Four years ago, Bhuvan Bam was a college kid who had a night job as a singer at a Mughlai restaurant in Delhi. Today, he is India’s first legit YouTube superstar helped by sheer luck, “and also a lot of hard work!”

“You can’t compare 10 years of YouTube with 150 years of Bollywood. Give us three years; YouTube will give Bollywood tough competition!”

His channel BB Ki Vines (Bhuvan Bam Ki Vines), started in 2015 and has 1.69 billion views and 13.3 million subscribers as compared to his closest competition Amit Bhadana’s channel with 945 million views and 14.4 million subscribers. The Facebook page of BB Ki Vines has nine to 10 million unique page views a week. It was only last year that Bhadana beat him in the subscriber count.

But unlike his YouTube competitors, Bhuvan has diversified his content. Besides funny videos, he is also establishing himself as a singer, actor and an interviewer. He even collaborated with international YouTube star Lilly Singh last month. He acted in a short film with Divya Dutta called Plus Minus last year, and recently bagged a Filmfare award for the same.

However, between all the viral content on the Internet, what is it about Bhuvan that has made Bollywood sit up and take notice of him? Karan Johar gave him a shoutout on his Instagram page (“With the immensely talented and hugely popular @bhuvan.bam22! Great meeting you Bhuvan!” he wrote sharing a selfie) and last month, Bhuvan and KJo shared the stage at the YouTube Fanfest held in Mumbai. Titu Talks, where his character Titu Mama interviews celebrities, featured Shah Rukh Khan last December.

“I want to be the Dharma productions of YouTube. Also, I want to develop the BB universe, complete with origin stories... ”

The start of BB Ki Vines was an instinctive reaction, not a planned one. “I was watching the devastations of the Kashmir floods, and a reporter was asking a local, who had just lost her house and her son, how she was feeling. I was stunned at the insensitivity. I did a 10-15 second satire on it and put it up on Facebook,” Bhuvan says of the popular, but now deleted, video.

“It was just supposed to be a one-off, but I thought of doing a few more. I always had funny stories to tell, but my family members never laughed at them. So I decided to go to a different, if unsuspecting audience!” he laughs.

“At that time, Vine was a very popular video hosting service that allowed you to post and share six-second long videos, hence the vlog name. I thought maybe I will change the name later. But it became a hit and the name stuck!” he reveals.

Subcontinental drift

In the beginning, Bhuvan was lucky if his videos got maybe 15 views. But nothing stopped him from creating more content. “Slowly, that 15 became 300,” says Bhuvan. “Then it started becoming popular in my college. From college WhatsApp groups, my videos travelled to other colleges, and I don’t know how, but suddenly I became very popular in Karachi University! My videos went viral in Pakistan and Bangladesh, but, funnily enough, not in India. India took a lot of time to warm up to my videos!” he says.

Six months later, Bhuvan’s page hit 50,000 followers, and a friend suggested that he shift to YouTube to earn from the videos. Once on YouTube, the channel became popular in India as well, earning him one million subscribers within seven months. This milestone continues to be Bhuvan’s most special one.

The first video that went viral with an Indian audience was Valentine’s Week Hutiyapa in 2016. “Before me, nobody was making two to three-minute videos in Hindi,” says Bhuvan. “People could relate to my Delhi accent and the youth found an instant connect with my content. That’s what made it successful.”

“I still shoot with the front camera of my phone and without a tripod, which means that I have one free hand to act!”

Despite rising to fame, Bhuvan shoots his videos exactly the way he did when he started. He’s a one-man army who scripts, plays multiple characters, shoots and edits from a small room in his house in Delhi. In fact, he doesn’t have a team!

“My friend Rohit Raj is my manager and business partner but the content is just me. I still shoot with the front camera of my phone and without a tripod, which means that I have one free hand to act!” he grins.

It takes Bhuvan about four hours to shoot a seven-minute video, which he edits and uploads the same day.

“Over the years, my hand has become steadier, and the three characters I started with have become 18!”

Bhuvan’s mother, Padma Bam, works in a private company and his father Avnindra Bam is an ex-employee of Air India. Their son draws inspiration from the characters he sees around him. “My content is not really ‘parent friendly’. So for the longest time, my parents had no clue what I did all day in my room! My mom stumbled upon a video when her colleagues were watching it. She took it quite sportingly. My dad also saw the videos by accident. But today, he gives me the most honest feedback.”

However, Bhuvan’s dad realised he is famous when the family was mobbed while shopping at Sarojini Market and they had to call the cops!

The Bollywood barter

The success of his videos is what has made him ambitious. “I want to be the Dharma productions of YouTube,” he proclaims. “Also, I want to develop the BB universe, complete with the origin story of all the characters, like Marvel comics and DC world.”

He admits that the aim was always to work in Bollywood. “But right now there’s so much happening on YouTube that I am definitely not waiting for Bollywood!”

Bollywood might, in fact, be waiting for Bhuvan, as he learned when he interacted with the industry. “I have realised that most Bollywood interaction is a give-and-take deal,” says Bhuvan. “I know they want to tap my audiences. But through them, I can also get some visibility beyond because not everyone follows YouTube, but Bollywood is everywhere!”

“The main source of income for a YouTuber is brand endorsements. But one must be discerning when picking them…”

Bhuvan’s brand of comedy might be in the same vein as that of Kapil Sharma’s – both are a bit rough around the edges and target the Hindi-speaking audience. But his channel is more socially aware, even with its humour that often trembles on the brink of crass. “If I make a video on the obsession with fair skin, it’s because I’ve seen it. I don’t pick a topic just because it is trending,” Bhuvan says.

Banking on the Tube

For first generation stars like Bhuvan, life is an everyday hustle. “Some ideas work, some don’t. You learn from your mistakes,” he says.

Clearly he either hasn’t made many mistakes, or he’s learned his lessons well, because Bhuvan earns very well. “I understood the financial potential of YouTube when I got my first pay cheque,” he says. “I used to play at a Mughlai restaurant in Delhi for four hours every day and would get ₹ 3,000 at the end of the month. My first YouTube pay cheque was for ₹ 20,000. I had two lakh subscribers then. That’s when I decided this is what I want to do. Since I work alone, the entire amount goes into my pocket!” he laughs. He is quick to add you can’t rely solely on YouTube.

“Their algorithm is too complex. The main source of income for YouTubers is brand endorsements and sponsorship,” he says. In the last three years, Bhuvan has done 30 endorsements. “There were nearly 300 offers, but I choose brands that go with my content,” he says. Still, he knows that his earnings will never rival those of a Bollywood star. “Our income is not even close to that,” he exclaims. “You can’t compare 10 years of YouTube with 150 years of Bollywood. We are just starting off. But give us three years, and YouTube will give Bollywood tough competition!”

Life on snooze

Bhuvan believes he’d never become a star if he’d thought out a strategy. “You can never plan a viral video,” he points out. “Also, I didn’t start to make money. I started because I had a joke that I wanted to share. Even now, that has not changed. While coming up in the elevator right now, I got an idea and I am waiting for this interview to end so I can write it down!”

But surely, he does feel some pressure to create content? “When I feel the pressure of a deadline approaching, I just go to sleep!” he laughs. “I can’t work on deadlines.When I don’t put out videos, I admit to my followers that I was not able to come up with good content. I can’t put out substandard stuff.”

This attitude means that Bhuvan feels no social media fatigue. “I keep in mind that my audience’s lives don’t revolve around BB Ki Vines,” he says. “The best part of working on social media is even if you mess up, you can put up something next week.”

“I didn’t start out to make money. I started because I had a joke that I wanted to share”

With 10 minutes of putting up a video on BB Ki Vines, Bhuvan gets around 2,50,000 views. But this fanbase needs to be carefully cultivated and maintained. “When I put out a video, I make sure that for the next 45 minutes I reply to all the comments. You need to build a rapport with the viewers,” he says.

Although in some of his previous interviews he has spoken about his fear on fading out, today he seems more positive about his upward graph. “I am going to get higher and higher,” he says confidently.

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From HT Brunch, April 21, 2019

First Published: Apr 20, 2019 23:58 IST