledgling and established filmmakers, production studios and just about anyone with cinematic aspirations. As it did The Viral Fever, one of India’s leading digital entertainment channels. But not anymore. I’m instead led into an office replete with lounges, cabins and cubicles in the business district in Andheri’s eastern side. The swanky office is just one sign that TVF has grown, to the extent that it now has a Human Resources department, as their communications manager Aditi Singh excitedly tells me.
Having begun its run on YouTube with spoofs, The Viral Fever today has two of its creations, Permanent Roommates and Pitchers, on the online database IMDb’s list of top-rated television shows. TVF has created work in Hindi and English that is witty, relevant and popular since its inception in 2012, including Barely Speaking With Arnub and The Making Of series. In 2015, the company launched its own app, TVF Play, which arranges all its shows and curates content for its nearly five million fans as a response to Facebook’s reduced reach. TVF has also achieved a profitable business model as it continues to produce original content for advertisers.
Steering the steady progress is founder Arunabh Kumar. The engineering graduate from IIT-Kharagpur has business smarts but insists that he remains a filmmaker at heart. As TVF toggles between new seasons and concepts and an upcoming movie, it’s every bit the production company Kumar had hoped it would be, he tells Scroll.in.
If you had to surmise the kind of audience TVF caters to, how would you explain it?
I think the kind of audience we cater to comprises aspirational young Indians from tier 2 towns. There is a very lousy definition I have – people who have read [Chetan Bhagat’s novel] Five Point Someone in any language. This is the progressive and young middle class. We can never harbour ambitions to be like a Netflix or an Eros [Entertainment] because they want to reach out to the entire country, to about 100 million people. But I feel that TVF will become irrelevant if it reaches out to more than five million people, because we want to be a niche brand and be honest to the segment we cater to.
How do you brainstorm for your ideas?
A lot of this also comes from the fact that most of us are from very diverse backgrounds. One of the reasons there was creative bankruptcy was because the ones creating content till now all came from one locality in Bandra [in Mumbai]. When more and more people are welcome in the industry, you’ll see diverse stories. We do not come from the set of people who have been making shows, so by virtue of variety itself, new things can be seen. We’d rather tell the story of a young start-up guy than three rich guys going on a bachelor trip. Those choices reflect our upbringing. I always say that this industry is all about art and craft. Craft you can learn, but art is sensibility. You are a product of your environment and you can only think a certain way.
TVF, like other digital sites, remains untouched by censorship. How does this affect your process?
We’re the only guys who would be least impacted by censorship tomorrow. That has not been a conscious choice, but that’s how we work. The only liberty we take is that we put a word here and there, and no one puts a gun to our heads. The internet offers a lot of freedom and it has given us a lot of freedom. And that really helps. Otherwise it becomes tricky sometimes and you cannot be pure to your craft.
The Girliyapa videos ‘Why Should Hot Girls Have All The Fun’ and ‘How I Raped Your Mother’ became controversial. What’s your take when something like that happens?
I always say one thing – something should be deplored or adored but never ignored. So, I think in that space, if it’s engaging and leads to discussion, it’s a great thing. One of the things that Girliyapa tries to do is tell uncomfortable truths. With How I Raped Your Mother, we debated that it’s a very intense title, and who would really share it. But if you’re not breaking things on your way, then you’re not making any impact. So don’t expect that everyone will be hunky-dory with what you create.
You have an in-team of writers and it seems to be expanding.
It’s a lot of people today. Most of us write, act and direct, so it’s really a multitasking team. Biswapati Sarkar [who plays Arnub, a parody of television anchor Arnab Goswami] was the first writer when it was just the few of us. He’s given workshops to the new writers. We have a writers’ lounge, a writers’ rooftop and a writers’ vanity van. Writing has been an abused profession in this country. I have an ambition that one day, when we release the poster of our show, it’ll have only the face of the writer and nothing else.
When you come up with a series like ‘Permanent Roommates’ or ‘TVF Pitchers’, do you do market research to know what will work?
We sit together, throw some ideas in the air, something sticks, we get excited. We have, thanks to releasing one video a week, experience that we’re sitting on. There are no machines to make content, videos and stories. And learning that has only come with practice. One of the bigger things to come from that is that the company does not revolve around one person. Tomorrow, if I die, nobody will care and TVF will still go on as it is.
TVF was one of the first companies to crack the digital model. How did you find your audience?
We started with zero views and zero subscribers. When I started thinking about doing something like this, people weren’t even watching videos, let alone making them. The inception for TVF was that we wanted to do cool TV shows for MTV and Channel [V], but they were not listening to us. That led to our launch in February 2012, in the form of the website www.theviralfever.com, which had YouTube links. Starting with comedy was the only conscious decision because while we wanted to make all kinds of shows like we do now, comedy gets shared and that was a practical choice when we had no budget. When we uploaded Rowdies, we simply shared it on our Facebook profiles. Gradually, people discovered it. An entire generation that has been alienated and ignored by television executives suddenly realised that somebody is trying to show us things we enjoy.
Do you consider digital platforms such as Hotstar by the Star group direct competition?
I don’t think they are. Hotstar has sports and TV and wants to cater to 100 million people. They want to be the definitive online destination for general entertainment. We want to be the best online destination for a niche, young audience. Some amount of overlap is there on all businesses and that’s fine and doesn’t qualify us as competitors. I always say that MTV India is our competitor, but today we may have become bigger than them in terms of the amount of original content we do.
The app TVF Play is also curating non-TVF content. So are there no Netflix aspirations whatsoever?
I’d say HBO and Disney aspirations, not Netflix, because Netflix is not a creator, it’s an aggregator. It’s trying to be a creator, but their DNA is streaming films and videos by taking rights from others. Whereas we are creators and filmmakers. HBO, because we love their content. What TVF has managed to achieve is that if tomorrow we make any random show, people will give it a shot by virtue of our name. Pitchers is on IMBD’s 20 best shows in the world, so the next idea is, can we make a very good film in India to begin with?
What is next on TVF?
We’re planning new shows, including a pilot. A new season of Barely Speaking with Arnub is under production. Films are, of course, the next big priority we have and we’ll hopefully do a good job. It will be TVF’s first film and even if our fans watch it, it would cross Rs 100 crores, so we need to do justice to that. We thought that while all the big guys are busy making web series, we’ll take their jobs and work on a movie instead.